First Classical Council Held
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
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.