Classical Proportions, Modern Practicality: A Style That Makes Sense
The Washington Post
By Katherine Salant - Saturday, April 19, 2008
I have always associated classical architecture with gravitas -- the large imposing columns and pediments that grace the front of serious places, like courthouses and banks. It hasn't seemed a living tradition that can inform land-use planning and the architecture of everyday life.
But that was before I interviewed several architects who describe themselves as "modern classicists." They espouse a practical, no-nonsense approach to design that extends beyond individual buildings to encompass neighborhoods and whole towns.
They don't limit themselves to the details and proportioning systems used by the original classicists, the builders of ancient Greece and Rome. They also draw on American architectural traditions that have evolved over 400 years, from the most humble and utilitarian barn to the lavish houses of the rich and powerful.
But the way that these modern classicists look at spaces and organize them is strikingly similar to that of their ancient counterparts. All the pieces -- the facade of a house, the streetscape of a block or a multi-block area of a town -- must fit together in a logical and orderly fashion.
The new classicists have had their greatest success in the land-use planning for housing developments, especially those that follow the tenets of New Urbanism, a design approach that has adapted urban traditions to modern American life.
New Urbanist developments have much higher densities than are found in most suburban subdivisions; the houses are close to one another and to the sidewalk and public spaces. Rowhouses, garden apartments and single-family houses are intermingled. Land use is also mixed; some blocks have shops at the street level and living areas above.
With houses and apartment buildings crammed together, the need for visual order is obvious, and the classicists' restraint has found a receptive audience. Their work with developers has included specifications for building heights and envelopes, setbacks from the sidewalks and side lot lines, window and door proportions, exterior trim details, and exterior building materials.
Zeroing in on the house itself, New York architect Marianne Cusato emphasized in an interview the common sense that underlies a classical approach to design. It can produce a spareness and discipline that are similar to modernism, but to a very different effect.
Cusato criticized the big-house facades of recent years, often derided as McMansions, as a "fruit salad" of materials, styles and proportions. Her proposed alternative: a stripped-down version that is easier on the eyes and the pocketbook and avoids visual devices that make a big house look bigger still.
The first thing Cusato would streamline: the roof. Sometimes a house will have three to five roof gables projecting from the front to make it look more grand. (A gable is the triangular area under a double-sloping roof.) Cusato would rein things in and use only one roof profile. It would have a slope that is adequate to shed water and might enclose a real attic, not one that is outrageously steep simply to make the house look bigger.
Eliminating the roof gables also eliminates the bump-outs of the walls and foundations below. That reduces cost, she said.
Instead of five window styles, Cusato would use one, maintaining the same proportions but varying the size as function requires. She would use only one exterior siding material for the whole house instead of two or three upscale ones on the front and a cheaper one for the other three sides. With the money that saves, she would add windows to the sides to get cross-ventilation and more daylight inside. Side windows are often an option not included in the base price of a new house.
Cusato would also eliminate another hallmark of the McMansion, the dramatic, 20-foot, columned portico that showcases a huge window above the front door and the pricey chandelier in the two-story entry foyer. It's more practical, she said, to lower the portico so that it actually protects a person at the front door from the elements. If an owner insists on the two-story foyer, she would put a smaller window above the portico while suggesting that incorporating this volume into usable space on the second floor is more sensible.
What happens when you cross the threshold and go inside? Geoffrey Mouen, another modern classicist, said he emphasizes clarity, preferring rectangular rooms so that sizes are "easy to read." The Celebration, Fla., architect avoids the diagonal walls used by many builders to make a room feel bigger because these can complicate furniture placement. But he's not averse to all angled walls; he occasionally uses angled but symmetrical five-sided bump-outs as breakfast areas off family rooms.
Mouen said that classic proportions such as 1 to 1.6 or 1 to 2 are a useful tool for ensuring that room sizes feel comfortable. A room that is too long can feel like a tunnel; one that is too square makes it harder to arrange furniture.
Mouen uses vertical windows because they reflect the human form and people instinctively prefer them. He provides generous views to the outside, but always through the framed opening of a window or a French door because these do not blur the line between "in here" and "out there," as do sliding glass doors with their minimal frames.
But Mouen cheerfully admitted that he's not averse to a 21st-century window feature that allows a homeowner to fold back an entire wall so that a living space is completely open to the outdoors. In some houses he has used folding French doors that can create openings as large as 9 by 27 feet.
Mouen also noted that simple details can have a profound effect. A six-inch to nine-inch wall base, deeper than the three- or four-inch ones that many builders use, and a simple six-inch crown along the ceiling line can transform a room, subtly making it feel both more comfortable and more spacious.
While all these subtleties sound good, do they really make a difference for the average person? These modern-day classicists say yes.
As New York architect Richard Sammons put it, "Most people don't know anything about architecture, but they can tell if something's out of proportion, just like you can't carry a tune but you know it's out of tune."
Katherine Salant can be contacted via her Web site, http://www.katherinesalant.com.
© 2008 Katherine Salant © 2008 The Washington Post Company