Classical Comments: Monumental Church (By Calder Loth – ICAA)

calder-loth-imgBy Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the
Institute of Classical Classical Architecture & Art‘s Advisory Council.

Courtesy of: the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art


Figure 1. Monumental Church, Richmond, Virginia (Loth)

For this month’s Classical Comments essay, I am departing from the usual pattern of discussing a specific architectural feature or type and am devoting the space to a single building. I have selected Richmond’s Monumental Church not to promote an important historic landmark, but to explore the circumstances that can affect a building’s form and character. Monumental Church is also an excellent example for illustrating the use of symbolism to make a work of architecture meaningful. Too often we fail to appreciate the existence of the amazing repertoire of traditional symbols that we can draw from to lend expression and instruction to a design.

Monumental Church owes its existence to a tragedy. On the evening of December 26, 1811, many members of Richmond’s society were attending a performance in a theater originally on the site. A fire broke out in the second act, destroying the theater and killing seventy-two of the audience, including the Governor. Shock at the loss of life moved Richmond citizens to plan a suitable memorial. Following two days of mourning, the citizens of Richmond and the state resolved to erect a church on the theater site as a permanent functioning monument to the calamity. The competition for the design was won by the thirty-one-year-old Robert Mills, who was then employed in the Philadelphia office of Benjamin Henry Latrobe.


Figure 2. Monumental Church, William Goodacre engraving, 1812 (Virginia Historical Society)

Prior to working for Latrobe, Mills’ architectural proficiency had been shaped by two mentors: James Hoban and Thomas Jefferson. Mills became an apprentice to Hoban while Hoban was overseeing the construction of the White House. More significantly, Mills served as a draftsman for Jefferson, producing ink-and-watercolor drawings of Monticello and a rotunda house for him around 1803. During that time, Mills had access to Jefferson’s extensive architectural library. Unfortunately, Mills’ drawings for Monumental Church do not survive, but we have a record of the ambitious original concept in an 1812 engraving by William Goodacre. (Figure 2) The Goodacre image shows a domed auditorium church fronted by a porch-like portico surmounted by a sculpted figure of mourning. An elaborate, multi-tier steeple rises from the rear of the church. The steeple and the portico sculpture were eliminated from the final design.

As built, the church, nevertheless, can only be described as Avant-guard—a structure unlike anything ever before seen in Virginia, much less the rest of the country. In many ways, it is a synthesis of ideas learned from both Jefferson and Latrobe. From Jefferson, Mills gained an appreciation for domes and octagons, forms that intrigued Jefferson and informed many of his designs. Monumental Church’s saucer dome employs the de L’Orme construction method, which consists of laminated wooden ribs, a system that Jefferson used on both Monticello and the Rotunda at University of Virginia.[i] From Latrobe, Mills was introduced to the use of the newly fashionable Greek orders and details, as well as to non-canonical interpretations of classical moldings, primarily thin Grecian-type moldings in the inventive style of Sir John Soane.


Figure 3. Monumental Church portico (Loth)

Completed in 1814, the building has two distinct sections: the memorial and the church. The memorial is the front portico, expressed as a square shrine-like porch or reliquary sheltering the marble monument to those lost in the fire. The building’s main portion, the domed octagon, is the church, with side entrances framed by diastyle porticos.[ii] Instead of the sculpture shown in the Goodacre engraving, Mills applied a simple pediment defined by thin moldings on the raking angles and acroteria or “ears” at the ends. A long shallow panel is the only decoration in the tympanum. (Figure 3) With its ears, the pediment (and also the window lintels), echoes the form of the lids of Roman and Greek cinerary boxes, or containers for cremated remains. This form is more explicitly used on the interior as we shall see.


