The Architecture of the Classical Interior

by D.V. Marcantonio

The Architecture of the Classical Interior

The Architecture of the Classical Interior by Steven W. Semes. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Illustrated, 192 pages. ISBN 10: 0393730751

By 1968, when Henry Hope Reed co-founded the organization Classical America, the knowledge and practice of traditional architecture was near total eclipse in the West. A generation before, the first modernists had received a classical education and subsequently rejected it. As a result, one can clearly read in their works the deliberate inversion of classical principle. By mid-century, however, the new generation of architects no longer had the benefit of that classical education, and in their work barely an echo of the West’s ancient inheritance is detectable, if only through its contradiction. On the margins, however, Classical America patiently increased its activities and sphere of influence. Focusing from its inception primarily on education and publication, the organization, which has joined forces with the Institute of Classical Architecture to form the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, today offers classes in the traditional building arts to thousands of people annually around the country, hosts a well-attended lecture series at its Manhattan location, sponsors an annual peer-reviewed journal, The Classicist, and, perhaps most importantly, underwrites a book series.

Steven Semes, a former director of Classical America and a fellow of the Institute of Classical Architecture, is the author of the latest addition to that now substantial series. The Architecture of the Classical Interior is a seminal book and will most certainly serve as a springboard to even greater vigor in the growth of the knowledge and practice of traditional architecture, both from the standpoint of sheer volume and from the more significant standpoint of quality. It is the product of Semes’s years teaching a basic design course at the Institute. Now, he will reach more students than he ever has, both lay and professional, and provide them a firmer foundation than they would have otherwise.

Twentieth-century modernism’s rejection of the traditional substance of the art of architecture has ironically spawned a more careful search and articulation of that substance than ever before. The historic manuals, from Vitruvius’ Ten Books through Alberti’s On the Art of Building to William Ware’s The American Vignola, took many then-common sense ideas, such as order and meaning, for granted. Today, however, the traditional architectural discourse has had to become more radical—radical in the sense of getting to the root of things. No other book does this as well as The Architecture of the Classical Interior. It is not a philosophical book, but it does begin with a rational justification for the pursuit of traditional architecture. The world, Semes argues, has a real existence outside our individual mind, and the classical is the fruit of our encounter with that world and with one another. Every room is thus a restatement of the cosmos and a setting for man to play out his social nature. “The classical artist portrays the world in order to reveal its comprehensible patterns and laws,” he writes. That dialogue spans generations, so that one can draw on the knowledge embodied in ancient buildings as easily as on buildings built yesterday. Ancient buildings, in fact, have perhaps more to offer as their value in the eternal discourse, their excellence, has been confirmed by many more generations of minds in search of understanding.

The natural objection, of course, is that contemporary man’s view of the cosmos has changed, so his architecture must change to suit. To deal with that question explicitly would have taken Semes beyond the scope of his book; however, one can infer from his text two arguments in response. First, traditional architecture continues to be loved by the vast majority of laymen. Modernism has tried for a century now to achieve popular acceptance but has only established ascendancy among the theorists at elite institutions. If traditional architecture is no longer pertinent to contemporary man, then why does it continue to appeal? and to such a broad spectrum? Second, the twentieth century has been less about a new view of the cosmos and more about the rejection of any view of the cosmos. There is probably no such thing as reality, says the philosopher-skeptic, and even if there were, we could not know or say a thing about it with any certitude. Thus twentieth-century art and architecture retreated into radical subjectivism, the production of utterly personal expressions contrived to stimulate utterly personal reactions. This gutting of objective meaning ostensibly makes political life easier in a heterogeneous society, but in reality man’s social nature has been denied. Everyone has been isolated, and what was a meaningful civilized discourse has been converted into an unintelligible din. The layman, for his part, has not been able to shed his common sense and continues to see the cosmos as a meaningful thing and to value art which reaffirms his social bond to others.

Having established a rational basis for the pursuit of the classical, Semes goes on to explain in great detail its substance, using a novel vehicle, the room. All the traditional manuals which come to mind emphasize the elements (i.e., the orders) and their composition to form facades and objects. Semes, on the other hand, a half century after Frank Lloyd Wight triumphantly declared the destruction of the box, has had the insight to restore primacy to the room, calling it the “basic unit of classical space.” The title, The Architecture of the Classical Interior, is deceptive, as the book is implicitly about much more than the insides of buildings. It is, in fact, about the city. As Giambattista Nolli taught us through his famous map of Rome of 1748, the classical city is nothing more than a coherent sequence of rooms. “Through the window we are likely to see further rooms, outdoor rooms, whether in the form of gardens or urban streets and squares.” Rome’s room par excellence, of course, is the Pantheon, and Semes returns to it throughout the book, drawing out the lessons it has to offer. And every lesson can be applied at the urban scale. Semes does leave the reader thirsting for a few more chapters (perhaps a second volume?) which would deal with classical urbanism explicitly.

Semes also effectively debunks the common perception regarding the word classical, namely that it signifies the promiscuous use of columns and ornament, regardless of the situation. Foregrounding the ancient principle of decorum, he states: “The explicit use of columns and pilasters … is often inappropriate.” The columnar order is in fact a datum which permits a declension of rooms; important rooms which serve important purposes must look important relative to unimportant rooms which serve lesser purposes. That scaling is accomplished by, among other things, the prudent dilution of the orders, that is, the “progressive omission” (Robert Adam’s phrase from his book Classical Architecture, 1990) of details and ornaments. Semes writes: “…the classical order should be viewed not simply as a prescribed column type but as a ‘genetic code’ for organizing the wall, its proportions, and its ornaments. One can have a perfectly classical room in which there are no columns, pilasters, or any other explicit evocation of an order.”

