Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Rococo and Neoclassical

Hôtel de Soubise, circa 1740
The vigor of the Baroque and its departure from the purer Classicism of the Renaissance quickly led to controversy among humanists and architectural theorists. In France this culminated at the close of the 17th century in the “Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes” or “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns”. At question was whether “modern” society had reached a state of enlightenment surpassing that of the Greeks and Romans (and by implication the Church also). If this was indeed the case, perhaps there was justification for liberation from the authority of the ancient philosophies and institutions as well.

During the same period France and England were engaged in an economic, military,and cultural struggle to decide which nation would become the singular,dominant influential force of a reinvigorated and empowered Western civilization. Among the most significant battlegrounds for establishing each one's cultural authority was development of a national architecture. France would side with the “Moderns” and proceed to develop a powerful secular artistic style that was decidedly their own.

French Rococo

The Baroque may have reached its greatest expression in Germany as an architectural manifestation of the Counter Reformation. However, Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, was determined to capture the emotional power of the Baroque for the glory of the French monarchy. This he did to grand effect in the expansion of the Palais du Louvre and the Château de Versailles. As with church architecture, secular French Baroque floors were plain, walls informed by classical design being relatively unadorned at eye level whereas exuberant grandeur was reserved for the ceilings above.
Galerie des Glaces, Château de Versailles, circa 1684

His great grandson and successor, Louis XV would continue to expand and embellish Versailles and under his regime a residential style was formalized that became the envy of Europeon nobility. Rococo was a significant reinterpretation of the Baroque that would forever change interior design. The intimacy, delicacy and lightness of French Rococo supplanted the exuberance and majesty of the former Baroque. In so doing it created more comfortable, livable spaces. Columns and pilasters were replaced by panelized walls, rich entablatures by soft coves, applied surface ornament in low relief displaced modeled sculpture in high relief. Advances in plaster compositions allowed ornamental appliqués to be applied directly to furniture, doors, panels and wall surfaces alike.

Cabinet de la Pendule, Château de Versailles, circa 1740

There was a conspicuous materialism associated with French Rococo. Quite often the floors were a simple wood parquet, an archetype of the physical earth. Likewise the ceilings, save for a central rosette, were largely unadorned often painted a soft blue in imitation of the literal sky in direct contrast to the Baroque depiction of an idealized spiritual heaven represented with allegorical frescoes and sculpture in high relief . Panelized walls of Rococo featured ornament at eye level, at a human scale of natural asymmetrical forms of flora and fauna as well as the signature “rocaille” shell-like centerpieces evoking turmoil, variety, surprise and movement.

English Neoclassical

Arbury Hall, Warwickshire
The Rococo was never warmly embraced in England and where the “French style” existed it was generally a more subdued version. The English initially turned to the Gothic for inspiration igniting a revival that frequently utilized plaster in a decorative manner where stone had been originally used structurally. The return to the Gothic has been attributed to the more conservative character of the English; however, one might imagine political animosity also played a role in the rejection of French influences.

Syon House, circa 1762
Inspired from a visit to the Veneto in 1714, Architect William Kent would lead the charge of bringing England back to its architectural senses, turning to Palladio for inspiration. For the first time since the beginning of the Renaissance the English would be establishing their own decorative style that others, including the French, would soon emulate. In complete contrast to Rococo, the embrace of Palladio's interpretation of the Classical resulted in a comparatively restrained and ordered aesthetic.

A few years later a Scottish stone mason turned architect by the name of William Adam would also embrace the incoming Palladian influence. In the mid-18th century his sons James and Robert Adam would take a four year tour to Rome to study the recently uncovered ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and other notable classical and early Renaissance sites. The Adams brothers were astute businessmen, patenting their signature “Adams style” designs perfectly suited for reproduction in plaster. Variations of Neoclassical design would dominate English style and that of her former colonies until the early 20th century.

Osterly Park, circa 1767

Palladianism in Colonial America

Drayton Hall, circa 1742
The influence of English Neoclassicism was immediately felt in colonial America, a precursor to a federal style. Although the virgin forests of the continent meant a steady supply of wood for years to come, interior plaster, especially ornamental plaster would see widespread use in fine homes and government buildings. With its Anglican lineage plaster thus became an inherited contribution to an emerging American architectural and cultural patrimony. In many respects the United States has now takes the cultural lead in the Western world. Our next article in the series will explore a brief history of plaster in the United States and the current state of the art.

Contributed by Patrick Webb 

Monday, November 25, 2013

An Ethic for the Artisan


Pygmalion & Galatea, Gérôme
In the 1st century C.E. Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio penned an axiom, a tripartite statement of values that would guide architectural ethics for many centuries: Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas roughly translated as Durability, Usefulness, Beauty. And rightfully so! The “architectus” was the “chief builder”; his sacred obligation was to create durable buildings practical as well as pleasing to his patron.

