Urbanities

David Watkin
Something to Love Among the Ruins
Three young architects offer a beautiful alternative to modernism’s ravages.
Summer 2010

This May, the Royal Institute of British Architects mounted a remarkable exhibition, Three Classicists. It would have been unthinkable only a decade ago for several reasons: it showed designs that were exclusively classical; the designs were not pipe dreams, but had either been built or were under construction; and the projects were not just country houses for the superrich but a wide range of buildings, including a theater, an infirmary, cottages, row houses, and offices for a London art dealer.

The British architectural establishment either ignores or ridicules traditional and classical architecture of this kind. The establishment’s leaders are afraid, or they should be afraid, of classical architecture’s popularity with the general public, whose preference for it over modernist design comes through in every poll. Their fear is justified: they would be unable to satisfy public taste by designing in the classical language themselves, for they have abolished the teaching of classicism in every school of architecture in Britain over the last 50 years.

Thus Ben Pentreath, George Saumarez Smith, and Francis Terry, the three classical architects featured in the exhibition, could not have acquired their skills in an architecture school. They had to make personal discoveries, by observing older buildings and by learning from the practice of the few architects today who have fought the forces of modernism by designing in the classical tradition. One can hope that the publicity that they are now receiving will encourage other young architects to follow them in challenging the received orthodoxy.

Work by Quinlan and Francis Terry LLP: a London infirmary; . . .

In the introduction to the exhibition catalog, Ruth Guilding, a scholar best known for her writing on eighteenth-century neoclassical sculpture, describes the backgrounds of the three architects, all close friends with one another. Francis Terry is the son of the classical architect Quinlan Terry, himself influenced by the classical architect Raymond Erith (1904–73). The elder Terry began working for Erith’s architectural firm in 1962 and joined him in partnership four years later. From 1969 to 1971, the two men built Kings Walden Bury, Hertfordshire, then wrongly regarded as the last traditional country house of its kind that would ever rise in England.

The younger Terry worked in the United States with the Washington architect Allan Greenberg before joining his father’s firm, still called Erith and Terry, in 1994. The next year, George Saumarez Smith, a maternal grandson of Erith’s, joined the firm as well. (Since resonance and memory are deeply part of the language of classicism, it is pleasing to see these links among three generations of architects.) Working under Quinlan Terry, Saumarez Smith learned to draw beautifully, but he left the firm in 2003 and joined the larger practice of ADAM Architecture, where he is now a director. In 2004, Erith and Terry changed its name to Quinlan and Francis Terry.

Like Francis Terry, Ben Pentreath also worked for a traditional architect in America—the New York office of Fairfax and Sammons, from 1999 to 2003. But in 1998, he had studied at the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture (now closed), which then taught the practice of classical and traditional architecture. So it was natural that he, too, should come into the orbit of Quinlan Terry, whose work Prince Charles passionately admired. Appropriately, His Royal Highness wrote the foreword to the exhibition’s catalog.

The idea for Three Classicists was born when the Royal Academy’s hanging committee rejected two beautiful drawings for its 2008 Summer Exhibition: Francis Terry’s design for the Corinthian capital of a column at Hanover Lodge, a building virtually completed; and Saumarez Smith’s for an art gallery on New Bond Street. So Terry and Saumarez Smith, joined by Pentreath, decided to create a salon des refusés in which to exhibit their work. Having been rejected by one pillar of the establishment, the Royal Academy, they approached another, the Royal Institute of British Architects, similarly regarded as hostile to classical and traditional design. Here, their request to stage an exhibition proved happily successful—if surprisingly so, since the Royal Institute’s last president attacked the Prince of Wales in 2009 for his interventions in favor of classical designs for new buildings.

. . . a drawing of a rinceau panel for a chimneypiece; . . .

The exhibition introduces us to the buildings that Pentreath has designed at Poundbury, Dorset, the new town begun in 1993 by the Duchy of Cornwall based on a master plan commissioned by the Prince of Wales from Léon Krier (see “Cities for Living,” Spring 2008). Poundbury overthrows the zoning practices popular since at least World War II, which separate private from public housing and workplaces from residences. In addition, the growth of out-of-town shopping centers and business parks, all heightening dependence on the car, has destroyed the sense of living in a community as well as the commercial viability of historical towns. By countering these tendencies, Poundbury has grown rapidly and is already a small town rather than a large village.

Pentreath’s contributions to Poundbury include Woodlands Crescent—41 houses built around a garden square, an idea with Regency origins. He has created a similar urban development at Port Talbot, Wales, while on a smaller scale he has provided a new village green with cottages at Tisbury, Wiltshire. Raymond Erith led the way in showing how to build in old towns or villages in the countryside without wrecking them, notably at Dedham, Essex, where the ancient building housing the office of Quinlan and Francis Terry can be found on High Street.

