There are at least a couple of different ways that you could approach the design of a dwelling.

You could wander onto your selected block and assemble whatever materials you had managed to accumulate into some form that expressed your inner emotions on the day, much like a child draws a painting, or perhaps the way you might throw on some clothing to satisfy some inner feelings, that only you may be privy to. Or, possibly your assembly of artefacts could reflect some broader community sense of a rapidly disintegrating global environment or perversely, the allure of technology or the potential of human ingenuity to fix the problems of the world and lead us into a bright clean comfortable future.   This would be design based on the shifting impulses of the moment, immediately personal or generalised; how the individual feels on the day or the more collective mental space of the whole society at any particular time: its point in history; its current concerns; how it is imagining itself, partly in relation to other competing societies; the relationship to the land it occupies; the confidence in the accomplishments of its civilisation or the value of its traditions; possibly the value it places on the material and visual compared to some other more ethereal realms; and many other impulses that anyone at any time would find hard to accurately pin down.

Alternately, you could base your new house design on some dependable notion of beauty. You need not attempt to include extraneous concerns, from realms beyond the immediate physical: notions of personal identity or the satisfaction of shifting, and sometimes whimsical, emotional needs.  Apart from being of sound construction and serving its purpose as a dwelling, the house needs only to be beautiful. If they are to be reliable and repeatedly used, conceptions of beauty would need to be objective, able to be discussed and reasoned about, that is, clear to all. This is a beauty that is likely to be about how the differing parts relate to each other and, in turn, with the whole form of the house.   It is likely to centre on the innately pleasing proportions that building elements must have if they are to satisfy any human mind.

But how are these pleasing proportions to be determined?

Perhaps they could accord with some principles or specific ratios found in nature, just as music tones pleasurable to the human ear correspond to certain mathematical sequences, so the ratio of say a door width to its height may need to match some given number for it to be beautiful or attractive to the human eye.

This was the approach that Renaissance thinkers and architects took five or six hundred years ago. Instead of the haphazard efforts of the previous centuries, what we now call Romanesque or Medieval , they would determine what were the pleasing ratios of nature and how the ancient world had used such fundamental notions in their magnificent buildings, many of which remained as ruins or in some rare cases, largely intact buildings, on the Italian peninsular and elsewhere.  So it is classical architecture, the approach to building that was rediscovered or reinvented those many centuries ago that comes closest to this rational ideal.   Its adherents claim, such ancient buildings revealed the true dependable principles of building.  Buildings could be made that were beyond the whims of the moment, the passing fashions, the vain attempts to encapsulate the ephemeral spirit of the Age.   There could be solid reliable external reference points in our single-minded pursuit of beauty.

But can building design be so clear-cut and rational? Does classical architecture live up to these claims?   Can buildings be really based entirely on such fundamental notions?

Perhaps the element that is easiest to accept is the notion that some proportions are the most pleasing and buildings will incorporate these if they are to be satisfying to the human eye. But what proportions do you seize upon?   There is the seemingly fundamental concept of the golden mean (used by many people in many places and at many times), where the ratio of the two sides of a rectangle match the ratio of the larger side to the whole – approximating to 1.618.  This is a very neat and clean thought, reinforced by the prevalence of the mean in some parts of the natural world.  There is a sense of this mean being built into the fabric of the world, and thus provided by God.  But there other ratios that seem to be equally providential:  the ratios behind musical harmonies, or other types of means (harmonic, arithmetic or geometric).   Or, the human body could be seen as the standard.  It was for the many Renaissance thinkers, humans being the highest life form created by God – we in his image no less – and the human body often exhibiting ratios of 6 and 10 in its proportions, at least that was the claim of many at the time.[1]   The centrality of the human body being and its proportions was illustrated in the famous “Vitruvian Man” of Leonardo De Vinci.

However, the great sixteenth century architect Andrea Palladio was one of those who were most thorough in his attempts to apply the appropriate ratios to his houses, and even he struggled.   The evidence is that less than 60% of the room floor ratios correspond to those he claimed were the most pleasing.[2]  So either he used other ratios that we don’t know about, or the differences were due to the imperfections of construction (over which he may have had limited control) or simply the compromises that were necessary when all these measurements and ratios had to be squeezed into a single box and some overall coherence is to be maintained. In the end, Palladio used a range of ratios for his room plans varying from 1 to 2.

If pleasing room proportions were all that was required for beauty, Modernism, particularly the simple white forms of the mid-20th century, could make to be at least as valid as Classicism in its pursuit of reason and beauty.[3]  However, as any casual glance will reveal, classical architecture is more than simply boxes of masonry or timber.   Unlike the exacting functional containers of Modernism, these are buildings with complex surfaces and carefully contrived decorative elements.   These elements are not randomly applied, invented for the moment, or particular only to the certain building, but instead obey clear rules and principles that transcended any individual project.   That is, at least, the original intention of the Renaissance instigators, if not their Greco-Roman predecessors.    The three dimensions of these buildings step down to the smallest details including openings, columns, and all aspects of decorations and ornamentation, in a controlled system of proportion.  The classical orders – the famous five – provided the method for organising all parts of the buildings, not only the external facades but also through the alignment of columns with internal walls and thus the internal room organisation, and via the column proportions, the internal floor levels and the overall building height.

