When Robert Chitham first published his The Classical Orders of Architecture in 1985, the timing could hardly have been better for a new drawing-board manual for delineating the orders and mastering the essentials of the Classical language, designed for practical, day-to-day use by modern practitioners. In the previous year, the Prince of Wales had thrown down the gauntlet to the hitherto virtually unchallenged Modernist architectural establishment, in his celebrated Hampton Court speech to the 100th anniversary dinner of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The frequent acrimony of the ensuing 'style wars' of the 1980s and 1990s resolved little, but HRH's interventions unquestionably raised the work of Classical architects from obscurity and wilful neglect into a subject for serious public interest and debate. Those already engaged in designing or teaching in the Classical language, and others who now felt free to do so, welcomed Chitham's work.
Soon after its publication, I began to use Chitham as the teaching textbook for my 'Introduction To The Classical Language of Architecture' course at the Portsmouth School of Architecture, which focused, as traditionally, on the necessity of actually drawing the orders as the beginning of wisdom. Since 1977, when it was initiated, I had used Palladio in the Placzec facsimile edition of the Ware translation. Palladio's orders are perhaps unequalled in their beauty, subtlety and influence, but the antiquated text and confusing plates, set about with tiny numbers bristling with fractions which never-quite-clearly refer to the dimensions of particular parts, was not the ideal vehicle for introducing second-year architectural students, innocent of any previous experience of it, to 'basic literacy' in the Classical orders.
Not only did Chitham's primary innovation of dividing the module - the lower diameter of the column shaft of an order, of which the dimensions of all other parts of the order are multiples or fractions - into 100 parts, instead of the traditional 30 or 60, make calculation and dimensioning in metric measurements simple, but also his sequential method of building up the order as you draw it meant that students virtually taught themselves, much the best way. Equally invaluable were the clear expositions of the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of all the essential elements of the Classical language, the unique comparison plates of ideal orders from the Masters, and, not least, the fine metric orders of Chitham's own invention themselves, which now take their rightful place in the canon after Gibbs and Chambers.
Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales had established his Institute of Architecture in 1992 to promote his traditional, classical and counter-Modernist architectural views; centring on a
Foundation Course providing an introduction to these aspects, largely untaught elsewhere, to would-be architects and others. Hugh Petter, a former Portsmouth student who had become the POWIA's Foundation Course Senior Tutor, invited me to do my 'Introduction To The Classical Language' course there in 1994, and it remained a staple, with Robert Chitham as both text and, personally, as a tutor until the demise of the Institute in 2001. Also in 1994, I was asked to provide my course in another venue, where the Chitham book as it stood was not able to provide me with the same all-encompassing teaching text.
This new venue was in the United States; more specifically the School of the Arts of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, which invited me to set up and teach a summer course, 'Introduction To The Classical Language', aimed at students and practitioners in architecture and architectural history, interior design, historic preservation and at interested laymen. This course would have to address the needs of students with little or no experience of the Classical of drawing. The Chitham method proved ideal for this purpose too, but one completely essential thing his orders were not, and that was in feet and inches, America remaining stubbornly (and rightly) duodecimal.
In addition to converting his method for drawing the orders to a base-twelve division of the module, my challenge to Robert Chitham was to apply both method and new module to the orders of James Gibbs, these being far and away the orders most used in Virginia, particularly in its colonial past, and the ones whose general form and appearance were most familiar to its inhabitants. Chitham's response was to devise a new modular division of 96 parts - again, instead of the traditional 30 or 60 - and, with the assistance of Christopher Cotton, another former Portsmouth student, he set about converting the dimensions of Gibbs's orders from the original proportional notations to numerical, rendered in dimensions of multiples or parts of the 96-part module. This proved wonderfully effective, and as successful in minimising the appearance in the dimensions of the dreaded fractions as Gibbs had boasted his proportional method to be.
There has been some historical debate, particularly in America, over the relative merits of proportional or numerical, modular methods of proportioning the orders, and some have asked, why not just use Gibbs's orders in their original format? My belief was that for nonprofessionals, or even professionals to whom the Classical was largely terra incognita, numbers, rather than proportional relationships, would be more quickly accessible, and so it has proven. In a culture with a duodecimal measuring system, familiar to all from earliest childhood schooling, along with the concomitant concepts of halves, thirds, quarters, sixths and twelfths, the proportional relationships of the parts of a 96-part module order (virtually all cleanly multipliable or divisible by 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12) would be readily apparent.
