Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Beauty is Not Elitist

Half photo by Steve McCurry

The pursuit of beauty has been with us for a very long time; Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas all have something to say about it. In our modern smugness we have come to associate beauty with a quest. Indeed, most of us accept the trite maxim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder as self-evident. This may be the reason that architects do not discuss beauty, because it is a question of taste.  So, architects prefer to use phrases like “form follows function” or “less is more” to justify a particular aesthetic choice. But, this sidesteps the question.
Library at Ephesus c. 117 AD

Back in the first century another architect, Vitruvius, wrote the Ten Books of Architecture.  In one of them he talked about the 3 defining qualities of architecture: commodity, firmness, and delight. In our 21st century sophistication we have convinced ourselves that what Vitruvius was really saying is that commodity + firmness = delight. In fact, he gave equal weight to all three. He meant us to address the question of delight with equal weight as the question of firmness and commodity. The difficulty arises when we attempt to define beauty, or at least to understand what its nature is.  In order to do that we have to dig a little deeper into ourselves, into who we are and why we are here.

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates calls beauty the “object of every love’s yearning”. Similar to Plato, Augustine in Book 4 Chapter 13 of the Confessions says this of beauty: “Do we love anything but the beautiful”? For Augustine beauty is the form a thing should have. This is a far cry from “form follows function” unless (God forbid) we believe that our reason for being is merely utilitarian. 
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford by CR Cockerell 1845

For Aristotle art is the imitation of nature, not simply as a record of nature but, more as a way to engage universal themes and to provoke the audience to think about these ideas. The greater the skill of the artist, the more engaged the audience will be.  Saint Thomas Aquinas says that beauty is that which pleases upon being seen because it is admirable, it possesses qualities in itself which make the object worthy of admiration. Beauty is complex, it is mysterious, it fills your soul and makes you whole, it rings true, it is good.
Morgan Library, New York City, McKim, Mead, and White 1909

For architects and designers, these philosophical considerations remain abstract unless we make them concrete with examples made of bricks and mortar. Presumably, something worthy of admiration is an exemplar of its kind and exemplars are not “one-off” exemptions but part of a set of things that have similar characteristics. In the case of architecture therefore, we would talk about buildings that are recognizable as buildings because they have roofs, supports, walls, windows, entrances, bases, stairs, and other items that are typically associated with buildings. Our expectations are such that we demand stability, symmetry and a clear path of the loads from the roof through the columns and/or walls to the base and then to the ground.  Anything that frustrates that will also frustrate our sense of what is beautiful. But, having buildings that are recognizably buildings does not by itself make them beautiful; there are plenty of buildings with roof, pediments, neatly arranged windows and symmetrical massing that are simply ghastly.

Freer Gallery, Washington DC by Charles Platt 1921

Arguably, we refer to what is a classic as the best exemplar of something in its genre and therefore classical buildings (not the style but the object itself) are exemplars of the best that traditional architecture has to offer. Of course, there are beautiful classical buildings and there are many degrees of in-between buildings that are more or less beautiful, and some that are plain ugly.

Frick Collection, NYC,  garden facade by John Barrington Bailey 1977

In the Renaissance Alberti, like Vitruvius, also wrote Ten Books of Architecture. In Book Six, he said: “Beauty is the reasoned harmony of all parts within a body, so that nothing may be added or taken away, or altered but for the worse”. In Book Nine: “Beauty is a form of sympathy and consonance of the parts within a body, according to a definite number, outline, and position as dictated by concinnitas, the absolute and fundamental rule in nature. This is the main object of the art of building, and the source of her dignity, charm, authority, and worth”. As I understand it concinnitas is a mix between proportion and harmony.

Havana, 2004 photo by Jeffrey Milstein

In conclusion, it seems that beauty can be very hard to describe but, we know it when we see it. Beauty does not discriminate among people. You can be rich or poor, western of Asian, white or black and still are subject to the same susceptibility to beauty.  Beauty is not the purview of a certain group or class of people.  It is not intrinsically related to wealth, nor your status in society. Beauty is not elitist, it simply is.

