An Intuitive Classicist

Architect Ken Tate describes himself as an intuitive Classicist two words rarely found in the same sentence. While the word intuitive speaks of imagination, unpredictability, and the creative unconscious, the term Classicist implies an orderly, rational reliance upon the language of Classical architecture. In the abstract, it is difficult to grasp this marriage of apparently contradictory modes, but when one walks through a house designed by Tate, the architect’s meaning becomes quite clear. Pitch perfect proportions, elegant enfilades, and Classical columns lend order and calmness. Asymmetrical floor plans with rooms that shift from style to style, often moving from the formal to vernacular, create a relaxing, human environment.

I love Classicism, but I don’t approach it a rigid, academic way, explains Tate, whose creative process is never quite the same from project to project. Each residential design evolves in response to several elements, including the immediate site, the surrounding natural and architectural environment, and the aesthetic vision and physical needs of the clients. But the manner in which Tate travels from the beginning of each project to its conclusion is unique, shaped by intuition, imagination, and a bone-deep understanding of the language of architecture.

The past is a rich terrain that can be reoccupied, but with that reoccupation comes an obligation to give back, that is to interpret and reinterpret.

Robert A.M. Stern

If a client requests a house in a specific style, such as Federal or country French, Tate enters into the spirit of the idiom in order to seek the right answers to questions such as these: How can the house fit best within its surroundings? What specific materials and craftsmanship are required to invoke the sense of comfort or elegance associated with the style? What modifications are needed to suit the project?

Rather than approach these questions in a rational, left-brain manner while sitting at his drawing table, Tate prefers to employ what he describes as a kind of method acting. I just get into the spirit of whatever style I am working on at the moment, and go with what feels right, what would look as if it’s always been there, the architect told a reporter from Clem Labine’s Period Homes in 2000. According to Tate, the resulting houses look familiar but you couldn’t necessarily find anything like them if you tried.

Consider, for example, a dwelling Tate created for a family desiring a Spanish-style residence in Jackson, Mississippi. Integrating elements of Spanish continental, colonial, and revival style architecture, he created a dwelling that blends harmoniously within its suburban surroundings while providing the atmosphere of comfort and repose the family required. To complement the scale of neighboring ranch-style houses, Tate borrowed the low-lying silhouette of estancias the vernacular farmhouses of continental Spain. To invoke the sense of sanctuary he associates with the Mediterranean revival houses of Coral Gables and Palm Beach, Tate designed a heavy, paneled door set within a stone door surround based on a Palm Beach original.

This front door opens into a cool, dark hallway and rooms beyond that flow in a circular, almost labyrinthine manner toward a patio beyond the house.  Spanish houses have a quirky approach to space that is about asymmetry and circuitousness, says Tate. They are romantic, emotional, and sensual, which is what I wanted this house to be. Hand-glazed Portuguese terracotta tiles, roughly hewn heart-pine beams, and hand-carved fossil stone reinforce the atmosphere the architect sought to conjure. Materials, colors, light, shadow, and sound evoke emotions and states of awareness on a subconscious level, Tate explains.

In another project, Tate worked at his clients request in the French style. Within the context of a long, narrow site closely bound by a street on one side and by a lake on another, Tate created a walled compound inspired by Norman architecture. An iron gate opens from the street into a stone courtyard where an antique French fountain flows and a turret reminiscent of a dovecote points toward the sky. Honey-colored stone pavings, warm white plaster walls, and rough-hewn timber porches all recall the dwellings of Normandy. This is not a fake, Disney experience, says Tate. This is a real experience, like a waking dream.

In the same manner that dream sequences involve unexpected”and unexplained shifts in time and place, this house also unfolds in surprising ways. The materials are not all from the same place or the same period or style, says Tate. This creates a loosening of reality, a relaxing. Refined lime-coated antique paneling lines the walls of a formal dining room that opens into a rustic kitchen floored with antique glazed terracotta tiles. A baronial great hall with massive oak ceiling beams leads to a Italian Renaissance-style loggia. Connecting on one side to a Norman timber frame porch, the loggia faces a terrace where an Italianate stone balustrade creates a formal flourish at the edge of a glimmering lake.