Alongside the architect, creating anything in this world by the hand of man that could be called great or beautiful, was another figure, “Homo Artifex”, the man who makes art, the artisan. Perhaps never consciously acknowledged but certainly always felt, he was guided by a different ethic. I propose a parallel axiom for the artisan: Venustas, Sensatas, Humanitas.


Beauty is the shared ethic between the architect and artisan. Yet, whereas the architect conceives at the scale of the body, the artisan creates at the scale of the hand and the eye. It is a question of degree. Certainly the architect works for the delight of his patron; nevertheless, the artisan is consumed by it.

For example, perchance the architect decides that to bestow beauty upon a given space some ornamentation should be provided. Finding an appropriate precedent he directs the artisan that such and such column capital should be referred to, making said adjustments for the scale of the space, conveying a lightness or heaviness with shade and shadow, etc. Perhaps the architect, having a particularly keen interest, will even pass by on occasion as the work progresses.

Courtesy of Palladio Mouldings
The intensity of the experience of the artisan is of another measure entirely. How thick should the leaves be? How should they furl? Should the lobes be slightly more rounded? The oculi deeper? The ribs more slender? A thousand decisions are considered, hundreds discarded, far past pursuing the satisfaction of the architect or the whim of the patron, rather agonizing over a mere glimpse, if for but a moment of the ephemeral goddess, herself.


Feeling, emotion, life.

I was recently doing a consultation at historic Drayton Hall. The façade of the building is fine, well proportioned and generally unremarkable. One could argue that we have finer examples in Charleston and the façade pales in comparison to a true Palladian example such as the Villa Capra.

Nevertheless, you can not help but be delighted as you enter the piano nobile to behold a lovely enriched plaster ceiling and panelized walls. Is it of the finest craftsmanship? Perhaps not but it is full of feeling! Step
Drayton Hall
into an adjacent room and you are enthralled by a hand modeled plastered ceiling. No sublimity of line or crisp shadow. Yet what it lacks in precision it more than makes up for in life. I would venture to say that these two rooms, not the history, not the proportion, not the fact that Drayton Hall is a faithful example of colonial Georgian Palladian style, rather it is the artisanal beauty and expressed emotion of these two rooms that is the overwhelming reason why Drayton Hall was preserved to begin with and now is the most beloved building in Charleston and one of the most beloved in the United States.

Why do so many ordinary people “feel” such a connection to the spaces when walking through these rooms at Drayton Hall? Because the artisans even after so many years are able to communicate to us, as if offering a gift though time. The very casual, free nature of their workmanship allows us to empathize, to share. We can see the hand of the artisan in the work and we could imagine for an instant that the artisan's hand was our hand. Subsequently the emotional connection draws us in deeper and deeper as we begin to sense how much patience and intense concentration was demanded to realize the subtle shadows of the ornaments and the flowing spirals of the foliated scrolls. Whereas the architect designed a durable building to cater to our needs, the artisan continued to embellish it with the ambrosia that feeds our souls.


Courtesy of Hunt Studios
Don't imagine we can create anything truly beautiful. The most graceful leaf ever sculpted in marble by Callimachus himself would pale into insignificance when scrutinized against the leaf of a dandelion, thistle, acanthus or any other weed we might trample underfoot. What we can do is appreciate the delicacy of a flower, the grace of a lion or the beauty of the human form and record in wood, stone or plaster a few small aspects of their majesty. It is this conveyed act of appreciation, a decidedly human quality that gives nobility to the art, the artisan and our shared cultural patrimony.

For this reason machined art is dead. More than lifeless it is pointless. What beauty we can extract from art is the interpretation of life by the human mind passed through the human hand. There is no conversation with a computer or a machine. I would give this plea to the architect and the patron: grant the artisan freedom to make his art. And to the artisan this caution: let no man take this freedom from you; men can have their soul stripped and be turned into machines as well.

Interested in more content on a Philosophy of Craft?
Please visit my YouTube channel: A Craftsman's Philosophy

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Lamp of Truth

John Ruskin
As we continue our consideration of John Ruskin's extended essay, 'The Seven Lamps of Architecture' it becomes evident that it acts as a treatise on craft as much as architecture. Whereas the 'Lamp of Sacrifice' urged giving one's best, in the 'Lamp of Truth' we see how Ruskin demanded morality in architecture and honesty in craft. Architecture and craft were sacred to Ruskin, the most enduring gift that we have received from our forefathers, one which we have an obligation to pass on to our progeny.