Figure 4. Doric of the Temple of Apollo at Delos, The Antiquities of Athens, Vol. III: Chapter X, Plate 1


Figure 5. Portico columns, Monumental Church (Loth)

The order used for the columns of the front and side porticos is based on the Doric of the Temple of Apollo on the Island of Delos as shown in Volume III of Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens (1795).[iii] This order’s distinguishing feature is the column’s smooth shaft, with fluting employed in short sections at top and bottom. Stuart and Revett conjectured that the main part of the shaft was left plain because it was covered with tapestry during ceremonies. (Figures 4 & 5) Most authorities now believe that the columns were simply unfinished, and that full fluting of the shaft was intended but never accomplished. Nevertheless, the distinctive appearance of the columns has inspired countless imitations on Greek Revival buildings.[iv] We might speculate that the unfinished character of the columns on Monumental Church may have been an intended reference to the unfinished lives of those who perished in the fire.


Figure 6. Portico frieze detail, Monumental Church (Loth)

The church’s theme of mourning is continued in the portico frieze through the series of bas-reliefs of lachrymatory urns. (Figure 6) These are representations of the small glass vessels usually found in ancient Greek and Roman tombs, vessels into which mourners dropped their tears. The term derives from licrima, the Latin word for tear. Lachrymatory urns are normally in the shape of a small flask with a narrow neck and wide mouth for catching the tears.


Figure 7. Monumental Church monument (Loth)

Sheltered by the portico is the marble monument inscribed with the names of the seventy-two Richmonders who perished in the fire. With its sharply sloping sides and deep cove cornice, the monument is one of the nation’s earliest structures to exhibit an Egyptian influence. (Figure 7) The Egyptian reference is heightened by the bas-relief of the winged sun disk in the cove cornice. In Egyptian mythology, the winged sun disk is a symbol of Ra, the sun god, believed by the Egyptians to be the Sun of Righteousness having healing in his wings, a title later adapted and modified by the Christians. [v]


Figure 8. Monument urn (Loth)

Symbolism abounds on the urn topping the monument. (Figure 8) The urn is in the form of an ancient cinerary urn, also a receptacle for human ashes. The flame issuing from the lid denotes the renewal of life. The downturned flaming torches on either side are ancient symbols of death, denoting the snuffing out of the flame of life. On the face of the urn we see a winged hourglass, a reminder that life is of limited time and speeds by quickly. It is encircled by a wreath of cypress branches, also a symbol of mourning. The theme of grief is reinforced by the two sculpted draped heads with their downcast eyes. The original marble monument and urn suffered extensive deterioration over the years resulting in serious loss of aesthetic and structural integrity. With the use of laser scans, an exact replica was crafted by the firm of S. McConnell & Sons of Lilkeel, Ireland and installed in place of the original in 2004.


Figure 9. Monumental Church interior, view to apse (Loth)

Entering the church through the front portico, we are struck by the horseshoe-shaped galleries enveloping the space and focusing on the apse. (Figure 9) The apse is an acoustical as well as architectural feature meant to project the sound from the pulpit. The arrangement of the room is defined as an auditory or auditorium-form church, which is a pulpit-centered unified space. This form was favored by 19th-century Protestant denominations since the high point of the service was the sermon. Hence, it was important for the congregation to see and hear the preacher clearly. Monumental’s original wineglass-shaped pulpit that towered above the reading desk was removed in a late 19th-century alteration.


Figure 10. Monumental Church interior, view to entrance (Loth)

Looking from the apse towards the entrance, we see an intriguing optical illusion, created by placing the saucer dome on an octagonal base. The thin moldings of the dome’s base glide over the octagon’s reentrant angles forming shadow pendentives. In addition, the effect of the sweeping curved shadows makes the flat walls of the octagon appear as convex curves. (Figure 10) The interior receives additional light from the ring of shallow windows in the dome’s lantern.


