Quinlan Terry, the British classicist who may be Prince Charles’s favorite architect, has a wonderful essay, “Seven Misunderstandings about Classical Architecture.” I want to quote two passages, one about shadows and the other about materials, one about beauty and the other about utility, though they are far from mutually exclusive. First, the passage about how the sun casting shadows on mouldings is both lovely and useful:
This leads to misunderstanding 2, which concerns functionalism. It is said that in a democratic age, the greater or lesser importance of such a simple thing as a door is no longer relevant. [Not so!] …
We therefore see just one of the functions of mouldings in stressing the relative importance of different doors. It amazes me that mouldings, which are so simple, can lead to such infinite variations. After all there is really only one curve and one straight. A cavetto is a concave curve whilst an ovolo is the opposite. A cyma recta is a cavetto followed by an ovolo, whereas a cyma reversa is the opposite. The fillets merely come between. If you stack them together, they say something – maybe an Ionic modillion cornice.
If we draw the lines of perspective we can see how the profile of the mouldings are picked out by the shadows. The front of the corona and the modillions are in direct sunlight, whereas the curves of the cymas and ovolos come into and go out of shadow gently. You might think that the soffite and the coffers are lost because they are in complete shadow. But strangely enough the abacus on top of the capital acts as a reflector and sends a soft light up into the coffers by reflection. Similarly, on a Tuscan capital the square abacus casts a shadow on the circular shaft below. It also causes a flash of light on the top of the echinus and expresses the shape. A combination of soft and hard shadows is brought about by the simple geometrical solids of square abacus supported by circular echinus.
We have been thinking of the play of light, the light of the sun, on the simplest geometrical solids. It gives pleasure to the eye and makes us feel good – simple pleasures caused by natural things and in no way dependent on artificial light and the consumption of energy or the world’s resources. Classical architecture comes from a natural world which valued light and air more highly than we do today because there was then no artificial light or ventilation to help one out of difficulties.
Probably most of my readers know more of the vocabulary of classicism than I do, but even I find myself virtually aswoon at the arcana of these terms.
And now the passage about materials, and the preference for the natural over the unnatural. This passage may lack the enchanting crescendo of terminology in the passage above, but its importance to every facet of building is all the more evident, and it explains why modern buildings inevitably are exercises in planned obsolescence.
Misunderstanding 4 is about materials. I am often asked why I don’t use modern materials. To answer this, let us first make a short list of old and new building materials:
Clay bricks and tiles
Portland cement concrete
Now I am no obscurantist and I admit that I have specified at various times all the materials on the bottom list, but I have nearly always done so because they are cheaper in the short-term. There is little doubt that, quite apart from their appearance and cheapness, the materials at the bottom of the list have a shorter life than those at the top.
This means that if you use them you will have higher maintenance costs than with the traditional materials. There are the notorious examples like roofing felt which now has a shorter guarantee than most refrigerators, but leaving that aside it is worth noting that Hope Bagenal, who was for many years head of the Building Research Station, pointed out that the best building materials are practically inert, whereas the great defect of all modern materials is their high coefficient of expansion.
This means that their seasonal and diurnal expansion and contraction is such that expansion joints are essential. Even a modern brick wall has to have expansion joints every 30 feet. This in turn breaks up the monolithic nature of any structure into little isolated blocks with expansion joints. The weathering and attrition at these joints is an obvious long-term weakness, whereas a traditionally built structure has none of these problems because the matrix is lime instead of cement. Think of the Pantheon in Rome, built in brick and lime mortar. It has a diameter of 142 feet and has stood for nearly two thousand years. No reinforced concrete structure could last anything like so long because once air and moisture have penetrated to the reinforcement there is nothing which can permanently inhibit its breakdown. It does not even make a good ruin!
And since they don’t even make good ruins, let’s just take them down and cart them away. All of them. Period.
(Hats off to Seth Weine for sending Quinlan Terry’s essay to the TradArch list as part of an online conversation about the differences between “classical” and “traditional” in architecture.)