George Saumarez Smith has also contributed to Poundbury with the Buttermarket building, a dignified, three-bay composition with a Palladian facade featuring four pilasters below a pediment. But his most spectacular design so far is for the Richard Green Gallery for the display of twentieth-century art on New Bond Street, London, next door to the celebrated auctioneer Sotheby’s. Construction of the gallery, which began recently, has required the demolition of two buildings within the historic Mayfair area of London (though the buildings were not historic themselves). This is virtually the first time that a substantial building of classical character has been proposed for such a site since before the war.

The Green Gallery’s sophisticated facade in Portland stone over a ground floor of bronze-framed windows will be entirely in keeping with the grain of New Bond Street, which has a Georgian core but is mainly composed of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century classical buildings, often enriched with sculpture. Saumarez Smith’s design incorporates three large bas-reliefs commissioned from the distinguished sculptor Alexander Stoddart; inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, they form an allegory on the development of modern art from 1900 to the present. Running across the first and second floors of the front elevation, the bas-reliefs will be divided by pilasters with incised lines and a fret, a form that Sir John Soane, the great neoclassical architect, invented in the late eighteenth century. The design is a masterpiece in the handling of the classical orders; it repays detailed study.

The exhibition also shows how Saumarez Smith has skillfully enlarged Langton House, built in the eighteenth century on the edge of a beautiful small town in Hampshire and later much altered in an unfortunate way. Saumarez Smith carried out extensive historical research to enable his additions, completed in 2005, to restore balance as well as echo the original composition. The principal window of his library commands a view of the new summer house and swimming pool, which he has built on the site of an eighteenth-century orangery that was demolished in the 1930s. The new building is a subtle composition in which Saumarez Smith cleverly adapts in brick the Doric order of Palladio and also contrives to deploy every bond of brickwork. The frieze contains metopes in headers alternating with simplified triglyphs inspired by Michele Sanmicheli, the leading architect in sixteenth-century northern Italy. “The spacing of the triglyphs,” Saumarez Smith explains, “is the key to the whole design.”

Francis Terry’s share of the exhibition includes drawings for several major projects in London and one in Cambridge, all designed in partnership with his father. One of these—a design for the infirmary adjacent to a much-loved masterpiece, Sir Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital—received planning consent in 2005 from the relevant authorities; yet even at that stage, leading modernist architects asked the Secretary of State for the Environment to have Terry’s plans called in for a public inquiry. Such is the intensity of the architectural establishment’s fear that a new public building might be built in the classical style.

The entrance front of the infirmary sports a giant portico of Tuscan columns, the simplest of the orders—which Quinlan and Francis Terry chose out of deference to Wren, whose principal building at the Royal Hospital was in the nobler Doric. Similarly, instead of using Wren’s red brick, they selected the less demonstrative London stock brick, which is a pale whitish-yellow. If one had to spend time in an infirmary, here is where one would choose to be, enjoying the garden courtyard with its colonnaded loggia, the traditionally designed chapel, and the harmony and calmness provided by the symmetry that modernism so despises.

The Terry partnership has made a breakthrough in another building type: the commercial office block. Like some late designs by the nineteenth-century German neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, their handsome building at 264–267 Tottenham Court Road shows that a commercial building, if properly articulated with the classical orders and with glazing bars in the windows, need not have the cold and inhuman character of modern glass office blocks. Its deeply modeled facade keeps the street line and relates well to the adjacent interwar, classical buildings.

. . . an office building on Tottenham Court Road; . . .

Also on display at the exhibition are pictures of Hanover Lodge, a large new house in London by the Terrys. Their handsome pair of entrance lodges to the house are in the Doric order, which is appropriate for the traditional role of a lodge as guardhouse (the Doric supposedly originated as a representation of the masculine strength of warriors and heroes). On all four sides of each lodge are pedimented porticoes with Doric columns.

The entrance front of Hanover Lodge itself is dominated by a full-height portico with freestanding columns in the Greek Ionic order of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens. With the stylized honeysuckle pattern of the band below its capital, this is the loveliest and richest of all the Greek orders. It is also used for the columns of the curved bow of Hanover Lodge’s formal drawing room. For the tympanum of the crowning pediment on the entrance front, Francis Terry designed a rich scheme of decorative plasterwork with acanthus leaves and shoots swirling around a central circular panel. This scrolling pattern of plant forms, known as rinceaux, recalls one of the greatest monuments of Augustan classicism, the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome.

The central space of the house is the hall, with its balustraded gallery at first-floor level, above which is a cove with an elliptical oculus and a glazed lantern. The interior is fabulously rich in plasterwork ornament designed by Francis Terry, whose drawings for it introduce a vibrancy and sensitivity to plant form and associated classical ornament on a scale unparalleled in modern British architecture. The majority of this decoration is on the hall’s cove and ceiling, which abound in rinceaux, shells, and arabesques, while the underside of the gallery is also ornamented with fret patterns, framed rosettes, and rich consoles. The result is one of the most imposing and lavishly ornamented interiors created in 100 years.