But what of the claim to rationality? Why for so many centuries did the European world and elsewhere follow the decorative principles of some ancient people scattered around the edge of the Mediterranean Sea?    Some say that the intense struggle of these groups, particularly the ancient Greeks, with each other in their seemingly continuous wars, and with their hostile environment, formed the basis of these classical decorations and ornamentation: details about blood, war, trophies, bulls and sacrifices to gods.[4]   Why note the bitter struggles of some ancient race on the facades of some current house?

The alternative view is that, while the decorative devices may have begun in a bloody way, the classical system moved far beyond those original stories, initially within the Roman empire and perhaps in a more chaotic way after the empire’s fall, before eventually being resurrected in the Renaissance and used for many centuries afterwards in modern European civilisations and ultimately around the world. It was not only masons chipping away at these details for a couple of millennia but architects and designers have been debating, refining, and reinterpreting the column capitals, mouldings, entablature elements, and indeed general proportions.   The classical orders have been using in different ways and contexts from ancient basilicas and gladiator stadia to modern railway stations, and other more humble uses including the famous red telephone box of Britain[5].   And on occasions, the timber of North America, and elsewhere, has superseded the marble, limestone, terracotta or rendered brickwork of the Mediterranean. Perhaps, the extreme timespan, the spread beyond particular nations or even continents, the applications high and low, mean that the orders have transcended their origins, becoming universal forms and any narratives that may have attached to them initially are no longer relevant.  In fact, the elements of the decorative systems may have become abstract and non-specific (or at least capable of multiple interpretations) from the earliest times.[6]

Some argue that classical architecture represents more than simply good proportions, and finely-tuned decorative combinations, after all it is about buildings. Structures are not merely floating forms (even modern ones), but have to obey certain principles: they are the result of a combination of the strength of physical forces and the characteristics of the materials.  In the case of classical architecture, it based on a masonry tectonic system with beams and walls supported by columns or arches.  It is the consistent way that these tectonic principles are applied, and how they are expressed, that also helps determine a building’s beauty. The pleasure comes from the correspondence to the ways that we understand this world works.   So for example, elements such as columns must appear to provide stability and so the entasis of a column (its reducing diameter or inwards slope towards its top), is a representation of nature’s stability, most often seen in the way tree trunks develop.   Parts of a building that carry a load should appear to be able to do this, and if they don’t have a load, they should not appear like a load-bearing element.  So a roof which does not support a load (since it is the top) must be seen to not support anything, that is terminate at an angle.[7]   So the argument goes, if we start messing with these notions, such as breaking pediments as happened in many Baroque buildings, these places look less like the kind of building we would want to be in.

If in fact we can construct some universal dependable notions of beauty, why would we want to do this and not simply follow the trends of the moment? There are several potential advantages: a single and clear objective of beauty with no confusing digressions into things that don’t ultimately matter; no built-in obsolescence that makes the current form quickly lose relevance for people with new concerns, so no disposable buildings; and urban spaces could develop with the parts, that is the houses, displaying an intrinsic connectedness, a common design approach.   It could be argued that this commonality could be produce boring and repetitive places, but it is not clear that the suburbs that we have built in the past century or more have avoided repetition and they have been frequently condemned for their monotony.   If fundamental principles were thoroughly understood – thoroughly digested – there would remain sufficient scope for substantial variety.

In constructing your house on your chosen piece of land, even if you have some dependable notion of beauty clear in your head, there will always be judgements and adjustments necessary.   There will be no magic formula that will allow you to follow through from beginning to end without having to reconcile competing or conflicting aims.   However, whatever the difficulties of fine-tuning or realising in stone or timber the principles of beauty, this might ultimately be much more straightforward than trying to meet some vague shifting ideas about how well your house encapsulates the conditions of our times, or more particularly, magnify our current emotional state, or many other notions besides.

 

 

[1] And in the ancient world, notably the 1st century BC Roman author and architect Vitruvius.

[2] Mitrovic B. Learning from Palladio, WW Norton & Company, 2004.  Out of the proportions shown in his book, The Four Books Of Architecture, 55% correspond to his preferred ratios.  Out of a survey of his completed buildings, 57%  of correspond to his preferred ratios.

[3] Wittkower Rudolf. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, Academy Editions, 1973.

[4] Hersey, The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture, The MIT Press, 1988

[5] Designed in 1924 based on the forms of John Soane, the famous early 19th century architect.  Darley, Gillian. John Soane: An Accidental Romantic, Yale University Press, 1999, pp 324-325.

[6] Hersey describes the many layered often conflicting interpretations of the classical elements.

[7] Porphyrios, Demetri. Classical Architecture, Papadakis Publisher, 1991, p 15.