Yauco, PR, photo by author

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Preservation: Conservation vs. Innovation

Bracket detail with foliated anthemion and acanthus
Historic preservation is arguably a game of conservation. The architect carefully examines what original building fabric can be kept, decides what needs to be preserved, and then he or she determines which elements have no historical significance and can therefore be discarded. If the building in question is considered a NYC Landmark or is part of the National Register of Historic Buildings (official list of places and buildings considered worthy of preservation by the National Park Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of the Interior) then, this activity is carefully monitored by the agencies to ensure an accurate preservation.

Rainbow Room C.1987
Round bar at New Amsterdam Theater c. 1994
For my late mentor Hugh Hardy, preservation was never synonymous with “placing buildings in formaldehyde;” instead, it was an opportunity to bring life to historic buildings and places. He had a “creative restoration ethos” which implied that restoration is never a “pure” act since one is always interpreting it from the vantage point of the present. He and I worked on a number of restorations including the New Amsterdam Theater, the BAM Harvey Theatre, and the Rainbow Room. Design remained central to all our conversations any guidelines by the Landmarks Preservation Commission or the Secretary of the Interior informed our decisions. 
BAM Harvey Theater
Because it is not located in a historic district, the BAM Harvey Theatre lended itself to innovation. For his production of the Mahabharata, Peter Brooks desired to represent the reality of the deterioration in the theatre. Hardy gleefully obliged and decided to do something unusual in most restorations: to arrest the state of decay and dilapidation in time. He maintained the visual evidences of the building’s passage through time while making accessible the public amenities of any other theater: AC, bathrooms, coat closets, and concession stands.  Can you imagine a more incongruous state of affairs? Such an “enfant terrible” attitude would be dissonant in preservation circles. 

After 14 years with Hardy at HHPA I decided to turn my attention to Classicism, and after participating in the certification program at the Institute for Classical Architecture in NYC, I became a “card carrying Classicist”. I worked with Ferguson Shamamian for 4 years, Roger Ferris for 2, and then worked for Jaque Robertson at his firm, Cooper Robertson. 
St. Luke's Episcopal Church Parish House
St. Luke's Episcopal Church Parish House
Jaque and I worked on the St. Luke Episcopal Church’s Parish House. The building was designed by Thomas Nash in 1910 and was modeled after a church in Maidstone, England. It is situated in East Hampton’s Historic Village District and is neighbor to the Home Sweet Home Museum which is a house dating back to the 1720’s. Our addition was scrutinized heavily by the East Hampton Historical Society to insure a harmonious integration in the historical setting. We were careful to keep the overall height lower than the church proper and in fact the Parish Hall portion of the addition is housed in a one-story wing that defers in scale to Home Sweet Home to the north. Nevertheless, the Parish House is no slavish copy of either the Church or the parsonage. Its quirky facade takes cues from both, transcending into a new creation which occupies its place between them with aplomb and contributes to a trialogue.
31 East 38 entry hall
31 East 38 living room

Our work at 31 East 38th Street does not involve the innovative preservation techniques of The Harvey, nor the creation of a new building as a fitting addition to an already harmonious ensemble. It is a more nuanced approach where, entirely new interiors are designed to fit seamlessly into the existing townhouse in such a way that when all is finished, one would not be able to tell exactly where the original ends and the new begins.  The house had originally been built as a single family house but converted to multi-tenant use in 1937. Our renovation reverted the house to single family use. The interior looks as if it was always there; yet the only rooms that were always there are the main stair and the entry hall.
330 Riverside Drive
Another single family townhouse: 330 Riverside Drive, never had a complete restoration since it was built in 1901. There are many technical requirements that need to be met to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the inhabitants and immediate neighbors: fire safety, egress, as well as the latest plumbing, mechanical, and electrical codes. A new elevator will be added in place of the old staff spiral staircase that connects all 5 floors and the cellar.  The 4th and 5th floors will be gutted and the bedrooms redesigned so that each one has an “en-suite” bathroom. A new kitchen, pantry, and laundry room will bring these rooms into the 21st century. Several rooms will require a more specialized “surgical intervention” where existing rooms will be modified in subtle ways to accommodate new programmatic requirements and new technologies, arguably making the new room better than the old, not only from a programmatic point of view but also from an aesthetic one.  Our hope is that upon walking in for the first time, your eye will be fooled into thinking that this interior was always that way.

