When David Calligeros and I were in San Francisco around this time last year, we stopped in on our friend architect Andrew Skurman. Andy was just wrapping up work on his new book Contemporary Classical, and he shared with us some of the watercolor renderings of his projects to be included in the book. Photographs are amazing, and they richly convey the wealth of interior detail. But in the library of his office as he unrolled thick vanilla pages, the crisp lines and airy softness of the colored washes transported me to the space, conveying the feeling beyond the fact of the architecture.
I was keen to see the book realized, and so was excited to attend a signing and lecture by Andy last Tuesday down the block from the Remains showroom in Los Angeles. Sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture we got to chat with some of our favorite people and enjoy the cooling evening air in the courtyard at Therien (a blessing, since when the rest of the country sighs ahhh, Fall, we Angelenos steel ourselves for some of the hottest weather of the year).
Andy’s angle in his talk that night, which featured a handful of projects in the three classical styles that organize the book (Mediterranean, French and Georgian) is that architecture is a language: the more you build your vocabulary and grammar, the more eloquently and elaborately you can speak. Fittingly, the first step in his projects is in that library in his office, where he pulls images of historical precedents that capture the client’s vision and inspiration for their home.
What I found most interesting in his linguistic analogy is the notion that contemporary classicists (I humbly count myself one among this group, in lieu of a more fitting title like post-neo-traditionalist) aren’t simply duplicating canonical works of architecture but actively reinventing the language of classicism to speak to the design problems they’re solving for today. His work, much of which is in California, is inflected with his own vernacular, a regional dialect twice over, as it incorporates styles that developed in one part of the world and are employed in another. It’s a new slang, if you will.
This made so much sense to me. In Los Angeles in particular, where classicism is the underdog, traditionalists engage in a different conversation than they might elsewhere. They (we) are pushed to speak a fluid pidgin, one that respects past and precedent (the good sense of the Greek orders which translate to a comforting sense of scale when you’re in a space) and simultaneously respects and responds to the modern world (what molding would Palladio use to surround my flat screen TV?)
I’ve been poring over my copy of Contemporary Classical this week: the cool blue and white Anglo Grecian Country House set amidst deep green oaks in the rolling golden hills typical of the peninsula south of San Francisco; the swirling descent of a stairway in a Classical Revival Townhouse, each level lit by a series of barrel lanterns suspended one from the next by a length of chain; the imbricated dome of an entry portico, from which dangles a spherical light girded by age-darkened metal. (Yes, I always check out the lighting fixtures.) The watercolor renderings punctuate and add texture to the photos and text.
I’ve found myself often referencing both the glossary that Andy so thoughtfully includes and Wikipedia.org, minding my poché spaces and quoins. Is there some connection between a broken pediment and this broken contemporary English of the built environment? I’m nowhere near mastery of this evolving language, but it’s a wonderful conversation in which to participate.