Andrea Palladio’s Return from the Grave

By Farahdeen Kahn For Curate Magazine Issue 1: Comebacks

PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDREA DRAGO.

We are in the twenty-first century. We are surrounded by everything that is directly or indirectly linked to technology. While in one sense, things seem to get easier, on the other, the practical difficulties of overpopulation and snaking rows of kilometres of traffic tends to keep most of our populace indoors. When not indoors, we are out in the open, walking the pavements to and from work, to meet somebody or returning after having met somebody, and it is alarming how casually we take our architectural surroundings.

Buildings today come in numerous shapes and sizes. Some are bizarre and some beautiful. Yet, we are increasingly observing an almost instinctual drift towards the wisdom of the ages past. One could as well call it serendipity, but one is led to still wonder why this dependency on the old, when we are so aspiring for everything new. To answer something as complex as that would not be possible in a tiny article, and it is also a question that is rather subjective. So let us set aside independent opinions and assume, just for an instant, that given all that we do today in the name of progress, most of it stems somewhere from a subconscious spring of borrowed and amalgamated knowledge. How so some would ask. Take for instance the question, “What according to you defines good architecture?” Some responses you would possibly elicit from people is, “Hmm, I don’t really know.” Or, “I liked what I saw,” a pause, “and maybe it’s the facade or the feel,” another pause, “and that’s it. I cannot quite specifically tell.” Come to think of it, we exist in a world that has been surging forward at a speed faster than lightening, a world determined towards establishing its own language in terms of innovation and modernity, and then, a time comes, when that same innovative and modern language comes to a screeching halt and turns to the pages of antiquity. We travel to lands far and away to revel in the art and architecture that the cities and countries have to offer, and even then, we fail to notice the very finery in the houses we inhabit or the buildings we might have been crossing almost on a daily basis on our sojourns around the areas we cohabit. This is where one is drawn to the aesthetics and architectural prowess to one of the world’s most influential architects Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, otherwise commonly known as Andrea Palladio. (Andrea [ahn-dre-ah] / ɑnˈdrɛ ɑ/ Palladio [puh-lah-dee-oh] / Italian pahl-lah-dyaw/).

Palladio was born on November 30, 1508 in Padua, Italy and died on August 19, 1580 in Vicenza, Italy. At an early age of thirteen, he began training as a stonemason and later went on to become a stone carver. It was not until when he was thirty, that he made the acquaintance of Count Giangiorgio Trissino, a scholar, who appointed Andrea to commence work on the loggia of his new classical-style villa. Discerning a progressive aptitude in the young Andrea, Trissino became his mentor and gave him the name Palladio (after the Greek goddess of wisdom Pallas Athene). Over time Palladio’s education stirred within him an intense interest in classical antiquity, particularly the architecture of the ancient Romans, and this innate interest led Palladio from crafting buildings to designing them. Today, many of Palladio’s work, particularly those of the villas, have such a familiar character that it is difficult to appreciate how revolutionary they were when Palladio was drawing them and then seeing them come to life in brick, stone and mortar. Palladio designed forty or so villas, a couple of town houses and a handful of churches. Despite the fact that there was plenty work going on during that time, he kept at his skill and emerged as the top architect in Venice, one of the most influential cities in the world at that time in the arts and culture. He has been one of the most copied architects over the centuries.

He built places that helped thrive a ‘good sense of the mind’ in those who occupied it.

Palladio felt that architecture speaks to the body and not just the eyes. His beliefs were quite literally broken into two. First, that architecture has a clear purpose, that it has to seamlessly blend in with us as we blend in with it. That the architecture we inhabit must make better of us people. Second, he felt that architecture, while no less than art, was more of the skilfulness of craft than art. Architecture according to Palladio was never meant to be still. He wanted the barn to be as beautiful as the drawing room. He wanted architecture to twist and turn, and flow and stop. To run like a river, and glide like a dragonfly. To reflect the innocence of a child and the flamboyance of an adult. He made certain that his designs were devoid of the restlessness, an aspect so very common in the movement of the Baroque period.

Palladio reckoned that architecture was quite above and beyond the mere presentation of floors, walls, ceilings and glamorous decorations. He built places that helped thrive a ‘good sense of the mind’ in those who occupied it, and had such an effect even on those who visited it. In order to go about achieving this he followed in his work the virtues of calm, harmony, dignity, symmetry and divine proportion.

VILLA ROTONDA, PHOTO COURTESY OF HANS A ROSBACH.

Calm

Whilst he greatly admired the Roman architecture, there was nothing cinematic in Palladio’s work as there was to be found in the work of say the architects of the Baroque, Gian Lorenzo Bernini or Francesco Borromini, and keeping in mind his ethos of simplicity, he reduced his design principles to something as effortless as all the elements in a room to have a balanced, centred and intrinsically symmetrical feel. For starters, he did away with the drama and limited his palette to geometrical shapes. His walls were sans garishness, nearly plain and neutral. His interiors were not filled up with furniture and art since he wanted the serenity of the space to be kept intact. His doctrine of wanting the surrounding to calm us, and help us think rather than having to excite or stir us up was used to its optimum. His aim was that the exterior, or the interior of a space, should keep us away from distraction and invite us instead to focus and concentrate in being, and doing good, in whatever we endeavoured to wanted and do.

Harmony

From those words one can quite easily note how obsessed Palladio was by making certain that every element of a building fitted faultlessly with each other.