330 Riverside Drive skylight over central stair
330 Riverside Drive- fireplace inglenook seen from central stair

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Caribbean Houses

Better Living in the Tropics

      I grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico where intense heat and bright light of the tropical sun, caressing trade wind breezes, “painted” clouds, and violent rain showers follow each other in a continuous daily sequence.  

      Everything changed for me when I went to study abroad to the US, France and Italy. It was marvelous to experience other cultures and see first-hand our European roots, but I never forgot the intoxicating climate of my beautiful island: Puerto Rico.
Old San Juan, photo by author 

       After my architectural schooling, I chose to stay in New York City to work for one of most creative firms at the time, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer. I was extremely fortunate to work on a lot of very interesting theaters, performing arts centers, libraries and museums. After 14 years, I joined Ferguson Shamamian and later Roger Ferris; offices that taught me a great deal about single-family residential design. I then joined Jaque Robertson and Edward Siegel at Jaque’s eponymous firm: Cooper Robertson. It was with them that I learned the timeless principles for designing houses in the tropics.

      One of the first principles Jaque taught us was to ignore the prevailing trends and instead follow time proven strategies that respond to the climate as well as the “open-air” Caribbean lifestyle. Think about it, why would you want to spend your money chasing after someone else’s definition of the latest trend? Why not have a house that fits your needs, lifestyle, and budget? Everyone has a budget, it does not matter what your financial situation is; the point is to use your resources to make the best use of your property.
La Romana, DR, photo by Steven Brooke
La Romana, DR, photo by Steven Brooke
      The house above was built in 2002 in La Romana, Dominican Republic and took as precedent Heron Bay, the Palladian inspired villa designed for Ronald Tree in Barbados and built in the late 1940’s, shown below.
Heron Bay, photo from Architecture and Design in Barbados,
found in the Devoted Classicist blog by John Tackett, June 4, 2014
Heron Bay, photo by Slim Aarons from A Place in the Sun,
found in the Devoted Classicist blog by John Tackett, June 4, 2014
      Both houses use the timeless language of Classical architecture in a relaxed and tropical manner with pared-down details, robust stone columns, and a minimal palette of materials: coral stone walls, brick and coral stone paving, mahogany windows as well as interior floors, and exterior showers with unlacquered brass fittings; the exterior lamps are copper. These simple materials wear well in the hot and humid tropical climate. 

      The light color coral stone feels cool under your feet as Lee McLaren, socialite and friend of the Trees, illustrates in the photo above. Being outdoors as much as possible is one of the pleasures of living in the tropics and both houses take advantage of that with areas to relax and enjoy the outdoors. 
                                                             La Romana, DR, photo by Steven Brooke

      The use of Coral stone, locally available in the Domincan Republic, provided a durable and care-free material. Hurricane on its way…no worries!
La Romana, DR, photo by author
     Curving exterior corridors present a pleasant walk from one end of the house to the other while providing views of the ocean through a fragrant garden and allowing access to the individual bedrooms strung along its path. Why connect the rooms in a contained air-conditioned environment, when you are living right on the beach?
La Romana, DR, photo by author
      Stopping points along the way such as the “Chinese” dining pavilion above, provide an intimate setting for lunch in a shaded, but airy enclosure surrounded by your favorite plants.

La Romana, DR, photo by author
      Details such as potted plants, hanging or wall-mounted outdoor lamps, trellises, rafter tails, a variety of paving materials and patterns within a reduced palette (Coral Stone, brick, and grass), and a variety of planting, provide visual focus and the necessary layering to engage your senses and imagination while enjoying the cool breezes and surrounding ocean views.

     Many designers have echoed similar design principles with equally fine results in houses of modest proportions. In the 1960’s and 70’s, Oliver Messel, a British costume and stage designer who decided to move to the Caribbean for health reasons, created a series of houses in Barbados and Mustique that exploit their setting for the pleasure and well-being of its occupants.
House in Barbados by Oliver Messel,
photo found in 'Cote de Texas' blog by Joni Webb, February 2009
House in Mustique by Oliver Messel,
photo found in 'Cote de Texas' blog by Joni Webb, February 2009
      More recently Tom Scheerer, a NY architect and decorator, designed simple and elegant houses that again follow timeless principles for designing in the tropics.
Photo by Pieter Estersohn, NY Times Style Magazine, August 2013
Photo by Bjorn Wallender, AD April 2016
     To summarize, the design principles are:

1- Open air living in shaded outdoor rooms that take advantage of the warm climate and cool breezes.
House in Barbados by Oliver Messel,
photo found in 'Cote de Texas' blog by Joni Webb, February 2009
2- The use of architectural elements such as porches, colonnades, covered terraces, pergolas, and awnings.

Houses above by Oliver Messel,
found in 'Cote de Texas' blog by Joni Webb, February 2009
3- The use of devices that allow cross ventilation such a lattices, door transoms, and jalousie or louvered windows.
House in the Bahamas, photo by author
4- High ceilings and ceiling fans.
Photo by Bjorn Wallender, AD April 2016
5- Outdoor showers.
House in Barbados by Oliver Messel,
photo found in 'Cote de Texas' blog by Joni Webb, February 2009
6- A simple palette of materials that are care-free in the harsh sea salt environments (if close to the beach) such as coral stone, mahogany or teak, encaustic cement tiles, cedar shingles, unlacquered brass plumbing fittings, and copper lamps.
House in Barbados by Oliver Messel,
photo found in 'Cote de Texas' blog by Joni Webb, February 2009

7- The use of a materials that breath and allow evaporation of humidity such as cotton, linen, straw, and rattan.
House in Mustique by Oliver Messel,
photo found in 'Cote de Texas' blog by Joni Webb, February 2009
      For the past two years, I have been working on the design for a house in the Bahamas (with Edward Siegel, the partner-in-charge, and Ernest de la Torre, the decorator) that incorporates these lessons.

      A roofed corridor shaded with mahogany shutters connects the first floor rooms and bedrooms.  This corridor, though appearing as if it was exterior is actually part of the air-conditioned part of the house.

      Shaded first and second floor porches provide exterior areas to enjoy views of the ocean as well as children or adults using the pool.
The 5 photos above are construction progress photos by the builder.
Interior photos are not shown to protect the Owner's privacy.
      A place to take a shower and change are very useful after a swim in the ocean or the pool.

      The last image shows Oscar de la Renta’s ranch in the Domincan Republic. This is a simple and dignified wood house which serves to illustrate that trendiness is not the point but simply appropriateness.
photo by Oberto Gili, Vogue, September 1989

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Moldings and Ornament

Architecture is a language, it communicates ideas such as civic hierarchy, building type, character, use, size, order, entrance, passage, etc. Traditional architecture is shaped by its moldings; they can make a building look robust or delicate, honorific or utilitarian, inviting or intimidating, homey or solemn. Moldings are those carved or applied pieces of ornament that enrich a buildings exteriors or interiors and are usually made of stone (on the exterior) or wood (on the interior).  They are the letters that make up architectural words and explain the idea of a building or its interior. To be able to read these letters or moldings is one of the joys of experiencing traditional architecture.

Doric Entrance
Tuscan Passage

Moldings derive from the architectural orders which were codified during the Renaissance as: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite.  

