Centering a Town: 12th. Effort/Palazzo

Donato Bramante, Palazzo Caprini (Palazzo di Raffaello), c. 1510

These buildings are in a class of their own and represent a climax of the High Renaissance palace between 1515 and 1520. Their functional differentiation of a rusticated ground-floor and smooth piano nobile, their majestic sequence of double half-columns, their use of few great forms, and their economy of detail, the organic separation of one member from another (e.g. balconies and bases of columns), the compact filling of the wall and the energetic projection of mass—all this, though unprecedented in ancient as well as modern times, gave these places the stamp of truly imperial grandeur. They had something of the serene and grave quality of ancient Roman buildings, and it was palazzo type that, fused with Venetian elements first by Sanmicheli (Palazzo Pompeii, Verona) and then by Palladio, was constantly imitated and varied all over Europe by architects with a classical bias.

Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, on buildings influenced by Bramante palazzos.

The style of palazzos—Italian palaces for nobles and the wealthy—may seem an odd choice for this project. They housed, however, several functions, and the ground floor was often used for commerce. Later revivals of the style served all manner of purposes. What the style succeeds in doing is defining an urban presence, assertive, conscious of itself, yet also mindful of the need to respect a town’s grid and fabric. The palazzo faces the town streets and lies close, maintaining its reserve without withdrawing to isolation and exclusivity, at least in appearance.

That was my interest, a unified design for a building with many functions, one that distinguishes the building and elevates the importance of the activities inside yet still fits in. Its location—in the center of the downtown area, before the plaza it commands—calls for such presence. I also wanted a design that might reach back into the past and give it present relevance and connection.

I have kept the basic elements of the palazzo. The floors are differentiated, the first by its display windows and different material, the fourth by its larger windows. The second and third floors have inset walls in a pattern that continues into the fourth, adding depth and variation. All windows lie within a grid, and the structural elements of that grid separate from the walls and assert themselves, their mass, giving the building order and energy. At the top, some attention to a cornice.

Symmetry is varied with the columns of larger windows on the second through fourth floors. They add a vertical element to an essentially horizontal building as well as announce the front and side doors and place emphasis on the corner, the focal point of the building and the downtown area.

Its character, however, is decidedly informal, in keeping with other buildings in the area that, like it, still pay modest attention to architectural detail and ornament. Grandeur is not called for, rather energized and orderly democratic spirit.

Program is similar to that of the other proposals, civic activity and exhibition on the first floor with classrooms above for the satellite college.

A basic floorpan of the second through fourth floors, five classrooms with utility at the side and an open stairway in the middle. The areas above the doors—shaded in the drawing—could be left open all four floors, giving the interior light and openness.

What I haven’t done is use classical language—columns, arches, pediments on windows, and so on. They no longer speak to us except sentimentally, ironically, or falsely, and are difficult to reproduce effectively with modern materials and techniques. Classical columns of ancient times had life and detailed attention; modern reproductions lose both. I wondered if they might be reconfigured in a different design with different meaning, resulting in my Fifth Effort. That is, as I say, an experiment.

Greek thinking is at once typal and specific. It takes on an idea (or a form, which is nothing other than a congealed idea), nourishes and perfects it through a series of conscious changes, and in this way informs it with a kind of universal validity that seems irrefutable. The process is in fact ideal, that is, based on “the perfection of kind.” It presupposes orderly development and the practicability of consummation.

Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture

But the Greek temples were not rote matters of recalling details and fitting them into a syntax, rather attempts to embody a spirit and define a human ideal. The great modernist buildings try the same using other terms. My instinct everywhere was to pare down to the essential—this is a building that wants to reach the heart of things—and not lose that heart in elaborate articulation inessential to its form. I experimented with a larger and elaborate cornice, eventually cutting it down to a slight overhang. I abandoned quickly attempts to ornament windows and make the columns look like pilasters. The risk is in such a design is that it becomes so diluted that reference is missed and the building loses character.

To chart a place on earth—that is the supreme effort of the built environment in antiquity. Shelter, of course, always takes precedence. But its issue transcends self-preservation and comfort. Shelter engages human alliances and rank, and so it becomes the task of residential architecture to advance the pattern of collective existence. From family to empire, the stages of social and political gradation affect the scope and intricacy of this extendable pattern. But in the end organization only tidies up; it cannot satisfy darker anxieties of being afloat in a mysterious design which is not of our own making. To mediate between cosmos and polity, to give shape to fear and exorcize it, to effect a reconciliation of knowledge and the unknowable—that was the charge of ancient architecture.

It is a charge that is no longer pressing, that no longer has meaning. Geomancy had no place in the laying out of New York or Teheran; Buckingham Palace was not planned to be the pivot of the cosmic universe. At some point we chose to keep our own counsel, to search for self close at home.

Kostof again

This is the challenge to anything built now, how to create a design that speaks to us and is vital to our needs now and in the future, that reflects some larger understanding at a time when basis for such understanding is in flux. We have a lot to think about.

Esthetic success in this project, as for any building, depends on quality of materials—I would like stone and brick—and distinctive details and refined proportions, which I can’t represent well with the plastic parts.


Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Bauakademie, 1832–36

Henry Hobson Richardson, Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store, 1885

C. V. Kerr/Patten & Fisher, The Machinery Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology, 1901

Burke, Horwood and White, The Ryrie Building, 1913–15

Aldo Rossi, Quartier Schützenstrasse, 1996

Background and Previous Designs

Other designs for this project, along with background material and more photographs of site, can be found here and at these posts.

Model, plan, and pictures of the model by the author. Bramante image via Pinterest. All other images via Wikipedia.


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