Ancient and Modern: Palladio at the Royal Academy


Architectural exhibitions are, by default, flawed exercises. Few curators would have the nerve to stage, say, a Titian blockbuster without a single Titian painting on view, a marble-free Bernini show, a Schiaparelli crowd-pleaser offering the curious not a single faded frock or frill. And yet the celebration of a lacuna — a high-profile Hamlet minus the prince — is a matter of necessity in the world of architectural exposition. Goethe once claimed, apparently, that architecture is frozen music. If so, the best a curator can offer is a glimpse of the score. The actual performance takes place on some other stage entirely.

Hence the inevitability with which the Royal Academy’s excellent Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy comes to be made up out of sketches, plans, notes, printed pages, painted portraits, sections and facade elevations, near-doodles, a set of drawing instruments in a leather case, maps, and of course those meticulously-constructed lime and beechwood models, smelling of varnish and scholarly obsession — dolls’ houses made by angels for princes, immodest household shrines of formal perfection, each one as cleanly excised from the environmental matrix encasing actual buildings as inital intention ever can be from deed or subsequent doubt.

For although Burlington House itself is a monument, albeit a sadly bashed-about one, to the acquisitive fascination with which advanced taste in early Georgian Britain regarded Palladian architecture, Palladio’s own buildings, necessarily, are elsewhere — the flat agricultural expanse of the Veneto, magnificent Venice, elegant Vicenza, the vaguely unwholesome banks of the slow-flowing Brenta canal. The show, then, must go on, somehow, without them. Is it wrong, though, to suspect that this paradox matters less in Palladio’s case than it would in the case of any other architect?

Of peristyles and patronage
The facts of Palladio’s life (1508-1580) are as well-known as they are, at least in terms of scandal or high human drama, unremarkable. Born Andrea della Gondola, the son of a miller, in war-scarred and traumatised Padua, this apparently hard-working, even-tempered youth was rescued from a career as a stonemason through the intervention of Gian Giorgio Trissino, a well-travelled, intellectually ambitious local aristocrat, who not only set him to studying mathematics, music and architecture, sponsoring some of his early work, but also conferred upon him the name by which the world now knows him. When Trissano died in 1550, Palladio was rapidly taken up by an even grander patron, Daniele Barbaro, a briskly successful eccesiastical careerist whose deep engagement with all that was known about classical architecture mattered at least as much as his wealth, connections and influence, all of which were considerable. Cardinal Barbaro and his brother Marcantonio were in large part responsible for extending Palladio’s ambit beyond the confines of the Veneto, with lengthy visits to Rome and eventual commissions in Venice, pushing his work into new and productive directions.

And so it came about that Palladio spent the better part of four decades creating or modifying churches, monastic buildings, palazzi, villas, theatres, bridges and so forth — and in doing so, creating some of the most physically compelling, intellectually engaging, unarguably harmonious structures of the Italian Renaissance. He was fortunate, once again, in that his working life coincided not only with one of the most refulgent periods of economic prosperity and cultural self-confidence in the history of La Serenissima — no small claim, that, either — but also with a point at which the practical requirements of agricultural organisation, ecclesiastical practice and urban ceremonial were all changing, necessitating plenty of architectural initiative. And he was good at striking a balance between formal brilliance and bricks-and-mortar pragmatism, as reliable a source of low-cost municipal housing as of elegant hill-top villas for intellectually sophisticated patrician patrons. By the time of his death, Palladio had left his mark upon Venice and the Veneto with a lapidary firmness that four centuries and more of revisions, disasters and outright demolitions has not yet managed to erode entirely. The sight of San Giorgio Maggiore from across the Bacino is, in its way, as instantly evocative of the world’s most beautiful city as is the view back from San Giorgio Maggiore towards the Piazzetta and Ducal Palace.

By any sane standard, then, Palladio was both an important architect, and a highly successful one. Yet there’s a sense in which none of this really accounts for Palladio’s place in conventional hierarchies of Western architectural greatness. Why is it that millions who’ve never heard of Bramante, the Sansovinos elder or younger, Scamozzi, Borromini or indeed any other architect can, when confronted with a few columns topped off with a pediment, trot out the adjective ‘Palladian’ with such easy, if often sloppy familiarity? What made Palladio, as even his detractors generally admit, the most imitated architect of all time?

Book learning
The answer lies, it seems, in I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture), published by Palladio in 1570. I Quatto Libri was not simply a shrewd if sometimes imaginative analysis of what was known of ancient Roman architecture, any more than it was simply a how-to guide for builders and their patrons, complete with discussions of materials and methods, the relationship between structure and purpose, and plans for various types of buildings. Instead, it was all these things, and something more, too.

Earlier, in the 1550s, Palladio had published two small, user-friendly guides to Rome — one an account of Rome’s antiquities, the other a survey of its churches. Reading these today, perhaps the most surprising feature is the critical neutrality the author brings to what is, in effect, an implicit comparison between the architecture of pagan antiquity and the Christian culture that grew out of it.

