Barcelona: Sagrada Família Basilica

After touring Casa Batlló in Barcelona last October, my impression of Antoni Gaudí was that he was a rebel; someone set on defying tradition and the norms of his time, like Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright.

My view changed within a couple of hours when we finished our tour of Sagrada Família Basilica.  It was then that I understood that while, yes, he had a very unique interpretation of architecture, his designs were based on much the same principles as Andrea Palladio: nature and mathematics.  This was most evidenced to me by what our tour guide told us about the enormous columns inside the church.

Sagrada Família Basilica – Barcelona, Spain (Antoni Gaudí, architect)

In Book I of his Four Books on Architecture, Andrea Palladio specified that columns should swell, or taper, from the base up towards the capital.  Even though Gaudí’s columns look nothing like Palladio’s classics, they are based on the same natural principle of a tree trunk, tapering from its roots to its canopy.  (And then there’s Frank Lloyd Wright, who reversed that natural principle altogether – he may be the real rebel).

left: Palladio’s classic Corinthian column – center: Gaudi’s “tree trunk” column – right: Wright’s “lily pad” column

As our guide continued, the depth of symbolism in practically every surface was mind-boggling; not the sort of thing a careless, rebel-type would concoct.  There truly was method in Gaudí’s seeming madness.

Like the story of Casa Batlló’s original tenant, I am having to rely on my six month-old memory to recall some examples (if only I had an audiographic memory!):

In addition to the 52 “tree trunk” columns inside the church, representing the 52 weeks of the year,¹ there are numerous references to the temporal cycles of life.  The eastern-facing windows of the nave, along the Nativity façade, are designed with cooler-colored glass, symbolic of morning, spring, birth; the western-facing windows along the Passion façade, with their warmer-colored glass, alternately symbolize sunset, autumn, death.²

Sagrada Família Basilica – plan

The façades themselves (the Glory façade³ is still under construction) are a continuous display of the meaning they represent.  The Nativity façade, in addition to the obvious depiction of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, teems with portrayals of life, birth, and joy: leaves, music, birds, fruit, happy children, comfort, hope.

Sagrada Família Basilica Nativity façade: full of symbols of life, growth, joy, and celebration

The Passion façade is a stark contrast.  The grief and sorrow projected from the statues’ hardened edges is palpable.

Sagrada Família Basilica Passion façade: symbolic of grief, sorrow, betrayal, and death

My parting impression of Antoni Gaudí as I left Sagrada Família Basilica was no longer that of a renegade, but of someone deeply spiritual.  Every surface, feature, color, sculpture (including their human models), relic, the numerology, and overall layout of the building has a purpose.  The entire structure, inside and out, tells the stories meaningful to the Catholic faith.

The more trips I take, the more I continue to appreciate how important it is to see places in person, to get out there and experience them firsthand.  No matter how many articles, books, videos, photos, and blogs can be found on a particular building or place, there are still so many more fascinating things to learn from standing there in person.  (I have also come to appreciate the value of a guide)!

And next time, I’m going to take notes.


¹This is a succinct way to describe the basilica’s layout, but is not entirely accurate.  There are actually more than 52 interior columns; however, each one does have its own symbolism to the liturgical calendar.  A more complicated (and interesting)explanation can be found at www.sagradafamilia.org.

²Another detailed explanation of the windows can also be found at www.sagradafamilia.org.

³The future Glory façade is described at Musmon.com.

Barcelona: Casa Batlló

I’m surprised that in my first article following my six-month hiatus from writing, I failed to mention my trip to Spain last October.  It was a family vacation, rather than an architectural study abroad trip, but I did learn a little bit about Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí and was able to experience his work firsthand.

Gaudí’s Casa Batlló was built on the fashionable Passeig de Gràcia, in a section of Barcelona’s Eixample District now known as the Illa de la Discordia (Block of Discord), the result of the rivalry and competitive spirit of Barcelona’s most prominent architects (or that of their clients’) and their clashes of artistic style.

Illa de la Discordia along Passeig de Gràcia – Barcelona

A few elements of Casa Batlló that make it so unique include:

The façade
The upper exterior is covered in broken, watery-colored tiles and what appears to be painted, plaster disks.  The cast iron balconies look like masks; the lower columns like bones.