To our great satisfaction, the first VCU students in the hot June of 1994, some of whom had never so much as drawn a line using drawing board and parallel, took to the new system at once. In this and subsequent years, computer-generation students devised useful calculator methods, which made short work of the numbers, but many found that they needed no more than a simple ruler and the ability to count. Architects, to whom I was later to offer the course for professional continuing education purposes, proved, for the most part, even quicker students; once the 'Helen Keller moment' had occurred - the realisation that the key to the Classical was a modular dimension of which all parts of an order, and the building to which the order is applied, are either multiples or fractions - they were away.
Now, nearly two decades on from its original publication, the need for a new edition of Robert Chitham's The Classical Orders of Architecture is perhaps even more compelling than it was in 1985. True, in Britain, an uneasy truce obtains between the Modernist and Classical camps, and Classical architects, such as Robert Adam, Quinlan Terry, John Simpson, Julien Bicknell and Demitri Porphyrios, have successful practices, and, despite sporadic sniper fire from the usual ideological redoubts, their work is seriously reviewed. The indefatigable Robert Adam has brought about the formation of a Traditional Architecture Group within the RIBA membership; its first meeting attracted an astonishing turnout of over 200, and, under Adam's leadership, it is rapidly establishing itself as a forceful advocacy forum for non-modernist architecture, in both practice and education, from within the very bastion of the British architectural establishment itself. Its name does not, however, include the contentious word 'Classical', which, in the highly-charged atmosphere of New Labour Britain, is perhaps only prudent.
No such inhibitions constrain America, it seems, where the dynamic Institute of Classical Architecture of New York has celebrated its tenth anniversary with a sumptuous volume of new American classical architecture. Its journal, The Classicist annually features ever-increasing contributions to its 'From The Practices' and 'From The Academies' sections, showing a thriving, nationwide Classical design culture in practice and in education. This has been fed in the former by the Institute's own courses for practitioners out of New York (now to be franchised on a regional basis) and in the latter by University schools of architecture like Notre Dame (so far the only exclusively classical and traditional school) and a growing number of others offering Classical programmes, such as Miami, under Richard John.
On the education front in Britain, Portsmouth (whilst by no means a traditionalist school by ethos) remains, so far as I am aware, the only architecture school in which 'basic literacy' in the Classical is a course requirement. This situation is being addressed as we write, however, by Robert Adam and Hugh Petter, who have begun to take the Classical 'on the road' to other schools where the light shineth not yet. It must also be mentioned that, in the age of the Internet, Classical and Traditional architecture enthusiasts, like all other devotees of minority interests, may now converse and organise via the Tradarch site in America (now under the aegis of the Institute of Classical Architecture) and INTBAU out of the new Prince's Foundation in London.
All of this is highly gratifying to the community of Classicists, but a major lacuna still exists in the contemporary teaching and practice of Classical architecture, and that is the problem of literacy. Andres Duany has said that the great enemy of traditional architecture today is not bad modern and modernists but bad classical and classicists. Calder Loth, in these pages, and in his highly successful courses in architectural literacy in Richmond, Virginia, has forcefully pointed out that not only is much new classical design illiterate, but that the very concept that there is such a thing as literacy in Classical design (and that it matters) is conspicuously absent; occasionally even from the work of traditionalist architects of repute who apparently believe the Classical can be got right merely by judicious eye-balling. Loth says: 'No architect would allow a sloppy, mis-spelt or ungrammatical letter to go out to clients from his office; why then an illiterate Classical design?' It is not only the architecture and design professions, however, which must be apprised of the necessity of Classical literacy, but also - as was James Gibbs's own ambition in the early 18 th century - the non-architect developers and builders of speculative housing, and the individual and institutional commissioners of classical buildings who are their clients.
With the publication of this new, revised and expanded edition of Robert Chitham's The Classical Orders of Architecture, including the 96-part-module Gibbs orders, there can be no excuse for any architectural practitioner, school or client to be lacking the necessary literacy to design, teach or commission good Classical architecture. And there is but one, time-tested, way to achieve 'basic literacy' in the Classical language of architecture; all that is needed to do it is to be found in this book:
NOW GO AND DRAW THE ORDERS.
Senior Lecturer, University of Portsmouth School of Architecture
('By Measure We Live' - Motto of Sir Edwin Lutyens, greatest of modern Classicists)
Was this article helpful?