Palladio as Paradigm for Education and Practice Today

Lecture delivered at the University of Notre Dame’s conference: From Vernacular to Classical: The Perpetual Modernity of Palladio, June 10-12, 2011

Dean Lykoudis, faculty, alumni, students, and colleagues it is a pleasure to be back at Notre Dame for this remarkable conference and exhibition. I offer my sincere thanks to the School of Architecture and Lucien for organizing the conference, to Lucien and Ali for their thoughtful and thought-provoking New Palladians, to the RIBA for their inspirational exhibit celebrating 500 years of Palladio, to Calder Loth for his inimitable contributions to Palladio’s Transatlantic journey, and last to my fellow Institute of Classical Architecture & Art trustee, Anne Kriken Mann, for ensuring that the Palladio made it to America.

Reflecting upon the conference theme of the “Perpetual Modernity of Palladio,” I began to question Palladio’s value today. What lessons can Palladio teach us?

We have heard excellent presentations on how the Palladian tradition has manifested itself in built works from such disparate locations as India, Spain and America, across the path of time from the distant past to the recent present, and throughout the spectrum of building from the sacred to the secular. We have also had the opportunity to gaze upon and reconsider Palladio’s harmonious, beautiful works of architecture. Few before or after him have achieved such meaningful, masterful, melodious effects.

So, his work is influential. It is to be admired. It achieves beauty. But are there other lessons we may draw from Palladio to assist us in our work today?

As we seek today to recover from the amnesia of modernism, to reweave our present and future back to our best past, we are not unlike Renaissance practitioners. A dark age of modernism almost succeeded in extinguishing the flame of civilization, but we, like our Renaissance predecessors, are working today to eliminate “strange abuses” and “barbarous inventions.” We see both the beauty and truth of the classical tradition and believe we may use it to better our condition. To do so, yes, we can utilize Palladio’s built works and his Quattro Libri to guide us, but we should perhaps turn even more fully to Palladio as our “Master and guide.” We should turn to Palladio himself as a paradigm for education and practice today.

Palladio as Paradigm for Education Today

There are several components of Palladio’s training and education which I propose allowed him to reconnect to the classical tradition in the meaningful way that he did, such that his work exemplifies the true spirit of the classical, being at once both canonic and inventive, both eternal and temporal, both ideal and particular. I would define these components, or subjects and methods, as:

  • Learning Materials and Methods through Building
  • Learning Theory and Practice by Studying Vitruvius
  • Learning Architectural Composition by Drawing Rome
  • Learning Purpose within a Humanist Tradition

For each of these, I submit that their near absence in today’s mainstream architectural education is detrimental to our built environment and quality of life. In particular, I argue that without these a modern renascence of the classical, and a healing of the ills of modernism, is unlikely if not impossible. Let us look now at each of these in a little more detail.

Learning Materials and Methods through Building

In 1521 when Palladio, at the age of 13, was apprenticed to the stonemason Bartolomeo Cavezza of Padova, there was neither formal training nor guilds for architects. Rather, architects were generally placed in charge of building projects after having distinguished themselves in some other art such as goldsmithing and clockmaking, like Brunelleschi, or in painting, like Bramante.

After a brief three years with Cavezza in Padova, and after trying once, unsuccessfully, to leave him, Palladio and his father relocated to nearby Vicenza where Palladio was enrolled as an apprentice in the Pedemuro workshop.  He was 16 years old when he moved from Padova to Vicenza in 1524. Over the coming twelve to thirteen years he would continue to learn the craft of building as a stonemason.

If we consider his first work of architecture the Villa Godi (1537), Palladio spends more than 16 years in learning the craft of building before undertaking work on his own. Add to that too, that he likely worked alongside his father as a child, and we have a man who literally grew up with a chisel in his hand.

Villa Godi (1537-42), one of Palladio’s first projects

We cannot underestimate Palladio’s intimate knowledge of building materials and processes when we judge his future accomplishments. For rather than simply conceiving of the design, he knew how building materials would behave, how much things would cost, how long something would take to build. He was, first, a builder and maker of things.

