13 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 27


Master builder

John McEvien

The Arts Council is to be commended on presenting three outstanding architectural exhibitions in the last three years: the Inigo Jones quartercentenary exhibition at the Banqueting House, How to

Play the Environment Game at the Hayward and now, also at the Hayward (till October 12), Andrea Palladio 1508-1580. All have one, predominant connection beyond any academic consideration. Why, they all demand in their own way, have we got monstrosities like the Hayward Gallery or why have we made such a mess of London and everywhere else in Britain, though some say Sheffield is an exception? These exhibitions — and they are all accessible in catalogue form from the Arts Council Bookshop, 28 Sackville Street, W — are the closest we can get at present to an answer. Meanwhile, knowing the hideous effects of weathering on concrete, shouldn't the National Theatre be painted? Black maybe.

Palladio is famous in England as the father of Palladianism: the country house, the Crescents of Bath and Places of Edinbligh's New Town and everything else remotely Georgian, decent and good, tends to be credited to him. Such inaccuracies are no less blatant than the bastardisations of the style apparent even at Wilton, so that to see a genuine approximation in this country there is little left besides that 'handsomest barn in England', as Inigo Jones its architect called it, St Paul's Church, Covent Garden. The civil war, the Whig oligarchy and Locke's empiricism lie between the Platonic ideals of the Palladian Jones and Lord Burlington in the eighteenth century. And who knows if Jones, all along, wasn't more practically influenced by the severer style of the later Scamozzi's Palladianism rather than that of the master himself. We shall probably never know (the records are lost) if Jones on his Italian journey with Lord Arundel really did acquire Scamozzi's drawings or not. It seems likely. What he did buy, however, was Palladio's Four Books on Architecture, and although the influence of this manual has little to do with any exact reproduction of style, no single purchase abroad ever had a greater influence on English architecture.

Palladio was exceptional in that he built a lot, and therefore was forced to prefabricate and devise standard solutions to save time, a system. It is in this systemisation of design and the sculptural and abstract quality of his style (the backs of his buildings are particularly revealing in this respect), that he appears so modern. He was, of course, influenced by his great quattrocento predecessors Bramante, Raphael, Michaelangelo and the rest, by the theories of Alberti and the work of his contemporaries (the famous reference to him in Vasari's Lives appears in the section devoted to Sansovino), but they were none of them systematic. In fact they weren't even architects, but artist-architects, many of them with no more than two or three architectural achievements to their names. Palladio was an architect. He never painted or sculpted or, indeed, became rich. He built. And before that, from the age of thirteen, he worked as a mason.

Nothing conveys this simplicity and dedication of purpose better than his writings. At all times he avoids long or technical words and tries to speak a language that craftsmen will understand. Rather than 'entarsis' he refers to the swelling in the middle of the column'. Proof, and today we need it more than ever, that complex problems never require to be dressed in obscure language, because Palladio is not an easy architect. In fact the most versed of his age. And it was the Four Books that made him such an overwhelming influence, not the buildings themselves. The Four Books is a splendidly illustrated treatise combining antique schemes — particularly those of Vitruvius — with plans which fulfilled contemporary functions. No one was more tireless than Palladio in surveying ancient ruins. Nor was it easy. Others, like Serlio, complained of the difficulties of earth and cattle when measuring. But where there were no reliable plans, Palladio measured. A fit symbol of his entire method.

The present exhibition is formed round the ten wooden models of key Palladian works which caused such a sensation when they were first exhibited in Italy in 1973. The show is now on the road — it goes to Zurich next — and for the London exhibition has additional material from English collections, largely to facilitate a more sociological understanding of Palladio's era. You start with Venice, where Palladio crowned his career, and progress through sections devoted to his life; the lives of his clients; Vicenza, the city of his birth and early patronage; a slide show; the villas, generally accepted to be his finest achievement; and his system of working. The models are indeed spectacular and much of the photographic material and plans instructive, but the pictures, furniture and bric-a-brac, particularly some farm implements (scythes are always scythes be it the sixteenth century or 1975) could have been dropped without upsetting the children. Palladio needs no such palliatives.

But what has he to teach us today? Simplicity certainly. Buildings, he maintained, should be functional, structurally sound and beautiful, in that order. Although he could design a villa literally in minutes, he never allowed such a facility to encourage uniformity. Yet functionalism always came first. His villas were working farms. The width of their columns had to allow for the carts that carried in the grain for storage in the second floor granaries. Modern architecture has been dogged by systems but none of them has shown such a tender consideration for human beings. Garden cities, Corbusian dream towers, open plans have all failed through lack of just such a consideration. Meanwhile legalised and, my God, ennobled, vandals of the order of Spence and Siefert run amock, and a billion pounds is spent on transporting businessmen to New York in three rather than seven hours, The noble and ennobling principles of Palladio might just as well never have existed. Any exposure of them can do nothing but good.

Upstairs at the Hayward and concurrent with Palladio there is an even denser compilation of facts relating to The Georgian Theatre. Actors may be honest hypocrites but, unlike other artists, once they're dead they're dead. Just as St Paul's Church is worth all of Inigo Jones's masques, so one evening of Olivier is worth a thousand memories of David Garrick and his long forgotten players.