THE NEW PALLADIANS –
WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
He is one of the most influential and best loved architects of all time. This is no shape shifting contemporary designer nor a 2oth Century modernist radical, but a man whose work has endured for centuries and still mesmerises and inspires. Andrea Palladio, celebrated in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy later this month, was an Italian architect who helped to define the Renaissance classical style in the 16th century and whose rural villas around Vicenza formed a template for the evolution of the great English country house in the centuries that followed. Palladio looked back to the guiding example of ancient Roman architecture while also looking forward, creating villas that were flexible, beautifully proportioned and practical.
Many of our most revered classical buildings owe much to Palladio and his English disciples, including Inigo Jones, Lord Burlington and William Kent. Chiswick House, Holkham Hall and Castle Howard all owe a huge debt to Palladio and the whole idea of architecture as 'frozen music'. Palladianism became synonymous with the Georgian style itself, defined by a love of proportion, symmetry and order and layered with Palladian devices, especially the temple-like porticos applied to the facades of these grand, soaring houses.
From England, Palladianism swept its way around the world and continues to fascinate us today. New Palladians continue to design and create grand houses in the Palladian style, catering for a continued demand for classical style houses, while adapting and updating their buildings for 21st century living.
"Palladio was so influential and really represented the Englishman's version of classical Roman architecture," says Quinlan Terry, one of the country's leading classicists and neo-Palladians. "There never was an architect who had such influence and not only because he produced great buildings but also because he wrote his Four Books of Architecture which made his work more comprehensible to ordinary people and to architects that followed."
The ongoing demand for Palladian style country houses is met by architects such as Terry, Robert Adam and Julian Bicknell, who designed a striking new country house for client Sebastian de Ferranti, near Macclesfield in Cheshire. Ferranti – a descendant of pioneering electrical engineer and inventor Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti – had inherited a family estate, where a crumbling country house was taken down in the 1960s. De Ferranti had long wanted to build a new house in the Palladian style, drawing on his love for Palladio and his family's Italian heritage.
"The classical Palladian style is the most satisfying form of architecture as far as I am concerned," says de Ferranti, "and I wish it was used more often today. It's the order of it all that I admire. I travelled around Europe and Italy looking at buildings and came back to the idea that a house built on Palladio's principles would be my preference."
The initial ideas for Henbury Hall were shaped by de Ferranti's conversations with his friend, painter Felix Kelly who created a picture of an idealised version of the house, based upon Palladio's Villa Rotunda, with its four porticos at each point of the compass and a central round dome. De Ferranti then turned to architect Julian Bicknell, who began a life in classicism when working on the sets of Brideshead Revisited at Castle Howard.
"The Villa Rotunda is an ideal – it's the most extraordinarily perfect thing," says Bicknell. "The first reaction is what is it for as it doesn't seem to have a role in the real world. At Henbury we kept on using the word 'caprice' to describe the house and it is the most Palladian inspired building of my career. Palladio is to do with symmetry, proportion and porticos and all the things that go to make up an idealised house. With every other house that I have done you have a brief for the rooms and garages and all sorts of things. But these were secondary at Henbury where function follows form."
The house was built over the old wine cellars of the former house and tied to the nearby stable block – which contains some of the service functions of the house – by underground tunnels. The Hall itself is modest in scale, but of course perfectly proportioned, and dominated by the vast central domed hall. The main rooms sit on a raised ground floor – or 'piano nobile' – with a semi-basement area below, another Palladian device.
"Palladio was slightly obsessed with geometry and proportion, which we rather enjoy," says Bicknell. "The Palladian ideal does have this wide appeal, even to the person discovering architecture for the first time because there it all is – symmetry, the relationship with the past, a set of rules. It's absolute heaven."
"The general public have always loved Palladio's work,'" agrees Quinlan Terry, "and he has always been highly regarded. He was not an innovator and thought that the facts had been given for thousands of years. He was not trying to draw attention to himself but to Roman architecture. I have had clients who have looked at Palladio's work in Vicenza and Venice and made an experience of it. But by and large they know the kind of work that we do and that's what they want."