Nor can we divorce the necessary role of the apprenticeship system from this solid education. Knowledge and skill passed from master to apprentice is the essence of a living tradition. In the building arts, the apprenticeship system creates a shared body of knowledge of how to build well. It takes a long time to learn how to do anything well. Something our immediate-gratification, short-attention-span culture has forgotten.

Consider that Palladio did not take on his first design until after 16 years of experience, whereas today an architect can theoretically do so after a mere 8 years or less of education and experience: 5 years of education earning a professional Bachelor of Architecture, 3 years of experience interning and passing the exam. And they can do all this without ever having held a chisel, laid a brick, or swung a hammer.

Learning Theory and Practice by Studying Vitruvius

Towards the end of Palladio’s time with the Pedemuro workshop, he would meet a different sort of master: Gian Giorgio Trissino. Around 1537 the Pedemuro workshop was engaged to work on renovations to Trissino’s villa at Cricoli, which Trissino was transforming from a medieval castello into a villa in the all’antica style of Ancient Rome for what would become his Accademia Trissiniana. A nobleman, diplomat, scholar, and poet well-connected to Popes and Emperors alike, Trissino would not only bestow the name of Palladio on Andrea di Pietro, but also introduce three important subjects to Palladio’s education: Vitruvius, Rome, and the Humanist tradition.

Palladio’s biographer, Paolo Gualdo, recounts: “Finding Palladio to be a young man of very spirited character and with a great aptitude for science and mathematics, Trissino encouraged his natural abilities by training him in the precepts of Vitruvius.” Palladio himself describes Vitruvius’ pre-eminence in his education when he writes in I Quattro Libri: “Guided by a natural inclination, I dedicated myself to the study of architecture in my youth, and since I always held the opinion that the ancient Romans, as in many other things, had also greatly surpassed all those who came after them in building well, I elected as my master and guide Vitruvius, who is the only ancient writer on this art.”

While Palladio may have first been exposed to Vitruvius’s theories with Trissino, or perhaps first perused a copy of Vitruvius in the Pedemuro workshop, it is in his collaboration with his later patron, Daniele Barbaro, that he learns the lessons of Vitruvius most fully. Danielle Barbaro, a Venetian scholar and diplomat, published an edition of Vitruvius in 1556 with extensive commentary.  Illustrating the text throughout were Palladio’s drawings. We all know that it is one thing to read a text, or even to study drawings, but it is another thing altogether to wrest architectural form from a text. This carefully acquired knowledge would greatly impact Palladio’s work.

Vaughn Hart and Peter Hicks describe an example of the connection between Palladio’s study of Vitruvius and other texts from antiquity and his work. In Barbaro’s Vitruvius is Palladio’s reconstruction of the Roman house. This house type is then later included in his Quattro Libri and also provided the model for his plan of the Venetian monastery of Santa Maria della Carità.

It is, in large part, through Palladio’s extensive and careful study of Vitruvius’ text, and his interpreting in drawings and built work what was written in words, that Palladio comes to know and claim the classical tradition for himself. Had he merely sat in a class discussing the text, or even read it but not worked through the words in drawings and buildings, or had he used an abridged version of classical architecture like the American Vignola, he would not have meaningfully re-connected with the classical tradition and his work would be far less rich.  The limited extent to which many contemporary classical architects, let alone mainstream architects, learn from Vitruvius retards a reinvigoration of the classical tradition.  

I should say that while I focus here on Palladio’s study of Vitruvius, as it is the text central to the theory and practice of architecture, this is not to exclude his study and knowledge of other authors from antiquity such as Pliny, or that of early Renaissance and contemporary authors such as Alberti and Serlio.

Learning Architectural Composition by Drawing Rome

In tandem with, supporting and elucidating his study of Vitruvius, was Palladio’s meticulous observation of the buildings of ancient Rome through surveys and drawings over many years. His biographer Paolo Gualdo recounts: “Palladio measured and made drawings of many of those sublime and beautiful buildings which are the revered relics of Roman antiquity.”

First visiting Rome with Trissino for several months in 1541, and then again four more times over the course of his career, Palladio would come to know the best buildings of Rome through surveying and drawing them directly, himself. In his Quattro Libri, he describes that he has “traveled many times to Rome and other places in Italy and abroad where I have seen with my own eye and measured with my own hand the fragments of many ancient buildings.”