Palladio was, as far as I know, both a conventionally devout Christian and a man obsessed with ancient Rome, the late Republic in particular, and Julius Caesar most of all. Yet in his guides to Rome, he takes it as read that good architecture — indeed, beautiful things in general — can crop up in any era, under any form of religious or civic order, indifferent to the merits or misfortunes of its makers’ times. For if Mies van der Rohe held that ‘architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space,’ Palladio seems to have disagreed entirely. There’s no assumption in the guides to Rome that a decadent style should emerge from a decadent society, or that bad morals should play out in bad building. Instead, in Palladio’s writing, a beautiful pagan temple can — and frequently does — translate into a beautiful Christian church. Or perhaps a beautiful new Christian church can be built in the style of a beautiful pagan temple. Architecture, Palladio seems to imply, doesn’t take sides — it simply follows its own intrinsic logic, which is largely mathematical and certainly wholly timeless, then stands or falls on those terms.

Much of this carries over, I think, into I Quattro Libri. Neutrality may be, at least in some limited sense, a key to Palladio’s undeniably enduring, highly exportable influence.

Of course it helped Palladio’s case that I Quattro Libri explained how to build in materials (brick, stucco) that were at least potentially as cheap as they were all but universally available. This is, actually, quite important, especially at the lower end of the price bracket. Modernist architecture executed on the cheap so often exhudes a forlorn and cynical shabbiness, a mute yet effective rebuke to the low-key, high-spec elegance of masterpieces like the Barcelona Pavilion or the Seagram Building. The buildings of I Quattro Libri, though, didn’t need bronze, hand-polished travertine or doubtful socio-political assertions to jolly along either their aesthetic appeal or their practical functionality.

Hence it’s unsurprising that the penny-pinching speculative developers of early eighteenth century London warmed to Palladio’s broader legacy as avidly as did the purveyors of all that ‘colonial style’ suburban housing in the post-war USA — and for the similar reasons, too. Properly employed, the language of classicism, to which I Quattro Libri provided both grammar and lexicon, proved reliably effective not only when deployed on the creation of a house fit for a queen or a king or indeed the King, but also — and here’s the surprising part — equally so when ministering to the needs of the sort of people who dreamed of ordering pre-fab dwellings from the Sears Roebuck catalogue, who wished to punctuate some endless highway journey with a Howard Johnsons dinner, or who simply prefer to buy their petrol from the safety of a structure boasting a clear, if somewhat debased, classical pedigree.

And thus it was that Palladio’s Quattro Libri conquered the world, or at least most of the Western European and also the historically Anglophone parts of it, by way of everyone from serious architects — Indigo Jones, Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor, James Gibbs, Charles Bullfinch, Quinlan Terry, John Simpson and so forth — to excitable amateurs and dutiful jobbing builders, all of whom learned something, however indirectly, from its well-chosen words and images. The architect Reginald Blomfield was to criticise ‘pedantic’ Palladio for saving ‘future generations of architects the labour of thinking for themselves’, but is this not simply a way of saying that he saved an awful lot of less-than-brilliant architects from making mistakes about which posterity might have been every bit as unforgiving as their paying patrons? Of course not every ‘Palladian’ building was particularly impressive, or had much to do with Palladio, but it’s genuinely hard, surely, to argue that I Quattro Libri lowered the general standard of building practice. In any event, from Tsarkoe Selo to St. Petersburg Beach in Florida, from the traffic-begrimed offices of Whitehall to some proud distant portico glimpsed across an intervening stretch of Norfolk fields or Scottish lakes, from Munich to Prague, from the Marais to a million nondescript high streets and new-built housing developments here and abroad — over all these places, and many more besides, Palladio’s volumes cast their long if sometimes grotesquely distorted shadow.

Being there
All of which, I suppose, suggests why the absence of actual buildings matters less in the Royal Academy’s Palladio: His Life and Legacy than it would in exhibitions dealing with some of his contemporaries or indeed successors.

Palladio, clearly, came out of a particular time and place — that, pretty obviously, being the human condition, for good or for ill — just as his actual buildings were created for particular settings, in deference to the needs and whims of specific patrons. The sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Palladio (eds. Guido Beltramini and Howard Burns), is particularly interesting on the brilliance with which Palladio reconciled theory and practice. For while every schoolchild knows that even a formal masterpiece like the Villa Rotonda — the floorplan looks more like an intelligent geometry student’s abstract doodle than anything relating to a functional building — was designed with an eye both on how the structure was likely to be used, and also Eclogues-reminiscent landscape stretching out on every side of it, it’s revealing to see how Palladio rose to the challenges posed by commissions for low-cost standardised urban housing, for instance, or how, as with most of his Venetian ecclesiastical assignments, he coped with the demands of existing structures, unpromising sites and patronage-by-committee.

