Getting Schooled for Misunderstanding Architecture

Chris Moffett | June 26, 2011

I’m no classicist. Not my angle. But Seven Misunderstandings About Classical Architecture, by Quinlan Terry, is a masterclass. And what I love about it is that it catches us dismissers of Classical Architecture in our own net. Isn’t the problem with Classical Architecture that it doesn’t pay attention? Substituting past conventions and formal, abstract rules for thought? Terry rather effortlessly shows how this is itself a slip in attention:

Let us start with misunderstanding 1. A popular misconception is that classical architecture is pastiche; it is often said that it is a simple matter of cribbing from the pattern books. I notice that many art historians are full of this and – like all people who are protected from reality – they will never learn until they start to practise. I believe there is something in the Gospels: ‘If you know these things, happy are ye if ye do them’. It is only in the doing that we learn.
enlarge image

He then proceed to walk through a simple example—designing a door in the “Palladian manner”—in order to show how the simplest practice would show how such a “cribbing from the pattern books” is not at all possible, opening instead onto any number of unanswered questions requiring actual thought.

Whether you, gentle reader, have any interest in architecture or not, this strikes me as a being a much larger lesson about the ways in which we prefer to avoid learning something, even if it means attributing the lack of learning to another. But also in the power of actually working through things, to discover what we don’t know.

I think it is no accident that this first misunderstanding leads to the second, concerning function. The modern drive to reduce function to an abstraction—a door is a door, and should function as such—and thus be critical of the cryptic variations of molding for example, misses the very functional distinctions at work. And by stepping over them, we are often forced to embrace workarounds (such as signage) to compensate for actual variations in function. Doors are always more than doors.

But is our attention slipping? Can we attend to the subtle point he is making? That we often prefer the idea of function to the actual intricacies of function. That we are hard pressed to even bring ourselves to notice is part of the dilemma. We get by. The doors open.

Mind you, I’m not so sure all of the lessons of function are to be learned by looking back. But the question is still the same, how do we attend to the subtleties of function that are available to us in the moment? Whether that is in building a home or “learning to learn.”

It would be a misunderstanding to think they weren’t intimately related.