There is no better way to learn lessons of good design than to survey and draw exemplary buildings. I’ll say that again: There is no better way to learn lessons of good design than to survey and draw exemplary buildings. Neither picturesque views, no matter how fun they may be, nor pretty watercolor sketches, nor gigabytes of photography can replace the lessons learned by surveying and drawing a building.

In an essay on Palladio’s drawings, Beltramini points out that Palladio’s training as a maker of things affected how he analyzed buildings in drawings. Palladio’s drawings weren’t made for pictorial purposes, but by drawing in plan, section, and elevation, the drawings were analytical for Palladio.Palladio also engaged in the ever-valuable exercise of reconstruction, which forces one to become familiar enough with a building’s language to be able to imagine how the language one has discovered might have been extended to create what once stood.

These trips to Rome and study of her buildings had a profound impact on Palladio. He was able to better interpret Vitruvius’s text, even check, if you will, what Vitruvius wrote. And he was able to collect examples for his own use, to see components of classical architecture in composition, and to imagine the city as a whole.

Now, we have looked at three essential aspects of Palladio’s education:

  • Learning Materials and Methods through Building
  • Learning Theory and Practice by Studying Vitruvius
  • Learning Architectural Composition by Drawing Rome

Today’s architecture students are impoverished by comparison. For example, if we take a look at the breakdown of the educational requirements of the National Architectural Accrediting Board, the body which assesses schools of architecture for accreditation, we see thirty four criteria (1). Thirty four criteria is quite a lot, so it must be comprehensive.

NAAB Criteria

But let us look at this differently by rearranging the criteria into similar groups and see what we have (2).

NAAB Criteria arranged thematically

 Well, on the far left we have what I would say are general social skills and education that one should expect of any well-educated, thinking, caring person. And on the far right we have criteria which reflect the professional and legal aspects of architecture today. In the middle we have those subjects most directly related to the design and construction of buildings. Of these, only one mentions the materiality of architecture.

In general, architectural education today has little to do with the craft of building. Indeed, it often seems to have little to do with the built environment at all. If, however, we consider that much of the architecture we admire was designed and built by people we would today identify as design/build professionals, and that we have so many students of architecture going on to work in graphic design, product design, and even gaming and film effects, one has to question whether we should not perhaps increase our focus on the craft of building.

Grotto Pavillion research project working with mathematical form generation and tessellation.
Georgia Tech School of Architecture

Some architectural programs do incorporate building projects in their curriculum such as the Yale building project, which has been offered at Yale since 1967. The program is mandatory for all first- year students. After a five week design project, one team’s project is chosen and then constructed by the students. Likewise is Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Design Studio at Auburn University, which began in 1994 as a strategy to improve the living conditions in rural Alabama while imparting practical experience to architecture students. Again, students design and then construct a house.

The most extensive opportunity students have to learn the craft of building today is the solar decathalon where the U.S. Department of Energy challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. In general, though, the integration of building crafts and construction in architecture schools today is very limited. Out of more than 100 accredited schools of architecture and 61 degree programs in construction, only 14 universities contain degree programs in both architecture and construction in the same college. We have separated building and architecture to the detriment of both. And while one semester of construction experience is better than nothing, it is a whole lot less than Palladio’s 16 years of practical experience.

We do have some building crafts programs which continue to teach traditional building trades, but these are not generally for teaching architects.  At the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment we have the re-introduction of live build projects, which are projects designed by students and then built by the Foundation’s building craft apprentices who study in trades such as stonemasonry, carpentry, blacksmithing and roofing.

And at the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston which does offer two degree programs, but not in architecture, we have students designing and building in the trades of stonemasonry, metalworking, carpentry, plaster, preservation masonry, and timber framing.

And recently here at Notre Dame, Kevin Buccellato has been developing a concentration in the building arts. This focuses on constructing architectural models and details through four courses during which students research an historically significant building, produce drawings and build a detailed model. Subsequently they then design and build a traditional architectural element such as a mantel piece, stair, or newel post. It’s a good start at reintegrating the craft of building with the art of architecture. But we need more.