Parallel of the Orders by Perrault

The orders serve to organize or “order” the supporting (columns) and supported (entablatures) structural elements of a building. This ordering is given by the disposition of their component parts (moldings), their character, and proportion. Thus, Tuscan and Doric orders are associated with masculinity, the military, earth and strength. The Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite orders are associated with femininity, lightness, rebirth and transcendence. There are many variations of these five basic orders as each successive generation has expanded, altered, or modified and adapted them to their time and circumstance.
Vanderbilt House - A Corinthian Villa
While the orders have a base, a middle, and a top all the different moldings that in turn, make up the base, middle and top also have their own tri-partite system and the same repeats for the sub-pieces within them. For example: columns have a base, a middle (shaft) and a top (capital). The base in turn is composed of a plinth, a torus, and a cincture; the capital, of the necking, echinus, and abacus. Entablatures have an architrave, a frieze, and a cornice. Cornices in turn have a bed molding, a corona, and a cymatiumand so on and so forth.

All these sub-pieces are made with concave, convex, flat, or compound shaped pieces that are what we know as moldings. Their shapes have been codified for the past 2,000 years by their geometrical forms. So, the concave moldings are called: cavetto and scotia; the convex moldings are the ovolo and the torus; the flat moldings are the fascia and the fillet; and the compound moldings are the cyma recta, the cyma reversa, and the beak (see the chart below). 

Sir William Chambers classified moldings according to how they express their role or relative position in the orders. There are some that support such as the ovolo or the echinus (which are found in the column capital); those that crown the building such as the cavetto or the cyma recta (found in the cornice); those that bind such as the torus or the bead (found in the column base) and those that separate such as the scotia, the conge or the beak. Chambers talks about their expressive qualities to show the effect of gravity on the structure. John Wellborn Root (of Burnham and Root) took this idea to an ultimate expressive form in the Society for Savings Bank in Cleveland. Here the toruses at the bottom of the columns look as if they are being squeezed, by the enormous weight of the building on top, and the column capitals look like they are supporting this weight by substituting the typical echinus of the column capital with rough-hewn stones. The column shafts are exaggeratedly shortened thus emphasizing the tremendous weight above.
Society for Savings Bank - "squeezed" toruses

When used in interiors, moldings are sometimes modified in size by making them slender in proportion, as in the interior of Gunston Hall in Virginia (1755-59). Sometimes moldings are omitted from their customary place in a typical entablature. In Syon House, Middlesex, England (1760s), Robert Adam omitted the architrave as the entablature overlaps the wall.  By doing that he signaled that the wall is actually doing the supporting and the frieze becomes more decorative; this is an appropriate function for the frieze in an interior. In a similar move, Gunston Hall, virtually eliminates the architrave as well. 

Syon House by Robert Adam c.1760
Gunston Hall - Fairfax County, VA c. 1755

There are proportional rules of thumb that can be used to size a crown, an architrave or a base molding. These stem from the proportions of the underlying order of a particular room. For instance if a room is ordered by a Doric proportional system then its crown, architraves, and room bases will be tend to be both simpler and chunkier than if the room is ordered by a Corinthian system.
A Doric room
A Corinthian room

Wilton - Richmond, VA 1753
The room pictured above is in a house called Wilton in Richmond, Virginia (1753). It is a good example of American Georgian. The proportions of Georgian rooms tend to be less delicate than those of Federal rooms such as the one pictured below in a house called Edgewater in Barrytown, New York (c.1820).

Edgewater - Barrytown, NY c. 1820

So other than general historical scholarship why is any of this relevant to the 21st century? The fact is that houses are still being built following traditional paradigms because people like to live in places that are familiar, that help them to recall where they came from, and that are responsive to the climate and culture that they are built in. Most new houses in the US are built in what is generally considered a traditional style. The problem with many newly built houses is that too many architects and builders seem to have forgotten how to design using a traditional language and simply resort to making them look traditional instead of following the tradition with knowledge. My hope is that the general guidelines given here contribute to elevate the conversation about traditional architecture and help to illustrate that while traditional moldings follow a conventional and codified system of rules, these should be carefully calibrated to the circumstances, character, use, and hierarchy of rooms in a particular house and for a particular building type. In this way the use of the classical language of architectural moldings can be expressive for our present times.
Living room in a NYC townhouse c. 2012