La Rotonda by Andrea Palladio

Two Great Masters

Janet Allen

Essential viewing for members of the Lutyens Trust are the exhibitions devoted to Andrea Palladio (1508-80), and Le Corbusier (1887-1965), which are on show at the Royal Academy and the Barbican respectively this spring. Lutyens shared many preoccupations with these fellow architects. When he was embarking on his designs for Heathcote (1905-7) Lutyens wrote to his friend Herbert Baker in 1903: ‘In architecture Palladio is the game. It is a big – few appreciate it now and it requires considerable training to value and realise it.’ Heathcote was his first venture into classicism and he drew inspiration from San Michele but his spatial sensitivity must also owe something to Palladio.

There is no more suitable venue for a celebration of Palladio’s birth than the Royal Academy at Burlington House which was the London home of the promoter of Palladianism in England, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753). A century earlier Inigo Jones had secured a magnificent cache of Palladio drawings and he had set English architecture off on a new stylistic track with his designs for the Queens House, Greenwich and the Banqueting House, Whitehall. After the interruption of the Civil War and the later political settlements, aristocratic and polite society eagerly embraced Palladio’s concept of the practical home, which reflected social status and is also a place of spiritual refreshment. Magnificent Holkham Hall (William Kent, 1734), Chiswick Villa (Lord Burlington, 1725), Mereworth Castle (Colen Campbell, 1723) and endless smaller houses with pedimented entrance porticos were inspired by Palladio. The drawings Jones acquired passed to John Talman, and on his death in 1729 were purchased by Lord Burlington and are now in the RIBA Collection. They form a substantial part of this exhibit.

This exhibition is a collaboration between Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio, Vicenza, the Royal Academy and the Royal Institute of British Architects. The eminent scholars Guido Beltramini of the Centro Howard Burns have worked with Mary-Anne Stevens (RA) and Charles Hind (RIBA) to present a lucid exposition of Palladio’s theories and practice using models, drawings, paintings, photography and artefacts. They have been aided in this by the architect Eric Parry who was elected a Royal Academician in 2006.

The problems of interpretation of architectural drawings are immense and architecture exhibitions are like very grand expensive receptions to which the guest of honour fails to turn up! Curators can never display the built work of art in a museum setting. The star exhibits are the models made in the 1970s for the Centro which were first exhibited at the Hayward Gallery at the Arts Council Exhibition, Andrea Palladio, The Portico and the Farmyard, which was also curated by Howard Burns. They are made on the generous scale of 1:33 and are deliberately placed to dominate the main axes of the galleries. They not only inform the viewer of the 3-dimensional qualities of the buildings but also make useful comparisons in scale between the churches, palaces and villas. Associated with each model are the relevant drawings and excellent explanatory panels. Portraits of Palladio, his patrons, views of Venice by Canaletto and artefacts provide the visual biographical thread.

Thirty five years ago Burns was in the vanguard of art historical research which moved away from just considering the formal qualities of architectural design to placing building in its social and economic context. It was the Vicentine humanist, Giangiorgio Trissino who introduced the talented stonemason Andrea di Pietro della Gondola to the study of antiquity in Rome and gave him his soubeiquet, Palladio. In the exhibition Eric Parry has had the ruins of classical Rome stencilled onto the walls of the first gallery to emphasise the veneration and understanding of the antique. Trissino guided Palladio in his study of Vitruvius’ De Architettura which was the template for Palladio’s own book I Quattro Libri di Architettura (1570) recording his buildings. This was to be the pattern book for Neo-Palladian buildings in the western world. The idea of the villa, a substantial with its associated buildings, set in an agricultural estate which was the economic engine that supported it financially, particularly appealed to the British and was employed by the newly independent Americans like Thomas Jefferson at Montecello.

What would have fascinated Lutyens are the newly made models well displayed next to drawings where Palladio explores different solutions to designing an elevation of a palace or a church front. Also, he developed mathematical systems which resulted in perfectly proportioned suites of rooms that provided patrons like the Barbaro family at Villa Barbaro at Maser with not only elegant domestic comfort but as Burns says ‘spiritual repose’. (The villa at Maser is still in private ownership and the centre of a productive estate). Similar spatial sophistication is a characteristic of both Lutyens’s Arts & Crafts houses and his later classical designs. Perhaps it is this elusive quality that is perfection in Palladio to which Lutyens referred in his 1903 letter needed ‘considerable training to value and realise it’.

Space is at a premium in the galleries and the nod to Inigo Jones, Charles Cameron and Giacomo Quarenghi brief, but the Royal Academy strives to support architecture, the least easy of the arts and down stairs is The Architecture Space where recorded interviews with contemporary architects discuss their responses to Palladio. These videos include some splendid film photography of Palladian building in Vicenza, Venice and the Veneto, and it is regrettable that these units could not be nearer the main exhibition. These interviews are not to be missed. If there is any criticism to be made of this exhibition it is that no use has been made of large scale modern colour photography in the main galleries, printed or film, which would have brought the sunny environs of Italy to Piccadilly.

The Royal Academy has produced a guide which they generously give to full-time students with an exhibition ticket. It can be purchased by those who perhaps do not hanker after the splendid catalogue. The final short essay in this publication relates how Le Corbusier made studies of Palladio’s villas in the Veneto on a visit in 1921/22 and discusses how Corbusier “experimented with a ‘creative contamination’ of past and present.” The white crystalline forms of the Villa Savoye and Villa Stein sprint to mind.

It is serendipity that the touring exhibition Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture which was shown in the Lutyens crypt of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool this winter is being transferred to the Barbican where it opens on the 19th February after this Newsletter has gone to press. This is being done in collaboration with the RIBA Trust. It comprises original architectural models, interior reconstructions, drawings, furniture, photographs, tapestries, paintings, sculpture and books by Le Corbusier and his artistic contemporaries. It is being re-fashioned by the curatorial staff at the Barbican designed by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon, which is arguably the most important expression of Corbusian ideas in the UK. The last exhibition devoted to this architect was held at the Hayward Gallery in 1985, where the ramps and raw concrete remind one of the state buildings in Chandigarh, which some members of the Lutyens Trust visited in October 2007 after the tour of New Delhi. This exhibition gives members the opportunity to compare Lutyens’s imperial city to Le Corbusier’s ideas on town planning and the realised state capital of the Punjab.

Both the Royal Academy and the Barbican Centre have arranged excellent supporting programmes of lectures and tours and as few institutions include architecture in their programmes the Academy and Barbican deserve our support.

Janet Allen

Andrea Palladio

His Life and Legacy

31 January – 13 April 2009

Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture

Barbican Art Gallery, London

19 February – 24 May 2009