Finally, we see pictures of the Howard Theatre at Downing College in Cambridge, designed by the Terrys in 2008 and completed in 2010. Its enchanting interior is made intimate and sociable by the galleries around it, which are inspired by the seating arrangements in Georgian theaters like the one at Richmond, Yorkshire. From the proscenium arch hangs Francis Terry’s panoramic painted backdrop, which is raised for performances. It’s a ravishing capriccio inspired by the Acropolis yet incorporating work by the architect of the earliest buildings at Downing College, William Wilkins, himself a classical archaeologist. Like everything in this remarkable exhibition of the work of three young classicists, it is at once captivatingly beautiful, traditional, and inventive.

. . . and the new Howard Theatre in Downing College, Cambridge, featuring a panoramic painted backdrop

The three architects are articulate in words as well as in design. The exhibition catalog includes nine essays, three by each architect, on the subjects of classicism, modernism, patience, repetition, measuring, drawing, taste, economy, and (surprisingly) cooking. Though the authors don’t mention John Ruskin, their format perhaps recalls his 1849 essay “The Seven Lamps of Architecture”—which were sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory, and obedience.

Ruskin stressed the value of time and weathering in architecture and its materials, and Saumarez Smith echoes this concern in “Patience” when he writes that photographs of newly built classical buildings look too harsh and new, for the buildings need to mellow before attaining their full beauty. He is kind enough not to point out that, unlike classical buildings, modernist ones—notably those that make the mistake of exposing concrete—don’t improve with age. In “Measuring,” he explains that classical orders are intentionally presented in textbooks without any definite scale, for they are applicable to everything from table lamps to temples. Again, they are different in this respect from modernist buildings, which are not easily adapted to the human scale and tend to provide too much space or too little. In “Economy,” he stresses that architecture must be built to last and to inspire affection. Anything built too cheaply, he warns, can never be loved.

Pentreath demonstrates, in “Repetition,” the failure of mass housing in the twentieth century compared with the success of buildings in Regency England, which followed a simple, traditional pattern and type, making much use of the fact that houses or villas look attractive in pairs. He shows in “Taste” that a well-proportioned terrace house, even if largely free of ornament, is made architecturally convincing by tiny details like door handles, fanlights, the width of a glazing bar, or the architrave around a window. In this, he recalls Raymond Erith, who venerated small things like cottages and simple moldings. Erith believed that architecture began here—that what people came to love in the buildings they used and occupied were windows, door frames, moldings, and railings. Similarly, Sir John Soane claimed that moldings were as important to an architect as colors were to a painter—indeed, that the mind of a great architect “is never more visible than in the practice of this part of his profession.” Modern architecture has significantly failed us in this area: no modernist architect today uses moldings or is even capable of designing them.

George Saumarez Smith's design for the Richard Green Gallery, incorporating sculptor Alexander Stoddart's Odyssey-inspired bas-reliefs

“To make a flat piece of paper appear to have three dimensions is a conjuring trick,” writes Francis Terry about drawing—a skill that the architect must learn, but one no longer taught in architecture schools. Terry laments that society at large also does not value drawing, which is generally seen as having little more use than as “therapy for the deranged.” (All three architects in this exhibition are, of course, superb draftsmen.) In “Cooking,” Terry suggests provocatively that architecture might be better compared with preparing food than with painting or sculpture. Both the cook and the architect should deal with personal, handmade things, formed with attention to detail and made of the best local ingredients, he writes; further, both architecture and food are key aspects of the domestic life essential for our survival.

Addressing the style of architecture in which he works so proficiently, Terry points out in “Classicism” that the primary role of classical features like cornices, imposts, pilasters, and swags is not function but beauty. One of their purposes is to create shadowy depths, changing as light moves around during the day, so that architecture should perhaps be seen as a branch of sculpture after all. Indeed, Terry points out that almost all Renaissance and baroque architects began their careers as sculptors or painters. He could have pointed out that in the first English theoretical work on architecture, Sir Henry Wotton’s The Elements of Architecture (1624), we are told that architecture is the mistress art, with painting and sculpture serving as handmaidens “to dress and trim their mistress”—a view that would later appeal to Soane. Finally, because buildings should be a joy for the architect as well as for the viewer, Terry writes that “architecture is like music” as well: “not to be enjoyed in theory but with the heart.”

David Watkin is a professor emeritus of the history of architecture at the University of Cambridge. His many books include Radical Classicism: The Architecture of Quinlan Terry and The Roman Forum.

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