Casa Batlló, front façade (1906), Antoni Gaudí, architect – Barcelona
Casa Batlló, exterior façade: a brilliant and eco-friendly way to eliminate repainting!

The absence of right angles
Inside the house, Gaudí chose to forgo right angles – from the doors, the windows, and their glass panes.  (Notice the wavy baseboard, too).

 

Casa Batlló, Apartment no. 6

The rooftop terrace
It’s a party up here!  Colorful, crooked chimneys, a giant garlic bulb, and a dragon’s back.

Casa Batlló’s rooftop chimneys, designed to prevent backdrafts
The garlic bulb is believed to be the sword of Saint George (patron saint of Catalonia), stabbing the dragon’s scaly back.

The last remaining, original tenant
The house was actually an apartment building, with the Batlló family living on the second (noble) floor and apartment residents on the subsequent floors.  While on the tour, our guide told us a fascinating story.  I haven’t read this story anywhere else, so I’m relying on my memory to retell it.

At the time Casa Batlló was established, a law entitled tenants to remain in their apartments for as long as they lived (or something to that affect – I’m sure they at least had to pay their rent).  Standing on the Batlló’s courtyard patio, looking at the upper floors, our guide pointed out the single balcony decorated with green plants, belonging to an original Casa Batlló tenant.  She is in her 80’s or 90’s now and will continue to live in her apartment, along with all the tourists running around below, for as many more years as she wishes.

Casa Batlló, rear façade, with balcony plants tended by the last, original tenant

That one million tourists visit Casa Batlló each year is (yet) another testament to the power of architecture to define time, place, and culture.  Casa Batlló was conceived during the industrial revolution, with the prosperity and social progress that came along with it, and its Modernisme style is unique to Catalonia.

And that’s all good.  However, the engineer in me sees Casa Batlló as a technical marvel and a testament to the engineering and craftsmanship of the day.  It is important to note that Casa Batlló was not new construction; it was a remodeling job.  So how did Antoni Gaudí take the original, perfectly normal, straight-forward brick building, built in 1877, and turn it into something completely unrecognizable to its former self?

left: original building by Emilio Sala Cortés (1877)   right: Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudí (1906)

The analysis required to widen the lower floor’s openings; to reframe and enlarge the noble floor’s windows; to add additional floors; to frame the free-form roof not only to cap off the building, but also to support the weight of all those dragon-back tiles and incorporate Saint George’s sword; to the logistics of setting in place all the tile, stone, and ironwork – so many details to consider without a computer – had to have been immense.  And yet, 140 years later, those minds got it right.

Casa Batlló may be one of Antoni Gaudí’s signature works, but his most famous and challenging vision – still under construction – is two miles away.

Monet & Architecture

The Customs Officer’s Cottage, Varengeville, France, 1882, oil on canvas

On the one hand, I feel a little silly when I tell people I want to pursue architecture as a future career – especially when I’m no spring chicken.  On the other hand, it pays off sometimes, making a little embarrassment worth my while.

And that is how I ended up being loaned a copy of Monet & Architecture.

The book is a companion to an art exhibition by the same name held in London last spring.  The author and curator is credited with being the first to explore what role architecture played in Claude Monet’s landscapes.

I am not a painter, nor an academic, but I was surprised how interesting this book was to me.  I didn’t spend a whole lot of extra time trying to understand every concept, but I got enough out of it to appreciate what the exhibit was trying to convey.  A short list of my takeaways:

  • Architecture balances the chaos of nature with the order of structures.
  • Architecture balances the horizontal landscape (water, horizon, sky) with the verticalness of spires, towers, smokestacks.
  • Buildings in an otherwise uninhabited space give a sense of human presence.
  • Buildings provide a feeling of protection, safety, refuge from less than ideal environmental conditions (snow, rain, wind).
  • Architecture introduces human progression and modernity to a timeless landscape (sea, cliff, river, hill).
  • Monet was practically a documentarian – recording manmade changes to the landscape in real time.

To me, The Customs Officer’s Cottage is an example of several of these aspects.

Now that I’ve read the book, I regret having put off reading Monet & Architecture for all these months.  I guess I thought it would be too deep, too artsy, too academic, too irrelevant to me.  Then the guilt for having been entrusted with this book by someone who must, at some level, believe in me (and because it actually came from the London exhibit), finally caught up with me.  Now, when I see him again, I’ll be proud to say that I’ve read Monet & Architecture and that it had an impact on me.