And by a similar token, the actual buildings do, when one has a chance to see and use them, deliver a genuine, lasting, incontroverable thrill. The Basilica in Vicenza is beautiful on paper. It takes on a different meaning, though, when one sees it on an autumn afternoon, the leaves turning to gold and copper on the distant hills, having just consumed a magnificent lunch made up of local and seasonal delights, watching the well-dressed and decorous flow of Vicenzan humanity promenading back and forth along the streets of their elegant city — and then a different meaning again after nightfall, when the streets are suddenly much clearer, and the lighting throws up contrasts of shadow and milky-white substance as hyper-real and yet intangible as some half-waking, half-sleeping dream. Palladio’s man-made miracles of divine proportionality are compelling as plans, but their spaces and scale become more than simply clever when one’s standing within the actual structures. Palladio knew that buildings strike up an ongoing conversation both with the built and natural environments surround them — those conversations, even after fives centuries of interruptions and misunderstandings, are still far more attractive to the evesdropping visitor than the one-sided commentary offered up by the plans alone.

Yet for all of that — the importance of the actual buildings, their sites and specific circumstances — the extent to which a Londoner, for instance, can scarcely fail to see signs and portents of Palladian influence all around her, has much more to do with what Palladio wrote and published than with his extant, actual buildings. And although the ‘legacy’ content of Palladio: His Life and Legacy is considerably thinner than one might have wished — given the RIBA’s involvement, the coverage of Palladio’s British followers really should have run to half a dozen rooms, not just one — the point is clear enough. What matters most about Palladio, in hindsight, are precisely the sort of things that can be translated into print, that can travel across continents and oceans, that can be shown off in exhibitions. Timeless yet culturally resonant, intellectually satisfying yet both practical and, well, beautiful — above all else, almost infinitely adaptable across a range of needs, environments and circumstances — Palladio’s legacy emerges from this exhibition less as a matter of academic or historical interest, than as an ongoing endowment to the world we create around us.

Slippery stones of Venice
Not everyone, as we have seen, admired Palladio. Ruskin, famously, was not a fan. In The Stones of Venice, his contempt for the architect of San Giorgio Maggiore is expressed with con brio:

It is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard.

This quotation is, unsurprisingly, a familiar one. What the sort of journalists who glean this sort of reference from other people’s reviews fail to recognise is, however, the exact nature of Ruskin’s contempt. Here’s how one actual paid architectural writer parses it:

What Ruskin objected to was Palladio’s reduction of architecture to a set of logarithms, his imposition of stately order on the rollicking, free-spirited medievalism of Venice.

Err, no. Ruskin’s objection (read it for yourself here) was actually much more direct. He pointed out that since the basic needs of a Catholic church like San Giorgio Maggiore included a high central aisle and lower wings, the need to shoe-horn these functional requirements into some simulacrum of a Greek temple required inelegant compromises of various sorts. In other words, that the imperatives of style were running exactly counter to those of purpose — a charge made all the more serious by the fact that the purpose was, perforce, such a serious and sacred one. So much for the image of a ‘rollicking, free-spirited’ Ruskin — as intrinsically unlikely as it was, briefly anyway, counter-factually enjoyable.

In any event, we can be sure that Ruskin’s criticism is at once more perceptive and more interesting than that decontextualised quotation might suggest. For if much of the glamour and worth of Palladio’s work is seen to lie in its intelligence, its rationality, its highly civilised quality, then can there be anything more biting than pointing out an apparent instance of ‘barbarous’, ‘childish’, irrational application? It’s worth noting, by the way, that Ruskin stood back from making the ‘obvious’ Ruskinian complaint here, one which even the most incurious tourist probably grasps instinctively. Even now, there’s something a bit cold and inhuman about San Giorgio Maggiore. Notably, people visit it for the architecture, not to draw closer to God. Or perhaps it would be more fair to say that they come in search of a different sort of God — a God of numbers, proportions, the Golden Mean — than the God who’s invoked across the Bacino at the Basilico San Marco, let alone over in lonely Torcello, within what’s left of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. So while it would easy to condemn that coldness, to contend that Palladio’s sums don’t even add up is perhaps even more damning — for isn’t the most distressing criticism of a project the claim that it’s failed according to its own terms?

Of course, Ruskin also had a more generalised problem with Palladio, the origins of which lay in some highly personalised and organically-evolving convictions regarding evangelical protestant Christianity, English national identity, industrialisation, Nature, sincerity and ethical earnestness — a state of affairs inviting acknowledgement here more persuasively than it does prolonged analysis. Certainly, his own theological understanding was at once so corrosively self-critical and at the same time so unstable as to rescue him, even on bad days, from the crudeness inherent in Pugin’s identification of doctrinal truth with a unitary, exclusive architectural truth, in practice inevitably pointy-arched and Gothic. Instead, there was a central gloominess in Ruskin, suggesting to me, anyway, that if the symptoms of artistic and spiritual degredation hadn’t been somehow manifest to his eye and heart in Palladio’s rationalism, Ruskin would have gone looking for these qualities elsewhere along the long decline into unsympathetic, cold-blooded, godless modernity.