We also need to consider that in the United States, in almost no state today can someone qualify to sit for the architectural registration exam through experience alone, as one used to be able to do. In nearly every state today one must hold a degree from an accredited school of architecture with its thirty four criteria.

Along with the minimal focus on the building arts in architectural education today, few students ever hear the name of Vitruvius or survey and draw a building in Rome. And while we can do little to change others, we have room for improvement in our own camp.

If we take Palladio as a paradigm for education today, we must acknowledge the degree to which he confronted Vitruvius with “lively mental energy.” A common refrain among the classical architectural offices is that the students graduating from Notre Dame today have less facility with the classical language than in the past. For my own part, I have observed on recent juries that the classical language appears to be less understood and more often applied as stylistic decoration rather than being generative to the design. Now, that may or may not be true, but I suggest that every student who graduates from this school should at one time or another construct the orders, a temple, a house (or more) directly from Vitruvius’ text. Vitruvius has to be worked through to be understood, not just read or referenced.

And for those architects in the room who have never constructed an order or diagrammed intercolumniations from Vitruvius? Do so!

Why? Well, in Vitruvius, without drawings to guide one, one is forced to understand the architecture better. Additionally, Vitruvius presents classical architecture in all its flexibility and variety. By returning to Vitruvius, we return to first principles rather than imitating other people’s imitations of those.

Likewise, we have room for improvement in the way we approach studying Rome. Some fifteen years ago Lucien and I taught together on our Notre Dame Rome Studies Program. We ran several design projects as part of our studio. But I came away from that experience believing a far better use of our students time while in Rome would be to simply survey and draw buildings and spaces in Rome, and only, perhaps, at the end of their time to undertake a small design project.

I imagine if I were to ask Palladio to sketch a plan and elevation of, well, just about any of the buildings he surveyed, that he would be able to do so. Because in the act of surveying and then representing the information gathered in a drawing, the information is burned into your mind. If you ask our students to draw from memory a building they saw in Rome, even the most important ones, even just the basic elements of the composition, few could.

At the Institute, when I developed our Rome Drawing Tour along with Richard Cameron, we organized it around three types of drawings: pictorial, analytical, and visual notes. Then over the course of two weeks, we conducted two drawing exercises per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. But of course, this barely scratches the surface of Rome.

In general, whether considering how contemporary classicists engage with Vitruvius or Rome, we need to vigilantly keep our standards high. We should know Vitruvius and antiquity as well as Palladio did.

Learning Purpose within a Humanist Tradition

This educational foundation of knowledge of building, careful study of Vitruvius, and learning from Rome is the educational foundation we need for a revitalized practice today. But that practice must be purposeful. And it is this final aspect of Palladio’s education, his intellectual development within the humanist tradition and thus his sense of purpose, which I propose we adopt as our principle paradigm in practice today.

Academy of Athens by Raphael

Trissino’s academy at his villa in Cricoli was in the tradition of the Florentine academy. At Cricoli, one could learn in rural solitude, in rooms decorated with Greek and Latin inscriptions; where one developed through Study, arts, and virtue; and undertook a regulated schedule of study of Latin and Greek, philosophy, astronomy, geography, music. While it is not known to what extent he was involved, Palladio seems to have taken part of the life of Trissino’s academy.

Underlying the academy was the concept of virtú, which we may think of as work in service to the public good. As we recover the classical tradition of Rome, of Palladio, we do so not merely because we prefer this or that aesthetic, but we do so because within the classical we find an architecture and urbanism to ameliorate the challenges of life, to express in built form the ideal world, to provide the best setting for our public and private lives.

Like Palladio, we purposefully choose to reach back into history for the good of our present and future. Palladio himself hoped he would help in this regard. In his introduction to his Quattro Libri he writes, “I am longing to say that I have perhaps shed so much light on this area of architecture that those who come after me may be able, with my example before them and using their own intellectual acuity, readily to add the true beauty and elegance of the ancients to the magnificence of their buildings.”

And so let us go forward, with Palladio’s example before us, readily adding the true beauty and elegance of the ancients to the magnificence of our buildings.

“Regina Virtus,” frontispiece for I Quattro Libri (1570, A. Palladio)

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