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ARCHITECTURE

A very fine Italian house

Andrea Palladio's balanced villa has had a wide populist power. But architectural borrowing isn't always a positive force.

November 30, 2008|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

PIOMBINO DESE, ITALY — One afternoon in the middle of September, I stepped off a train onto the rain-slicked streets of this sleepy, well-kept town 25 miles northwest of Venice. After dashing for three blocks through a howling, late-summer storm, I found myself face to face with the house that arguably has had a broader, more lasting influence on American residential architecture than any other single building: the Villa Cornaro, built beginning in 1553 and designed by Andrea Palladio, who was born in Padua exactly 500 years ago today.

Looking back in my direction from atop a broad sweep of stone steps was the piece of architecture that inspired Thomas Jefferson's first stab at a design for Monticello, helped give the White House its projecting North Portico, and has since inspired thousands of ambitious designs in subdivisions across America -- including, in recent years, enough McMansions to fill a good-sized suburb. This was the one Palladian villa I'd always planned but hadn't yet been able to visit; it was also, I hoped, one that might shed some useful light on the complexities of architectural influence, and maybe explain why the very idea of appropriation is more fraught in architecture than in any other art form.

If a sculptor, filmmaker or composer is talented enough to produce a group of acolytes, or creates a style that seems irresistibly easy to crib, it hardly matters if the resulting copies are clumsy. An unsuccessful stab at Jackson Pollock-style action painting never did anybody any harm. A terrible Hemingway-esque novel can be stashed benignly on the bottom shelf.

But bad copies of brilliant buildings never disappear, at least not without the help of a wrecking crew, and they can't very easily be camouflaged or tucked out of sight. And when you consider that the vast majority of structures that go up in our cities every year are not designed by professionals -- and are therefore invented completely by means of indirect influence, with contractors often relying on blueprints that are already copies of copies -- you begin to realize that the act of architectural borrowing, in the wrong hands, can be a pretty destructive force.

Few architects have been as widely, energetically or crudely copied as Palladio. His outsized legacy is partly thanks to the clear, graceful appeal of his designs for villas and churches, but has more to do with the fact that he produced the famous pattern book in architectural history, I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura, or the Four Books on Architecture. It explained in uncompromising but patient prose how to apply the details and proportions of classical architecture to new construction. It also included a much-studied illustration of the Villa Cornaro.

First published in 1570 in Italian, and later in a number of translations, the Four Books made their way into the libraries of English earls, Scottish architects and our own Thomas Jefferson, ensuring that the Palladian style would become the foundation for aspirational house design in Britain and then, by the middle of the 18th century, in America. James Gibbs and other British architects used Palladian formulas as the basis for their own pattern books, which were widely copied by American designers and builders. Palladianism in this country, in other words, was strongly diluted from the start.

By the time a competition came around to design a residence for the American president, in 1792, elite Washington circles were full of Palladio fans. Jefferson, who referred to the Quattro Libri as his "Bible" and understood Palladio better than any American architect of his day, submitted an anonymous entry that was full of references to La Rotonda, his hero's hilltop masterpiece in Vicenza. (Since he helped organize the competition, it would have been awkward for him to enter officially.) Most of the rooms in James Hoban's winning design had rooms with perfect Palladian dimensions -- except, significantly, the Oval Office, whose form appears nowhere in the Four Books and was likely taken from Inigo Jones. In 1829, Hoban added a double-height portico to the northern facade that is an updated, streamlined version of the one fronting the Villa Cornaro by way of Gibbs.

Powerful legacy

When architectural historians explore the implications of the misguided homage, they tend to focus on the damage done to cities by followers of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other 20th century pioneers. It's not difficult to understand why: Copying a daring Modernist has often meant not only stripping your building of ornament and giving it a flat roof but also setting it apart from the city, even if the result is a noticeable tear in the urban fabric. The Music Center on Bunker Hill, to pick a local example, has unfortunate echoes of Miesian ambition not just in the forms of its architecture but in the way its campus of buildings stands aloof from the life of the street below.

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