Three Glimpses of the Institute: Rome, New York, Florida

[As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, I thought I would share with you a memoir I wrote for our tenth anniversary.]


Just before Rosabelli and I walked into the Piazza Navona I asked her to pause for a moment, knowing the thrill that she was about to experience for the first time. Then she walked into the Piazza and with awe she gasped at the beauty of the plashing fountains with their brilliant sunlit sculptures set off in front of the darkly towering San’Agnese in Agone. Large tears welled up in her eyes as she breathed in a small part of what Rome offers an architect. It was Rosabelli’s first trip to Rome from her native Brazil and it was also the Institute’s inaugural Rome Architectural Drawing Tour.


Another favorite memory of that 1998 Rome tour is that of Richard Cameron walking through the shaded portico of the Pantheon as we began the program on that first sunny August afternoon. A course of study in Rome had been a hope of his when the Institute first began; now all of the hours of planning and dreaming were finally bearing fruit. The expression on Richard’s face was one of both joy and amazement that the Institute had actually managed to make this program real! We wanted the students to study Rome as architects once did centuries before and return home with spirits renewed, inspired to make architecture. It was an auspicious beginning.

Richard and I planned for the students to experience Rome as an architect might have on the Grand Tour or as the lucky few American Academy Rome Prize winners have done. So we measured and drew as Academy students once did and we traveled and savored Rome as the tourist on the Grand Tour once did. Midway through the program I surprised the students with a carriage ride along the Via Appia providing me with yet another wonderful memory. It was a morning of carriages, loaded up with thirteen architects and artists, bumping and swaying along the ancient Roman paving stones in the shade of the umbrella pines. We headed out to the tombs so that we could rest in the country a bit and paint views of the same landscape that had inspired Piranesi. That glorious day ended with the most convivial three hour lunch in a restaurant housed in a former columbarium. We’ve gone back each year since to visit Massimo, the owner of the Osteria Antica Roma, who welcomes us, dusty and tired after our day of sketching, and who refreshes us with ancient menus and cool white wine as we share our drawings and stories with one another at the table.

After six years of conferences, lectures, and numerous programs in New York City, the Institute finally returned to the root of classical tradition for the inspiration and rejuvenation that Rome provides all her students. It is and continues to be our hope that the Institute may succeed in connecting a new generation of practitioners with the language of architecture as exemplified by Rome. That initial Drawing Tour of 1998 established what has become a tradition for the Institute: A ritual of returning to the lessons and beauty of Rome.


Standing in the back of the room I silently cheered on our Summer Program students as they took the podium. One by one they presented their vision for the future of New York’s Meatpacking District to the residents and property owners of that very neighborhood. I held my breath, but the students presented their project beautifully and in so doing, made a very positive contribution to the urban and architectural dialogue that concerns historic districts in New York City.

Thanks in no small part to the extraordinary coaching of Richard John, ten students who had never before given a slide presentation, much less one to a potentially critical public, managed to get up and give an entirely professional and inspiring presentation. It was, in fact, my experience of working with Richard John on the only two Prince of Wales’s American Summer Schools in Architecture and the Building Arts that led me to incorporate the community planning projects into the Institute’s Summer Program.

Now, after four weeks of instruction on proportion, elements, composition, surveying, crafts, construction, and urbanism, the students work as a team for the last two weeks of the program, testing their new knowledge and giving back their ideas to a community in the city of New York. The planning projects provide students with real preservation and or development problems in and around the city, and allow them the opportunity to apply, as solutions, their recently acquired classical training in architecture.

The impact of the community planning projects in our Summer Program goes far beyond the immediate influence on communities here and upon those who are responsible for planning and building our city. Each year, our select group of students goes home to Australia, Brazil, Colorado, Florida, Japan, Ohio, Romania, and Turkey, to name a few of our students’ homes and takes with them part of a tradition in architecture that will enrich their lives and their homes.

The Institute’s summer program was begun, rather heroically, by Richard Cameron, Donald Rattner, and Richard Sammons in 1992. It was my honor and pleasure to join their efforts in the Summer Program of 1998 and now, ten years after that first program, it is exciting to see the Institute poised to make positive contributions to the city that provides an extraordinary backdrop for teaching contemporary classical architecture.



Realizing that their addresses were in Florida, I asked Bud and Bobby if they were really planning to fly up from Florida every Tuesday for four weeks just to take our class on moldings and ornament. I was astonished when they said yes. But, after four weeks and thousands of dollars in airfare and hotels, Bud Lawrence approached me and wisely said, “You know Christine, I think it would be a whole lot cheaper just to fly you guys down to Florida; we have a group down in Florida called the AIBD.”

Little did I know that this conversation was about to open an important door for the Institute. The AIBD, the American Institute of Building Design, is a fifty-year-old national organization for those who design residences but are not licensed architects. Most of the members have little or no formal architectural training, and yet, they are responsible for a large majority of the residential design in this country. Bud Lawrence, secretary of the Florida Chapter of the AIBD, was looking for an educational program to improve the quality of the design work of their members, most of whom design traditionally inspired houses. I immediately saw this as a great opportunity for the Institute to have an impact on one of the most important segments of the building industry, and as a critical way for the Institute to effect change in the quality of American architecture.

Several weeks later, ICA Fellows Steve Bass, Gary Brewer, and I met with Bud and three of his colleagues from Florida. We poured over current house plans by AIBA members and conferred on what would be most important to teach and how it could be most effective.  The result was a seven-weekend program held in various cities in Florida that offers instruction in design, proportion, theory, history, and materials. As of May 2002, this program has 104 participants registered and at each weekend session this entrepreneurial group of designers learns from the faculty of the Institute.

At the first session, in a conference room in Vero Beach, the lights dimmed and I began to speak. But, where to start? Perhaps incongruously, at that moment in Florida, it made sense to go back a few thousand years to Vitruvius who wrote:

“The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many braches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgment that all work done by the other arts is put to test. This knowledge is the child of practice and theory…architects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who have relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance.” 

Standing at a podium in a Sheraton Hotel conference room, I smiled as I read this. After all, our Institute is but a means of transmission of knowledge, and at that moment I knew that we were plugging these designers into a power grid greater than any one Institute. I knew that because of what we were doing some of these designers were going to begin to see and think about architecture differently. Somehow the absence of the academy training had left them open to any lesson we would teach.  And like all good students, they are now seeing buildings with new eyes.

Recently, at our third session in Miami, I was thrilled to have a student suggest that we divert the entire bus caravan to the City Hall in Coral Gables so that we could look at an architrave and column relationship that he had been shown earlier that day in a slide. Just that morning I had talked to the participants about the desired alignment of the architrave face and the column neck so that the structural integrity of architecture could be respected. Later that morning as our bus caravan passed the Coral Gables City Hall a student said “I am sure that the architrave and the column don’t align exactly and we should go and investigate.” Well, I was delighted! This incident confirmed that the program was making a difference.



In the four years that I have been affiliated with the Institute, I have gone from being the Institute’s first Executive Director to being one of our many volunteers and a trustee. I have worked with a remarkable group of people under extraordinary circumstances. It is no small thing to realize that what we have been doing is restarting the engine of architecture. From the practical knowledge that our programs provide to practitioners in all fields, to the awareness we bring to the public, we are leading the effort to refresh a tradition of architecture that can make a young Rosabelli weep with joy.

Christine G. H. Franck, Director of Academic Programs, April 2002.

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