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 moldings 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.  

(to quote a previous blog)[1]

Which raises the obvious question: if you wanted to rebuild such a house in the modern world, because you thought such a house has the harmony or unity that few other spaces have, could you do this?   This is not as silly as it sounds and is not simply a case of having a big enough budget (but that would help of course).

First you might have to consider what we could call the philosophical questions involved, otherwise the conception and execution of such a building is fraught with problems as confusions and complications multiply. Having a clear sense of what is to be achieved would be essential.  

In the modern restless world, is such a notion of perfection even possible? Have we lost any sense that perfection is worth pursuing, let alone possibly achieving? Many would assume no perfection is imaginable because either technological progress permits no complacency – there is always something more or better just around the next corner -, or society itself will move on from the notions about what is a good life now and demand something more suited to its new needs in a new time.   To look for perfection is to limit yourself.

However, to emulate Andrea Palladio who designed these houses of 500 year ago does not necessarily mean that you seek perfection as he understood it.   It does not necessarily mean following him in viewing this world as but a poor imitation of some other perfect platonic state, from which we will always fall short, but that we need nevertheless to take a mathematically precise, strict geometrical approach as far as possible as it is to go.

Nor do we have to believe that there are some essential ratios in nature that are somehow better than others and that by using them, we achieve a greater harmony than had we relied on any random proportions that are close to, but not quite the same as, the essential ones. Ancient and renaissance thinkers found some proportions in nature that were superior to others – those of the human body, musical harmonies or simply abstract mathematical figures that had some greater appeal that surrounding ones (such as 6, whose main divisors are simple proportions, and, when added to 6, these same proportions create numbers immediately above)[2].  We could follow them in finding ideal proportions or numbers in the constant things about us such as the number of fingers – 10 (two hands of course not one, plus other limbs don’t count), then write detailed dissertations on these debating the merits before developing a system of hierarchy of forms based on this.

However,

Forms are not that platonic. Rather than being concerned about their ideal state, we could be concerned about how spaces affect us – how we respond. Most renaissance (and ancient) architects were not only focused on the discipline of fixed, principally rectangular, geometric forms, but they understood adjustments were necessary to accommodate our limited human vision and senses – to overcome the distortions inherent in our vision.   The base or stylobate could curve upwards in their centres (to prevent a concave appearance), corner columns could lean inwards and be thicker than others (greater visual strength to exposed corner), even columns could curve inwards as they climb – convex in shape (again to reduce the perceived concavity), a wider opening in the central gap of a colonnade could permit easy movement, and even the general spacing of columns varying as they should with the different orders (so finer taller orders have more narrow spacing).   Palladio made many of these adjustments (but not all), if only because ancient precepts (that is text and ruins) required it.

Ratios are not that rational.[3]  Only about 60% of the acclaimed superior ratios were actually used in Palladio’s constructed floor plans.[4]  He may have spoken about ratios and preferred them but when it came to using them, other things intervened.  There were the realities of construction – the imperfections of laying bricks, or the inability to be on hand at all essential times (Palladio constructed many buildings over a wide area of the Veneto before the network or modern freeways, let alone all-weather roads).   Or it could simply be the geometric puzzle of combining all the rooms, whilst allowing for the essential thick masonry walls and the balancing of openings, plus complying with set column height to diameter ratios and then still trying to achieve some pleasant overall external form and proportions, including the roof heights and slopes.   You might think this is something comparable to unravelling a jumbled Rubic’s cube, except that such a cube has a certain outcome.  So, the task for Palladio and any modern Classicist is infinitely harder.

Palladio was not that pure. This must be the conclusion. It is not purity that we are after but an earthly workable harmony.  Instead of being any afterthought or something discarded when the going gets tough (when other priorities intervene), proportions are the essential thing for Palladio – at the forefront of design criteria concerns, even if the best ones cannot always be enacted.   The most pleasing proportions are between 1 and 2, clustering around the middle of this range.  Like his buildings, a flexible approach to proportions could be employed.  They could apply mainly to the few principal rooms (they evidently did not need to apply to loggias – these were nearly always long spaces in Palladio’s Villas -, and in secondary areas such as those of the attic (that must have been used presumably), nor the room under the famous dome of Villa Rotonda whose height is far greater than its width or diameter.  Attempting to emulate Palladio floor plans reveals the near impossibility of balancing openings and a close examination of published floor plans confirms the mixed history of opening alignment.

Palladio’s vision was limited.   In his attempt to emulate the ancients, Palladio did his best with evidence he had, but we have a broader and deeper view of ancient times (through archaeological evidence) and we have the knowledge of the innovations of the centuries after Palladio operated, including the spatial gymnastics of the so-called Baroque period of the subsequent century or two.  While much of this later building may have been viewed as a corruption by Palladio, not all necessarily was.  New ways of using the orders, new spatial configurations, new plans, and new facades may have loosened up the Classical system without debasing it.  The simplicity and repetitiveness of Palladio’s approach gave it a strength, practicality and ultimately a selling power but innovation is still possible.