For one, I have a greater appreciation for Monet, who he was and how he worked (and how I wish I had gone on that tour to Giverny with my sister when I was in Paris last summer), and two, I have a deepened respect for the role of architecture – in art, in history, and now, in the range of human emotion a structure can communicate.

That’s a lot of responsibility for an architect.  It’s important to get it right.

The Fountainhead

In the spring of 2017, I read about Louis Sullivan in The Function of Ornament.  Sullivan is probably the most famous American architect no one has ever heard of.  He is known as “the father of the skyscraper,” is the author of the phrase “form follows function,” and was the mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright (the American architect who nearly everyone has heard of).

While reading Sullivan’s entry on Wikipedia back then, I skimmed over a section relating an Ayn Rand novel to the architect.  The only prior knowledge I had of Ayn Rand was that she had a very controversial political ideology – what that was, I didn’t know.  When I learned of this connection of hers to architecture, albeit fictional, I decided to pursue my curiosity about her.  I didn’t start with The Fountainhead, though.  I went straight to Rand’s “magnum opus,” Atlas Shrugged, to get a sense of what made her views so contentious.  It took months to read all 1,000+ pages.

Then I went on to read The Fountainhead – only 720 pages.  By this point, it had been close to a year since I read anything about Louis Sullivan and my only memory of his Wikipedia entry was that there was a character in the book whom, some believed, was based on Sullivan.  All the while reading the book, I was trying to guess whether it was Howard Roark or Peter Keating.  Neither character fit what I knew from that one, brief study of Louis Sullivan.

Ding, ding, ding!  Correct answer!  It was neither of those characters.  It was Howard Roark’s mentor, Henry Cameron.

That the fictional character of Henry Cameron in Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead was similar to the real-life Sullivan was noted, if only in passing, by at least one journalist contemporary to the book.

The fictional Cameron is, like Sullivan – whose physical description he matches – a great innovative skyscraper pioneer late in the nineteenth century who dies impoverished and embittered in the mid-1920s. Cameron’s rapid decline is explicitly attributed to the wave of classical Greco-Roman revivalism in architecture in the wake of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, just as Sullivan in his autobiography attributed his own downfall to the same event.

The major difference between novel and real life was in the chronology of Cameron’s relation with his protégé Howard Roark, the novel’s hero, who eventually goes on to redeem his vision. That Roark’s uncompromising individualism and his innovative organic style in architecture were drawn from the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright is clear from Rand’s journal notes, her correspondence and various contemporary accounts. In the novel, however, the 23-year-old Roark, a generation younger than the real-life Wright, becomes Cameron’s protégé in the early 1920s, when Sullivan was long in decline.

~Wikipedia, “Louis Sullivan”

I totally missed it.

Before finishing The Fountainhead, I had come across a PhilosophersNote TV episode on the novel by Brian Johnson.  I was intrigued because he doesn’t ordinarily discuss fiction, but I waited to finish the book before I watched the video for fear of spoiling the end – or giving away who Louis Sullivan’s character was.  There was no reason to worry because somehow Brian managed to select seven Big Ideas from the book that, surprisingly, have nothing to do with architecture or politics.

Whether you agree with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy or not, the big ideas highlighted in Brian Johnson’s review are the attributes ascribed to Rand’s character, Howard Roark, and are, in essence, the attributes required of anyone wishing to pursue genuinely creative work:

  • having a deep sense of self
  • not living for the praise of others
  • loving the “doing,” regardless of the rewards
  • always living on purpose
  • being independent of others’ opinions – good or bad
  • never making comparisons
  • consistently doing what one believes in, which requires the greatest kind of courage

Through the characters of Henry Cameron and Howard Roark, Ayn Rand illustrates  what living these ideals could look like for an architect and why it takes such courage.

Whenever I feel the pull of caring too much what others think of me, I hope I will remember these lessons from The Fountainhead.

[Ellsworth Toohey] Mr. Roark, we’re alone here.  Why don’t you tell me what you think of me?  In any words you wish.  No one will hear us.

[Howard Roark] But I don’t think of you.

2019.0

Wow!  I did not intend for that to happen.

Immediately after re-declaring my commitment to my 2018 goals, I disappeared for six months.

