This house appears to be the most direct expression of the Federal style you’ve created to date. Would you agree?
Yes. My client commissioned a Federal style house straight up and undiluted because both he and his wife are deeply interested in classical and Jeffersonian architecture. Perhaps this interest stems from his training as a lawyer. The Federal style, which looks back to ancient Greece, is all about law and order, balance and moderation, beauty and truth. This house is purer and more austere than other classical houses I’ve designed, so much so that at first glance, it appears almost too symmetrical and resolved. But within the compound, there is a dynamic shift in the overall symmetry. The carriage house lies directly parallel to the house, but the barn is set well back from it. To maintain overall order, however, the two outbuildings lie equidistant from the centerline of the house. In the landscaping plan, trees screen the view of the carriage house from the bottom of the hill. The barn is also not visible from that point, so this pristine classical edifice seems to stand alone, high on this hill surrounded by the green, green Kentucky grass. This vision of a temple on a hill like the Parthenon goes back to classical times. Jefferson invoked it at Monticello. It’s almost a spiritual thing, this idea of place where you can go to contemplate, read, and meditate where you are both in the world and removed from it.
You talk about this compound as reflecting not only Federal ideals, but also the Italian Renaissance’s high humanism. Can you elaborate?
During the Italian Renaissance, Palladio originated the idea of the house as a temple for the human being. He traveled to Rome to study antiquities, which were all in ruins by then. There were also few drawings and records of antiquities, because the medieval church had destroyed them. So Palladio assumed that pediments and porticos were used not only on temples, but also on the houses of the wealthy. He did not realize he was actually originating the idea when he applied them to his villas. In fact, he was doing something that would have been considered sacrilege in ancient times, because it dissolved the barrier between humans and the gods. The thought system of the Renaissance the idea that God is not just above man, but also in himâ€”allowed Palladio to do this. In this compound, I took the idea even further by applying temple forms not only to the house, but also to the garden pavilion and even the barn. It was a way of celebrating the dignity of everything intellectual and social pursuits, as well as those relating to leisure and the land.
While the use of classical elements unites the compound’s structures, each is expressed in a slightly different mode. Why?
When I was asked to design the pavilion and barn fifteen years after completing the first phase of the project, I was drawn to the idea of further exploring the classical themes established in the beginning. The experience was like writing a short-story, then making it longer until it became a novel. I used the same language, but with more variety. In three of the four buildings, I explored diverse ways of using classical elements that still reflected the Federal style. This allowed me to create a kind of story that was less about plot than its characters. For example, there is a slight tension between the formal, brick facade of the house and the contrasting white clapboard walls of the nearby carriage house which, though classically detailed, has a more relaxed, vernacular air. There is an even more interesting relationship between the house and the pavilion behind it. It is as if the house is the protagonist at the story’s opening, while the pavilion is that same character at its end. While the dwelling’s freestanding portico only hints at the temples that inspired neoclassicism, the pavilion’s portico surmounted by pediment is fully fleshed out and in touch with its ancient soul. Two more classical styles also enter the story, the early English neoclassicism of the barn’s portico and the English Regency style of the house’s interior moldings. While the inspiration for the barn significantly predates the Federal period, the Regency style coincided with it, so this transatlantic element contributes yet another interesting dialogue.
I’ve never seen such a barn with such a grand portico. What gave you that idea?
Even though the property is not agricultural, the client wanted a barn. Perhaps because he grew up on a farm, he has a deep connection to Kentucky’s agrarian culture. The vision evolved into an entertaining barn. The clients daughter actually had her wedding reception there within a month of its completion. The idea of using a functional building type for such a social, human purpose inspired me to apply high humanist, classical elements to an otherwise humble shape. I wanted to use the temple form again, but had to find a compatible way to do so with such a lowly structure. I found myself thinking of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, designed by Inigo Jones in the 1930s. Following his patron the Earl of Bedford’s desire for barn-like simplicity, he designed a massive portico employing Tuscan columns, the lowest and plainest order to support a pediment with primitive timber outlookers. Although Jones boasted that the church was the handsomest barn in England, it never occurred to me that it was intended to resemble a barn. The message is coded into the building. I recognized it on a subconscious level, without being told. Jones said he wanted to produce dignity by the simplest means. This was my goal, as well.
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