Monday, June 27, 2011

Another Small Jewel

Buildings such as this are the reason we chose to dedicate our work to garden architecture: their garden settings allow their architects a license to dream, creating—in the best of circumstances—small, virtually unknown masterpieces that are nonetheless unforgettable once you have encountered them.

This miniature neo-Palladian pantheon, the Temple of Friendship at Pringy, distills one of architecture's most potent archetypes and limns it with one of architecture's most haunting styles. All the more remarkable as the architect himself is quite obscure—Soufflot the Younger, nephew to the great French mid-18th century architect, Jacques-Germain Soufflot—author of another, much grander and world-famous Pantheon in Paris.

As is often the case with garden follies—though in this case the building has more powerful a presence than what those words might conjure—the Temple of Friendship has a charming back-story: commissioned by the friends of the Duchess of Gontaut-Biron and erected on her estate of Pringy, located near Melun to the south of Paris, during her extended absence in 1785. Today, it is difficult to imagine the generosity and complexity of such an extravagant gesture, so characteristic of the aristocracy of the Ancien Régime.

And the building itself is simply and forcefully detailed with a severe, stripped-down and abstracted classicism that is clearly Palladian but also offers intimations of the Revolutionary-era architecture of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. The cream-white stucco work plays masterfully against the reddish rubble walls, and those walls as well as the stuccoed wall of the temple front are battered, or angled slightly outward, giving the building its remarkable sense of presence.

Finally, a shameless plug: if you haven't done so, please do visit the new page on our main site, Latest Work, where we present a number of our most recent watercolors (this one among them).

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Architectural Alphabet

In their May issue, our friends at Architectural Digest featured our Architectural Alphabet note cards, bringing a mass influx to our website, for which we're extremely grateful, and we thought it would be a good thing to explain the project here for these visitors.

Our previous exhibitions and books have investigated both the lighter and serious sides of architectural history, from chinoiserie garden pavilions to the château of Versailles, and in 2008 it seemed the perfect juncture, after nearly two decades documenting the rich and varied patrimony of European and American architecture and gardens, for a bit of play—for our own five-fingered exercise.

Our touchstones for the abecedarium, which is also a limited-edition book prefaced by the interior designer Charlotte Moss, were the Ancien Régime and the Grand Tour—the de rigueur Italian sojourn of the European aristocracy and its architects. The English, the most adventurous voyagers, flocked to Florence, Rome and Naples in the 18th century to discover for themselves antiquity and its Renaissance interpretations, and the wealth of Italian painting, sculpture and decorative objects that embellish the interiors of Britain’s great country houses—and occasionally the architecture of the houses themselves—testify to the passion, enthusiasm and acquisitiveness of these peripatetic lords. French nobles, spellbound by Versailles and terrified by the prospect of absenting themselves from its eternal tedium only to face the prospect of lost position and favor upon their return, were far more reluctant to cross the Alps and instead sent their abbés and architects. German princes followed the English example and gladly abandoned their tiny principalities for months and even years at a time for the charms of Italy.

Among the most fascinating byways of architectural history are fantasy projects, designs drawn exclusively for the joy of composition, and one should also include the enduring passion for composing decorative vases, drawn by architects and designers such as Michelangelo and Charles Le Brun, to cite but two artists fascinated by their forms and decorative vocabulary. Whether doodled in the margins of drawings or published as engraved portfolios, the creative impulse, even for such an ostensibly minor subject as a garden vase, required no commissioner to justify itself.

Quite often in garden architecture, fantasy projects differed from built work only in degree, and occasionally not at all, as designers took the idea of the garden as an alternate universe to unparalleled extremes, peopling it with structures and scenes of marvelous strangeness. Festival architecture, transient papier-maché fantasies erected for court amusements, regularly transmuted to carved stone, and stone itself was supplanted by lathe and wood in the last, turbulent decades of the Ancien Régime, as transience itself became a rage.

To pay homage to this remarkably fecund period, we freely combine the architectural and the decorative, much as rococo interiors often featured painted boiserie panels of fantastic scenes, such as the famed Grande Singerie at the château of Chantilly by Christophe Huet. And there are numerous allusions to the work of other French artists, such as Watteau, Boucher, Pillement, Desportes, Hubert Robert, Lancret, and Oudry, who together have shaped much of posterity’s visual perception of the eighteenth century.

So in the end, this alphabet is a play upon the vocabulary of the architecture and decorative arts of the Ancien Régime and the Grand Tour, intended for children of all ages. The vignettes evoke the fantasy and exoticism that inspired the architects and garden designers of the period, reference its themes and its symbolic repertoire, for the period was also the end of a great age of allegory and allusion, which the Enlightenment would soon extinguish.

A key to the letters: Acanthus, Balustrade, Chinoiserie, Vase, Kiosk, Ruin.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Russian Follies and Pavilions

One of the great cultural revelations to occur in the aftermath the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago was the West's rediscovery of St. Petersburg and its great imperial estates.

First and oldest is Peterhof, the residence of the city's founder and namesake, Peter the Great, built on the shores of the Neva Bay of the Gulf of Finland, Russia's maritime corridor to Europe and the raison d'être of St. Petersburg itself.

