Article by Eden Muir for le Tour Sutton, May 2011.


Elegance in Architecture

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1-MichelangeloStair Have you ever had an architectural revelation -- the experience of being in a place whose design is so powerful and uplifting that the sight, sound and even smell seem to transport you back to the time and state of mind of the designer, leaving the space forever etched in your memory? I will never forget the granite walls of the King's Chamber deep within the Great Pyramid of Cheops, or the light streaming through the oculus of the ancient Roman Pantheon. Three other memorable spaces come to mind, remarkable for their supremely satisfying architectural elegance, that rare condition in which all aspects of the design of a space have been artfully and authoritatively resolved.

Let's begin our Architectural Elegance Tour in Florence, Italy. When you step into Michelangelo's Laurentian Library vestibule (1524) you are surrounded by four tall walls that display exaggerated cornices, distorted niches, and pilasters that taper wider to the top. The Mannerist master was exquisitely toying with the rules of classical design, playfully employing many subtle distortions and optical refinements. In the middle of the room, the great sculpted staircase seems to cascade like lava, the convex stone treads curving forward as the stair grows wider and splits into three streams. The experience of ascending this sculptural tour de force is so entertaining that you are shocked to realize that you have been elegantly and effortlessly levitated 10 feet up to the main library level, thanks to Michelangelo and the generous patronage of Giulio de Medici, Pope Clement VII.

Closer to home we find one of the most extraordinarily elegant rooms in North America, the dining hall at Kingscote by architect Stanford White (1875). When you step into this Newport, Rhode Island space on a sunny day, you are enveloped by the caramel tones of exquisite textile, wood and glass work. The warm colours and materials are all coordinated within a perfectly proportioned 3D matrix of regulating lines that are partially revealed in the modules of paneling, screens and ceiling tiles. It is a comfortable elegance that emphasizes the horizontal, a room that makes you want to linger and watch the subtle changes in the afternoon light through the opalescent Tiffany-glass blocks.

2-StanfordWhite Another contender for Most Elegant Room in North America can be found reconstructed within the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The Francis W. Little House (1912) demonstrates Frank Lloyd Wright's "organic" architecture, which connected all aspects of design from site and building to materials and furnishings. Entering a typical Wright residence you are first drawn to the massive central hearth, then you are oriented to the landscape and sun through horizontal arrays of windows with stylized plant motifs, and the materials you touch reveal a link to nature: clay brick, oak trim, copper windows, and earth-tone plaster. America's greatest residential architect reminds us that we should aspire to functional, elegant and thoughtfully designed homes that simultaneously enhance our quality of life and our appreciation of nature.

Of course, simple photographs can't do justice to three-dimensional elegance. They may also encourage the impression that this highly refined architecture was easily achieved by celebrity designers leading pampered lives. In fact, these three architects were design geniuses labouring at their creative peaks, and despite their professional success and the backing of wealthy patrons, they lived lives of great turbulence and shocking tragedy.

3-FLWright Michelangelo's Laurentian Library project was interrupted by a violent political crisis and his patron Pope Clement VII was suddenly exiled, powerless and bankrupt. Michelangelo then designed fortifications for Florence and in 1529 fled to Venice. Many years later he was able to resume work on the staircase.

At the turn of the 20th century, Stanford White hobnobbed with the rich and famous at Newport, but in 1906 he was shot dead in Madison Square Garden by a jealous millionaire in a famous love-triangle scandal.

In 1909 when Frank Lloyd Wright was doing some of his greatest work, he boosted the circulation of the nation's tabloids by suddenly sailing for Europe with the wife of his prominent Chicago neighbour and client, Edwin Cheney. With his architectural career in shambles, the defiant couple set up house in Italy. Somehow it seems quite fitting that for his temporary exile, Wright selected Fiesole, an elegant hill town that looks down on Michelangelo's beloved Florence.

1. Michelangelo's Laurentian Library vestibule (1524), Florence
2. Kingscote dining room by Stanford White (1875), Newport, Rhode Island
3. Francis W. Little House (1912) by Frank Lloyd Wright

© Tous droits réservés Eden Greig Muir, architecte

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