Figure 11. Monumental Church, apse column capital (Loth)

More symbols of death and mourning are displayed in the capitals of the two Ionic columns flanking the apse. (Figure 11) Instead of the normal channels between the volutes, Mills placed carved drapery swags, a motif recalling the drapery swags used to ornament catafalques and hearses. As noted above, the downturned torches, seen in the capital’s neck are ancient symbols of death. The stars, on the other hand, are symbols of heaven and eternity, reminding us of the Christian belief of the promise of eternal life after death. The leaves and buds in the balusters (sides of the volutes) are stylized versions of the Mediterranean laurel, an ancient symbol of victory and sometime symbol of eternity. Topping the capital is a modified cinerary box lid with anthemions ornamenting the triangle


Figure 12. Monumental Church, gallery detail (Loth)


Figure 13. Choragic Monument of Lysicrates cresting, Antiquities of Athens, Vol. 1: Chapter IV. Plate VI (1762) [detail]

Mills’ creativity is particularly evident in the gallery columns as well as in the entablature blocks and railing pedestals above each column. (Figure 12) The columns are thin versions of the Delos Doric seen on the exterior, with short sections of fluting at the bottoms and tops of the shafts. The capitals are a Mills invention, consisting of a series of bands below a flattened echinus and an abacus in the form of a cinerary box lid. The entablature block above the capital is a unique composition. A patera, representing the shallow dishes used in the ancient ceremonies of sacrifice, ornaments the frieze. Any symbolism inherent in the curved motif in the architrave is undetermined. Individual too are the three bold dentils and the complex series of compressed moldings forming the cornice. The shallow recessed Gothic panel in the pedestal may be a reference to Christianity. However, the anthemion motif in the ornament atop the pedestal is taken from the cresting of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates as illustrated in The Antiquities of Athens. (Figure 13)


Figure 14. Monumental Church, west doorframe detail (Loth)


Figure 15. Monumental Church, west stair vestibule (Loth)

Similar creativity and imagination is exhibited in the doorframes leading to the side vestibules and the gallery stairs. (Figure 14) Here the classical vocabulary has been abstracted to the degree that it resembles Art Deco ornament of the mid-20th century. With their sinewy lines the double stairs in each vestibule are masterpieces of design and construction. Each flight winds up the curved walls of the vestibule to a landing at the top. (Figure 15)


Figure 16. Monumental Church, crypt vault (Loth)

We must venture in the crypt to see the final piece of Monumental Church’s poignant history. Towards the crypt’s southern end, but not quite beneath the portico, is a large brick vault containing the ashes of those who perished in the fire, whose remains could not be identified. (Figure 16) X-ray examination of the vault indicated that the ashes are interred in two large wooden boxes.

Monumental Church was originally intended to be a non-denominational shrine available for community use. Practicality, however, dictated that it be an Episcopal parish church instead, in which capacity it served until 1965. The church is now owned by the Historic Richmond Foundation and has been undergoing long-term restoration under the foundation’s direction.[vi] The architectural lesson of Monumental Church is that its design is an effective (and indeed early) demonstration of the Miesian dictum that form follows function. In this case, however, its architect utilized traditional forms—an octagon, a dome, and porticoes, to create a distinctive composition for accommodating a particular programmatic use and a special symbolic function. He gave expression to the composition by employing various ancient symbols to both convey and memorialize its tragic history. Finally, using a fertile imagination, he created unique compositions of details that provoke lasting reflection.

[i] Detailed illustrations of the rib construction were published in Philibert de l’Orme’s Nouvelles Inventions pour dien bastir et a petiz frais (1561).
The portico is executed in Aquia Creek sandstone. The main body of the church is brick covered with stucco. The whole structure was originally covered with limewash for a uniform appearance. The portico stone was cleaned of later coatings in the mid-20th century, exposing the stone. The current limewash coating is a recent treatment and is part of the ongoing restoration.
Stuart and Revett made their two engravings of this order from two columns and other fragments found among ruins of what was then an uninhabited Island. They speculated that the columns belonged to a temple dedicated to Apollo. Subsequent authorities have maintained that identity.
It is uncertain whether Mills’ model for the order was Stuart and Revett’s depiction or a similar illustration published in Julien-David Le Roy’s Les ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grece (1758). Le Roy’s work was a primary source for Mills’ mentor Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and the work was also owned by Mills’s other mentor Thomas Jefferson. Mills could have had access to the book from either Latrobe or Jefferson. Jefferson owned volume 1 of Antiquities of Athens but not volume III.
Like nearly all churches, Monumental Church evolved in appearance through alterations and additions over the years. In the late 19th-century, the original apse arrangement was changed to accommodate the more ceremonial Episcopal liturgy. Golden oak choir stalls, priest’s chairs and desks, and altar were installed. Stained-glass windows replaced the original clear glass panes. A Sunday school wing was added to east side. Following the church’s deconsecrated, it was determined that Mills’ original scheme was more important than the later changes, and the long-term restoration of its original design was begun.