As is usually the case in a falling-off situation, there was not one, single cause, but a combination.  The day – rather, the very early morning – after my last post, my family and I departed on an eleven-day cross-country adventure.

The Great Western Adventure: Knoxville > Carlsbad > Flagstaff > Sunriver > Richland > Knoxville

Three days in to the trip, I pushed the power button on my laptop to begin drafting my next post – which was to be about all the natural architecture I had witnessed from several thousand feet above this fascinating land of ours – only to find it didn’t work.

At all.

Nothing.

I wasn’t totally surprised.  I had been limping along for a few weeks with no sound after dumping a cup of coffee all over the keyboard.  But at least everything else had worked.  Until now.

That was one week skipped.

We spent the day after our return hunting for the right USB adapter to plug the laptop brains into the desktop computer.  It worked, but a few more days were lost to transitioning files from one hard drive to the other, plus nearly two weeks’ worth of emails to go through.

Another week skipped.

Which was just enough time for me to question what I was doing and why was I doing it.

I had admitted six months ago that I wasn’t doing what I knew I needed to be doing: the sketching, drawing, creating that I seemed to have a strong resistance against.  I thought a recommitment was the answer.  Deeper inside, however, it was all the other unfinished business laying around me that was really bothering me.  I didn’t want to put a whole lot of stock in the theory that this stuff was holding me back.  Clutter doesn’t seem to bother other people quite that much, but it was bothering me.  So, I made a new commitment to deal with it.

And when I did, I became more open to the fact that it wasn’t such a strange concept unique to me.

In Brian Johnson’s PhilosophersNotes TV episode on the book Willpower, by Roy Baumeister & John Tierney, he chose Tidy Up! as his #3 Big Idea.  He talks about it at the 4:53-5:59 mark.

The reason being – and the authors’ research showed – that a clean environment increases a person’s willpower versus a messy environment.  Leaving all of my un-made decisions around on every available surface – so I won’t forget about it – does not create the clean environment conducive to exercising the willpower necessary for doing the hard stuff, which, for me, is the drawing and creative work.

Marie Kondo writes in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,

…when you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too.

The truth about many of my piles, stacks, and boxes is that they are three-dimensional lists of indecisions and constant, visual reminders of all the things I intended to do, but still haven’t done yet; the past trying to coexist in the present.  Not the kind of inspiring environment for pursuing a dream and future career, nor for discovering what my creative abilities are.

This is why I took an unscheduled break from my architecture studies and writing: to figure out how to manage the details of the present and deal with the un-dones from the past, with the hope of moving freely and swiftly into my desired future.

All has not been lost, though.  Since June, I have managed to:

  • finish reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  • binge-watch hours of Youtube interviews and lectures with David Allen, author of Getting Things Done
  • make minimizing/tidying/processing/decluttering a daily habit (with visible progress!)
  • sign up for several classes through the University of Tennessee’s non-credit program on the topics of conquering clutter, Adobe Photoshop, and WordPress
  • start reading Monet & Architecture
  • watch a couple of episodes of a great series on Netflix – The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes
  • attend talks on architectural salvage and buying an historical home
  • go on a walking tour of a local, historic neighborhood

I’m still in the game, just not quite the way I planned.

In one of those lectures (found at the 13:56 mark), David Allen said:

I start with where people are; not with where you should be. Because if you can’t handle and get under control where you are, and get it focused right, where you should be is like spitting in the wind. But once you get now nailed, whoo! Then hang on…

Time to get now nailed.

2018.5

June 30 marks the halfway point of the year, the Mid-Year’s Eve of 2018.  In keeping with the traditional year-end ritual, I thought it would be a good time to check in on my progress towards the goals I set for myself six months ago.  Here is my original plan:

2017 – reading books about architecture, design, history, etc.; going on tours; writing about what I learn

2018 – drawing, sketching, learning software; continuing to read and write

2019-2021 – hopefully by this point I’ve made some connections and can work or intern with a firm, building a portfolio, until…

2022 – my daughter graduates from high school and I go back to school

The good news:  I’ve continued to read and write.

The bad news:  I’ve done little in the way of “drawing, sketching, and learning software” – consistently, at least.

Because I had already created the habit of reading and writing first thing in the morning, it has been easy to continue doing that.  Those are 75 quiet, undistracted minutes that I look forward to every day.