So, we could employ the system of the Classical Orders, not only for the almost ageless sense of proportion but for the discipline that they provide to all parts of the house design and the resultant sense of harmony, order and even tranquillity. Without the constraints of the Classical Orders, the task of producing contemporary designs is that much easier and the options that much more open.  In the absence of such constraints the temptation is to actively pursue disharmony or imbalance and the design elements so often are driven by the need to create a sense of movement and direction.   When the famous Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein briefly turned his hand to architecture in 1926, he produced a house design for his sister that evolved from some kind of Classical precedents to a cuboid form devoid of any ancient decorative elements.   Unlike the extreme experiments being undertaken by the likes of the Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier at the same time (including separating the main parts from the ground), Wittgenstein kept close to classical rhythms and forms in many ways (including employing stripped down columns internally).   Without classical principles as a guide on the external facades, with openings appearing as elongated vertical incisions in an otherwise flat plane, their size proportion and spacing were dictated by the need to create a sense of predominantly upward movement for the eye.[5]  To quote Edwin Lutyens, the once famous English Architect:

“In architecture, Palladio is the game. It is so big—few appreciate it now and it requires considerable training to value and realize it…. It is a game that never deceives, dodges never disguises. It means hard thought all through—if it laboured it fails…   [6]

Having hammered out the complex relationships inherent in any Classical design, the design has a sense of unity and cohesion and even naturalness that would otherwise be very difficult to achieve.

In an effort to use Classical forms in the modern world, we are faced with more issues to be resolved than those faced by Palladio five centuries ago.   The techniques and technologies of construction in the sixteenth century Italy may not have been a whole lot different to those of the ancient Romans, but ours are.   We have a choice now of attempting to recreate the past by keeping to the technological limits and maintaining the building techniques of the ancient times, if that is indeed possible (an archaeological reconstruction); or, at the other extreme, recreating the façade or look of the old without regard to the way that it is built (engaging in the much-condemned facadism) or, at another extreme, disregarding the old technologies and simply follow the principles of the Renaissance, so for example columns can be anything from PVC to reinforced concrete to plasterboard to …, so long as the correct sizes, disposition and proportions are used (privileging visual principles alone, ignoring tectonics).   Alternately we could assume that Classicism was a lived tradition, where the technologies and approaches are adapted over time based on the same core principles.  Construction materials, finishes and even services that are consistent with the principles are adopted as necessary.   Others that would destroy the essential nature of Classical forms are not.

As a working guide for a contemporary version of a house based on ancient examples, one that does not slavishly copy from the past, but builds on and adapts older ideas (just as Palladio did [7]) we could say that a house needs to be:

  • Ordered: the use of the orders to control the composition, abiding by the requirements of intercolumniation rules, column heights, alignment of columns and internal walls, positioning openings centrally between columns amongst many other things;
  • Proportionate: all elements including rooms organised to match the most desirable proportions, including ceiling heights;
  • Axial: not only should there be a mirror symmetry around a central axis but axial arrangement of openings within spaces is most-often used;
  • Spare: Perhaps the most controversial requirement since seeing one of these old houses in the Veneto does not suggest humility or simplicity or sparseness for they are large, tall, impressive, sometimes capped with sculptures and almost certainly having frescoes in their loggias and on internal walls in at least the main spaces, if not more. But compared to the cardinals’ houses of Rome or the grand family palaces of Florence, these northern Italian villas are restrained. The complex decorative schemes that are part of the orders are rarely covered the whole façade. Columns most often fulfil a structural role and are limited to the loggia, with or without a pediment. Classical Orders could be more often implied than real, with sometimes only simple arched openings on pillars. The scale need not rise to the heights required by the aristocrats who commissioned the villas so long as the proportions are maintained.   Also, the use or purposes of the spaces need not be as formal as in previous times.

The feel or sense of the spaces created by a contemporary Classicism matters. Often modern Classicism leads to rather stiff formalised spaces that seem to be out-of-kilter with the current way of living: crisp white walls with numerous overly correct finishes and details on display, as if the point of the approach is to invade all the spaces with the readily available plaster details.  Whether it is the rural nature of many of Palladio’s villas (including their direct use in agriculture) or their current well-worn state, but accepting a soft palette of finishes and materials and a discrete and careful use of the columns, their capitals and friezes appears more in keeping the original intentions.

The strength of Palladian Classicism to a modern audience is not perfection as the Renaissance idealists might have thought but a coherence and harmony nevertheless, one that few current building can achieve, relying as they do on movement, or new and surprising spatial or material combinations.   Few people would accept an ideal otherworldly beauty as the thing that we are trying to achieve in our domestic spaces.  Instead, we might be attracted by  domestic spaces fitting together like a resolved crossword puzzle, or the spaces providing a sense of completion that other design approaches rarely achieve or at least not easily.   It is the natural rest or sense of completion about the well-designed spaces of a Palladian villa that is perhaps worthwhile repeating or updating.  These villas are not necessarily redundant historical relics to be kept at a distance and idealised, but instead something practical and useable with lessons for us now.

[1] “When perfection is not enough” 9 Feb, 2018

[2] Vitruvius, “On Architecture” , (R.Schofield, trans), Penguin, 2009, p68.

[3] That is reasoned or based on a preferred ratio.

[4] Branko Mitrovic, “Learning from Palladio”, W.W.Norton & Co, 2004,  Ch 2 and App A.

[5] Paul Wijdeveld, “Ludwig Wittengenstein: Architect”, Pepin Press, 1993, p 100.

[6] Edwin Lutyens: letter to his friend and colleague, the architect Herbert Baker, in 1903.

[7] Sometimes mistakenly such the attachment of temple pediments to domestic buildings on the basis that ancient Romans would have done this (since temples evolved from houses – they were the houses of gods).  Evidence doesn’t point to Roman villas having temple-like fronts.