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Why Palladio Matters More Than Ever

By Clem Labine

If he were alive today, Andrea Palladio would be 503 years old and might be surprised to discover that the editors of this magazine – and its companion magazine, Traditional Building – have named an architectural awards program after him. Though bemused, he would probably also be pleased to note that the year 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the Palladio Awards, which honor outstanding achievement in traditional design. To see this year's Palladio winners in the residential design categories, go here.

Assuming that Andrea Palladio could buttonhole this magazine's editors, he'd probably ask something like: "Why in the world did you name this awards program after me? After all, I've been gone from the architectural scene for nearly 500 years!" It's a pertinent question – the answer to which speaks to the deep rift that divides the world of architecture today.

Andrea Palladio (born Andrea di Pietro della Gondola) is arguably the most famous architect in Western history. But beyond his fame, Palladio is also the most influential architect of all time – as a result of the books he published, the philosophy he developed and the buildings he's left to us. These three components of Palladio's legacy constitute the greatest set of pedagogical tools for teaching architectural principles. It's Palladio in his role as master teacher that makes him the most influential architect in history and which keeps his legacy fresh and vibrant in the 21st century. The observances in both Europe and North America on Palladio's 500th birthday were primarily honoring the master teacher. And it's Palladio as master teacher that caused 48 design firms from 11 countries to publish a book in 2010 in which they proudly call themselves "New Palladians" (New Palladians: Modernity and Sustainability for 21st Century Architecture). And it's because of the admirable example that Palladio still sets for contemporary architects – five centuries after his birth – that we named our architectural awards program in his honor.

The design principles that Palladio developed make him far more than a mere "Renaissance architect." Palladio is, in fact, perpetually modern. He created revolutionary new architecture in his own time – but did so in an evolutionary way. He blended Classical and vernacular traditions to bring forth beautiful, appropriate, comfortable, durable and functional buildings. Rather than rejecting historical precedent and tradition – as do so many of today's practitioners – he embraced and adapted tradition to create innovative contemporary design.

Palladio started his career as a stonecutter and as a consequence always showed great respect for craftsmanship and materials. His talents were so obvious that Count Gian Giorgio Trissino, an influential humanist and author, invited the young stonemason to study in Trissino's Classical academy. (It was also Trissino who gave him the name "Palladio" – an allusion to Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.) After Trissino's death, Palladio travelled to Rome and studied the ruins of antiquity where he learned Greco-Roman systems of composition and proportion. But – like the ancients – he was no copyist. He absorbed the principles of the past, and applied them in new ways to solve the problems of his era.

Palladio's principles are timeless; he had a design method – not a design style. Most of his compositions do not incorporate the temple-front portico that has come to be thought of as "the Palladian Style." Rather, he showed a fluid design hand that blended modernity and human scale with dramatic exterior motifs. Harmony and balance, combined with strong tectonics, can be more accurately said to be the "Palladian Style."

Palladio's exquisite aesthetic sense was augmented by informed practicality. He was a master at tailoring his creativity to the needs of his clients. The majority of Palladio's now-famous villas were actually farmhouses for wealthy Venetian businessmen who owned land in the Veneto region. By combining all agricultural functions within a single multipurpose building, Palladio was able to create impressive architectural compositions that were both beautiful and utilitarian. (For example, the attics of many of his villas were designed for grain storage.) Large multipurpose buildings also provided symbolic gravitas that proclaimed the client's social status.

The majority of Palladio's villas achieved their sense of majesty not through expensive materials (most are made of stucco-covered brick) but through the clarity, simplicity and originality of the design. His buildings exhibit fine craftsmanship, cultural identity and clear rules of proportion, scale and composition. Equally important, Palladio displayed great site-sensitivity and incorporated many energy-conserving features centuries before the idea of "green architecture" was invented.

Above all, Palladio designed humane, rational buildings. The lucidity and intelligence of his architecture has maintained its popularity and influence through the centuries. Palladio's legacy of rational principles has inspired a steady stream of architects, from Inigo Jones, Christopher Wren, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Latrobe, Cass Gilbert and John Russell Pope to the group of current practitioners who call themselves New Palladians.

Much of architectural education today boils down to merely: "Be creative – and good luck with that." Students are taught to disdain 2,000 years of architectural experience and tradition. No wonder we get so many bizarre buildings that are overly expensive, dysfunctional – and leak! That's why Palladio matters more than ever: His legacy proves there is a different path – a rational design discipline that can be analyzed – and taught!

So in naming our awards program after Andrea Palladio we commemorate the master teacher and the architect whose principles are perpetually modern. The editors are pleased to honor all of the winners of the 2011 Palladio Awards – and we encourage architectural educators to teach aspiring architects to ask, "What would Palladio do?"  



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