However, I was leaving the software studies for the afternoon and it just wasn’t working.  As structured as I am, the more hours that pass from that first cup of coffee, the less control I have over my attention and willpower.

The plan was easy.  I would spend 45 minutes per day on each of my software and drawing books:

Monday: Using AutoCAD 2005: Basics
Tuesday: Home Designer 2014 Reference Manual & User’s Guide
Wednesday: Photoshop Elements 12: the missing manual
Thursday: The Professional Practice of Architectural Working Drawings
Friday: Draw 50 Buildings and Other Structures

I’ll be honest, I was bored to tears!  For whatever reason, an hour and a quarter seems to fly when I’m reading, writing, studying, and following wherever my curiosity leads me.  But to get through 15 minutes of textbook reading, I had to virtually chain myself to the chair.  By the time Friday came around, the energy to work through my perfectionism and apprehension of drawing was nowhere to be found.

My solution: if 15 minutes is all I can handle, then 15 minutes it is.  I moved this additional study time to my already-established morning routine to guarantee it happens.  In the long run, it will be better to focus on consistency over quantity, anyway.  I’ve been doing this now for the past three weeks and it has been painless.

Except for the drawing and sketching part…

A session with a psychiatrist would reveal several theories to explain my drawing resistance, but at the root is some form of fear, coupled with perfectionism.  I had a similar fear of writing, but because writing isn’t the primary skill I will need to pursue architecture, there was no pressure to do it well.  Drafting and sketching IS a required skill for architecture, and if I were to do it and discover I’m terrible at it, I’ll be a failure and my dreams will be crushed.  By avoiding it, I can continue on in happy ignorance.  (Notice how I scheduled my drawing day for the very end of the week?  I am that good!)  Unfortunately, avoidance is not the path to fulfilling one’s dreams and goals.

As the Universe would have it, I happened to be watching an episode of my favorite YouTube channel the other day when I realized I am merely in one of the four stages of learning.  Brian Johnson explains in his Philosopher’s Note on Will Bowen’s book, A Complaint Free World:

Whenever you want to learn something new, you start in unconscious incompetence. You’re not even aware that you’re bad at something.  You’re unconsciously incompetent.  That’s Phase 1.

Now, when you start playing something like the 21-day challenge [to stop complaining], you move into conscious incompetence.  At least now you know you kind of suck at it. You’re consciously incompetent.

Then, when you’ve practiced it for a long time, you become consciously competent.  Now, you’re pretty good at it, but it still takes conscious attention.

Then, you move into the fourth stage which is unconscious competence.  Once you’ve practiced something long enough, it becomes second nature for you – unconsciously competent.

While Stage 2 may be quite lengthy and painful at times, it’s still just a phase.  Besides, I knew this from the beginning when I quoted Brian Tracy a year and a half ago:

Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first.

My ego doesn’t like it, though.

While I’m a little disappointed in myself that I haven’t made more progress on my goals for the first half of 2018, I am still committed to reaching Stage 3.  As my favorite fitness coach always says,

You can hurry up and fail, or you can take your time and win.

~ Jonathan Roche

Oh, and drawing is moving to Mondays from now on.

Sketchy

I usually try to have some idea of how the topic I am writing about one week will lead into a topic for the following week.  Last week, I left nowhere else to go but to do the thing I’ve been putting off.  So, in order to maintain some level of continuity and integrity – doing what I say I’m going to do – I finally did it.  I sketched my first building.  Not a skyscraper-scale Gothic cathedral, just a skyscraper: the Empire State Building.

Empire State Building – New York, New York, north elevation (1931), William H. Lamb, architect

It is the first building in the book, Draw 50 Buildings and Other Structures, which I gave myself for Christmas but haven’t opened since January.  Following the steps in the book, my first attempt wasn’t very impressive.  I drew it scared, using too many crutches (ruler + graph paper) and measuring every little line; not sketching at all.

While proportional, my sketch turned out very mechanical:

Empire State Building – sketch #1

Empire State Building from ‘Draw 50 Buildings and Other Structures’

I didn’t even bother to finish it.  It was too stiff and I knew I needed to free myself from the graph paper.  In addition to going off-the-grid, I tried sketching from the ground up, rather than from all directions, as depicted in Draw 50 Buildings.  Using the ruler strictly as a straightedge yielded a more aesthetically pleasing result…

Empire State Building – sketch #2

Empire State Building from ‘Draw 50 Buildings and Other Structures’

… but my proportions were all off – namely, my center setback is too wide (the main vertical section of the building should be divided into equal thirds) and my mast, below the spire, is too tall.