And here, frankly, I disagree with Ruskin, admiring as I do the versatility, abstract elegance and detachment at least potentially present in Palladio’s work and writings as much as Ruskin despised and feared these things. My own strand of gloominess, adept at discerning menace and deterioration in the most unexpected quarters, discerns neither in Palladio. (And if we’re comparing gloominesses here, it’s worth noting that Palladio, too, seems to have had a profound sense of what the catalogue calls ‘the disappointments of life’, against which the beauty of buildings was set as a consolation.)

In any event, whether Ruskin was right or wrong about Palladio — time, I suppose, will tell — he surely represents the more sophisticated and fair-minded end of the Palladio-bashing tendency. We shall now turn, by way of a minor digression, to the less sophisticated end of that same inclination.

Limits of neutrality
I’ve written above about a certain neutrality evident in Palladio’s writings. For although Palladio cared deeply about the traditional suitability of particular structures for particular ends — decorum, in the sense of appropriateness, seems to have mattered enormously to him — he was equally resolute that time-honoured architectural techniques could be turned, most effectively, to present-day purposes. And by a similar token, his followers would go on to act as if a language of building intended for the hills of Latium could not only be translated onto the unreliable sandbanks and brackish outflows of the Venetian Lagoon, but across the landscapes of Ireland, Bermuda, Poland and more or less everywhere else as well, to the service of every possible sort of regime, under a host of different faiths and creeds, throughout the centuries. Neutrality was, surely, a pre-condition of this degree of timeless, infinitely flexible universalism.

The neutrality, of course, was never perfect. As time passed, Palladio’s style acquired plenty of allegiances and associations despite itself, as it were. Nothing can thrive for five hundred years without acquiring, along the way, a dense and at time confusing penumbra of significance.

Thus it was, then, that in the American South of my childhood, vernacular effusions of classicism were less the obvious products of Greece, Rome or even Venice than they were ‘Colonial’, and hence encouragingly redolent of English cultural cognates such as imperialism, privilege and, well, civilisation more generally. Strictly speaking, one didn’t have to have Anglican, Loyalist or vaguely anti-egalitarian roots to feel this way, but it helped if one did — something that perhaps explains quite a lot about the history of Southern plantation architecture and its present-day legacy. Whereas, the Classical Revival style known as ‘Federal’ meant something else althogether, much more keyed to themes of democracy, learning and timelessness, appropriate for a young, earnest and ambitious nation state.

Similarly, the Whig grandees who did more than anyone else to foster the spread of Palladian building in Britain must have been grateful to reflect on the style’s Venetian roots, alluding discreetly as they did to the most sustained and perhaps even successful experiement in patrician republicanism the world has ever known — not entirely free from a whiff of danger, either, given what eighteenth century British thought believed, correctly or otherwise, to be the state of Venetian religion and Venetian morals.

And here, of course, there was always an implicit contrast with the Tories, who — as we soar woozily into truly stratospheric levels of generalisation, where the air gets very thin indeed — tended to favour Wren, Gibbs, a faint memory of the Baroque and the home-grown pieties of the Established Church, just as marginally later on, a strange contatenation of dissenters, Tracterians, democrats, radicals and erstwhile socialists would come to favour various strands of Gothic architecture.

One can make too much of this, of course, but one can hardly ignore its near-subliminal implications for popular culture. A single instance, I suppose, must suffice. Consider, for a moment, Lord Belborough. What would it tell us about him had Winkstead Hall turn out to be a sprawling late-medieval survival, an ostentatiously pseudo-medieval confection thrown up in the 1880s with the proceeds of some dreary industrial process, or, indeed, a domestic version of this? Instead, however, Winkstead is, as we all know, Palladian-inspired in its prevailing idiom — all of which tells us quite a lot, really, about Lord Belborough, his heritage and his habits, his attitudes towards the railway, his tenants, his implicit politics, even the lack of a reference to any sort of worship whatsoever in Chigley.

And then there are the individual funds of private association, for which architecture is, inevitably, such a reliably secure respository. The Teatro Olimpico, for instance, is not only more adorably human in scale, more perfect in its details and more heart-liftingly delightful in its aggregate impact, than any plan or photo could possibly suggest — to me it will always be connected with the memory of the dazed elation I felt on that first afternoon in Vicenza, suddenly surrounded by the reality of those buildings, all the more magical for the prosaic idiocies lapping at their margins — the car-park, the motorway, the almost humorously intrusive signage. Then there was my first visit to San Giorgio Maggiore, where the journey out over the water, and then the persistent shimmering reflections that the water set shuddering across Istrian stone, gave that building a dreamlike context for which no amount of reading had prepared me. Then there was a moment, sitting on a bench in front of San Francesco della Vigna waiting for someone to go back to the hotel to collect a forgotten item, when I was sufficiently impressed by the facade to bestir myself to pick up my Blue Guide and figure out, belatedly, exactly what it was that I was admiring — testimony, then and now, to the gratuitous generosity of Venice’s sensory pleasures.

