ADVICE FOR THE CLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE STUDENTS

This post is inspired by a Facebook post by Architecture MMXII.  An anonymous architecture student writes:

“Hi, I’m in uni studying architecture (going into second year in September),  I was hoping you could give me some advice. When I design in a classical manner, my lecturers say ‘we don’t design buildings like that anymore, and that’s just copying, no imagination, etc. What do I do? How can I respond to these criticisms? As i have seen from your photos, architects still design in a classical manner.  Please help.  Thank you.”

Here’s my advice to him/her, and all other architecture students interested in designing in the classical tradition:

1.  The architectural style of the building is of little importance.  Just as there is more to a person than the color of their skin or their ethnicity, there should be more to a building than its architectural style.  A building is built for its intended purpose (program) and needs to comply with current building codes and local zoning ordinances.  The purpose for the building codes, and purpose for hiring an architect to design the building, is to protect the safety of the public and the building’s users. Become familiar with the building code.  Make sure your building has sufficiently sized fire exits that are remotely located, and make sure that there are no dead end corridors that could trap someone during a fire.  If the building is to be used by the public, you may also need to make it wheelchair accessible.  Become familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Design Guidelines to assure that clearances on each side of doors are met, corridors are proper width, and that wheelchair turning radiuses can be achieved wherever necessary.  The purpose for insisting this is because you never want to present a traditional project that does not meet code.  If you present a project that does not meet code, you are falling into their “You-can’t-build-this-way-today” trap set up by your design professors.  If you can demonstrate that your building satisfactorily comply with the building codes, and that your building is wheelchair accessible, you have more credibility in your argument that you can in fact build this way today.

2.  Do not compromise the program and building siting for the sake of tradition.  Make sure that your building is designed to meet the program as best you can, and that you didn’t have to force the program to fit into the traditional design.  The traditional design should work naturally with the program.  For example, don’t force the program to fit into something symmetrical, if it doesn’t work.  perhaps an asymmetrical composition will work better.  Make sure that circulation paths are worked out and the necessary spacial adjacency requirements are met.  Make sure that the building is properly sited, the loading dock is not facing the public square, the principal rooms are positioned so that they have views of the lake, etc.  You have more credibility if you presentation shows that you were thoughtful about the site orientation, how the building is sited, how the building satisfies the program all functional requirements.

3.  Become familiar with how traditional buildings are detailed.  Whether designing modern or traditional buildings, it is always best to design with technologies and systems that are most familiar and readily available.  More builders and contractors are familiar with brick veneer over a stud framed wall than the latest high tech rain screen.  A simple shingled hipped roof is better than a bunch of offset flat roofs with multiple penetrations.  Make sure that you have some thought about how your building will be constructed, and that you know, for example, that the cornice, besides being a decorative element, is often a device used for guttering the rain water, or throwing it away from the exterior wall.  While the other students may propose projects that have weird shapes and angles that may be difficult to waterproof, and may have no clue how to waterproof their projects, you want to demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about construction techniques, and that you are using time tested materials and techniques, that are most readily available and most familiar with builders and tradesmen.  This is also how you are more likely to fall within the construction budget.  Whereas the fancy high tech wall system may cause the modernist project to exceed the budget, and there may be no other solutions other than the system as it was designed, a traditional architect has more available options at his/her disposal.  Gypsum board can be substituted for plaster, stucco finish or brick veneer substituted for stone, asphalt shingles substituted for tile or slate shingles, etc.

4.  Do not copy.  If you are going to design in the classical tradition, avoid the obvious copy or reference to a specific historic building.  Do not design a building that somewhat looks like Monticello, and is obvious that you were inspired by Monticello and Thomas Jefferson’s work.  Instead, be inspired by all types of classical buildings, including the anonymous buildings in small town centers that are not in history books, or that are not well known.  If you are accused of copying, your response should be to request a specific example.  “What building do you think I copied this design from?”  You should also keep all your developmental sketches so that you can show the progressive development of your scheme.  This is often used when architects are accused of plagiarizing other architect’s work.  The developmental sketches are often used to prove that the work was developed by the defendant architect, and is not a copied work. 

5.  Learn the classical language of architecture.   you will have to study this on your own.  Make sure that you get all the details and proportions right.  Make sure that the entablature is properly aligned with the columns/pilasters below, make sure the pilaster/column bases align with the pedestals below, etc.  Make sure the proportions are right and make sure you understand the importance of hierarchy of architectural elements when it comes to composing your facades.  If something is not right about your design, such as the details or the proportions, it will be obvious to the jurors.  Although they may have no idea what it is, or be able to correct it, they will label it pastiche.  Design your building as if it were a load bearing masonry building, even if you propose it to be masonry veneer on stud framing.  By this I mean make sure that arches are located not too close to building corners, the alignments of architectural elements don’t give the appearance of over burdening the columns and pilasters above or below, rustication is used on the lower floors, not the upper floors…obvious things.  

6.  Determine your audience before presenting your project.  If you are presenting in front of a jury of traditional architects, then by all means explain the building’s traditional inspirations, but if you are presenting in front of jurors bent on modernism, then explain the building’s response to site and program.  Remember that a modernist juror can’t give you any advice on how to build a better looking classical building, or offer any advice on how to correct any details that are not quite right, so don’t bother asking them.  Avoid discussing the style of the building. Explain how the building is sited, how it works diagrammatically, how it accomplishes the program, how circulation is arranged, how certain rooms are adjacent to other rooms, etc.  If the they bring up the issue of the building’s style then downplay the importance of the building’s style and try to steer the conversation back to functional and programmatic issues.   

7.  Don’t worry about your grade.  Make sure that you work hard on your design and put a lot of effort into it.  make sure that you produce all of the drawings required of the assignment and more if you can manage it.  Produce beautifully detailed drawings, and as I said before, keep all of you sketches to demonstrate your work effort.  If your design professor doesn’t like that you produced a traditional design, he or she may give you a C; don’t worry about it.  If he or she gives you a D or a failing grade, bitch and complain about it, and show them all the drawings you’ve produced and all the sketches and developmental drawings that demonstrate that you’ve made a strong effort in the design.  Argue that your efforts are worthy of a higher grade and that a D or failing grade is for those that put very little effort into the assignment or who didn’t complete all the required drawings required.  Most professors will concede and move the grade up a letter rather than go to battle with you, but it you have to, go for it.  Complain to the dean or college professor if you have to, or find out if there is a way that the grade can be arbitrated.  If you end up with a C in your design class, remember that architects usually don’t care about academic grades, and architects that practice traditional architects are least likely to care about grades. so don’t worry about it.

Finally, when you get out of school, you should seek employment at an architectural firm that specializes in traditional work.  You will find that there is a greater market for traditional design than modernist work.  When you take your architecture license exam, the graders are only interested in how well you satisfy the building code, the zoning and the design program.   Once you are a licensed architect, you can practice architecture however you want.

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