Oh, I see! How inventive! You've actually stacked the boxes I am supposed to live in!

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wednesday Book Review / Promotion

Lost Secrets of Beaux-Arts Design

The Study of Architecture
by John F. Harbeson 
with new introduction by John Blatteau and Sandra L. Tatman
W.W. Norton & Co., New York, N.Y., in association with the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America; 2008; originally published 1926
310 pp; softcover; 404 illustrations; $45 Amazon: $28.66

Reviewed by Clem Labine 

When you say, "Beaux-Arts style," everyone instantly thinks of the handsome, classically influenced buildings that were the centerpiece of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and those buildings that were continually added to America's urban landscape through the 1920s as part of the American Renaissance and the City Beautiful movement. However, if you say "Beaux-Arts teaching method," chances are you'll get a blank stare. That's because virtually nothing is known today about the rigorous architectural design process that was taught at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and which was imported into the U.S. in the late 19th century. A modified version of the Beaux-Arts teaching method dominated architectural education in the U.S. until World War II. When Modernist theory swept into the architectural academies after WW II, Beaux-Arts methods were tossed into the trash can along with countless thousands of pre-war architectural books.

The lack of understanding about Beaux-Arts teaching methods is a result of Beaux-Arts training being largely a skill that was passed from generation to generation via oral tradition and individual mentoring. The only American textbook on the Beaux-Arts method did not appear until 1926. The book was an expansion of articles that the author, John F. Harbeson, had written for Pencil Points magazine – and has been out of print for many decades. Now, thanks to W.W. Norton and the publishing program of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, Harbeson's lost masterwork is back in print – and provides an invaluable insight into architectural training methods from an age that produced giants.

Although the term "Beaux-Arts" is inextricably linked in most people's minds to the ornamented classical style of the late 19th century, there was nothing inherent in the teaching method that required a classical outcome. Rather, the Beaux-Arts philosophy was based on the belief that architectural design should be anchored in a systematic method that can be taught. This idea that architectural design is a rational process that can be developed through rigorous discipline is at complete variance with the Modernist dogma that dominates most architecture schools today.

Compared with today's architectural education, the Beaux-Arts method relied less on bursts of individual inspiration and more on detailed analysis and application of basic principles. By contrast, contemporary attitudes toward teaching architectural design has best been summarized by Notre Dame's C. W. Westfall: "The most prestigious programs . . . follow the one rule of the Abbey of Theleme, 'Do what thou wilt,' which reduces the design instructor to an enabler of the fantasies of eighteen-year-olds or cocky graduate students."
There were five basic elements of the Beaux-Arts method as practiced at L'Ecole:
  1. The division of students into ateliers run by practicing architects;
  2. The tradition of older students helping the younger;
  3. The teaching of design by practicing architects;
  4. Starting design work as soon as the student enters the atelier;
  5. The system of the esquisse, or preliminary design sketch, as the core of the design process.

Of all the features of the Beaux-Arts method, probably the most unusual to us today is central importance of the esquisse. This was a preliminary sketch showing the student's main ideas for solving a design problem. The esquisse was done in a short time period (usually under 10 hours) and done without the aid of books or advice. The ultimate finished version of the student's design project needed to contain the main features shown in the esquisse – or else the competition jury would disqualify the project. The purpose of the esquisse was to teach mental discipline and avoidance of fuzzy thinking at the project's inception.

Another element of the Beaux-Arts method was an emphasis on carefully delineating shadowed areas in the final rendering of a design. The idea was to demonstrate the critical importance of light and shadow in articulating an architectural surface. Harbeson's book was originally intended as a textbook for both architectural students and teachers. He provides practical step-by-step guidance for developing designs for everything from basic elements like doors and windows to plans for grand civic complexes. Along the way, he also gives avuncular advice to students about working hard and avoiding bad habits.

Of particular value to this reprinted edition is the new introduction by John Blatteau, AIA, noted classical architect and founder of John Blatteau Associates, and Sandra L. Tatman, executive director of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. Blatteau and Tatman lucidly outline the impact that L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts had on architectural education in America from the 1880s through 1940, and paint a vivid picture of the ideas that animated the architectural community in this period. Harbeson lived to a remarkable 98 years of age, and the introduction is enriched by details that Tatman elicited during an oral history she did with Harbeson.

John Frederick Harbeson (1888-1986) attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied in the Department of Architecture under Paul-Philippe Cret. Cret, a Frenchman, had been educated at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and had been brought to the University of Pennsylvania to introduce Beaux-Arts principles into its curriculum. Harbeson progressed from being Cret's gifted pupil to become a senior designer and partner in the Cret firm. As professor of design and eventually chairman of the Dept. of Architecture at University of Pennsylvania, Harbeson taught the Beaux-Arts method and, with the publication of The Study of Architectural Design, became its principal American chronicler.

The reprint of Harbeson's textbook is a great addition to the architectural literature. It will be valuable to architectural historians, architects and interior designers – and especially to anyone teaching architectural design courses today. Though critics of the Beaux-Arts method assert that it stifled "creativity," most will concede that it produced virtually no bad buildings; some might be mediocre, but few were aesthetic failures. The same cannot be said for the fruits of Modernist training. TB

Clem Labine is the founder of Old-House Journal, Traditional Building and Period Homes magazines. He has received numerous awards, including awards from The Preservation League of New York State, the Arthur Ross Award from Classical America and The Harley J. McKee Award from the Association for Preservation Technology (APT). Labine was a founding Board Member of the Institute of Classical Architecture (ICA), and served in an active capacity on the board until 2005, when he moved to Board Emeritus status. He is also a regular blogger on the Traditional Building and Period Homes websites.

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