Recently, of course, there’s the image of my four-year old son, sitting on the sofa in my study, leafing thoughtfully through the Palladio catalogue and commenting on various illustrations and elevations: ‘Is that a Roman building? It looks like a Roman building.’ (As by ‘Roman’ my son meant ‘ancient Roman’, Palladio might, I suppose, have been pleased by this untutored reaction.) And then, considerably more distant now, there’s the memory of someone I once knew who used to enjoy doodling floor-plans, and who understood more about architecture than I ever shall. He would, perhaps, have enjoyed this exhibition. Well, few things in life are as reliably immutable as the laws of mathematical proportions, the principles of structural engineering, even the imaginative certitudes of I Quattro Libri. All of which is just as well, no doubt. Back, however, to what we’re meant to be discussing here.

Should vulgar people live in vulgar buildings?
Idly scanning the reviews of Palladio: His Life and Legacy, we discover that there is yet another strand of association connected, at least in some quarters, with the Palladian style — one hard to disaggregate from social snobbery of the most crude, unsubtle and irredeemable sort.

We’re spoilt for targets, but we have to start somewhere. Hmm, here’s a copy of the Independent. In his combined review of the RA’s Palladio exhibition and the concurrent Le Corbusier exhibition at the Barbican, Charles Darwent announces that ‘contemporary English Palladians are thin on the ground and build houses for Michael Heseltine’. It seems unlikely that Mr Darwent intends either of these claims to reflect positively on Palladio’s merits.

Ditto Tim Adams over at the New Statesman, who writes of Palladio’s ‘off-the-peg harmonies’ that

They have been the style magazine of choice for snobby Grand Tourists such as Lord Burlington, and for empire builders and dictators the world over in need of a quick fix of grandeur. Palladio’s current followers include many Premiership footballers and — worse — Prince Charles’s posse of “New Palla­dians”, led by Robert Adam and Quinlan Terry, who insist that nothing much else has happened in architecture in the 500 years since Palladio was born.

Well, that’s as accurate as it is charming and rich in self-awareness, anyway — note, if you haven’t stubbed your toe on it already, the contrast between ‘snobby’ Lord Burlington [I know the New Statesman is in many ways a troubled enterprise, but don’t they run to the adjective ‘snobbish’ there?] and the author of the review, so remarkably superior in sensibility both to the Prince of Wales and to ‘many’ Premiership footballers. Because it’s simply impossible, isn’t it, to imagine either the Prince of Wales or a Premiership footballer living inside a certain type of structure without somehow contaminating it, rendering it unfit for the likes of Mr Adams? If vulgar, silly people somehow admire a style, that style must perforce be vulgar and silly, yes?

Finally, we may discover, without much additional effort or weary sarcasm, a remarkably similar vein of snobbery in Rowan Moore’s review of the Palladio show for the London Evening Standard. Here’s Mr Moore’s specific accusation:

When Michael Flatley desired a 60,000 sq ft house, the largest in Ireland, on Rossmore Island in County Kerry, the lord of Riverdance chose for it the style of the long dead Italian.

‘The long dead Italian’ indeed! Again, one struggles to discern in this comment clear admiration for Mr Flatley’s architectural discernment — indeed, one struggles to repress twin suspicions that Mr Moore (a) would have much preferred the choice of a Brutalist bunker, all distressed concrete and a casual attitude to drainage, while at the same time (b) is rather enjoying drawing as much attention as is decent to the chasm of taste, sophistication and merit seperating the Chicago-born Irish step-dancer from the Old Etonian jobbing journalist. (There’s also a practical point, regarding the degree of enthusiasm with which Kerry Council might have greeted a planning proposal for a building badly out of keeping with the architectural idiom of larger houses in the area, but as with many architectural modernists, Mr Moore does not allow himself, at least in this case, to be swayed unduly by practicalities.)

We could actually continue this modest survey for some time, but the point is, one would hope, already fairly clear. There’s a sort of architectural or cultural critic for whom an admiration for ‘the long dead Italian’ carries with it an enormous load of social stigma, implying as it does something either demotic, verging on what my elderly relatives might have called ‘common’ — those footballers, step-dancers and superannuated Tory politicians, which is to say, new money coupled with an anxious desire for the trappings of gentility — or, perhaps worse still because one finds it in people who ought to know better, something truculent, anti-progressive and indeed reactionary, which is perhaps the point where Mr Heseltine’s political Conservatism coincides with the philistine stupidity universally attributed to right-of-centre politicians.

The problem comes down, in part, to one of authority. The critics about whom I’m complaining would, I think, prefer an architecture of pure inventiveness, novelty and progress, in part because they believe that invention, novelty and progress are, in themselves, good things. Patrons who wish for something else — something grounded in history, tested by time, an architecture less focused on innovation than on effectiveness — should be discouraged, by the journalistic equivalent of playground bullying at the very least.

