The other day I got word that the British architectural historian James Stevens Curl – with 40 books under his belt – had written another, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism. Due out next August from Oxford University Press, it tells the tale of how modern architecture vanquished classicism in a short and remarkably uncontested battle for dominance in the architectural establishment.
Unable to acquire a book that has not been published yet, I sent away for his Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. The author’s wry skepticism of modernist architecture is on full display. It arrived in the nick of time to help me defend the classical embellishment of a house whose interior I had extolled in my recent post “Stan Weiss’s house divided.”
Look at the shot of gathered embellishment, above, in Weiss’s house. One reader called it “awkward” and described its faults at length, concluding that “whoever designed the interior trim scheme knows nothing about classical architecture and picked a batch of moldings from catalogs and put them together as best they could. But a sorry mish-mash it is.”
I very strongly disagree, and am glad to have Curl’s dictionary to back me up. It may indeed be that Weiss’s scheme is not quite canonical, may betray disorder among the orders, but the history of the classical canon is itself a string of deviations from the original Greco-Roman orders. Over the centuries, some deviations have become acceptable, others are still considered deviant.
Under the heading “Order,” Curl, noting the disorderly variations even within the original canon, writes:
The Greek-Doric Order has no base, and sometimes (as in the Paestum Orders of Doric) entasis is exaggerated and the capital is very large, with wide projection over the shaft; the Ionic Order has variations in its base (Asiatic and Attic types) and capital (especially in relation to angle, angular and Bassae capitals where the problem of the corner volute is dealt with in different ways[.]
In the same entry Curl describes more recent discontinuities:
John Outram (1934-) incorporates services into what he called the “Robot Order” (Ordine Robotico), or “Sixth Order,” not coyly hidden away, but expressed as a new polychrome Order visible throughout the building [hiding service tubes.] … His work was hysterically described as “sheer terrorism” by a defender of the Modernist faith (although the Piano-Rogers Beaubourg, Paris, which shows off its service innards, of course, escaped such strictures).
This may be inside baseball (or “Greek”) to some readers, but the point is that variation is the only constant in classical architecture.
Andrés Duany, in his not yet published Heterodoxia Architectonica, stresses that the string of treatises that frame the canonical discourse is suffused with contradiction. The Greek and Roman orders as interpreted by Renaissance classicists underwent extensive modification as to what is acceptable, and the very idea of exalting only the “acceptable” was under stress long before the modernists came along with their bludgeons. The needs of practicality and the impulses of artistic creativity have always caused the classical orders to be considered less a boundary than an inspiration for stylistic change. Haste and ineptitude also feed the mix, and might be said to be as integral to the evolution of practice in the descent, as it were, from Greek and Roman forms, occasionally, no doubt, in a positive manner.
To me, it seems evident that the key to distinguishing what is or is not acceptable, what is or is not unduly disrespectful of the classical orders, is the result. Is it beautiful? I concede a degree of canonical ignorance regarding the by-the-book strictures of Weiss’s critic. Yet, as they say, ignorance is bliss. If a degree of tolerance truly equals a cesspool of ignorance, I can only plead guilty. But again, look at the photo above and decide for yourself. Ditto the photo below, which the aforesaid critic sent to exemplify his critique.