It seems my challenge when it comes to sketching, aside from getting over my perfectionism, is finding a balance between using my tools and using my eyes.  I went from 100% measuring every line in the first sketch to 100% estimating in the second.  (My all-or-nothing thinking haunts me in multiple arenas of my life).  But now that the extremes have been defined, and I have proven that neither works, I can now focus on finding the in-between.  And pay more attention to proportions, as someone who’s spent the better part of a year studying Andrea Palladio should know.

Final sketch

Not silent auction-worthy, but I’m proud of it.  Good thing I have 49 more opportunities to practice.

Fun fact: the Empire State Building has its very own ZIP code – 10118.

The Power of Suggestion

In all the cities I’ve lived in, from the biggest (Memphis, TN) to the smallest (Carlsbad, NM), there has been an area – or two – undergoing some level of revitalization.  Knoxville, being a medium-sized town, is no exception and has multiple sections of town being rediscovered and reinvigorated with new businesses.  Downtown is a wonderful place to be, no matter what day of the week, the university area is thriving, and an up-and-coming neighborhood, called Fourth & Gill, truly is up and coming.  A nonprofit organization I joined last year works as a liaison between local architects and communities to offer pro-bono design solutions for areas like Fourth & Gill, which was the location of their most recent annual fundraiser.

The East Tennessee Community Design Center works with local designers so, of course, there were interesting items to bid on during the silent auction.  Out of them all, I locked on to a collection of ink sketches at the end of the long display table and knew right then and there these were going home with me.

Because I love synchronicities, i.e. “meaningful coincidences.”

An artist I met at the Knoxville Farmers’ Market first told be about Brian Pittman.  As I listened to him describe Brian’s work, I had this feeling that, if it was what I imagined, it would be the perfect artwork to hang on the wall of my future office/studio.

Utilizing my strategic silent-auctioning skills, I came away with my prize.

Collection of sketches I “won” by Brian Pittman, a.k.a. the Cathedral Guy

In his bio, Brian writes:

If we could combine the selfless, lifetime dedication of a town, its artisans, and laborers to the architectural glories of God with the masterful construction methods and materials of modern construction, what kind of monument would man build to their creator forever reaching for the heavens?  In other words, what if man could build a cathedral to the proportions of a skyscraper?

~ Brian Pittman, architect and artist

I truly believe this collection of sketches will be a deep source of inspiration for me.  I’ve already written about my yearn for the return of church architecture that actually resembles a house of God.  Even though Brian’s cathedrals are fictional (which is quite creative in itself), they convey that sense of grandeur that is missing from churches today and a plea for the return of craftsmanship.  Maybe his act of drawing them will renew a desire for the heavenly in the religious community’s architecture.

Also, his drawings have already inspired me to get over – for real this time – my fear of sketching.  I love how he left his penciled guidelines.  For some reason, this small detail takes away some of the mystery of drawing for me.

Through the power of suggestion, one local artist led me to another, which led to me being excited about drawing my first building.

I won’t be starting out with a Gothic cathedral, however.

“Propylaeum”

It was unfortunate that I was not able to make it to the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.  My daughter’s former classmate was making his fourth consecutive appearance in the week-long national event.  It was a tight window: we had to fly and we had to go on Tuesday.  Tropical Storm Alberto foiled our plans.

What would have made our attendance at Bee Week so special was to have been there for the final contest of his spelling career.  We had been there from the very beginning when Liam and my daughter were the top 5th grade spellers for their elementary school and the last two standing for the county-wide competition.  They went back and forth until she slipped up and he made the most of the opportunity.

It’s not hard to get caught up in the world of championship spelling.  I watched a few minutes on TV – yes, it’s televised on ESPN – and witnessed a Texas teen spell “propylaeum.”  Like most bee words, I’d never heard of it.

So what does this have to do with architecture?

