Nearly 500 years ago in northern Italy, a series of houses reached for perfection. Rather than being assembled to some long established pattern or the end result of the accumulation of any needed spaces over many years, the architect created dwelling spaces with a simple unity formed from clear geometry. Not only were the relationships of all elements within any space carefully ordered, but all the rooms fitted within an easily perceived coherent whole. All the elements of the design, from the assembly of rooms, the external form, to the decorative details of mouldings and openings, needed to have a carefully considered relationship to achieve the much sought harmony. When completed, nothing could be added nor any element taken away, without diminishing the design.
In one such villa, one small room could be as close to perfection as it is possible to get. To sit in such a room, you have no need to know the length of the room is a precise proportion to its breadth, or that the height of the vaults above matches the breadth, to feel that the room works like few others. This is a coherent contained space, with the clean curves of the vaulting above providing a strong sense of enclosure, particularly on a winter’s day with the shutters closed. Equally in better weather, with doors and windows open, the linear arrangement of openings within the house allow a direct connection to the outside in many directions, without the need for the vast floor-to-ceiling walls of plate-glass as in a contemporary house. There are views over the surrounding farmland, and an unavoidable awareness of the axial arrangement of the whole house with its clear orientation towards the distance snow-capped Dolomites. Now faded frescoes ring the tops of the walls above and provide some sense of the stories that the 16th century inhabitants told themselves, or liked to tell others.
When initially built, the order of these spaces must have contrasted with the complex mix or mess of olive and other fruit trees, crops, and yarded domesticated animals outside on the largely self-sufficient farm estate. Today, the contrast is with the open fields and network of drainage canals of the flattened industrialised agriculture around or the clutter and lights of the town getting ever closer. This was the villa for a large estate and it is large and imposing as it needed to be: high walls clearly visible for miles above the flat plane. However, rather than make a statement in expensive stone, all this was achieved with the minimum of costly materials. Stone was used where necessary on capitals or the moulding of window frames, but otherwise it is walls of rendered brickwork. Unlike the tight spaces that we came to accept in the 20th century, the architect thought that harmony depended on the correctly-sized spaces. Rooms would vary in size according to their role, but any ceiling height had to be judged in relation to the size of the room so a large room required a good distance above the heads of the numerous people below.
The architect is of course is Andrea Palladio and his house is Villa Saraceno located between Vicenza and Padua in the Veneto. His designs, theories and examples provided in his widely read book, went to influence much building in Europe and ultimately a great deal of the wider world for the following few centuries.
If these spaces work for us now and if we feel a comforting sense of order when we are in them, why have we not continued to build in such a way? Why do we not re-create the same spaces now? If Palladio achieved something close to perfection, why do we not try to do the same? Why did we turn our back on the lessons and breakthroughs of the Renaissance, particularly if they produced viable dwelling spaces, that worked and satisfied our demand for solidity, usefulness and beauty.
Instead, of a pursuit of Renaissance order, we have houses imbued with romantic excess. We are still building houses wrapped in brickwork and capped by something resembling slate tiles, as if we crave the allusion to a long-lost pre-industrial past when life was slower, more steady, or somehow more wholesome. We want to step back to the days of irregularly-shaped country cottages softened by compliant greenery. This is the model that underlies our suburban homes and has done since the late 19th century. The design of internal spaces becomes less about proportion, balance and clarity and more about comforting features and materials: perhaps the textured brick of the fireplace (even if gas), the leadlight designs of the bay windows or the complex mouldings of the doors, architraves and cornices. The external form is dictated by no simple geometry but instead reflects an idealised past: roofs sweeping down low with steep pitches to create a sense of protection or the general asymmetric shape with one side typically pushing forward towards the street, while the other verandah-covered, sits back and protects the entry door.
From the mid-20th century, this underlying romantic sense of a house was overlaid with a dour functionality. We kept the comforting general form, and the protective brickwork and roof tiles (possibly accepting steel sheeting as a replacement), but stripped these of all complexity and decorative effects, allowing only sheer walls of uniform brickwork interspersed with the planes of glass that now often replaced discrete windows and doors. Roofs were reduced in height and became tight pyramidal caps sealing the dwelling spaces from the endless threats beyond. The internal spaces were designed to simply meet some functional need: ceilings to the lowest useable height, preferably a uniform surface hanging low overhead; windows and doors made to set sizes to aid manufacture, stripped of any superfluous decorative elements; cornices and trims reduced to the briefest cover strips necessary to hide joints; and floors becoming a vast plane of preferably one material linking all the spaces together. Main spaces became continuous with no regular form but pushing out or pulling in to envelope the living areas thought necessary. The beauty was to be in the efficiency alone. Why be concerned about proportion, when costs of construction, the heating bill or being able to fit the right-sized sofa was more important?
Perhaps there are a few explanations of why we have forsaken the pursuit of such effective order in our dwelling spaces:
- We have lost our belief in reason. Clear simple geometry was no longer enough. At some point we began to feel that the hard solid austere world of reason was alienating, unsatisfying and altogether insufficient, and we felt the need for a direct appeal to deep-seated emotions or feelings that were our essential drivers. So instead we turned to rhetorical flourishes, passing distractions, and associations with other extraneous ideas, when it came to creating our dwelling spaces. Or at least this is what the romantic revolution that began 200 years or more ago convinced us, and arguably, from whose claims, we have not yet escaped. The Modernist revolution of the 20th century was perhaps just one of these many distractions.
- Palladian villas are simply not repeatable. The size of the houses and internal spaces is perhaps the most obvious contrast with our own domestic spaces. These are spaces that seem beyond ordinary human lives as we have experienced them. These are not simply the minimum necessary for shelter, but designed instead to provide a sense of permanence and fixity as if this is how everyone should live if resources would allow. In the Palladian view of things, harmony came from the correct proportion and rooms needed to have heights that matched their floor size. But resources now don’t allow such size for most people, so the argument would go.
- Appeal of the villas now is essentially romantic. There are faded frescoes, worn softly-coloured wall renders inside and out, heavily chipped and cracked stonework, undulating floors, and sagging beams. All this suggests a long occupation, the impact of generations, the use and abuse by many (few of who were remotely aristocratic in recent times), and the endless arrangement and rearrangement of spaces (walls, doors, windows, ceilings, functions). This is very different to the original state of the villas. The rendering on the walls would have been sharp and precise and white (marble chips used within), such that the skilled tradesmen involved would have been proud of their efforts. What we see now is not what was intended when built and a sense of order has little to do with the current appeal.