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Review: Palladian Design, The Good, The Bad and The Unexpected

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Flora Neville takes a look at the RIBA’s latest exhibition on Palladio’s influence

How would a cow like a Palladian barn?

It’s clearly an important question as two of the 72 works that make up the RIBA exhibition, ‘Palladian Design – The Good, The Bad and The Unexpected’ are barns.

For the barn at Villa Angarano in Italy, Palladio used the Tuscan order and based his design on the Portico of Octavia in Rome. He harmonised the formal elements of the barn with the Villa, so the cows weren’t left out I presume.

The second is ‘The Cowshed’ in Somerset designed by Stephen Taylor and completed in 2012. What was a non-descript steel-framed shed has been adapted in the style of the Palladian barn at Villa Angarano. The primary elevation is a colonnade of plain concrete columns ending with an arch that refers back to the Portico of Octavia in Rome.

Taylor’s barn is one of the more overt references to Palladio in the exhibition. Co-curated by Vicky Wilson and Charles Hind and designed by Caruso St John, the show is organised chronologically into three parts: Revolution, Evolution and the Contemporary.

Revolution explores the development of Anglo-Palladianism from 17th century England through to its acceptance as the national style mid-18th century. This section includes sketches of Palladio’s low cost building in Venice and original drawings by Inigo Jones, Colen Campbell and Lord Burlington.

Evolution charts Palladio’s international influence, showing how subsequent architects have interpreted his guidelines both stringently and creatively for a range of purposes. Palladianism became a symbol of commercial viability, lending itself to political and religious buildings in the West and in colonial and post-colonial contexts. There is the dolls’ house-size original 1721 model of St-Martin-in-the-Fields by James Gibbs as well as the design for the US capitol by Dr William Thornton.

Contemporary Palladianism is the section in which the style is most liberally represented, aside from a linocut perspective of Kings Walden Bury by Raymond Erith and Quinlan Terry and recent plans for ‘McMansions’ in the US. These mansions, explained Vicky Wilson, are generally commissioned by Americans who have made their money recently and are trying to create a sense of ancestry.

Post-modern Palladianism is represented. Though pre post-modern, a sketch by Erik Gunnar Asplund of Lister County Courthouse in Sweden anticipates the movement. There’s an intentional naivety about the decorative swags and the proportion of the undersized windows. The symmetry and the gable that derives from Villa Valmarana give it legitimacy in the Palladian canon.

The exhibition as a whole concentrates an enormous topic into three harmonious strands that compliment and inform one another. The curators wanted to zoom in on this well tapped topic with a clean lens and the windowless room on the ground floor of RIBA is not a shrine to one of the most imitated architects in history, but rather a celebration of an iconic way of building that has spread its roots across centuries and continents.

Palladian Design, The Good, The Bad and The Unexpected, is on at RIBA from 9 September 2015 – 9 January 2016. A series of Tuesday evening talks will run alongside.

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