Classical Comments: Eustyle – By Calder Loth

Classical Comments:  Eustyle

By:  Calder Loth

Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s Advisory Council.


Pantheon portico

Figure 1.  Pantheon portico, Rome; an ancient example of eustyle intercolumniation (Loth)


In The Ten Books on Architecture, the famous (and only surviving) ancient treatise on architecture, its author, Vitruvius, discusses how the character of a temple portico can be affected by the spacing of its columns.  Vitruvius defines closely spaced columns pycnostyle, which means the column shafts are spaced one and a half column diameters apart. This gives a portico a very static appearance. The widest spacing is araeostyle, which is four diameters apart. Vitruvius tells us araeostyle is impossible with masonry construction because the spans are too great for stone architraves. Areaostyle spacing is practical only when architraves are composed of wooden beams. Other types of intercolumniation are systyle (two diameters apart) and diastyle (three diameters apart). In all four spacing types, the columns have equal-width spaces between them.


Vitruvius then informs us that the ideal intercolumniation system is eustyle. As defined by Vitruvius, a eustyle portico has bays that are two and a quarter diameters in width except for the center bay, which is three diameters wide.  Vitruvius proclaimed the superior quality of eustyle spacing, stating, “In this way, the temple will have a beautiful configuration with no obstruction at the entrance.”[1] The term eustyle is derived from the Latin prefix eu, meaning good (as in euphoria—feeling good), and the Latin stilus, a narrow cylindrical object; i.e., a column shaft. The principle of eustyle spacing can be applied to porticos of four (tetrastyle), six (hexastyle), and eight (octastyle) or more columns.


Pantheon portico (detail)

Figure 2.  Pantheon portico (detail), ‘The Four Books’ (Isaac Ware edition, 1738) Book 4, plate LI


In perusing Book 4 of Andrea Palladio’s Quattro Libri (Four Books on Architecture), we might note that the majority of the ancient porticoed temples in Palladio’s reconstruction drawings incorporate some form of eustyle spacing.  Among them is the Pantheon, where Palladio notes that the portico’s center bay, in Vincentine feet and inches,[2] is  9’3½” wide, while the outer bays are 8’2½”wide. (Figure 2) Even though the temples Palladio measured and illustrated normally employ a slightly wider center bay, not all strictly follow Vitruvius’s spacing formula. Indeed, in some of the temple elevations, such as that for the Temple of Saturn, the dimension variation is so subtle that we need to look very carefully to see the effect. (Figure 3) Except for the Ionic temples of Portunus[3] and Saturn,[4] all of the porticoed temples Palladio included in Book 4 are in the Corinthian order, the preferred order for major buildings of the Roman imperial period.


Temple of Concord (Saturn)

Figure 3. Temple of Concord (Saturn), ‘The Four Books’ (Isaac Ware edition, 1738) Book 4, plate XCIII


Palladio employed some form of eustyle spacing in virtually all of his portioced villa and palace designs published in Book 2 of Quattro Libri. Because of the small scale of several of his villa elevations, as illustrated in the original woodcut prints, the eustyle spacing is not readily apparent. We see this in his elevation of the Villa Emo, where eustyle is not depicted. (Figure 4) However, as built, the villa subtly incorporates eustyle spacing in its Tuscan portico. (Figure 5) Palladio made no secret of his preference for eustyle intercolumniation. In Chapter IV of  Book 4 of Quattro Libri, Palladio paraphrased Vitruvius thusly: “So, then, the most beautiful and elegant sort of temple is called eustyle, which occurs when the intercolumniations are two and quarter column diameters, because it is extremely practical and also provides beauty and strength.”[5]