Most modern architects have spent their lives carrying out a period to the last letter and producing a characterless copybook effect. My ambition has been to take the reverse stand…. I sometimes start a house with a Romanesque corner, pretend that it has fallen into disrepair and been added to in the Gothic spirit, when suddenly the great wealth of the New World has poured in and the owner added a very rich Renaissance addition.

Addison Mizner

While the houses described above conform, more or less, to a specific style or period of architecture, other projects Tate has designed are far more free-wheeling, combining several disparate styles and periods, and marrying the formal with the vernacular. In order to unite these varied expressions, the architect finds himself writing narratives in the language of stone and stucco, columns and cornices. When I am working with the demands of a specific site and the client’s wishes, I often find myself telling a story, he says. Once I know the story, it dictates the design. The architect first explored this method while working on an 11,000 square-foot compound set in a 2,000 acre country estate in Mississippi.

Telling Tate that she liked both country French and Neoclassical architecture, the client requested a setting formal enough to hold a collection of fine French antiques, but with the charm and comfort of an old farmhouse. The architect’s challenge was to unite these disparate visions while also creating a dwelling in sympathy with its rural, Southern setting. Beginning without any sense of the story he ultimately would tell, Tate designed a rugged stone façade resembling a modest farmhouse in Normandy.

The dwelling’s thick wooden door opens surprisingly into a grand Neoclassical entrance hall, where a painted dome ceiling crowns trompe-l’oiel masonry walls. Inspired by the designs of two aesthetic mentors, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Addison Mizner, Tate frequently employs such juxtapositions of high-style and vernacular elements. I love these interesting visual moments when you just know that contrast is going to enliven a space, he says.

A similar interaction of the rustic and the refined occurs in a small parlor overlooking the garden. While precisely milled Neoclassical paneling covers the walls, rough hewn beams and a rustic box-bay window made of pegged timber interject primitive, late-Renaissance era details. It was while designing this room that Tate discovered the story the house was revealing to him. The original structure was built by Norman French farmers during the late Renaissance, he explains. Then their eighteenth-century descendents remodeled it in the Neoclassical style. In the late-nineteenth century, another generation restored the house and its gardens. Once I knew this story, it informed the rest of the design.

In another recent project, a 10,000 square-foot dwelling in the historic Belle Meade neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee, Tate began the whole process by writing a fictional narrative. In this case, the challenge was to create a large dwelling that fulfilled the clients complex demands while also complementing the style and scale of the surrounding early-twentieth-century Colonial Revival houses. Tate’s solution was to design a collection of attached structures that appeared to have been built over a long period of time, all arranged around a central Georgian dwelling. When this organic evolution of growth occurs over a period of decades or centuries, it is known as vernacular progression. In this case, the architect asked, How can this idea be compressed into a single design moment?

His answer was to write an imaginary chronology beginning in 1690 with the construction of a Tennessee fieldstone barn, which now houses the client’s home office. In 1725, so the story goes, a stately Georgian residence is built nearby. As the residing family grows, and tastes change, a Federal wing is added in 1803 now the site of the master bedroom and bath. In the 1920s, during the reign of the Colonial Revival, a rear porch is enclosed to create a large kitchen and family dining room. Throughout the house’s imagined history, halls, breezeways, and porches are added to join the structures into a commodious whole.

Having written this narrative, Tate proceeded to draw floor plans and elevations documenting each fictional stage, specifying period-appropriate building techniques and materials, including a roof of cedar shake shingles for the vernacular fieldstone barn, weathered slate for the Georgian house, and lead-coated copper for the Federal wing. Each style is given full respect, says Tate. There is no muddiness. Inspired by fantasy, but implemented with rigorous attention to history, material, and craftsmanship, the house attains an appearance of authenticity, rather than imitation. According to the dwelling’s owner, no one believes him when he says that the whole house was built all at once.

An unyielding Classicism is no more palatable than an unyielding Moderism. What is it to be: The past or the present? Why not both?

