Traditional Building Portfolio

Classic Beauty

By Thomas P. Matthews, Jr.

The Equitable Building (1892) in Denver was designed by Andrews, Jacques & Rantoul.

What makes Classical architecture so enduring? British philosopher Roger Scruton addresses this in his BBC essay entitled, "Why Beauty Matters." He begins by observing, "At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art or music, they would have replied 'beauty.' And if you had asked the point of that, you would have learned that beauty is a value…as important as truth and goodness."

Classicism and beauty were brought to the fore in Denver recently at a gathering hosted by Rocky Mountain ICAA president Don Ruggles. Patrons were invited to learn about a new program soon to be offered by the University of Colorado Denver (UCD), where graduate students will be able to earn an ICAA Certificate in Classical architectural studies founded on the Beaux Arts paradigm. The school is recognizing that there is a growing market, or niche, for Classically trained students. We gathered in the large living room and assistant dean Taisto Makela gave an illustrated talk entitled, "Why the Classical?" He began by saying that Classical architecture is not to the exclusion of other forms and that Classicists are not the "style police." There is room for all kinds of architecture, but it so happens that our passion lies with the abundantly rich Classical tradition.

While viewing slides of students' work, someone asked, "What about the constraints of Classical architecture?" This prompted architect and instructor of ink-wash technique Cameron Kruger to respond: "The Classical language provides architects with a grammar and vocabulary that allows rich and varied expression. In teaching my ink-wash class I've noticed that the students begin the semester thinking that they are limited to the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, and they can only do one of three possible drawings. However, by the end of the term, they all come to realize that the Classical language provides them with the support needed for nuanced expression. They see their own personality and those of their classmates coming through in their compositions. And they begin to understand the value of Classical training."

A lively discussion ensued between several professors and others present when a philosopher in the audience observed, "Greek temples were informed by mythology and the stars, so how can they be relevant today? What would be the motivation?" In effect, why the Classical? Various reasons were being bantered about when Don Ruggles stepped forward and quietly said, "Beauty." Everyone paused and listened. He continued, "Beauty is consistently the common thread that weaves it all together. The world around us! Nature! I believe as architects one of our primary responsibilities is the creation of beauty. I recently stated this perspective to a New York City architect and he countered by saying, 'That's a slippery slope – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.' My observation is that beauty is in fact universal, and there are simple fundamentals that engender this notion."

Indeed, nearly all of our ideals of beauty stem from nature. The ultimate created thing of beauty is the human form, from which the early Greeks derived their system of art and architecture. The foundational principles of proportion, symmetry, hierarchy and balance all have their roots here. Such beauty is timeless. This is why most people consider the ancient Parthenon and the Louvre's sculpture of Aphrodite as quite beautiful even after some 2,000 years. There are things people look at and admire and in their hearts know are beautiful.

If you seek beauty in art and architecture and want to learn more about Classical principles, may I suggest the ICAA. A couple of years ago when one of our members discovered he could now share his love of traditional architecture through the chapter with other people, he said, "Why, this is like manna from heaven!"

Denver enjoys a wealth of Classical tradition and one of the ways the chapter has been building on this rich heritage has been through monthly behind-the-scenes building tours called "Columns & Coffee." Committee chair Chad Cox explains: "Columns & Coffee is designed to give people an appreciation and insight into Classical design, and it's helping connect people with each other and to the relevance of Classicism today. We get into the basement, the attics, learn secrets about the buildings that only a handful of people close to those buildings know. When people see these places, they're amazed by the amount of thought and intellectual vigor that went into these buildings 100 years ago."

Through the ICAA one can find an abundance of lectures, tours and publications. The Rocky Mountain chapter has been privileged to host lectures by some of the foremost architects thriving within the Classical niche today, with many more planned. Architects like Gil Schafer, David Schwarz, Peter Pennoyer, Bobby McAlpine, Marc Appleton, and most recently, Mark Ferguson of Ferguson & Shamamian, have challenged us to keep building on our wealth of Classical tradition here in Denver. The work of all of these architects holds true to Vitruvius, the architect in ancient Rome who taught that every building must exhibit the qualities of strength, utility and beauty.  

An architect practicing in Denver, Tom Matthews greatly admires Classical architecture and strives to use time-tested principles in designing traditional houses for modern living. He serves on the board of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

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