Villa Emo

Figure 4. Villa Emo, (detail), ‘Quattro Libri’ (Tavenor and Schofield translation of the 1570 edition), Book II p. 55


Figure 5. Villa Emo, Fanzolo, Italy (Loth)

Figure 5. Villa Emo, Fanzolo, Italy (Loth)


Among the aesthetic advantages of eustyle intercolumniation is the subliminal focusing of attention on a building’s entrance.  We see this in an almost subconscious way in each of the porticos of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda. (Figure 6) More importantly, making use of eustyle spacing can correct an optical illusion.  Consider, for example, the Tuscan portico of the 1826 Goochland County courthouse with its areaostyle (four diameters) column spacing. (Figure 7) Although the portico’s three bays are exactly the same width, the center bay appears narrower—an optical illusion. In contrast, the similar Tuscan portico on the 1823 Frascati makes use of eustyle intercolumniation. (Figure 8)  As with the Villa Emo, Frascati’s eustyle spacing lends a more visually pleasing character to the composition even though it is not immediately apparent that the center bay is wider, especially if not viewed straight on.


Figure 6. Villa Rotondo, Vicenza, Italy (Loth)

Figure 6. Villa Rotondo, Vicenza, Italy (Loth)


Goochland County Courthouse

Figure 7. Goochland County Courthouse, Goochland, Virginia (Loth)


Figure 8. Frascati, Orange County, Virginia (Loth)

Figure 8. Frascati, Orange County, Virginia (Loth)


Both the Goochland Courthouse and Frascati were designed and built by master builders who had worked for Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia. There they learned the classical language, but not necessarily a consistent use of eustyle spacing. Despite his strong advocacy of Palladian forms, Jefferson applied the eustyle principle only rarely. His Pavilion V at the University of Virginia is the only one of the institution’s ten pavilions to have eustyle spacing. (Figure 9) Here the hexastyle Ionic portico bears a strong resemblance to the porticoes of the Villa Rotonda, a work that was an important inspiration for Jefferson.  Jefferson headed his handwritten specification notes on the pavilion: “Pavilion No.V. Palladio’s Ionic modillion order.”[6] His awareness of eustyle is evident further down in the notes where he wrote: “from cent. to cent. of Columns mod 3 1/3 gives intercol. of mod. 2 1/3 the eustyle being 2 ¼ mod . . .”[7] Jefferson also used barely perceptible eustyle spacing in his proposed design for the residence of the United States President, a scheme based on the Villa Rotonda.


Pavilion V, University of Virginia (Loth)

Figure 9. Pavilion V, University of Virginia (Loth)


The 18th-century English Palladian architects were more consistent with their advocacy of Vitruvius’s and Palladio’s preference for eustyle spacing.  A majority of the portioced designs in Colen Campbell’s Vituvius Britannicus (1715 & 1725) have eustyle intercolumniation.  Sir William Chambers discussed some of the issues of eustyle in his Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture. “It is however to be observed, that if the measures of Vitruvius be scrupulously adhered to, with regard to the eustyle interval, the modillions in the Corinthian and Composite cornices, and the dentils in the Ionic, will not come regularly over the middle of each column. The ancients, generally speaking, were indifferent about these little accuracies.” [8] Chambers went on to explain how to deal with the problem by making the column spacings slightly wider. Perhaps Campbell and Chambers were inspired by Inigo Jones, the patron saint of the Anglo-Palladian movement, who employed eustyle spacing conspicuously in the loggia on the Queen’s House, Greenwich (1616-35), a herald of English Palladianism. (Figure 10)


Queen’s House, Greenwich, England

Figure 10. Queen’s House, Greenwich, England, ‘Vituvius Britannicus’, Vol. 1, plate 15


