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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 5, NO. 4 -- FALL 2003
 

First Classical Council Held
New University Buildings Presented/Discussed

New urbanists are anxious to improve design at the building scale; classicists have long sought ways to better promote traditional architecture to the general public. Leaders of both groups gathered in Alexandria with a common charge: to engage in the first of several gatherings devoted to peer critique for the making of better buildings -- in this case, buildings on university campuses -- for the 21st century.

The event was organized by John Massengale, a director of the Institute for Traditional Architecture (ITA), and the Classical Council.* Attendees included many prominent classical and traditional designers. Presenters included Allan Greenberg, Robert Adam, Thomas Gordon Smith, David Schwarz, Milton Grenfell, David Mayernik, and RAMSA's Gary Brewer and Robert Stern. The Transect** was also discussed in the context of Dino Marcantonio's analysis, "The Iconographic Transect."

Following the format of the new urban councils, the group of about 100 produced thoughtful, sometimes heated discussion, despite the general consensus for traditional buildings.

"Stripped ornament is a precursor to the awful stuff we build today," said Philadelphia architect Alvin Holm, in response to Robert Adam's interest in exploring the limits of minimalist classicism in the Sackler Library for Oxford University.

Seth Joseph Weine called the building walls of RAMSA's Spangler Center for the Harvard Business School "paper thin" and its details "insubstantial." Robert Stern replied, "The thinness issues relate to two possible things: Obvious ineptitude; or, more likely, that this is modern construction inspired by New England Georgian buildings which are very thin as compared to English Georgian buildings." Stern continued, "In a house, one can manipulate wall thicknesses, whereas in a university building one adapts details and acknowledge the limitations of budget. Spangler is a building of its time, in its details and its approach."

In addition to respecting the cultural and immediate context, as well as illustrating how individual buildings reinforce urban form, all the projects included the integration of craft and art. Sandy Stoddart sculpted a bas-relief spanning the length of a courtyard façade in the Sackler Library; David Mayernik painted the frescoes in his Gymnasium for the American School in Switzerland at Lugano; Thomas Gordon Smith commissioned bronze cowheads to embellish the University of Notre Dame's architecture building, Bond Hall; Milton Grenfell included weathervanes for the Trinity Heights residences for Duke University.

Allan Greenberg stressed the importance of scholarship, "As a student in South Africa, we had to draw 400 buildings from memory. By graduation, these buildings were a part of you," he said. Greenberg presented his Humanities School at Rice University, built adjacent to a library by Ralph Adams Cram, as a "syncopated checkerboard" office building. "I tried to think like Cram," he said, while also inspired by Sir Edwin Lutyens' whimsical explorations with checkerboard patterns.

David Schwarz presented his building at Yale University's Science Hill as a "greener if not green building." His design process included several façade studies with paper models illustrating thicknesses of walls at various scales, while simultaneously pondering the question of "What is Collegiate Gothic in the year 2000?" Robert Stern implied Schwarz had full title to building a Gothic building in the present by his comment, "James Gamble Rogers' Yale buildings during the '20s were magnificent. The ethos of his buildings was so exciting. They vary from two stories to seven as you climb Science Hill - and when he went to Texas (at Rice University) he picked up Moorish."

On the issue of reviving architectural traditions: "Who decides when (an architectural tradition) can or cannot travel? Who makes canons? Why can Cram do Gothic and Richardson do Romanesque -- what gives?" asked Andrés Duany. "Why is early Frank Lloyd Wright outside the canon? We should all strive to increase the genetic material of traditional architecture. We should engage in a campaign of reform," he proposed.

"One cannot make stylistic decisions alone," advised Stern, who added that one must allow popular opinion as well as culture to influence building expression. He continued, "The problem with 'modern' individual expression is how one would add to it in a compatible way; is this achieved on the level of the individual? And the bigger question is, how would one design in a NEW campus?" As an educator and dean of the architecture school at Yale, Stern said varied opinions deserve recognition.

Representing the Notre Dame architecture faculty were Thomas Gordon Smith and Dino Marcantonio. Smith explained to the group how value engineering required the redesign of his original scheme for renovations to Bond Hall. Marcantonio explained methods for architectural iconography to illustrate hierarchy as the new urban transect progresses from central core to rural edge.

As the group engaged in active discussion at the conclusion of the juried presentations, Robert Adam reflected on the richness of tradition. "Tradition is alive. It is the past living through you. It can vary because you can move it forward. It is a bottomless pool from which one can make new literature, and therefore buildings."



*Members of the Classical Council: Anne Fairfax, Richard Sammons Gary Brewer, Russell Versaci, Robert Orr, Richard John, Lucien Steil, Matthew Hardy, Victor Dover, Maricé Chael and John Massengale.

** See
Town Paper, Winter 2003 issue.