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Architecture & design

The shock of the old

— August 2013

Article read level: Art lover

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Wayside Manor: The sun-filled gallery links all the principal rooms on the first floor of the house, and is  detailed with bronze French doors from Gold Coast Metal Works, and engaged Ionic columns carved from limestone.  Franck & Lohsen Architect

Jonathan Rinck enjoys the ‘deliciously passionate prose’ of Philip Dodd’s polemical ‘coffee-table’ book

The Art of Classical Details: Theory, Design & Craftsmanship edited by Philip Dodd

If the thought of classical architecture brings to mind sterile architectural orders of expired civilizations, the contributors of this volume invite us to think again.  Nearly two dozen scholars, architects, and artisans come together in The Art of Classical Details to advance the argument that there is still a place for classical architecture in a postmodern world and that it’s here to stay.  

This book makes no pretence of dispassionate objectivity as regards the superiority of classical architecture.  Modernism is presented as sound and fury, signifying nothing.  The contributors argue that modern architecture lacks historical foundational principles and is intended to last no more than a generation, ultimately blind to both the past and the future.   What, enquires architect John Simpson, do we implicitly say about our culture when our modern cities are built not to last?  Reflecting on the Greeks, Simpson observes that classical temples were designed to last as eloquent expressions of optimism in the longevity of their culture.

Architect Quinlin Terry sees something intrinsically worthwhile in reproducing the classical language of the past, citing Winston Churchill’s remark that ‘a nation that forgets its history has no future’.  But the authors on the whole reject any academically pedantic definition of Classical design.  In part, this is because the Greeks themselves were at liberty to play with the various orders, as seen in the famously whimsical Erechtheion caryatids in Athens.  One is reminded that it was not until Roman times that the architect Vitruvius compartmentalized Greek buildings into the familiar ‘orders’: Doric, Ionic  and Corinthian.  Architect Robert Franklin even expands the definition of ‘Classical’ design to include simply the ‘best of its kind’, a sentiment shared by many of the book’s contributors. 

To this end, while not rejecting modern technologies, the authors argue for increased human involvement in the design process, which invariably results in better buildings.  The contributors argue for the use of local materials, handmade bricks, hand-carved stone, and hand-painted detail.  David Easton and John Murray trenchantly favour hand-drawn design ‘analytiques’ over the quick shortcuts offered by digital software.  What the contributors ultimately champion is not so much the vocabulary of Classical architecture as an end in itself, but rather the ideals that underlie Classical design, particularly in celebrating the value of the craftsman as opposed to the machine, regardless of the style in which the craftsman happens to work.  Indeed, many of these sentiments resonate with the Arts and Crafts Movement or the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.   

This visually rich bookis clearly intended for the coffee table, not the bookshelf.  The final half treats the reader to multiple-page spreads of the interiors and exteriors of 25 spectacularly lavish luxury homes built or furnished in many of the variations of Classical architecture, ranging from rural American Greek Revival to high-street Georgian.   The language is generally not technical, though the reader should expect the very occasional surprise – readers unfamiliar with English stately homes may wonder what a ha-ha is (a line where a lawn comes to an abrupt end with a sharp, walled drop to a lower level – it stops animals on that level entering the garden area. As the wall is below lawn level it does not interfere with the view, but has no ‘safety rail’ for people, who may give others a laugh if they fall down it). Short chapters hold the reader’s interest, and the writing crackles with energy and conviction. 

This is not a history of classical architecture and its applications.  While some of the chapters are indeed informative histories, such as Aidan Mortimer’s briefing on some of the nuances of Georgian architecture, most chapters serve instead as manifestos and mission statements. They don’t simply explain the language of classical design but defend it, as in architect James Curl’s scathing damnation of modernism.

The tabula rasa demanded by Modernists jettisoned a great language… in favour of fancy wordplay, empty jargon, meaningless sound bites, and the sloganizing cacophony accompanying a bogus linguistic dance.  It has been and is promoted by self-serving, self regarding totalitarians interested only in power and money, and is ingested by a terrified, bemused, bovine public, too cowed and ill-educated to be able to protest or resist.  One of the big problems is that a visually illiterate and desensitized public can only look with its ears now, and confuses obfuscation with profundity; cults invent their own languages and liturgies, the more obscure and dark, the better they serve their protagonists.

Deliciously passionate prose like this could have been sifted from the more fiery polemics of John Ruskin, or, for that matter, Christopher Hitchens.  It’s certainly not what one expects, in any case, from what appears on the surface to be simply a genteel coffee table book.

If the reader wants an objective, academic history of Classical architecture, this is the wrong book.  But as a visual celebration of the beauty of Classical design and as a robust defence of the antique, this book serves its purpose well, offering the reader emphatic reassurance that Classical design is still alive and thriving in a postmodern world. 

The Art of Classical Details: Theory, Design & Craftsmanship edited by Philip Dodd is published by Images Publishing Group, 2013. 224pp., fully illustrated. ISBN 978-1864702033


Jonathan Rinck
Spring Arbor University
Instructor of Art History

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