The Anglo-Palladian architect, James Gibbs, on the other hand, was less concerned with eustyle design. He is silent on the subject in his otherwise highly influential Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture (1732). Moreover, nearly all of Gibbs’s portioced designs in A Book of Architecture (1728) lack eustyle spacing. Even his most famous work, St. Martin in the Fields (1722-26) avoids eustyle spacing, a design that influenced hundreds of American churches. (Figure 11) We might note, however, that in one of the most faithful adaptations of St. Martin, the 1924 All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., architect Henry Shepley applied eustyle spacing in its Corinthian portico. (Figure 12)  Shepley may have been adhering to Chambers’ advice on how to handle the eustyle principle with the Corinthian order. More likely, he was following William R. Ware’s instructions in The American Vignola, the textbook for nearly every American architect of the first half of the 20th century. Ware wrote,


“The ancients . . . preferred what they called Eustyle Intercolumniation, of two and one-half Diameters (or three and one-half Diameters on centers, in place of three Diameters). But the moderns prefer to make the Eustyle Intercolumniation two and one-third Diameters (setting the columns three and one-third Diameters on centers), as this brings even Columns in Ionic and Corinthian colonnades exactly under the Dentil, and every alternate one just under a Modillion, the Dentils being one-sixth of a Diameter on centers, and Modillions two thirds of a Diameter.” [9]


If we look carefully at All Souls’ portico, we can see that each column is centered under a modillion.


St. Martin in the Fields

Figure 11. St. Martin in the Fields (detail), James Gibbs, ‘A Book of Architecture’, plate 3


All Souls Unitarian Church

Figure 12. All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington, D.C. (Loth)


Eustyle spacing is not so accommodating for the Doric order. If a column is to be properly centered beneath a triglyph, the middle bay cannot be widened without adding an extra triglyph, thus precluding any chance for a less pronounced increase in spacing in the center. We see this in comparing the porticos of Monticello (Figure 13) and the Redwood Library. (Figure 14) Monticello’s portico bays are the same width, but even here, the center bay appears narrower than the flanking bays. The entablature in the Redwood Library’s center bay employs the extra triglyph resulting in the center bay being conspicuously wider.


Monticello portico

Figure 13. Monticello portico (Loth)


Redwood Library, Newport, Rhode Island

Figure 14. Redwood Library, Newport, Rhode Island (Historic American Buildings Survey)


An awareness of the ancient principle of eustyle intercolumniation prompts us to take a more careful notice of the numerous porticoes we encounter. Many of the great landmarks of the American Renaissance employ eustyle spacing, including the Columbia University Library, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Supreme Court. John Russell Pope did not overlook the effectiveness of this age-old principle in what is perhaps the nation’s most prodigious Corinthian portico, on the National Archives. (Figure 15) Oftentimes the effect is so subtle that, like the Pantheon, it is more felt than seen.

National Archives

Figure 15. National Archives, Washington, D. C. (Loth)


[1] Thomas Gordon Smith, Vitruvius on Architecture, (The Monacelli Press , 2003) p. 96
Though various Renaissance texts vary, the Vincentine foot is approximately 13.5 inches imperial.
Called by Palladio the Temple of Fortuna Virilis.
Called by Palladio the Temple of Concord.
Andrea Palladio, The Four Books on Architecture, Translated by Robert Tavenor and Richard Schofield, (MIT Press, 1997) p. 219.
Mesick-Cohen-Waite Architects, Pavilion V, Historic Structure Report (University of Virginia, 1994) p. 20.
Sir William Chamber, A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture (2003 Dover Publications reprint of the London, 1791 third edition) p. 81.
William R. Ware, The American Vignola (1994 Dover Publications Reprint of the 1903 edition) p. 47.

2012 Philip Trammell Shutze Award Winners


Congratulates the


We would like to extend our utmost congratulations to this year’s Philip Trammell Shutze Award Winners. The Shutze Award – which is conducted by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art –recognizes extraordinary individuals who create and compel the growth of classical architecture in the twenty-first century.

