Windsor Forum on Design Education: The Classical Model

From April 12-14, 2002 architects, urbanists, and educators gathered at the town of Windsor in Florida to discuss an ideal curriculum for architectural education which would address the crisis in architecture and urbanism. Among many distinguished speakers, I was invited to present the programs and philosophy of the Institute of Classical Architecture (today’s ICAA). Here below are my remarks as published in the Windsor Forum on Design Education: Toward an Ideal Curriculum to Reform Architectural Education, edited by Peter Hetzel and Dhiru Thadani (Miami: New Urban Press, 2004).

Christine G. H. Franck demonstrating rendering techniques during ICAA Summer Program

Christine G. H. Franck demonstrating rendering techniques during ICAA Summer Program

Thank you, everyone, and good morning. I’d like for us to look now at a second model of architectural education – the classical model. Victor presented a story of the beginning of the academic tradition of architecture, which was, of course, grounded in the classical. And now I want to share with you a story of the continuation of that tradition – the story of the Institute of Classical Architecture. First though, thank you for inviting the Institute of Classical Architecture to share with you what we’ve been doing for the last ten years and, more importantly, why we do what we do.

Quite simply, what we do is teach about the making of architecture that is explicitly and unabashedly part of the classical tradition. The Institute of Classical Architecture was founded ten years ago by Richard Cameron, Donald Rattner, Richard Sammons and some very dedicated volunteers to create a place where self-taught architects could teach other architects about classical architecture, or what we generally refer to as architecture, and in so doing, preserve a vital body of past knowledge for the present and the future.

ICAA Summer School students crossing the Brooklyn Bridge

ICAA Summer School students crossing the Brooklyn Bridge

This was done for two reasons. The first being that most architectural schools no longer mined the complete riches of the tradition of architecture. And the second being that, hold on your hats, there were and are people – architects, sculptors, painters, builders and craftsmen who create art and architecture that are part of the classical tradition. To illustrate the reality of this contemporary architecture I pulled five projects to show you: first a residential project – the home of the president of the Institute of Classical Architecture, Gil Schafer, in Millbrook, New York; and a detail of another residential project – from a new house in Connecticut by Eric J, Smith, Architects; an institutional project – the Bass Center for the Performing Arts by David Schwartz; a civic project – the Olympic Monument in Atlanta that Victor Deupi, Richard John and other people in this room helped Rodney Cook to complete; and, just for Phillip Bess, the inside of Arlington Stadium, a baseball stadium, also by David Schwartz. I put this one in this morning partly in response to the notion that classicism and tradition is adequate for the private house, but that it cannot address contemporary programs such as a baseball stadium, which, given the success of this facility is clearly not true.

The Institute of Classical Architecture is made up of 3 staff, 40 volunteers, 800 members and a larger international mailing list of over 8,000 people. We are architects, artists, sculptors, designers, landscape architects, urbanists, manufacturers, carpenters, metal workers, historians, clients and patrons. My point in sharing the numbers and the constituency with you is to emphasize to those of you in this room responsible for the education of architects that there is a broad and growing modern renaissance of the classical. And you may encounter this at some point in your programs. We are responding to this need because most programs are not, because many professionals come to us seeking the very knowledge that they were not able to learn in school because it was not taught. While our educational programs encompass students, the general public, and professionals, I want to discuss in particular what we offer our professional audience. I did want to mention that we include the general public in our educational mission to emphasize to you that we believe that architecture is the province of all, not an elite, learned few.

In my brief moments here, and I will try to keep this to ten short minutes, I want to tell you about what we teach and then share my experience with a recent program. So, focusing on our professional education courses, we divide our courses thematically into three branches: manual skills, practical skills and theoretical knowledge. The goal of these three branches of learning is to make the classical available not as a mere historical fact, but as a living tradition that can be actively transmitted and translated to the future. I’ve pulled a few slides of some of our student’s work to show you the results of our teaching. In the area of manual skills, we start out teaching architects how to draw. When most architects come to us they don’t actually know how to draw because it isn’t something that is focused on very much in school anymore. We don’t teach them how to draw for the sake of drawing, but rather for the sake of seeing and learning. We teach perspective, geometry, rendering, sketching, and shades and shadows. All of this is part of equipping the architect with manual skills. We don’t yet teach courses on computer modeling, but as Andres was remarking yesterday, all of us professionals are remarkably fond of our computer programs, and we hope to offer that in the future.