Modern Love
These critics, of course, believe they have identified the progressive, boundary-testing, anti-authoritarian architecture against which Palladianism is, whether implicitly or explicitly, being contrasted. It lies in another family of architectural conventions, now about a century old, vaguely grouped together as Modernism. These critics find its authority far less irksome, its brotherhood of believers far more congenial, its club rules more exacting and hence far more satisfactory. The facts that Modernist buildings can be hard to love, that Daily Mail readers tend to dislike them and only the more intelligent aristocrats seem to ‘get’ them, that they don’t work very well and hence imply a dandified dedication to art-for-art’s-sake on the part of their adherents — these only underscore the moral superiority of Modernism over traditional styles.

This point is particularly explicit in Mr Darwent’s piece, where Burlington House is placed in direct contrast with the Barbican, where the Le Corbousier show is taking place. Here’s the fuller context of that Michael Heseltine quotation adduced above:

Palladio’s reputation having nosedived in the mid-19th century, the Palladian details were stripped out of Boyle’s one-time London home and replaced with the present Victorian ones. By contrast, the Barbican complex, once voted the ugliest building in London, was Grade II listed in 2001 for its “cohesiveness”. All architects who did not study at the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture nurse dreams of living in it. Contemporary English Palladians are thin on the ground and build houses for Michael Heseltine. English Corbusians are beyond number and design for the readers of Wallpaper*.

It’s worth noting, in passing, that the ‘Palladians’ and ‘Corbusians’ here are surely intended as architects and architectural critics, not ordinary mortals, whose views on this topic are assumed to be uninteresting. What’s clear is that the age of Palladio is long since past — it’s that ‘long dead Italian’ thing again — whereas Le Corbusier is apparently still part of our zeitgeist, still fixed in proper relationship to some collective social and cultural totality, not yet a ‘long dead Swiss person’ in Mr Darwent’s terms of historical reference.

To underscore this message, we are given a succession of contrasts between Palladio and Le Corbusier: Palladio was a craftsman while Le Corbusier went to art school, this is why Palladio ‘thought inside the box’ while le Corbusier was ‘a man in love with the new’, Le Corbusier, although ‘godfather of the council estate’, created buildings that are ‘habitable sculptures’. Mr Darwent concludes ‘Whether that is a good thing, I should ask someone who lives in one.’ Lives in a council estate? Lives in a building designed by Le Corbusier? Lives in the Barbican? Have they really got rid of every last work-study intern at the Independent? In any event, Mr Darwent evinces a proudly devil-may-care vagueness about the functionality of these buildings, the views of their inhabitants, their merit as anything other than art. And yet buildings are buildings, not art, and thus, by their very nature, should really try to do well the sort of things that buildings properly do. Surely there’s something desperately wrong, or at very least desperately confused, in trying to argue otherwise?

I should add, I suppose, before we go any further, that I don’t actually dislike Modernism per se. (No, really! Some of my best friends are Modernists …) Actually, when it comes right down to it, I don’t even dislike the Barbican. It does, if one’s in the right sort of mood to deal with it, exhude a sort of rebarbative glamour, in the way in which a totalitarian regime’s high spec car-park might feel glamorous. Yet at the same time, I don’t think even the most dedicated Modernist squadristi would wish to imply that the Barbican’s spaces are reliably convenient for the purposes assigned to them, any more than its upkeep is simple or inexpensive, or the condition of its exterior surfaces — redolent of Piranesi’s engravings, or perhaps some overgrown suburb of Angkor Wat — has turned out exactly as its designers intended. There’s more than a grain of formal magnificence in Modernism, but it may yet take a few more hundred years for those ‘yes, but …’ moments to be ironed out through trial, error and revision.

Meanwhile, I’m happy enough to admit that what I like most about Modernist buildings is almost never their aesthetic integrity. Rather, it’s precisely the way in which they’re so clearly rooted in a particular historical moment. The simplest Modernist structure always seems to me to be held together by a scaffolding of faintly risible aspirations, downright touching in their unlikeliness, washed down with much-traduced dreams and corroded here and there by the awful practical consequences, of which the past century saw so many, of believing that we can cut ourselves free from the past, from the authority of tradition, or from the facts of our basic humanity. It’s almost funny, by the way, that the New Statesman views classicism as the favoured idiom of dictators, unswayed as they clearly are by masses of evidence to the contrary. The critic in question must have missed a marvellous piece, published in Wallpaper* quite a while ago now, on Italian Modernist architecture in, from memory, Asmara first and foremost, as well as elsewhere in Eritrea and Ethiopia. Perhaps he was busy reading Hegel instead?

All of which is only embarassing if one believes that architectural style has inevitable social, even moral implications. And as I don’t believe any of those things, I can admire the more charismatic of those buildings while at the same time deploring the wretched regime that put them in place. Whereas Palladio’s Modernist critics might, if they roused themselves from their bigoted and zealous puritanism long enough to think much about Asmara, find themselves in a marginally more tricky position.