The Shutze Awards were given for several traditional architecture categories, including: small, large, & multi-family residential design, commercial / civic / institutional projects, interior design, craftsmanship, renovation, and landscape/garden design.
Below are the award categories and the winners of each, respectively.
Residential Architecture Under 4,000 Square Feet

| Residence in the Greek Revival tradition, Atlanta |
Residential Interiors

| Moreland Residence, Atlanta |
Commercial/Civic/Institutional Architecture

| Fairburn Educational Campus – Fairburn, GA |
Residential Outbuilding 4,000 Square Feet

| Cay Pool Pavilion – Delta Plantation, SC |
Residential Architecture Over 10,000 Square Feet

| Fairfield House, Atlanta |
Landscape Design

| Fairfield Road, Ferme Ornee |
Residential Classical 4,000 – 10,000 Square Feet

| Hotel Particulier |
Interior Design, Residential

| Interior Residence on Nancy Creek, Atlanta |
Residential Multi-family

| Regents Park |

| Classical Wrought Iron Balustrade |
Residential Vernacular 4,000 – 10,000 Square Feet

| New American Farmhouse, Wyoming |

| A Residence on Woodward Way, Atlanta |
Photos & content courtesy of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

Architectural Etymology: by Calder Loth


Classical Comments:  Architectural Etymology

Courtesy of the Classicist Blog:

by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s Advisory Council.


The study of classical architecture introduces us to a multitude of terms for the various parts of the orders. For many it is a completely new vocabulary, one often difficult to learn. An investigation of the etymology of the words can be helpful for remembering many of the terms and understanding their rationale. As with so much specialized terminology, numerous objects received their names because they reminded people of familiar, similar-looking things. We see this happening in scores of different categories. For instance, we call the control device on an instrument panel a button. The glass vacuum vessel encasing an incandescent electric light is a bulb. The name given to the symbol for a program on a computer screen is an icon. (And don’t forget the mouse.) This naming phenomenon is particularly prevalent in classical architecture. For this month’s essay, I have taken terms for elements of the entablature and capital of the Tuscan order and explored why they are called what are and where their names came from. I hope this simple exposition will serve to foster a more informed appreciation of the classical language of architecture. I hope also to explore the etymology of additional classical features and details in future Classical Comments essays.

The image I have used for this investigation is a detail of the Tuscan order illustrated in Abraham Swan’s The British Architect (1758), which offers some of the most precise and beautiful depictions of the classical orders.

*  Denotes that the word is a term defined in the list.


Eisenhower Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Designing Eisenhower Memorial on the Mall in D.C.

Written by: Paul Gunther – President, The Institute of Classical Architecture

Source: The Huffington Post Online

Sadly, the pending scheme by Frank Gehry for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial proposed on a colossal four-acre site in the District of Columbia’s civic epicenter is theme-park architecture. This term was coined by the late Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp in describing work tied to jingo and nostalgia. The themes of “humble origins” and the interstate highway system as the determinate metaphors for a life’s journey, especially when the subject in question helped sustain liberty as much as anyone in recorded history, perfectly fits Muschamp’s bona fides for this critical category.

Now is the time to take stock accordingly as the National Capital Planning Commission sits down early next month to make its final decision. They do so in the context of passionate disagreement, along with the Eisenhower family itself as is now broadly known.

Gehry’s plan is more attuned to the World’s Fairs of the mid-20th century, such as Montreal’s Expo 67.  Philip Johnson’s 1964 New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, still standing despite a three score debate over its adaptive reuse, also comes to mind.  The proposed plan is a huge open-air pavilion, which despite its size, misleadingly and inexplicably edits an epic biography of preeminence in the ongoing American experiment that is second to none.  It falls short both symbolically and pedagogically.

Likewise it is a design conceived for a single once-in-a-lifetime encounter, one that ideally would be made from a fixed point of approach to make full narrative sense (i.e. “the line starts here”) and before the trees grow to obscure such a fixed and demanding scenario. Maybe that’s fine but where’s the door? It favors novelty as opposed to “of its time” design done well; design which outlasts its time, complying with the implicit aim of the original congressional mandate.