Below, the cascades at Peterhof.

To the southeast are Tarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk: the former the Russian Versailles, magisterial and imprinted with the remarkable personality of Catherine (II) the Great, and later the bourgeois taste of her grandson, Alexander I; the latter the exquisite neo-Palladian estate of her ill-fated son, Paul I, and his widowed Empress, Maria Feodorovna.

At top, the Caprice or Krestovy Bridge at Tarskoye Selo and below, the Pavilion of the Three Graces by Cameron at Pavlovsk.

Oranienbaum, the baroque hunting estate of Catherine II—originally built for Duke Aleksandr Menshikov, boon companion to Peter the Great and de facto czar during the reign of Catherine I—is to the west near the Neva Bay. Though built on a monumental scale that is typically Russian, Oranienbaum is nonetheless the most intimate and rustic of all the imperial estates and that most in harmony with nature.

Below, the Peterhof Gate at Oranienbaum.

Finally, there is the outlying estate of Gatchina, the vast neoclassical palace Catherine II ordered built for her lover, Count Orlov, and which she graciously repurchased from his heirs for her son Paul upon Orlov's death. Gatchina is as far again to the south of Tarskoye Selo as it in turn is from St. Petersburg, its relative isolation (with that of Oranienbaum) causing it to suffer from a chronic lack of funds for its complete restoration.

Below, the monumental ruins of the Aviary at Gatchina.

Peterhof, Tarskoye Selo and Gatchina are palaces conceived on a scale rivaling Versailles and Fontainebleau, but were used solely as residences; there was no precedent in Russia for the court living in attendance on the czar. And all five of these estates feature formal gardens and landscape parks scattered with an unparalleled variety of pavilions, garden follies and monuments in Easter-egg colors, the work of a host of foreign architects—predominately Italian, later British—who brought to Russia the architectural knowledge it so sorely lacked. The Italians—Rastrelli, Rinaldi and Rossi—designed palaces and pavilions of such baroque exuberance that they have few counterparts even in Italy, and later the Scottish architect Cameron and the Italian Quarenghi designed a host of serenely proportioned neoclassical structures for Catherine the Great and Paul I at Tarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk.

Below, Rastrelli's spectacular Hermitage Pavilion in the Catherine Park of Tarskoye Selo.

Whether baroque or neoclassical, these imperial estates are all follies in the broadest sense; there is little or no contrast, as in France, between the sober palace and its garden buildings, but rather the palaces themselves are often more gilded, more colorful, more ornate, more plastic—in short, more exuberant—than the follies in their parks. Consider below, the chapel at Peterhof:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Andrea Palladio

Andrea Palladio is the most famous architect of the modern world, and here we define modern in opposition to the ancient world (the architects of the great pyramids, as well as their entire history, are lost to time), and he has been so for over four centuries, essentially since he published his Four Books of Architecture in Venice in 1570.

His influence is such that his name has come to define a very clear, seemingly eternal architectural aesthetic, and moreover he is only one of a handful of human beings whose name has become an adjective; beside Palladianism itself, we have Palladian bridges and windows and villas, each invention an aspect of his monumental talent. So, after nearly four and a half centuries, what exactly is Palladianism, this architect's potent legacy, and what is the crux of his enduring fame?

First there is the Four Books, doubtless the most popular architectural book ever published. In it, Palladio presents the entire scope of architecture as then defined, from the proper use of the five classical columnar orders to civil engineering, from reconstitutions of ancient Roman monuments to his own architectural designs. More important, though, is his built work—particularly the poetic corpus of villas in the Veneto, the fertile plain between Venice's Adriatic coast and the foothills of the Dolomites. Built for wealthy land-owners, Palladio's villas are a theme-and-variations comparable to Bach's fugues or Mozart's late symphonies: they are the expression of fecund, deliberate intention in search of Beauty.

And Palladio's essential innovation—the idea of such power that it would endure five centuries—is what, in essence? In the end it is quite simple and quite profound: Palladio was the first to apply the Greco-Roman temple front—the triangular pediment and columns—to a private residence. In doing so, he elevated his patrons to the realm of the gods. His villas are, for the most part, simple, square-planned buildings whose essential form is more ancient than Rome itself, and he grafts onto these four-square volumes (the square being the symbol of the earth, literally its four corners) the symbol of divinity, the pedimented colonnade of the Greco-Roman temple. Crossing the threshold, the resident entered a temple; man lived in the abode of the gods.

What is so remarkable, after all these centuries, is the profound dichotomy between the stolid cubic volume of the ancient Roman farmhouse, ennobled by the delicate appendage of the columned temple front. Perfect examples are the villas Badoer (top) and Chiericati (below); the famed Villa Rotonda (above) is Palladio's ultimate distillation of this simple but revolutionary idea.

We have become so accustomed to this remarkable juxtaposition that, for centuries now, we no longer even see the incredible clash of the humble and the exalted, the human and the divine—the stolid mass of the peasant and the delicate filigree of the gods.

This was Andrea Palladio's great innovation—recognizing the divinity in each of us, and translating that idea into our built world—and for that he has gained true and enduring fame.