In our theoretical courses, we instruct in theories of proportion, we have developed courses for the general public on appreciating architecture, and we delve into the literary tradition of classicism by studying treatises, parallels, surveys, polemical books, builder’s books and monographs. It is important to note that this tradition of literature comes all the way to the present day. It didn’t stop with Vitruvius. It didn’t stop with the Renaissance. And it didn’t stop in 1910, in 1920, in 1950, or in this new millennium. For us, it includes the entire range of literature available to us as architects today.

While some portion of our educational programs look at theory, the bulk of what we teach and concern ourselves with is practical. As I said, we are primarily about the making of architecture, not merely the thinking about the making of architecture. We seek a balance between the two. To address practical issues of design we begin by teaching composition. The first thing we do is actually establish a vocabulary so that we can communicate with one another. We do that by beginning with basic molding profiles which teach both geometry and nomenclature. Then we move on to instruction in the orders. Yes, we actually teach how to make the Doric, the Ionic and the Corinthian order. Our students learn them, they draw them and they explore them compositionally using the analytique method that we have inherited as part of our learning tradition from the École des Beaux Arts, which Dhiru will talk more about later today. As a conclusion to learning about the orders in composition and manual skills, we take them all the way through the process of traditional wash rendering. The analytique is a fascinating project. If you’re not familiar with doing one, I would suggest that you try one. They are challenging compositional exercises. We compliment the compositional skills learned and the nomenclature learned with courses that allow students to go out and actually measure and survey buildings around New York City so they can experience the architecture they’ve been learning about in the classroom. In recent years we have added courses on good practice in construction that have been very useful to our students. These courses look at issues of design and detailing ranging from masonry to metalwork, from hardware to plasterwork, from doors to windows. For these courses we structure them with an architect and a craftsman teaching together so that, in fact, for every session that we do, the architect who is designing is there with the person who is making.

Once we get through basic issues of composition and construction, our students address, at least in our summer program, real problems. We take real problems in the very real place of New York, work with the corresponding community, and then propose urban and architectural solutions to their particular problems. Our students apply their newfound knowledge of drawing, of moldings, of traditional urbanism, of ornament, and everything else that they’ve been studying, in order to solve these problems. Last summer, for example, we looked at the Brooklyn Bridge Park and our students did something as simple as develop a subway entrance, public restrooms, and recreation pavilions for the Brooklyn Bridge Park that were appropriate for Brooklyn. They even considered things as seemingly insignificant as lamp posts and railings for the park.

A very large part of what we do in both our Continuing Education courses and our Summer Program in Classical Architecture is that we teach our students a process for solving design problems. Now, I want to make a comment about process. If you really want a great process for the education of the architect look at the model of the École des Beaux Arts in Paris or at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in America. In 1926 John F. Harbeson describes the educational goals of the École in his introduction to The Study of Architectural Design when he writes that, and this is so simple, “the purpose of its training is to impart to each student a method of attacking and studying any problem in architectural design which may be presented.” Could you ask for anything more for the education of an architect? To learn how to solve any problem that may be presented – a useful goal. Of course, the very nature of the problems assigned by the École or the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in the 1930’s may be part of what eventually led to the demise of the classical as central to architectural education. If we look at the programs given by the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in, say the 1930’s, which many architecture schools used as their programs for design projects, we can see how their model had become, in some ways, irrelevant because they were not addressing more pressing problems. This is a list of released projects issued by the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in 1930: A Summer Hotel, a Public Garden for Refreshment, a Banquet and Ballroom, and a Building to Enshrine the Challis of Antioch. These don’t exactly seem like very critical design problems. They may have taught good compositional lessons, but then architecture is not just composition. The architect composes with architectural elements to produce a beautiful and civilized setting in which people live or love or work or worship or die. But architecture itself, its end is not composition. Architectural education cannot remain in the abstract world of composition and avoid engaging with the real. In some ways, the compositional exercises of the École and the classical tradition became irrelevant to education. And to many practitioners, Modernism, through its abstracted descendants, has become irrelevant. We are seeking, at least in New York; to restore the relevance of life to architecture so that when our students go out armed with knowledge of the classical they apply it to real places and real problems in newly creative ways.