Paradoxically, despite its enormity (a scale transcending even that of the Amun-Re Precinct of Luxor’s Karnak Temple Complex), there is no way to incorporate this amorphous zone into the daily rhythms of shared urban existence. And, yet, it also does not limit it in any way as a destination terminus (e.g. the de facto cemetery and cenotaph of the new National September 11 Memorial). It is a place to pass through. A parallax ensues.

In contrast, John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields in Central Park shows how a well-designed memorial with its conceptual eye on daily benevolence can accomplish exactly that.  Worse still, this monumental scale turns its back on the contiguous Lyndon B. Johnson Department of Education Building and those women and men who work there, day in and day out, to fulfill their statutory duties.  Was not that hubristic urban planning mistake learned 50 years ago at New York’s Lincoln Center, where except for one library door, a rear facade of loading docks and high terrace walls served only to remind residents that their attendance was not expected?  It seems a regrettable reminder, too, of the benighted World Trade Center’s former plaza, where no one wanted to go unless they had to.

Furthermore, Gehry’s experimental, ephemeral materials and methodologies are unlikely to endure. Stone and cast metals have stood the test of time and are deployed for that reason; happily they can be endlessly revisited and reinvented to meet modern applications. The fact that contemporary classicism so uses them is just one exemplary result. In contrast, high-tech interpretive mediation available in the moment of its construction will fade in utility even if winter blasts and prolonged heat allow them to function past an initial phase of critical novelty. (Expo 67 had computers, though no one under the age of 45 would recognize them as such.)

Should maintenance and enduring access be factors for the architect? You bet. To assert otherwise is unforgivably shortsighted. No doubt Gehry believes honorably that he has considered them but his view flies in the face of the realities of maintenance during these protracted times of limited public resources and constantly advancing options for co-existing virtual interface. It seems unwise to delimit such inevitable progress in the dynamic realm of technological interpretation.

Perhaps most troubling is Mr. Gehry’s startling words when describing it as a “theater for the car.” After more than a century, he recalls Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto and its fifth thesis: We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.  Using General Eisenhower to celebrate the wheeled motor vehicle?  If the goal is an ironic wink at his role in realizing finally an interstate highway system, perhaps the commission should transplant the entire concept to the closest I-95 off ramp? (Gehry made this goal clear when stating that partial inspiration for the monument were the support pylons underneath Eisenhower Highway System overpasses.)

Eisenhower with his wise post-war burst of enlightened public investment in infrastructure –required but not attainable by the private sector alone — completed it 20 years after its original Depression-era conception. That is why there are already tens of thousands of Eisenhower Interstate System signs along the shoulders of the entire roadway network — a tribute well-tended since the mandate to do so by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

Instead, this particular memorial belongs where it is, and, regardless of any unfair slight to those who defined progress differently 60 years ago, we now know better than to defer to the car at the expense of the pedestrian. There is no turning back due for starters to the kind of traffic Marinetti apparently never anticipated. Alas, speed and theater are not among the D.C. driver’s daily experiences.  They belong to a century-old fantasy of Tomorrowland.

Nor is this plan suited to the long-term design and civic obligations of memorial design at its best. While Frank Gehry has been one of the foremost visionary designers on the globe, above all in the late-20th century, especially when inventing freestanding sculptural forms reliant on a pre-existing context for aggressive contrast or neutral yield, in this case he has fallen short of past rigor. This plan fails to fulfill the full spirit of the commissioning blueprint and the statue that spawned it in the first place.

Such shortcomings have nothing to do per se with style or preferred precise design vocabulary. Yet, indeed, the classical tradition at its best transcends time with the nearby Lincoln Memorials and the astonishing Washington Monument serving as ageless examples. Many feel the same about the abstract modern simplicity of Maya Lin’s renowned Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which succeeds at honoring the dead even for those without any living connection since its topographical sanctity spawns investigation and reflection.

Whether or not it is the case with Mr. Gehry, the men and women charting this vital memorial course need to go back to the drawing board aka AutoCAD and make sure the full potential at hand takes permanent hold in the hearts and imaginations of future visitors including those encountering this hallowed site without prior expectations, and, perhaps most challenging, those passing by every day.