The Continued Relevance of Classicism in Contemporary Design
Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion at the Boston Design Center titled “The Continuing Relevance of Classicism in Contemporary Design” hosted by the New England Chapter of The Institute of Architecture and Arts, aka as ICA&A or #ICAA.
With its roots grounded in empathy for the human scale and form, its rich and organically derived design and details, classicism is as relevant and important today as it has been for thousands of years now.
The panel, whom I will introduce below, provided everyone in attendance with extremely interesting insights and thoughts, especially Ann Sussman, whose information about how the scientific data now provided by biometrics and neuroscience is able to prove to developers and builders the relevance and importance of using classical principles to provide people with a sense of safety and security.
But first, a home designed by architect Ivan Bereznicki – a perfect reflection of the beauty of contemporary classicism.
Landscape Design by Dan Gordon, Landscape Architects.
The chapter assembled an intriguing panel of four speakers, representing a variety of areas of design expertise. John Tittman, architect and principal at Albert Righter Tittman, Oliver Bouchier, partner at Payne Bouchier, Fine Builders, Leslie-jon Vickory, Senior Interior Designer at Hamady Architects, Ann Sussman, Architect, Author and Researcher – all hosted by Eric Daum, a partner in Merrimack Design Associates, who was past President and co-founder of ICA&A New England.
I felt hopefully optimistic as I took my seat.
John Tittman began the presentation by talking about classicism’s view of the human condition, human scale and urban planning. (Sketches below by John Tittman.)
Let me share a few of my favorite quotes from John’s presentation.
” We are social. We build vessels for our activities. Scale can be manipulated for artistic effect.” ~ John Tittman.
“Room is scale to us. A living unit is an assembly of connected rooms. A building is an assembly of living units. A block is an assembly of buildings. A city is an assembly of blocks. A city is built based on human scale and our social interactions.”
He showed a slide of maps of cities from around the world, pointing out how the size of a city block is the same from city to city.
I loved his quote: “The problem with modern cities is they are no longer a series of connected spaces for people.” This is most evident, here in Boston, with our City Hall Plaza, shown below.
However, Boston is beginning to undo some of its early urban planning errors. The Greenway has replaced the elevated expressway and developers are once again seeing the value, financially, practically, emotionally and spiritually, in creating walkable neighborhoods for families that create, for them, a firm sense of bonding with community and place.
Oliver Bouchier spoke of the pleasure of building, and the joy of creating, whether it was a piece of art or crafting the interior of a home.
I believe our clients here at Wilson Kelsey Design are discovering and contributing to a growing trend of working with artisanal craft people. The following images are the work of fellow ICA&A New England chapter member, Sven Havumaki, the owner of Oak and Laurel Workshop.
His work is truly an expression of passion and joy. A brief visit to his website and I guarantee you will be nodding your head in agreement. He’s located a hop, skip and jump up the coast in Biddeford, Maine. I’m sure he’d love it if you gave him a call to arrange a visit to his shop.
An accomplished renderer, Leslie-jon Vickory spoke about her role as the senior interior designer at Hamady Architects and how she used her rendering skills to study and explore the shape, scale and detail of a room or home. One comment she made truly stood out to me.
I will paraphrase:
“The inside of a computer has no sense of scale. When you draw by hand, you are forced to think about how big or small something is and its relationship to the rest of the space.”
I almost clapped my hands in applause!
She described how she uses classical principles to adjust and improve upon a home’s design as she draws or sketches, studying the appropriate scale, weight and relationship of each piece of architectural trim and detail, one to the other.
Ann Sussman, our final speaker, grabbed us by the collective throats, as she presented research on how buildings influence our behavior. She is using biometric data to understand how we take in and react to our environment. I’ll show two videos and try to explain… (the videos below are being used with the express permission of Ann Sussman. Copyright: geneticsofdesign.com.)