Ancient and Modern
All of which has taken us some little way from the tranquil spaces of Burlington House, and a proper consideration of the present Palladio exhibition. Well, let’s remedy that, as briefly and simply as possible.

Palladio: His Life and Legacy is a blissfully unshowy, untheatrical, unapologetically geeky, occasionally borderline haigiographic project. Organised by the Royal Academy, the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio in Vicenza, and the Royal Institute of British Architects, it’s pitched as much at practitioners as the passing tourist trade. The lack of theatricality is probably aided by the fact that Palladio himself was, as far as we know, neither sexually adventurous, theologically heterodox, eccentric, criminal nor mad. The exhibition includes a portrait by El Greco which might, or might not, be a portrait of the great architect. We learn a bit about the Padua, Vicenza and Venice of Palladio’s era, although we’re told far less about, for instance, the agricultural context of those Veneto villas than in some previous exhibitions. And although historians may find this omission irksome, it reinforces what I take to be the polemical thrust of this whole enterprise, which is to assert, plainly and confidently, that Palladio’s buildings and writings still have as much to offer now as ever before.

Actually, the relative paucity of information on Palladio’s British followers may be part of the same reinforcement. The effect of briskly acknowledging their activities, rather than engaging with these at length, is to elbow the acolytes and epigones out of the way, clearing our path to the real, original Palladio, free from amendments, elaborations and flat-out misunderstandings. We’re left, in the end, with a rich and suggestive body of work, to do with it what we will. As our best living architectural historian has put it, in the catalogue to a related and entirely worthwhile exhibition, different ages find in Palladio what they want to find. It remains a matter of interest, although perhaps not of profound moral significance, what the architects of the immediate future will do with that vast and generous legacy.

The most obvious, not to say banal strategy for bringing this essay to a close would find me describing, in playfully evocative language, the walk that takes me from the gates of Burlington House, across Piccadilly Circus and back through Soho, to the early eighteenth century terraced house in which I live. The walk, needless to say, would lead me past a succession of buildings, variously Palladian or otherwise classical in style, built at every point from the start of the Hanoverian period to the closing hours of the Blair era. A few — Albany, for instance, or the church of St. James’s Piccadilly — are grand both in scale and intent. Most, though, are the unremarkable productions of obscure and insignificant builders, so modest in aspiration that satisfying proportions, together with basic durability, can surely have been their only potential merit. A handful of these generally classical buildings — again, Albany, St. James’s Piccadilly (largely rebuilt after bombing in 1940), some of the houses in Soho — are still used, broadly speaking, for the purpose for which they were constructed. They seem to do this well enough. Others have served as everything from offices and shops to brothels and illegal gambling dens, light industrial facilities and art galleries, doss-houses for semi-legal immigrants later converted to bijou flats for investment bankers, film production studios and yet more branches of Starbucks. Again, they seem to do all these things well enough, too.

There’s a message here, I suspect, about the flexibility of classical architecture, about our continuing need for its impositions of harmony and balance, its unflagging ability to bring the faintest hint of dignity to the most dreary and squalid pursuits. And then there’s the unsurprising observation that, having come straight from Palladio: His Life and Legacy into this complex if over-familiar built environment, my eyes and mind were, for a few hours at least, open to its complexity and paradoxes as never before.

Yet perhaps perversely, I want to end by saying something else entirely. Here it is. More than anything else, Palladio: His Life and Legacy made me absolutely desperate to visit those famous villas of the Veneto, which I’ve never yet seen for myself, my various journeys to Vicenza and to Venice notwithstanding.

Spring must be very near, now, in the Veneto — fields coming back into rotation, earth turned and tilled, a mist of pale green appearing in the copses and scattered woodlands — the shooting season coming to an end, birds nesting, the time for leverets and the growth of vines, sunlight warming the humid air. The automobiles on the motorways know nothing of this, rushing north or south, urgent yet oblivious. Spring is probably more manifest amongst the half-abandoned building projects, weeds curling tentatively into life amidst the idle excavations, rain standing in the foundations of structures unlikely to be completed. Global economic downturn may yet rescue the Veneto from some swift declension into impacted, hard-to-remedy if not downright terminal ugliness.

Meanwhile, in various stages of disrepair, restoration or conservation, Palladio’s villas are still there, somewhere, presiding over their hilltops and canal banks. More than anything, right now, I’d like to see them. I’d like to see how they sit in the landscape, how they relate to it. I’d like to see how they are being used or neglected. I’d like to go inside them, admire the Veronese frescos or indeed the easy candour of unornamented stucco. I’d like to discover what it feels like to be there, experiencing them at first hand, seeing how the light changes on them as the day matures then fails, see what happens when they vanish into the night.