He aligned every opening with every other. The shapes were simple. The rooms clear of clutter. The doors had lined up, and in similar fashion, he even designed the windows in relation to the alignments of the doors. He wanted the architecture to be without confusion and compromise. He felt that powerful buildings imposed themselves and accentuated the drudgeries of life on those living inside them, and hence, he wanted the people who drew breath within the walls of the spaces he designed to work and play, to love and live, and have sex. To desire each other and yet fulfil their duties with a sense of freedom that he knew his elegant architecture provided them without a second thought.

A fine building ought to appear as an entire and perfect body, wherein every member agrees with its fellow, and each so well with the whole, that it may seem absolutely necessary.

Dignity

Palladio was not just the man of the moment, he was also a visionary caught up inside an artist. He was not supportive of the manner in which many architects paid less attention to the spent force that toiled day in and day out to keep the villas scintillating in order for their owners to take pride in. So he strived to offer dignity to the staff, and sketched their portions just as important as the prestigious spaces, the owner’s homes, that stood in front of them.

When one talks of such a space, one cannot overlook the Villa Barbaro. Forty miles north of Venice, it is a farmhouse in the countryside. Palladio designed quite grandly the barns, the stables and the grain stores. Instead of veiling them, or setting them away from the main house, these working buildings were incorporated as part of an honourable and important part of the design and inclusion to the house. He knew then, just as we do now, that beneath the smiles, the staff, by virtue of their responsibilities, could be found to be irritable and disheartened. That, by giving them serene and harmonious buildings as close to beauty as did the main villas, they would find themselves included and encouraged to be a lot more involved in work and adept at handling situations better.

He held onto the notion that human beings are restless creatures, slaves of their minds, and the mind is not as strong as it is thought out to be. And that in times of stress, or otherwise, it might tend to sway away from what connects us to our inner selves. Therefore, he wanted people to be who they really wanted to be, and his designs reflected such impetus from the start of his architectural life. In all earnestness, he compared an ideal building quite similar to an ideal person.

Palladio devoted much of his time to the study of the ruins of classical times. Like numerous architects of his era, he produced a tractate on classical architecture that began with the five basic types of columns employed by the ancient builders. In comparison to his contemporaries, his explanation and accompanying illustrations of the five orders were applauded for their clarity and precision, and his manual published in 1570 achieved the status of the most influential treatise on architecture ever produced.

The first book dealt with the orders. It was a detailed example of instructions on how to build, dig foundations, judge the quality of cement and the various reliable ways of constructing walls and laying floors.

The second book comprised a series of Palladio’s own designs highlighting the implementation of the orders to his villas, large urban dwellings and palazzos.

The third book concentrated primarily on works of engineering, including roads, bridges, town planning and ancient gymnasiums.

The fourth book was a look at the ancient Roman ruins that Palladio had studied. He combined his scholarship and design skills to produce reconstruction drawings, plans, elevations and sections showing how he thought these establishments looked originally.

LA VILLA BARBARO DE MASER, PHOTO COURTESY OF RENAUD CAMUS.

Symmetry

Palladio showed the world that buildings do not have to be expensive to be beautiful. That brick, concrete, wood and glass can also have a similar appeal to that of buildings made from costly marble. That a simple rule of symmetry and the correct usage of geometric shapes can produce the desired result in the eyes of the beholder.

His rules were simple. The first rule: they ought to be symmetrical. Second rule, the plan should display an odd number of three, five, seven openings on a side. Third rule, the application of simple geometric shapes that should be three-fifths of the width and the height three-fifths of the width.

Divine Proportion

Palladio held the firm belief that divine proportions were the answer to most of the ugliness seen around in the world. He asked people why they disliked buildings. The reactions were as varied as the people, since such likes or dislikes were rather subjective.

Secretly, he knew that what was ugly normally evoked a negative reaction as opposed to the applause that something symmetrical induced. So Palladio developed his rule of proportion based on mathematical ratios drawing from the prudence of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras who had stumbled upon that two taught strings, one half the length of the other, sound harmonious when vibrated at the same time. The pleasing quality of the sound was governed by a simple mathematical principle, and Palladio developed a visual equivalent of this.

Conclusion

When you think Andrea Palladio, then you think structures committed to harmony, elegance, dignity, calm. While many architects and builders of today are dipping into the old to add lustre to the new, it is also unfortunate that some architects of today, betwixt the thirst to make money quickly have robbed the world of beauty. If only there was a manner in which to make certain that current developers or those of the future play with the dynamics of modernism and still do not meddle with the clear-sightedness of the ages gone by, we could still be leaving edifices of great architecture for the future. So here is hoping that the builders of today, and tomorrow, keep alive the Palladian doctrine as their crux and advocate his far-sightedness that it should indeed be a normal practise for structures to present the world with a seductive portrait of our most collected and distinguished selves.

Important buildings by Palladio

One of his most famous works was Villa Capra also known as the Rotunda. The villa was modelled after the Roman Pantheon. The other building of great discussion is the Basilica Palladiana in Vicenza and Villa Foscari or better known as La Malcontenta in Venice. The resplendent basilica San Giorgio Maggiore is one of Palladio’s most elaborate works and loved equally.

Contemporary buildings influenced by Palladio

LOUIS KHAN, KORMAN HOUSE, PHOTO COURTESY OF FORGEMIND ARCHIMEDIA.
LE CORBUSIER, VILLA SAVOYE, PHOTO COURTESY OF M-LOUIS.

By Farahdeen Kahn 
For
Curate Magazine Issue 1: Comebacks