Stroik’s honest architecture

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Boston Public Library, by Charles Follen McKim, with addition at far right. (Duncan Stroik)

In this video, master architect Duncan Stroik defenestrates three of architecture’s most enduring principles. Speaking to attendees at the 2017 Bulfinch awards lecture series, Stroik takes a hammer to the “honesty” that supposedly undergirds classicism, especially this holy triad: that the façade expresses the plan, that they also express interior volumes, and that roof pediments express what’s behind them. Stroik blows them to smithereens with a sense of humor that only adds relish to the old adages’ demise.

Now, I’m usually a big fan of old adages, but to me these three principles, separately or all wrapped up in one principle, seemed to smell of the old modernist saw that form follows function and that architecture should be “honest” and if it is, then it will also be beautiful.

What bunk! Of course the modernists never followed their principles either.

In his amusing talk, which goes just over an hour, Stroik makes no mention of modern architecture or its flawed grounding in the ridiculous, and I give him credit for that. He starts with the Boston Public Library, and makes no mention of its clunky Philip Johnson addition. Good for him! He describes how the great arched windows along the façades of the Boston Public Library don’t express what’s behind the windows. The famous reading hall does not extend down the full Dartmouth Street façade as you might think. Other windows are filled in, or split by an interior wall into rooms that are definitely not expressed by the even spacing of the fenestration.

Stroik then switches from the American Renaissance to the European Renaissance some several centuries earlier. He goes swiftly through some major works, showing how their façades do not really express what’s behind them. He suggests how he would renovate the façades to better express, say, that the main ballroom on the piano nobile (the second floor) is really not in the middle, as the centrally located front portico would suggest, but toward the left corner of that floor. This, he suggests, would help visitors locate the two-story ballroom before they enter the building. (See bottom photo.)

But this is clearly a joke, and the whole idea that the façade must express the interior strikes Stroik’s audience just as absurdly as it does Stroik. The façade must be beautiful, above all, and this often suggests (if not requires) the use of symmetry and balance. Practical needs might place the ballroom to the left of the portico, but visitors approaching the building will not be looking to locate the ballroom before they go inside, they will be chattering about more important matters, like who they might dance with at the ball. Once inside, they would follow people going up the stairs. Naturally.

The symmetry of the building contributes to its beauty, and its beauty, along with other classical buildings you pass on the way to the ball, heighten your experience of the joy of civilized community and your anticipation of the conviviality of the evening ahead.

Stroik sums up his lecture:

As far as some of the major principles of classical architecture go, many if not all of the great architects of the Renaissance did not follow them. Even these buildings have major mistakes and should be downgraded – I say take them out of the history books [a joke!] – or the principles themselves are mistakes. If these three concepts, rules, principles, are simply nice-sounding adages and easy to tell young architects and students they sound good, like “Form follows function,” if they are simply nice sounding adages, then I say we disregard them and look for the true principles that the masters of the Renaissance followed. Our goal should be to search for what makes architecture great, so that we, in turn, can contribute to the culture.

Beauty, not function, is of greater importance – and of greater practical importance – to the life of a building and to the building of life in a city or town. All architects knew that quite well for centuries, even millennia, until the cultural brain fart known as modern architecture took over in the middle of the last century. Form follows function indeed. Harrumph! A beautiful building is the only truly honest building.

Anyhow, Stroik is quite hilarious in his approach to delivering a lecture, and so the video, “Principles of Architecture Disproved by the Renaissance” is well worth watching. After you click this link to the website of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, scroll down to the second of the four videos. Then watch the other three excellent Bulfinch lectures by Arik Lasher, Matthew Bronski and Justin Shubow.

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Palazzo Farnese, with left two ranks of windows connected. (Duncan Stroik)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Stroik’s honest architecture

  1. Dan Gordon says:

    Great Work David. The Stroik lecture was great live & I often think of it when passing the BPL. Time for a refresher.


    • Thank you, Dan. That was supposed to be a brief intro to the lecture. Somehow it almost never ends up that way. Perhaps I lack the discipline to keep it brief. Well, I’ll try again now by introducing photos of last night’s WaterFire, which I attended. Maybe you willl see next week’s WaterFire after the RISD Gorham event on Saturday. I hope the shots inspire you to do so if you have not already experienced it.


  2. LazyReader says:

    Architectures of the past, Beauty was found in it’s function. Features and facets that shaped building design also expressed the circumstances they were built.
    Gutters, drainage, roof pitch, angles, choice of materials were all correspondence to the environmental factors the occupants of these buildings you had to deal with EVERY day. If you lived in a hot climate, thick masonry walls and stone were common insulators to keep the heat at bay, as was thin but tall windows, substantial awnings. Narrow streets with factored building heights did well to keep the sun at bay for the most Visceral afternoons. Las Vegas is all glass, steel. The result like Dubai the air conditioning bills are out of scope with the cities residential finances. Study cities of the past within arid climates, Barcelona, Rome, Tripoli, Constantinople. What they did to beat the heat and be attractive.

    If you lived in a cold climate you aimed your buildings at the sun. Denver, Colorado was originally developed using the method described by passive solar pioneers. Since back then before snowplow trucks and salting there was no method but solar for melting the copious snow the city Was Dumped on. As it grew, the traditional north-south grid was used… which to this day requires much more cost and effort to clear in the winter. For those that grew up in Southern California, and could never figure why the old centers had grids that tilted off the cardinal points (Los Angeles, Downey, Anaheim, the oldest part of Santa Ana, and many others). Now you know.

    If you lived in a place that rained a lot…….drainage and elevation against floods was paramount to your building technique. Cities like New Orleans build elevated WITHOUT basements. The cultivation of water resources in rainy cities, it was not uncommon for cities to have a lot of fountains and venetian wells, decorative drainage ditches and dikes.

    The architecture of societies was shaped often by the areas most abundant material resource (wood, stone, sand, etc) The Roman development of cement one thought the spread of architectural uniformity would go the world over, the collapse sent civilization into a tailspin struggling into reclaiming it’s geo-centric environmental design principals. Buildings made of primitive or reclaimed stone, to validate the architectural learning of new societies; they developed techniques to lend aesthetic and fulfilling it’s functional roles on a budget.


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