Perhaps nothing though is more relevant today than the problem of the poor quality of our residential architecture and our neighborhoods. My greatest joy in the last year has been developing a program for 104 members of the Florida Chapter of the American Institute of Building Design to train them in the tradition of classical architecture and American residential design. They are not licensed architects, for the most part they lack an architectural education, and yet residential designers of this sort are responsible for over 90 percent of Florida residential architecture. Last week in Miami, I sat in a Sheraton conference room with 104 of them and talked to them about the Doric order of architecture. It was a radical experience to see 104 Florida residential designers drawing out the Doric order in their course books – and enjoying it. It was also fantastically inspiring to take them to Coral Gables and Vizcaya to open up their knowledge of architecture beyond housing market studies. Now, why are we doing this? Because they asked us to. Why did they ask us to? Because they are making pseudo-traditional neo-Mediterranean houses without much, or in some cases any, knowledge of the tradition of architecture that they are interested in creating and they want to do it better and we can help. It’s that simple. It’s a very exciting program and the potential for change in American residential architecture through the AIBD is enormous. There are 42 other AIBD chapters in the United States and so for anyone who thinks that classical architecture is elitist or irrelevant, I challenge you to come sit with me in Florida when we talk about architecture with these fellows.

In conclusion, The Institute of Classical Architecture is teaching a language of architecture that is broad and deep; that is highly resolved and expressive; that holds the experience of our predecessors; that can address the large and the small, the public and the private; and is respectful, not afraid, of the past. Rather, the past, including Modernism, is a rich vein for the architect to mine – and we seek to keep its riches open for those who choose to explore it. I would propose to you as fellow educators that to deprive students, professionals and ultimately the public of the fullness of the tradition of architecture is a detriment to education, to architecture, and to the civil life it can engender. At the Institute, we are beginning to teach architecture again with the classical as the paradigm so that our buildings and our cities might be enriched. And in this time of beginnings, this time of a rebirth of the classical as a valid paradigm, I want to close with a quote about beginnings from a classically trained architect, an architect who studied at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1920s. While closing a conference he says, “I want to make my last remark in reference to the work that has been done by architects of the past. What was has always been. What is has always been. What will be has always been. Such is the nature of beginning.” The words of Lou Kahn, an architect trained in the tradition of the classical. Thank you.

Questions and Answers:


What is it like in the room with the builders? Is it a very open forum? Do they feel like they can separate between themselves and classical?


It is a very open forum. The interesting thing I’ve observed about the builders, and I think it has everything to do with the fact that few went to architecture school and thus through the jury system that encourages the development of the individual ego, the interesting thing is that they are very receptive to learning and criticism. There is great esprit de corps. They bring their projects in, put them down on the table, roll them out and say “what am I doing wrong here?” They want to know how to make it better. They’re incredibly open. They don’t consider the classical language to be above them – nor separate from them – and neither do we. Why should they? Why should we? Working with them has been an enlightening experience for me.


One other thing, once they learn it and they’ve transformed how they physically put the buildings together, which must change, how do we capture that knowledge and bring it back into education so that we are not — I think one of the most interesting things has been to walk around in a place like Celebration with Joe Barnes and find out that there’s no builder in Florida that could actually put the buildings together in a way that worked with the standards and reforms, etcetera, and that he had to train the builders, the builders had to train him; what do we do, not to reveal negotiations, and it seems that that knowledge, that knowledge base needs to be spread.


It does. It needs to go beyond designers and architects. At the Institute we are fortunate – as we see that it goes beyond the designer’s interest and skill. I made the point earlier about the people that make up the Institute because one of the great myths that we always try to dispel is the one that says “people don’t know how to do this kind of work anymore.” So, while I don’t think we are as facile as we once were at designing or building high quality, well detailed, classical or traditional buildings, I do think there is a segment of the building industry that knows quite well how to do it. And we see them at all of our Institute’s courses and events. In fact, I often find it easier to converse with a carpenter or a plasterer than with other architects because they understand certain basic things about the language of architecture that I speak. I would say that, in many cases, changing the design of basic building products is essential to improving the quality of architecture. So, after we cover all the state chapters of the AIBD, I’d very much like to go to Marvin Windows, for example, and other manufacturers of primary building components – such as doors and windows and trim – and teach them to make things that complement, rather then compete with, well designed buildings.

[New and used copies of the Windsor Forum on Design Education may be found in my bookshop.]

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