Many of Terry's houses suggest a strong Palladian influence, including his Tuscan villa in Regent's Park. One of a series of Terry villas in one of London's most beautiful locations, the house has two faces, with a formal façade facing the park, complete with portico, while the piano nobile formation is more obvious to the rear where the start begins to slope down to Regent's Canal. Highly ordered and crisp, it has the Palladian purity of expression and proportion that many of us still adore.
"The Palladian style is especially popular with international buyers," says Alexander Newall at Knight Frank's country department. "New build Palladian mansions are still very much in demand. A large percentage of newly built mansion houses are in this style, especially in the Home Counties. The key features drawing buyers are the grand proportions with high ceilings, which create a good send of space internally, and an impressive symmetrical façade."
vGeorge Saumarez Smith at Robert Adam Architects has just completed a new house in Hampshire, which draws heavily on Palladian ideals while creating an environmentally sensitive family home suited to the times. This New Palladian five bedroomed house within a working estate is partly based on the plans for an unbuilt country house – Villa Ragona – designed by Palladio and published in his Four Books of Architecture.
The Palladian elements are all here, including the sense of symmetry and order and a neat portico. But the restrained scale of this flexible and adaptable house is well suited to family living, while the house incorporates a wealth of eco aware measures, including a geothermal heating system and the use of locally made materials.
"My feeling is that the purity, simplicity and economy of Palladio's work is very well tuned to the modern day," says Saumarez Smith. "Having visited quite a few of Palladio's villas, they always feel generous in scale and fluid and flexible. It's almost like a blank canvas that you can inhabit any way you see fit and that's very much how people want to live now.
"The big question today is what do we really mean by sustainable houses? My view is that if you build something that is flexible and robust then you give the next generation the possible chance of making use of the house and carrying it forward. It some ways it's an old fashioned house, but I think – in a sense – old fashioned is where we are heading at the moment."
Not that such houses comes cheaply in terms of build costs, as Saumarez Smith accepts. Such prestigious buildings, of enduring quality, are difficult to build for les that £200 per square foot while it is hard to create such a house for less than £1.5m.
"What you are after is a house that feels as though it belongs to the place. People do assume that it's a house that has been there for years and for me that's a compliment, not because I want to build something that feels old but because it suggests the house sits naturally in its site."
The New Palladians, such as Saumarez Smith, bring fresh insight to an English Palladian tradition that stretches back over centuries. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Palladio's birth, it is a style that continues to entice those who want to build new homes under the influence of Palladio and those who simply want to look and learn.
"Palladio has a resonance for a very wide audience," says Royal Academy exhibition curator MaryAnne Stevens. "Palladio very significantly shaped the English country house, both in terms of internal planning and external decoration. The idea that you could place a temple pediment on the front of a house and give it a sense of grandeur very much comes from Palladio – and the idea that you could add symmetrical pavilions or wings to the main house. The exhibition will interest those who might be a member of the National Trust ort English Heritage and may be interested in the English neo-Palladian house and want to look at Palladio as the source for this architecture."
Palladio can even unite in appreciation those occasionally warring architectural factions of the modernists and the classicists. Modernists such as Richard Rogers, who has helped to sponsor the Palladio exhibition and has long drawn upon his own Italian heritage, might not find a direct relevance to their own work – as the New Palladians do - but Palladio remains a key figure in the evolution of architecture as a whole and the development of the profession itself from trade craft to a regulated discipline of design.
"The order he gives things – that's where you see it," says Rogers. "For me, it's the order and rhythm of buildings that are important rather than specifics. The concept of architecture as frozen music and the recognition of a thoroughness with which everything is done, the idea that architecture has a narrative and a language of its own – I am very interested in these things. Scale, proportion, rhythm: these are words that I use a lot and a great deal of this comes from Palladio."
Royal Academy – 'Andrea Palladio: His Life & Legacy', 31 January-13 April,
Julian Bicknell & Associates – www.julianbicknell.co.uk – 020 3274 1070
Quinlan & Francis Terry Architects – www.qftarchitects.com – 01206 323186
Robert Adam Architects – www.robertadamarchitects.com – 01962 843843