Using eye tracking technology, Ann recorded unconscious eye movement over a photo of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda. The thin lines show movement and the round dots show where a person’s eye stopped. The larger the circle, the more the eyes lingered. The cumulative data is called a Gaze Path.
Here’s another person’s Gaze Path.
Each viewed the picture differently. But what did they, along with the other people in the study group, focus on? The center of the portico and the statuary on the top of the building.
Using another program, Ann comments on the image below noting it “glows white where people look most, fading to darker grey and black where they look least. We see here how people are hardwired—with no conscious control, irrespective of age or culture—to check out other people, even when perceiving stone versions of themselves, even when these are spread out all around a building.” Ann Sussman, geneticsofdesign.com
When the windows are removed, as in the image below, “notice how the area around the statues seems to glow a bit brighter. For a social species like us, blank walls are of no interest. Our brain, knowing us well, saves its energy for focusing on what we love most: ourselves.” Ann Sussman, genetics of design.com
“One preliminary conclusion about architecture? Buildings that last feed needs that we may not realize we have; in this case, our perennial one to be seen and reflected.”
So how does this notion apply to today’s architecture, you ask? Ann had an answer…
Ann compared an old carriage house with a modern structure, a library in the example below. She shows where our eyes fall most frequently in the 3 – 5 seconds before our conscious mind takes control. Red indicates the most views. Blue indicates the least and black – well forget about it…
“In the carriage house, we *see* that our eyes hone in on the round windows and barn door and building center. In contrast, when taking in the new library, we can see that our eyes effectively ignore it – save for two benches in front and some areas of high visual contrast around the edge.” Ann Sussman, geneticsofdesign.com
Then there’s this… “And there’s more: the carriage house ‘heat map’ suggests a face, which is tremendously significant. Our brain evolved to anthropomorphize things, a trait which turns out to carry a survival advantage. From our brain’s perspective, the carriage house appears to be looking at us, and in so doing, orients us, and puts us at ease. Remember, for human beings, the most social species on the planet, no other visual pattern regulates us more from infancy on than the primal one: the face.” Ann Sussman, geneticsofdesign.com
Let’s circle back to see the face on the building, Villa Rotunda. Cute isn’t it? Kind of like a flattened Killroy peaking over the roof top. Ann Sussman, geneticsofdesign.com
In recent studies, Ann is able to link a sense of comfort and a sense of security to the environment/buildings around us. See link here. (Don’t get me started on Ann’s stories about automobile manufacturers and designing cars with smiling faces… I will never look at a car the same again!)
So, our Boston area friends, where would you rather spend a few hours?
Or here, on Commonwealth Avenue, looking west towards the statue of Alexander Hamilton?
The choice is obvious to me.
In summary, classicism clearly has an important role to play in today’s world. We understand human form and scale from classicism. The principles of classicism show us how to appropriately scale our design, whether it’s a room or an urban landscape.
The growing biometric and neuroscience feedback is providing strong scientific data to help urban planners, city governments, builders and developers understand how it will will benefit them, financially – over time – to build homes, buildings and urban spaces that use classicism as a grounding principle that help people feel safe, secure and comfortable.
One last note:
For those of you who may be interested, The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art is a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the classical tradition in architecture, urbanism and their allied arts. It does so through education, publication, and advocacy. The Institute is headquartered in New York City with regional chapters across the United States. It offers a wide array of programs that are designed to promote the appreciation and practice of classical and traditional design, including classes, travel, lectures, and conferences.
Sally Wilson, my business partner and wife, is Vice President of the New England chapter and if any of you reading this are interested in joining or taking their classes, we would both highly recommend it.
And the next time you walk up to your car, take a close look. It may be smiling at you…
If Sally and I can help you with any aspect of the design of your home in 2017, including kitchens, bathrooms and whole house renovations, please don’t hesitate to contact us via the contact form on our new website, here:
Or, if you’re not sure if you need to hire an interior designer, please, give me a call. I’d be happy to chat.
We also invite you to connect with us on: