Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

Tour de France Architecture and the Classical Home

Pass the Salt — and the Classical Ideal

One of the great pleasures of watching the Tour de France (a current nightly addiction) is seeing modern cycling in a setting of great classical architecture. The most vivid backdrop so far was last week’s ninth-stage start at the famous

late 18th century salt works at Arc-et-Senans, Besançon (photo courtesy estrepublicain.fr). This remarkable complex of buildings (the one above was a theater) arose as part of an early utopian idea for a factory town, when salt was a precious commodity as an agent for food preservation and to improve taste, and a royal monopoly. Though these three riders are understandably oblivious to the robust Doric order behind them, they are chatting, ironically, beside an early example of what scholars call “architecture parlante” or “talking architecture,”

designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, and completed in 1778.  The aerial view shows the semi-circular layout and the architect’s interest in geometric order (photo courtesy salineroyale.com). In his excellent book European Architecture 1750-1890, architectural historian Barry Bergdoll explains that architecture parlante was about expressing the identity and profession of the client “through the manipulation of architectural symbolism.” Here that meant using a rustic Doric order (because Doric signified a utilitarian function at that time) and an orderly — i.e. geometric — layout with “an arc of residential and service buildings facing the salt production sheds and the director’s house along the diameter.”

Among the most expressive, or loquacious aspects of the Salt Works are the ornamental sculptures of saline water just before crystallization, as shown in this image, courtesy Miami.edu — which could also represent the occasional cramping that cyclists experience…Hydrate! Hydrate! Classical architecture has always embodied large ideas and associations — order, knowledge, Greece and Rome — so it’s easy to see how an architect like Ledoux would take imagery to an

extreme, as in his design for the keeper of a river dam’s power source as a giant sluice gate (never built; image courtesy Arch 672: Smart Surfaces Studio). It could be a progenitor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater at Bear Run, Pennsylvania for Edgar Kaufmann — only River Keeper Kaufmann actually ran a department store.

As it happens, Thomas Jefferson arrived in France in 1784, not long after the salt works and other buildings by Ledoux had been completed, and soaked up the classical vibe (if not the salt) from daily walks in Paris, as an insightful and

beautifully printed new book by historian Diana Ketcham and photographer Michael Kenna — Thomas Jefferson’s Paris Walks (Arion Press, 2012) — demonstrates. According to Ketcham, Jefferson was most attracted to

Neoclassical buildings like the new palace for the Prince de Salm, from 1787, with its monumental portico and long rows of columns along a court of honor (photo courtesy Arion Press). Upon his return from Paris in 1796, Jefferson

redesigned Monticello, no doubt prompted by what he saw in France. Monticello’s high blocky entablature and balustrade wrapping the brick wall above the windows like a tightly cinched cummerbund may have derived from the grand double entablature at de Salm. You can see echoes of the colonnade arrangement in his much later plan for The Lawn (central quad) at the University of Virginia.

The classical portico idea remains popular to this day. A recent, much

simplified version, is  Plan 492-8, by architect-sculptor Michael Curtis (part of our Exclusive Studio Collection), with its pedimented front porch. Inside of course, the layout is very contemporary, with the kitchen-dining room

and master suite opening to a spacious deck. Such a design would suit a site in neighborhoods where the language of classical architecture is still spoken. And in New Urbanist communities like Seaside, Florida or Stapleton, Colorado, which are classically inspired and where garages are usually on rear alleys, the main streets would be safer for cyclists!

Window Walls and Rooms-Within-Rooms

Every Solid Loves a Void — and Space is a Wrap

Let’s explore two strong architectural ideas — the window wall and the room-within-a-room — and how they can enhance house design. Both have long histories. In one sense the glass wall goes all the way back to the tall banks of windows at the Tudor estate known as Hardwick Hall in England, built by Bess

of Hardwick in the late 1500s, shown here (photo courtesy Anglotopia.net). At that time glass was an important emblem of power and wealth because it was so rare — thus it was a fitting material for the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth I. You didn’t mess with Bess. A more recent example is the glass

living room wall to the right of the tree courtyard, at the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau designed by Le Corbusier and built as a demonstration house or “machine for living” for the Paris Exposition of 1925 (photo courtesy 4rts.wordpress.com). As we have seen in previous posts, the window wall became a signature feature of Modernism, especially in mid-twentieth century works like Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth house and Philip Johnson’s Glass

House. Our Plan 520-4, by Irish architect Frank McGahon, shown here with its flanking window walls, is a recent version. The great appeal of the window wall is to unite inside and outside while framing both. The trick is to beware of exposures — even insulated glass can transmit heat and cold.

The room-within-a-room idea is vividly illustrated by a piece of furniture, also from England of centuries ago: the Great Bed of Ware, ca. 1580, with its large

post and beam frame and heavy curtains closing it off for privacy and warmth (photo courtesy Wikipedia).

Thomas Jefferson’s bed alcove at Monticello, shown above, is a sort of built-in version, minus the curtains (photo courtesy Colonial Williamsburg). Architect Charles Moore was fascinated with this idea and referred to it as an aedicula, which is Latin for a small shrine. (The most famous example of an aedicula

is the baldacchino with twisting columns over the altar at St. Peter’s in Rome, by Bernini, photo courtesy Saintpetersbasilica.org.) Moore used a much simplified version of it in his own house at Orinda from the early 1960s, where the larger

living and smaller bathing spaces are defined by columns and skylights, like separate domestic temples clustered under one roof (image courtesy Eleanor Weinel’s Arch4443). Moore’s design partner, William Turnbull, used an even more spare — and more Jeffersonian — version in his Sea Ranch cottage of the early 1980s, which is our historical Plan 447-1, where the bed is an alcove

in the corner. A flexible contemporary take on this idea is “The Cube” designed by architect Toshi Kasa of Spaceflavor for Feng Shui expert Liu Ming in his live/work loft in Oakland, California (photo by Joe Fletcher via The New York

 Times). The 8 foot-square cube-on-wheels is a bedroom on one side and an office on the other, allowing Mr. Ming to use the rest of his loft for his classes. I trust the brakes are on in case there’s an earthquake.

An outdoor room within a garden is yet another way to go, as architect Ross

Anderson shows in our Plan 433-2, above. See the outdoor fireplace opposite the built-in bench forming a small living area at the edge of the courtyard in this partial view.

But where might the window wall and the room-in-a-room work together? How about Hojo House by Akira Yoneda of Architecton in Japan. The glass house is

behind an elegant scrim of steel tubes, creating a modified screen porch that distracts from the very tight infill site (thoughts of cages inevitably spring to mind; photo courtesy infoteli.com). But I think today’s most famous example of the two ideas working together might be the marvelous glass cube entrance to the Apple store

on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where the novelty of a structure that is there-and-not-there makes you see everything around it — like the Plaza Hotel across the street — more clearly. The simple contrast between solid and void is visually refreshing and builds a larger whole. Designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple’s magic container makes you realize it is a room within the much larger room that is the terrace on which it sits, the street, and the edge of Central Park itself. Some ideas just expand!

Paint Palettes New and Old

Hues and Dyes

I just played the online Color Sense Game by Voice of Color from Porter Paints (part of PPG Paints). It’s a kind of test – your answers to a range of questions like “pick 5 words that inspire you” (out of a given list), or “where would you feel most at home?”(you select one image out of a wide range), or “what animal would you be?” (again from a range of pictures) –  result in your own personal paint palette. It seemed fairly accurate in my case; that is, I liked the color range that my answers produced.

Apparently I’m “Al Fresco” – or is that the brother of Bill Fresco. Apparently it means that I like green tones. You’ll note that there is a little tab on the upper right corner that says “Your Secondary Harmony Family” (this will be news to my wife — and me too, come to think of it!).

My secondary family turns out to be the Whites…It all sounds a little corny, but I think it can help you figure out what colors are meaningful to you. Painter beware, however because if you play again and change one or two answers you may get a very different set of colors…After I switched from tiger to eagle

my secondary harmony family became Desert Spice. I think I like Al Fresco and the Whites better. I guess I’m just a cat after all.

Color is at once very simple and subjective (you instinctively like certain hues) and highly sophisticated and complex (the psychological study of color perception, for example). In the history of architecture there are many color palettes, from the vibrant reds and yellow ochres of Pompeiian frescoes (image below courtesy Natural Pigments)

to the white and intense chromium yellow that Thomas Jefferson used

in the dining room at Monticello. According to retrofit guru Bob Vila, this particularly vivid palette is a relatively recent discovery, thanks to scientific analysis of the original pigments (photo courtesy his website). At the turn of the 20th century architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bay Area’s Bernard Maybeck became identified with an Arts & Crafts palette (from the movement of the same name) and evolved their own set of hues and tones

often with autumnal hues like red, burnt orange, and even gold to complement the use of natural materials like redwood and brick. In fact Wright’s favorite color was what he called Cherokee red (photo of Wright’s Zimmerman house, by David J. Bohl, courtesy Currier Museum of Art, from About.com).

European modernists like Le Corbusier developed their own palettes as well;

his was based on primary colors, but, as shown above,  included a variety of subtle variations. These colors (and the image) are from the website Aaltocolor.com. The elegant palette published in 128 Colors: A Sample Book for Architects, Conservators, and Designers, by Katrin Trautwein (Birkhauser,

Basel, 2010) includes 68 Corbusian hues along with 60 others. Trautwein founded an artisinal paint manufacturer in Uster, Switzerland in 1997. She explains how Le Corbusier’s colors were designed to “remain stable in space to support architecture’s three dimensional effects.” As a painter as well as an architect (remember his Purist efforts,

like this still life of 1922, courtesy Ferris) he knew what he was talking about. He probably was not thinking about tigers and eagles.