I have heard traditionalists accuse Mr. Ruskin's essay on “Truth” of laying the seeds of modernism. I have similarly heard modernists claim inspiration from the same. However, whereas early modernists such as Adolf Loos viewed all ornamentation as a deceit and craft as criminal and degenerate for an “evolved” man of the 20th century, Ruskin only criticized craft and ornament that was poorly conceived or intended to deceive. A fierce defender of art and craft's intrinsic role in uplifting the human spirit, Ruskin's perspective on “truth in architecture” could not be more diametrically opposed to the modernist movement to come.


Mr. Ruskin begins by opening a window into human nature, specifically regarding our tendency to quickly recognize and reject overtly malicious deceits:
We are too much in the habit of looking at falsehood in its darkest associations...That indignation which we profess to feel at deceit absolute, is indeed only at deceit malicious. We resent calumny, hypocrisy, and treachery because they harm us, not because they are untrue.”

Subsequently, the deceits we too easily tolerate:
But it is the glistening and softly spoken lie; the amiable fantasy; the patriotic lie of the historian, the provident lie of the politician; the zealous lie of the partizan, the merciful lie of the friend, and the careless lie of each man to himself, that cast that black mystery over humanity.”

Is such moralistic reasoning just a product of 19th century Protestant England misapplied to architecture, art and craft? An extreme purism that would stifle any expression of beauty and inventiveness? Is the entirety of painting and sculpture nothing more that an endeavor to deceive? As Ruskin's reasoning unfolds such perceptions are quickly dispelled.


Ruskin makes a clear distinction between artistic deception and imagination, “ spiritual creatures, we should be able to invent and behold what is not.” Yet at the same time he cautions, “ moral creatures, we should know and confess at the same time that it is not.”

In other words, so long as the work of art is understood as such and never implied nor believed to exist, no attempt to deceive has occurred. To the contrary, Ruskin viewed honest art as “a statement of certain facts, in the clearest possible way” and as a “communicated act of imagination.” However, Ruskin felt that the architecture and craft were particularly vulnerable to deceits respecting the nature of materials or the quantity of work.


Spalled Terra Cotta
Structural Truth. Ruskin often to look to nature as an inspiration for good design. Just as a skeleton is hidden underneath flesh and bone so an architect is not bound to exhibit his means of support. Nevertheless, the widespread use of iron reinforcement in the 19th century quickly began to supplant fundamental principles of masonry construction that took thousands of years to develop. Abuses such as cladding systems of veneer stone with iron supports truly deceive the viewer as to the true nature of materials and the amount of work required. Before long senseless designs that never could be realized in self supporting masonry became commonplace.

Surface Truth. Those romantic French and Italians! They must at first seem like easy targets for Ruskin with their frescoed walls, their Trompe-l'œil (fool the eye), faux bois and marbre (fake wood and marble). However, Ruskin hardly provides a universal condemnation. Rather, he admonishes us to “be careful to observe that the evil of them consists always in definitely attempted deception.” Ruskin goes on to contrast two architecturally similar examples.

First the ceiling of Milan Cathedral. The vaults are covered with what from the ground appear to be stone fan traceries. Upon a more careful examination it can be perceived that the traceries are merely painted on, lacking the depth and shadow of stone. This Ruskin felt destroys much of the dignity of an otherwise beautiful building. You find yourself wondering, what else here is fake?

Ceiling, Milan Cathedral

Next Ruskin praises the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But why the change? Is not the ceiling full of architectural ornament in grisaille mingled with the figures of its frescoes? Yet there is no deception. There is never even a moment when one would question if it is really God Almighty touching the hand of a material Adam. And if the figures are painted then it follows the architectural elements must be as well. Ruskin rightly observes that “so great a painter as Micheal Angelo would never paint badly (or perfectly) enough to deceive.”

Michael Angelo, Sistine Chapel

Courtesy of Palladio Mouldings
Ornamental Truth. This last one particularly resonates with me, living in an age where computer guided machines pump out lifeless ornament. Ruskin said it best over 150 years ago, “it is not the material, but the absence of the human labour, which makes the thing worthless; and a piece of terra cotta, or of plaster of Paris, which has been wrought by the human hand, is worth all the stone in Carrara, cut by machinery...nobody wants ornaments in this world, but every body wants integrity.”

Over the next few post I'll endeavor to highlight each of the “Lamps” or virtues espoused by Mr. Ruskin. Next to consider: The Lamp of Power

Interested in more content on a Philosophy of Craft?
Please visit my YouTube channel: A Craftsman's Philosophy

Contributed by Patrick Webb