Friday, February 4, 2011

REVIVE BEAUX ARTS?

Re-reading John Summerson's classic text on Inigo Jones (Penguin, 1966, price $1.90 - old books still have an importance that should never be overlooked) raises the question: should we revive any of the Beaux Arts teaching methods? With the recent establishment of new schools of architecture in southeast Queensland, the question seems to be timely. The Bauhaus system of architectural education has been  the model for most schools of architecture now for nearly 100 years. Is there a better model? Is the craft basis, complete with workshop, still useful? Can it be improved? It seems just too easy to keep on doing the same again and again, without asking more and more questions in the struggle to be better and better - indeed, to be the best in the world. Why not? Does the business model not allow for such a risk?
Why has this question come to be asked?
Summerson's text on the facade of The Banqueting House, Whitehall is the stimulus:
The Banqueting House facade is a different matter altogether, and a wonderfully harmonious design. The Palladian diagram borrowed for the exterior coincides nicely with the scheme of the interior, whiich is to say that it prescribes seven bays of superimposed columns; as in the interior, Jones made the lower order Ionic and the upper an improvisation on the Composite. The diagram also prescribed a division in the facade giving prominence to the three middle bays. The interest of the work, however, lies less in the diagram than in its detailed development. Perhaps the first thing to observe and remember about the Banqueting House is that the normal wall surface is rusticated almost from top to bottom, all horizontal and vertical joints being firmly cut into a V. The effect of this is that there is no 'dead' surface larger than a single stone and that anything superimposed on the pattern of rustication must justify itself either by strength of relief or intensity of contrast. Jones uses both. At each end of the facade is a pair of coupled pilasters, their two nearly-joined areas of plain surface effectively quelling the force of the rustication as it approaches the corners. Next inwards comes comes a single pilaster between two windows (deliberately the weakest area), then a column in the round which, however, is not quiet in the round because beyond it the wall surface presses forward to claim half its thickness. The next column is a half-column on this advanced surface and this brings us to the centre. This subtle increase both in advance and relief in the middle three bays gives the facade its fullness and vitality. Much of the art, however, is in the orders of columns themselves. The columns are unfluted and nakedly smooth against the rigorous crust of rusticated wall, a sensuous combination reminiscent of Giulio Romano from whom, indeed, it probably comes through the Palazzo Thiene - the one building by Palladio where Giulio's influence is paramount. The friezes of the orders are unenriched but, ranging with the capitals of the upper order, is a sub-frieze of masks and swags. This, the only piece of naturalistic carving in the building, rhythmically celebrates the ascendancy of thee orders over the mechanistic hardness of V-jointed stones.  (p.p.55-56)
To understand what Summerson is seeking ot explain, one has to go to the photographic image of the elevation. Only here can the subtlety be seen. Plan and sectional detail drawings would make things clearer and more explicit, but the photograph is all we have. A close look at the shadows tells the story. What is discovered is that the facade is just too easy to glance at and dismiss as a familiar, bland, old-fashioned classic image. Summerson's observations help direct our eyes to the richness of this form and the quality of thought that has gone into its making. There is an exquisite play with planes and alignments of columns, with an equal consideration given to all of the other elements. The width of the shadows illustrate this. What Summerson does not point out is that there is a vertical play in the columns too. The upper set is so very slightly more narrow than the lower set and they are made of a different stone.
It is this intriguing interest in detail that plays such an important role in the reading of the facade that makes one ponder the possibilities of the Beaux Arts approach to things architectural for us today. What might one learn by preparing measured drawings of such a work? What else is hidden? Such a task would alert one to the very thinking of Inigo Jones. Why should we be so pompous as to just reject such an approach now merely because this dismissal was an essential step in the making of the Bauhaus and the framing of its approach?
Lutyens went through a stage in modernism when his work was mocked as nonsense until Venturi showed us how to see its unique expressive skill and wonderful humorous qualities. How else might we see things Beaux Arts today? It is simply unacceptable to dismiss anything on the back of the phantom progress that sees only better in the future as it races from the 'worn-out' past. The challenge needs to be reviewed. Let us start by drawing the orders. Then draw the classic buildings. We may learn about the importance of detail and from the rigourous thinking in and the deliberate intelligence of this work.We might find just how different it is to establish forms by ad hoc morphing than by other more purposeful means, and how one fine dimension can be so critical for the whole. Instead of modernism's 'less is more', we may come to see how 'morphing is less' and how formal, classic thinking is not merely formulaic; and realise how it can be useful for us today.
Some may see such an idea a just nostalgic nonsense, but there are other possibilities here. If nothing else, the tasks will not only improve the drawing standards of those participating, but they will also stimulate the appreciation of the skills of past eras that did not have electronic gadgets to play with - and it will put the concept of copybooks into a new context too.

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