We could think of many houses, some of the 19th century built with steep mountain-like roofs and intersected by craggy chimney stacks, finished off with plant and animal motifs in caste-iron or leadlight in windows; others of the following century conceived as cantilevered masonry ledges floating over waterfalls, not longer simply surrounded by abundant untouched nature but actually part of it; and still other more humble houses relying only on the use of prominent bare timber or exposed brickwork to suggest something assembled from the immediate surroundings and not dropped off the back of some truck straight from the factory.
There is a persistent romantic notion that our homes should intertwine with the surrounding landscape, or at least be in some kind of loving responsive relationship with nature, no matter how far or how close the referenced nature might be. There is no place for stiff plain square boxes with little holes carved out of them, both cutting their occupiers off from the outside, and not acknowledging the natural world. A Romantic house should flow into any particular earthly situation adjusting itself so carefully to all the requirements of place: sunlight, views, shape of the land, and even an almost spiritual sense of this place. Humans imagine that they could be firmly embedded in nature – just another bird or bee – nesting not in a tree but on the ground, gathering up the sticks, stones and earth around them and ensuring their built forms augment what is about them. They would not be alien or beyond or aloof. They would not be industrial beings in alien machines running to narrow self-generated agendas.
As Romanticism started rolling in the nineteenth century, the Classicism as developed in the Renaissance was thus condemned. Classicism was stiff plain square boxes, seemingly disregarding nature (often literally – located above the fray on pedestal-layers), intersected by rhythmic arrangements of openings that were placed symmetrically about a central axis without any regard for the flow of sunlight across the building during any day or any season or consideration of the complex needs of the inhabitants. The shiny white marble-like render finishes of some or the uniform unyielding surfaces of the ashlar stones of others, did little to suggest such building were capable of melting into any surroundings.
The villas of Andrea Palladio built in the 16th century on the plains and surrounding hills of the Veneto would not at first glance at any of the numerous beautifully illustrated books now available, nor even the woodcut print images in his famous book, suggest any romantic inclinations on his part. Over the centuries, the attraction has been the fixed formulaic nature of his approach, with the strict axial symmetry and the ability to replicate similar plans in many contexts. His villas are more uncompromising than most you might think: the famous Palladio formula repeated around the world from his time down to more recent times when it is enjoying something of a revival.
But dig a little deeper, or at least widen your focus, and look beyond the paper plans and glossy close-ups of the houses, the reality is a little different. His response to landscape could be seen to be as subtle as any contemporary or traditional romantic. True, his landscapes are not the untouched, untrammelled nature that would propel any poet into verse or attract the intrepid hikers of the modern world. His landscapes are those of the Roman centurions; landscapes created by the land grants to ex-centurions more than fifteen hundred years before Palladio’s time; nature that shows the heavy rationalising hand of humans. The Venetian and local aristocrats of his time, who were his clients, were merely upgrading a landscape that had been layout by the Romans. It is a landscape dominated by the grid layout created when standard lots were provided to retiring soldiers. This is still evident today, not only the dominant Roman road locations that defined the grid angle, but also in the subsidiary roads and drainage canals, and the farm or field parcellation.
If Classical Architecture is primarily about proportions or the relationships between elements, Palladio would naturally want to position a villa within the farm estate with a view to its relationship to the whole. Just as any part of a building such as a verandah column or window would need to be in a good relationship with the overall form, so a villa could not be one of number of small elements cluttering one corner of the estate. It would need to be centrally located if possible with all the available elements of a farm corralled into a composition that provide a visual coherence to all of these and the collected group would have enough strength to act as the focal point for the estate. The walls surrounding the farm house compound could be used to further define the relationship to the overall property and wider landscape. The key elements that anchor a villa and define their relationship to the surrounding landscape include:
• An open axis. Ideally, the central axis of both the estate and the villa is aligned with the property boundaries, parallel or perpendicular, allowing the small form of the villa to be located with a much larger context. In many such villas, standing at the main doors, you can still see clear lines to the distant snow-covered mountains. Unlike later Baroque gardens, the axis is not held within the estate (by an enveloping forest or rising hill) but extends without limit allowing the broadest sense of the gridded farm landscape.
• The axis defines the internal spaces. The axis controlling the whole estate cuts clearly through the central space including the massive central door leading to the main public space of the house. Rooms, wall openings and the façade composition are defined by this axis, so that even the smallest spaces are linked to the broader context.
• Elevated main floor. Almost invariably, the main floor of a villa is up a substantial flight of external stairs. This elevation of the principal living spaces is not designed to distance occupants from their surroundings but to connect as it allow views of whole estate and further afield. The view outwards is as important as the view towards.
• Side wings. A Palladian villa does not usually stand alone. Especially when it is a working farm, the working spaces of the farm – the famous Barchessa – provide an opportunity to reinforce the axial/symmetrical nature of the space, including framing the main view of the house and emphasising the villa as the main space. A sequence of these working area creates a long building, usually fronted by a colonnade.
• Framing gardens. Unlike the gardens of other Renaissance villas (those down south in Florence or Rome), the Palladian garden is not elaborate and not a focus in itself. Instead it will usually elaborate and extend the form of the house.
In composing his villas on the Veneto plains, Palladio was dealing the reality of the immediate surrounding landscape, not some distant idealised landscape where some superior form of beauty was presumed to reside. It is most often a flat landscape dominated by strong lines. Palladio used these lines and the simple farm grids to position his buildings and determine the arrangement of their spaces, from the rough farm sheds of the Barchessa to the carefully composed and finished rooms occupied by the wealthy owners. Such internal spaces with their exacting proportions- simple mathematical fractions defining the relationships of width to heights to length- and the fine frescoes on their walls, would contrast with the spaces for the farm equipment and produce. However each would be in a defined relationship to each other, and through the central axis that does so much to establish these relationships, in a clear connection to the broader landscape of the estate and surrounding land.
Of course, to be a truly Romantic house it needs to be responding to truly romantic landscape. Flat farming country does not count you would think. But in these times where truly pristine wilderness or even untouched natural bushland is rapidly disappearing perhaps it is useful to consider a broader sense of landscape and Palladio’s efforts nearly 500 years ago offer a useful example.
Refer: Gerrit Smienk and Johannes Neimeijer, Palladio, The Villa and the Landscape, Birkhauser, Basel, 2011