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Palladian Striptease fails to deliver style-war slugfest

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James McLachlan was left a little disappointed by a debate between Robert Adam and Michel Mossessian on Palladio’s influence

The collision of Modernism and Classicism that is 66 Portland Place provided the perfect backdrop to last night’s ‘Palladian Striptease’ debate. The latest in an ongoing examination of the influence of the legendary Renaissance architect, the debate asked two questions: how far can you strip away detail from Palladio’s buildings before they cease to be Palladian? and who are the true inheritors of the ‘Palladian’ mantle?

Hosted by the Traditional Architecture Group, Palladian Striptease was introduced by event chair (and chairman of TAG) Alireza Sagharchi as a ‘cage match’ between Classicist Robert Adam and Modernist Michel Mossessian. On paper the contrasting pair looked to be perfectly matched foes, but anyone hoping for a style-war slugfest would have been a little disappointed.

Adam began the debate at a canter, zipping through his set of slides in half of the 15 minutes each speaker was allotted. The architect argued the term Palladian was often used when referring to Classicism and that the two styles were symbiotic. However, there was a process of layering that could help the viewer trace the origins of the building.

Sticking an arch on to a shed does not make it Palladian

Adam argued that fundamental to true Palladian architecture was whether ornamentation could be removed from a building without compromising its geometry or proportions. By the same token, this process should work in reverse. He offered the pared-back Georgian buildings of Bedford Square in London as an illustration. Juxtaposing Palladio’s Villa at Veneto alongside a diminutive white cuboid dwelling, Adam expressed frustration at Modernists architects claiming to be designing using Palladio’s principles when in fact there was little evidence to link the two styles. ‘There is nothing wrong with being influenced by something, but sticking an arch on to a shed does not make it Palladian,’ he said.

A student of Derrida and Foucault, Mossessian took a more conceptual approach. He started by declaring he had cracked the Palladian code in 1986, using one of the first Apple Mac computers to devise a code that generated every type of Palladian facade. The supporting rudimentary graphics purported to show how Palladio’s hyper-rational architecture was easy to copy.

However, from there the erudite Frenchman began to drift away from the point, waxing lyrical about Étienne-Louis Boullée’s French National Library designed in the 1780s but never built. ‘This was the first time people were shown in an architect’s drawing,’ Mossessian said, arguing that this was a leap forward in defining the principles of architecture. With the Enlightenment, architecture moved beyond decorative facades and focused on the human element. ‘Architecture is not about objects, but about space,’ he continued.

Mossessian said he had recently ‘reinvented Palladio’ when designing a house

The architect delved into his own portfolio to demonstrate the importance of innovation in architecture, explaining how he had recently ‘reinvented Palladio’ when designing a house for a private client. He concluded by showing a slide of a Japanese temple that is rebuilt every 20 years, suggesting its purpose was a mere exercise in retaining knowledge of traditional forms and building techniques.

The elemental quality of Mossessian’s presentation left both Adam and the audience struggling for traction during the question and answer session that followed. Nevertheless, Adam pressed home the point that Palladian architecture held a powerful resonance today and was in high demand. ‘You cannot say it is not “of now” because people still want traditional buildings,’ he argued. ‘I would add that there is no such thing as a perfect copy as nothing is designed in the same space and time. Every building is unique.’

Mossessian countered by saying we must ‘never forget to resist the unoriginal’. The Frenchman argued that innovation was a Palladian tradition and therefore had more in common with his architectural approach. For Adam, this was further evidence of the tenuous links certain architects sought to draw between Palladio and their own work: ‘The only way we can spot Palladio’s influence is if you tell us, Michel.’   

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Readers' comments (1)

  • "the paired-back Georgian buildings"

    You need a better proof-reader I think.

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