When the competitor asked for the definition, I realized I should have heard of a “propylaeum” and I was surprised I had not come across it until now.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of propylaeum given to Speller #279 was:

a vestibule or entrance of architectural importance before a building or enclosure

~ Merriam-Webster dictionary

However, in line with the Greek origin of the word, the architectural application is more specific:

The Greek word propylaeon (propylaeum is the Latin version) is the union of the prefix pro-, “before, in front of” plus the plural of pyle “gate,” meaning literally “that which is before the gates,” but the word has come to mean simply “gate building.”

~ Wikipedia, “Propylaea”

The Propylaea in Athens, Greece marks the entrance to the Acropolis.

Propylaea of the Acropolis – Athens, Greece (437-432 BC)

Two “modern” versions of Athens’ Propylaea can be found in Germany: the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and the Ruhmeshalle in Munich.

Brandenburg Gate – Berlin, Germany (1788-1791); Carl Gotthard Langhans, architect
Ruhmeshalle – Munich, Germany (1862); Leo von Klenze, architect

The early 19th century English architect, Thomas Harrison, added a propylaeum to the medieval Chester Castle in Cheshire, England.  It was one of several neoclassical buildings he designed for the castle, which was being used as a prison at the time.

Chester Castle Propylaea – Cheshire, England (1813-1815); Thomas Harrison, architect

As I looked at all of these examples of propylaea, I was reminded of the entrance to the Memphis Zoo, with its (appropriately) Egyptian style: a current day propylaeum with actual gates – and hieroglyphics.

Entrance to the Memphis Zoo – Memphis, Tennessee (1990)

As disappointing as it was for me to miss experiencing the National Spelling Bee in person this year, I know it was much more disappointing for our young friend not to have made the final round of his farewell tour.  It has been a delight to spectate on his successes, and as a bonus, I’ve learned a new word in the process.  He has worked very hard these four years, but is looking forward to bigger and better things to come.

As should we all.

The Four Books on Architecture: Book II

I have come to the end of Book II of Andrea Palladio’s Four Books on Architecture: 27 chapters containing 60 woodcuts of his palazzo, villa, and conceptual designs.  I understand his relief when he begins the last paragraph of Book II by saying,

With this project we may bring to a close, praise the Lord, these two books…

(Palladio explained in his “Foreword to the Readers” that these first two books would comprise his discussion of private houses before moving on to public buildings in Books III and IV).

He continues:

… in which I have used my ingenuity to gather together and convey with the greatest possible brevity and simplicity through words and illustrations all the things that seem to me to be crucially important for building well, and especially for erecting private houses that are inherently beautiful and are both useful and a credit to the patrons.

After a 450-year test, let’s see if Palladio has achieved his objective.

  • Inherently beautiful – his designs have been emulated for centuries, sparking the Palladianism movement that spread throughout England, the United States, even to places as far-flung as the Phillipines, and continues to be replicated today.
  • Useful – most of his buildings are still in use today as financial institutions, event spaces, museums, apartment rentals, private homes, or government offices
  • A credit to his patrons – 47 of Palladio’s buildings are included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List, still known by the names of their original owners.

I would say Palladio far exceeded these expectations he set for himself, leaving a credit to his city, as well.

The ‘City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto’ is a serial site including the city of Vicenza and twenty-four Palladian villas scattered in the Veneto area. Inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1994, the site initially comprised only the city of Vicenza with its twenty-three buildings attributed to Palladio, as well as three villas extra muros. Twenty-one villas located in several provinces were later included in the 1996 site extension.

Vicenza is widely, and with justification, known as la città di Palladio. However, he was the central figure in an urban fabric that stretches back to antiquity and forward to Neoclassicism. As such, Vicenza has acquired a world status that has long been recognized and reflected in the literature of architectural and art history.

~ UNESCO World Heritage Convention, “City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto”

While the World Heritage List is full of architectural sites, none is named for a specific individual architect other than Palladio.  As long as these structures remain on the list, the World Heritage designation will protect his works indefinitely via international treaty.

Only thirty buildings are actually included in Book II, which Palladio spent at least twenty years writing and illustrating.  Many were not finished as he had shown, some he chose not to include in his book, and significant works, such as Teatro Olimpico and the Basilica of Vicenza (Basilica Palladiana), were designed after its publication.  Palladio’s legacy is a testament of what can be accomplished through committed, diligent work, to say the least.

To leave just one inherently beautiful and useful building that was a credit to my patron, and my city, would be the ultimate life accomplishment for me.

But I do like to exceed my expectations.