For no matter how much one tries to resist it — no matter how flawed one knows it to be — can there be anything more natural than the desire to break through all the texts, the history and factional arguments that separate us from this most familar yet strangely elusive of architectual authorities? That Palladio: His Life and Legacy induces this sort of frustration is, I suppose, a token of this exhibition’s serious and practical — yet still somehow moving — didactic achievement.


Filed under architecture, culture

4 responses to “Ancient and Modern: Palladio at the Royal Academy

  1. ETat

    I have in mind various notes provoked by this essay which, I feel, are not solicited or even productive to offer an author of such deep conviction. I’ll only suggest one small nitpick, which might not be correct at all – something just caught an eye as unlikely, prompting me to google it. The quotation about frozen music, at the beginning, seems to be attributed to Shelling, another Romantic, but not to Goethe.

  2. Here’s a case in which you and I are, oddly, in some sense both right.

    Goethe referred to architecture as ‘frozen music’ in a letter to Johann Peter Eckermann on Mar. 23, 1829, later quoted in his Conversations with Goethe. Having grown up in the United States, where the Transcendentalists had long since engaged in complicated if sometimes confused forms of Goethe-worship, I’d long associated the quotation with Goethe. But now I discover, after a bit of digging, that Goethe must have been alluding to a comparison made by Schelling in his Philosophie der Kunst in 1802/3. So, you’re right — it’s Schelling’s idea, but it’s not ‘unlikely’ that Goethe said it, because he did. It’s just that someone else got there first!

    Thanks, anyway, ETat, for taking the time to write. I feel happy to have learned something new so early on a Sunday morning.

  3. ETat

    I thought only the “first one to say” counts? Otherwise any quote could be attributed to anybody – they all said it, at some point and time.

    Not only I took time to write – I have spent time reading the whole thing, and even clicked on your links – I deserve a big lollipop, at the minimum. Cherry flavor, please.

    Few notes that I had in mind, even if you don’t seem particularly interested – just so I’ll not forget them myself; that’s my habit – to write things down as means of memorizing.

    – I have an impression that Palladio was, for his time, somewhat of a refined minimalist, a modernist of a sort. Clean lines, clear plan, only logical decoration along structural lines, emphasis on balance, proportion and three-dimensional geometry those are all characteristics of a modernist. Also, his interest in what is now called “value engineering” – using cheap materials and methods of construction to substitute for traditional and expensive ones (stucco on brick instead of blocks of stone, etc) – qualifies him into familiar (to me, at least) modern architect type.

    – The reason Palladio’s buildings look especially good surrounded by bright landscape (and Palladio-inspired buildings – not as good somewhere else, like on London Street) is exactly that landscape that surrounds them. Here we see the principle of contrast in action. Contrast of color (white building) vs. gorgeous multichrome of greens, yellows and blues of the countryside; contrast of scales (monumental columns, big windows, and ceremonial wide steps – to relatively small size of the buildings itself), contrast of form (with Palladio building’s simplified crisp geometric shapes vs. biomorphous organic environment), etc. This principle works everywhere else – Russian country mansions of 18th and 19th cent. look impressive against contrasting surroundings of Nature; classical colonnades of St. Petersburg – not so much, especially when stuck to each other without sufficient air around them for a single encompassing look from a distance. It works also for white sleek moderne buildings of the 1925-1935, not strictly classical, in Palladian sense, but much more so than glass&steel construction of International style. An Art Deco villa surrounded by developed park evokes the same reaction as Palladian one.

    -I think you read too much into reviews of architectural critics that you linked to. I didn’t find them especially contemptuous to Palladio; maybe – more to classicism being default mode of contemporary nouveau riche . I generally share the latter, with following clarification: classicism in its pure form, closer to Palladio and his principles, almost never practiced by those who advertise themselves as “traditionalists”. Examples – your page from Sears catalog, and the horrible gas station canopy, done in “classical style”, and very well might be that new home of M. Flatley (from what I saw online, it looks rather early Victorian, in its opulent decoration). Classicism is based on symmetry, concrete rules for “correct” proportion, rather reluctant decoration, and uniformity of architectural detail. As soon as there appear elongated columns, entrance that is asymmetrical to facade, cornucopia of applied ornament that masks clear geometric form – there starts mannerism, no matter its geographical location or time in history, or specific style (neo-gothic or rococo) .

    – I don’t agree with the notion that classical buildings are unifunctional; that classical style building could house a school, a Starbucks, a court or a private residence. It is not, if unaided. There is a lot of work architects and designers have to go through when rehabilitating and re-purposing classical buildings to various uses. From exterior adaptation to interior repartitioning and changing building systems and finishes, it is hard labor done out of necessity, not as a choice. Every enterprise, be it a public building or a railroad station, or a store, or stadium – they all have certain function that is most suited by specific style. Classical columns and pediments simply don’t fit every thing and each purpose.

    Enough for now; I guess our differences are illustrated sufficiently by this short list.

  4. I guess our differences are illustrated sufficiently by this short list.