Robert A.M. Stern

While disparate styles of architecture coexist distinctly in many of Tate’s designs, a kind of fusion occurs in others. In these projects, something new is born out of the mingling of decorative elements and spatial considerations borrowed from varied periods or cultures. When asked to design a residence on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, for example, Tate first envisioned a house inspired by the local vernacular tradition of the Creole plantation house. With airy porches and a broad hipped roof to deflect the sun, the form was ideal for this dwelling’s tropical setting. As he began sketching a house with paired pavilions, however, Tate found himself thinking of Palladio’s elegantly symmetrical villas and their Classical decoration. In order to integrate these two seemingly incongruous styles, Tate practiced a technique he likens to channeling a voice from the past.

I tried to create something that looked as if Andrea Palladio had been sent to the Gulf Coast to design a house, says Tate, channeling him through the climate and the Creole vernacular. The result is a seaside dwelling that marries the Classical purity of sixteenth-century Italian villas with the practical simplicity of Creole design. While Tate points out that French and Spanish Colonial architecture frequently employed Classical details, in this dwelling he occasionally exaggerates the contrast, juxtaposing cut-stone ball finials against a slate hipped roof. Employing French doors and louvered shutters reminiscent of Caribbean plantations, he purposefully injects a romantic West Indian air. This fusion of styles is expressed in a modern timbre that adds yet another element to the design. Everything is articulated by shade and shadow, explains Tate. That is what gives the house a modern aspect.

In another project outside New Orleans, Tate also invoked the Creole vernacular, but this time he paid equal homage to its French and Spanish Colonial counterparts. Into this mix, he added continental French and American Federal details in order to represent the variety of tastes that have enjoyed popularity throughout two centuries of New Orleans history. With its slate-covered hip roof, deep porch, and sturdy stucco-over-brick columns, the house first delivers a strong French Colonial impression. Upon closer inspection however, elements including a Federal door surround with fluted columns and fanlight, reveal late-nineteenth-century American style.

This door opens into a center hall (another Federal detail) and adjacent dining room where elegant cove moldings crown walls covered with hand-painted silk scenes of cypress swamps. A cavernous living room with massive, painted crossbeams inspired by the ceiling of the Cabildo, the city’s historic seat of Spanish Colonial power stretches across the rear of the house. With Federal-style fanlights spanning French doors, this room also reveals the hybridized approach to style Tate employed throughout. Instead of creating a narrative to explain this merging of style, he explains, I thought of it as making a gumbo, using everything that was available to me, and using it all at once.

By conscientious study of the best examples of classic periods, including those of antiquity, it is possible to conceive a perfect result suggestive of a particular period… but inspired by the study of them all.

Charles McKim

Tate sums up the fluidity of his creative process by saying, When one follows one’s intuition without any preconceived notions, one can arrive at a solution that feels right. The resulting dwellings draw from the full and fertile field of traditional architecture, including Classical, vernacular, colonial, and revival styles. Far from sterile copies or thoughtless pastiches of these styles, each dwelling possesses an internal logic communicated through the universal language of beauty, order, and materials.

When a project calls for a close interpretation of a particular style, Tate invents a way to invoke the past without imitating it. If you copy something, you are not in the moment, he explains. When you are trying to create a beautiful house, at a certain point, you have to say, To Hell with authenticity. When a project demands a complex marriage of styles, Tate often draws inspiration from early-twentieth-century architects including Burrall Hoffman, Jr. architect of Vizcaya, Addison Mizner, or McKim Meade and White.

These architects were already adapting the Classical language to modern living, says Tate, who also enjoys the challenge of creating unexpected and beautiful solutions that adapt traditional architecture to modern living. I want each project to be individual, mysterious, unpredictable, experiential, Tate explains. You have to create some predictability in order to provide comfort. But I like to introduce unexpected, mysterious things, if I can get away with it.

These words, individual, mysterious, unexpected describe the elements that distinguish Tate’s houses from those next door, or down the street. Each dwelling complements those around it or, in the case of great estates, exists in harmony with its natural surroundings. Yet there is something arresting about each one, something that makes one stop and gaze a little longer. Unlike houses with over-scaled porticos and windows or overblown decoration designed to command attention, Tate’s dwellings speak in a softer voice that is far more compelling. Expressing the universal language of beauty and archetypes through the honesty of natural materials and handmade craftsmanship, these houses speak the language of the human soul.