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Ariel – The Art of Building, LLC, designed this house for Flower City Habitat for Humanity through The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America. It is budgeted at about $60,000.

This multi-million-dollar estate in Long Island, NY, was designed by numerous architects and features the work of countless artisans.

 

Opinions

The Prince and the Pauper Revisited

Is Classical architecture just for the rich?

By Richard Cameron

There’s nothing ill can dwell in such a temple:
If the ill spirit have so fair a house,
Good things will strive to dwell with’t.
– Shakespeare, The Tempest

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
– Oliver Wendell Holmes,
The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

I have been designing houses for some of this country’s wealthiest people for 15 years. Every once in a while my mother calls me up and asks me whether or not I feel good about doing this. By this I take her to mean that I should feel some moral force (which is what mothers often are…) prodding my conscience to use my abilities for the less fortunate. The question used to make me defensive and I would typically launch into an encomium of the American capitalist system (I am a Canadian, as is my mother) and the need for wealthy patronage for the arts and crafts to flourish.

But is it true that the current revival of Classical architecture is reserved for this country’s financial elite? It is a common perception – one that is reinforced in schools of architecture where the history of architecture presents Classicism in this light as well. The problem with this view is that it misses the point of the Classical completely. The link between wealth and Classical architecture is that wealth is a necessary but not sufficient condition for its creation. The Classical is the category of building that aims at the highest and its fruition is the Classical city, whose constituent parts – house, palace, theater, bath, courthouse, senate, forum and temple – make up its whole. Each of these buildings, while individually Classical, only really have meaning with respect to the others. (We could continue down the hierarchy as well and count villa and farmhouse, or see the same set of hierarchies reflected in the cemetery – the city of the dead outside the city walls). All of these buildings together represent a hierarchy of value aimed at the highest type – the temple – and each in some way reflects that highest type in its own form.

It used to take a great deal of money to build a temple. It has been estimated that the columns of the Parthenon in Athens cost a million dollars apiece to make in today’s valuation – that’s roughly $50 million just for the columns! The whole building was the work of the greatest architects, artists, craftsmen and laborers of Periclean Athens (a city of, at most, 350,000 inhabitants) and cost enough that no one citizen – no matter how wealthy – could have footed the entire bill. The Parthenon was a work of collective public patronage.

Be it the house of a wealthy man or the house of a poor man, a house is still a private building and thus falls at the bottom end of the hierarchy of Classical building types. Though the Greeks did not build elaborate private dwellings in the city, their villas reflected their status and wealth. At the beginning of the empire, the Romans elaborated the imperial residence to enormous size, and, in the case of several emperors, conflated this residence with the temple in recognition of the semi-divine status of the emperor during his lifetime. In neither case, however, was the house of an individual ever considered to be more important than the house of a god.

But for Americans the works of the great writers could be the bright sunlit uplands where they could find the outside, the authentic liberation for which this essay is a plea. The old was the new for these American students, and in that they were right, for every important old insight is perennially fresh. It is possible that Americans would always lack the immediate, rooted link to the philosophic and artistic achievements that appear to be part of the growth of particular cultures. But their approach to these works bespoke a free choice and the potential for man as man regardless of time, place, station or wealth to participate in what is highest. It would be a sad commentary on the human condition if the brotherhood of man is founded on what is lowest in him while the higher cultivation required unbridgeably separate "cultures."
– Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind

I worked on the design of both of the houses pictured in this article. Each of them is a single-family dwelling. The estate on Long Island is the work of many architects, artists, craftsmen and laborers and cost many millions of dollars. The other design is a house for Flower City Habitat for Humanity designed through the collaborative program with The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America. It is scheduled to be built this summer by a group of volunteer and professional craftspeople and laborers and is budgeted at about $60,000.

Both of these houses can be seen as Classical only in as much as they take their place in the full range of types I have listed here – and insofar as they both aim toward the highest type in their formal references. Each one recalls more or less explicitly the temple front in its entry and in other ways. It is my contention, however, that it is because we are no longer building temples that we do not immediately recognize how and why these two houses relate to one another and to a greater whole. This is what the Classical provides – the recognition that all dwellings have in common their orientation to the temple and take their formal cues from it. This is why the Classical orders of architecture are associated with specific temple types and specific cults in Vitruvius’ presentation of them in The Ten Books on Architecture, for without that fundamental association they are simply formal types with little or no meaning. It is really only because we no longer have the temple at the apex of our urban hierarchy that we cannot see the relationship – except perhaps in formal terms – between a palace and a house. It is also why we are unable to remember that the Classical is neither for rich or poor, but is for that part in each of us that yearns for the highest.  

 


Richard Cameron is a co-founder of The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America and a partner with Ariel – The Art of Building, LLC, a design and construction services firm in New York, NY.

 

 
 

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