This is a critical lesson to bring out, because part of the cause of the rise of modernism was, arguably, the exaggerated tendency in the nineteenth century to celebrate ornament to such an extent that the principle of decorum was obscured. Every room was slathered with ornament, regardless of its importance. The early modernist reaction was in this respect understandable, but rather than restoring the principle of decorum, the modernists made the mistake of treating all ornament as crime. There is more than dilution at work in the decorum of the orders, however, and Semes might have made the connection with other factors, such as scale, quality of materials, difficulty of execution, local vernacular versus regional convention, etc., a little stronger. But this is quibbling. The connection is implicit in the very fruitful examples Semes provides, notably a comparison between the Pantheon and a breakfast room in Atlanta, Georgia, designed by Philip Trammel Shutze. The latter is the Pantheon in miniature, “albeit with an appropriate delicacy and intimacy.”

Semes knows how to teach, and his systematic explication of the basic principles of classical architecture in the first half of the book is just what the student needs. He begins with the most basic, common sense principle imaginable, namely, that the room must be organized so as to orient the occupant:

Perspective is to classical space what the concept of tonality is to Western classical music: It allows individual parts to be “located” with respect to one another and within a grand whole, making it possible to recognize as meaningful the perceived movement of objects or tones within the overall physical or musical space. Perspective … is the key to our orientation.

If the reader can accept that premise, which should seem obvious to all but the most diehard deconstructivist, then the rest of his argument builds quite logically upon it. For students who cannot find substance in the classroom, this book is sure to become a welcome guide to the subject. How does one structure such a room? Is it enough to reveal the structure that prevents the ceiling from caving in? The answer, of course, is no. There is more to architecture than the solving of pedestrian engineering problems. The ceiling must be held up, but it must also look as if it is being held up, for the eye makes demands that the engineering solution does not satisfy. Hence, the Pantheon interior is replete with columns and pilasters, entablatures, and coffering, none of which are necessary to hold up the roof. Their primary function, if one can call it that, is the dramatization of the structural forces at work.

The common reaction to the author’s line of argument, of course, is that it is “dishonest” for a building to hide its literal structure. He answers that this “fictive structure” is no more dishonest than a literary work of fiction—both exist to tell a meaningful story. Interestingly, Semes does not spend as much time here as he might have had to twenty years ago. Perhaps in the wake of such exuberant works as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which could also be criticized for not exposing its literal structure, the dishonesty argument does not carry the weight it once did. Semes then introduces the reader to the orders, the basic posts and beams of this fictive structure, which solve the same problem of satisfying the eye’s structural expectations through the dramatization of forces, but at a smaller scale. The beam, or the entablature, spans an opening (and to do this convincingly it must have a certain depth, typically one quarter the height of the column) and crowns the post/beam ensemble, thus accounting for its projecting corona and sima. The post, or column, receives weight from the entablature through the capital, translates weight downward through the shaft to a solid base, which in turn cushions and spreads the weight out onto the surface below. Yet Semes shows there is more to the classicism than so-called tectonics.

Semes goes over the rules of thumb for laying out the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite orders but wisely points out that these are no more rules than the rules regarding the representation of the human figure: “[S]pecific applications of an order can vary, just as human bodies do.” There are an infinite variety of people, from the short and fat to the tall and thin, and likewise there are an infinite variety of columns. Far from limiting the architect’s expressive possibilities, the orders open up a whole world. An architect who could not make use of the orders would be as constricted as a painter who could not make use of the human figure. These architectural figures combine to form larger elements, such as windows, doors, fireplaces, stairs, etc., each with their own identities and histories which set up expectations in the viewer. The education of the architect, is in large part, the learning of those histories and the ways of responding to those expectations. Semes insists that, while these elements form the parts to the larger whole that is the room (and by logical extension the larger whole that is the city), they must be articulated to be recognizable, as identifiable wholes unto themselves. This is not just a martinet’s demand for clear thinking. He says: “[t]heir expressive potential is weakened if they are reduced to unarticulated solids and voids.” 

As he discusses each of these elements, dedicating a chapter to each, his desire to expand the architect’s expressive palette is a constant theme. This should dispel another common myth about the classicist that he is a stuffed shirt. His treatment of proportion, for example, is liberating; it transmits a great deal of information yet includes not a single recipe. He is able to get specific about the ratios of parts to parts, and parts to the whole, and their resultant aesthetic and associational effects, without prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions. His discussion of moldings, to take another example, is indispensable for the beginner, tersely transmitting all the fundamentals. Yet he challenges the artistic sense of even the most experienced architect:

Numerous methods have been suggested by architects over the years for the geometrical construction of various profiles … but the best results may come from the unaided hand and eye—a freehand curve inflected to respond to its role, position, distance from the eye, and shadow-casting possibilities. However it may be constructed, the shape of a molding can be highly expressive, and slight changes in profile can subtly change the character of an entire room.

The classical tradition is clearly not a mere collection of formulae for Semes. After reading this book, no serious architect will let so much as a cyma recta slip through the development of a design without some sober reflection. Nor will the serious architect see the room as isolated from its larger context, the city.

Unlike many recent books about architecture, which are more public relations than substance, this work withstands more than a single reading. It will surely become a reference work in the more serious drafting rooms, and a source of inspiration and confidence to architects and layman alike. It is a sign of the health of the movement to restore traditional architecture that Semes is never defensive or directly critical of modernism. He simply lays out the classical world view. Perhaps the biggest surprise in store for the reader is just how much of the subject is susceptible to commonsense reasoning. No wonder the classical has a perennial hold on man’s imagination.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring, 2005, Volume 22, Number 2