Week Six

Nashville in the 1950s: "Hell's Half-Acre" and the Capitol


The Look Outside

Today we begin a three-week segment on aesthetic discernment, focused on equipping you with

  • a general overview of the history of aesthetic theory
  • an understanding of the conflicts that have arisen between camps in different periods (and the conditions under which no such discord exists)
  • a beginning vocabulary for engaging in critique
  • the skills to engage in discourse about a building from multiple points of view

Complicating matter (or "enriching" it, if you like), criteria for excellence (or even general "goodness") in architecture has been understood differently through the centuries, during which the people who get to make the rules (or sometimes challenge the notion that there are any rules) often speak from different socio-political arenas--but also usually leave public voice out of the matter. While in some periods, for example, discussions of beauty were confined to the economic elite (where there was usually little, or no, variation in correct thought), in others, a professional voice argued over merits of one kind of architecture over another. Most famously, the literal "Battle of the Styles" (as it was termed in London newspapers) raged in 1830s England. While not so overt in the recent past, professional prejudices and biases from the profession have colored the approach to architectural education. While we all (pretty much) agree on how to judge Vitruvius' notions of firmitas and utilitas, opinions range widely over the best way to achieve excellence in the venustas category.

While you are very likely to develop preferences in your own design practices, this class, and this architecture program here at Belmont, have been developed to serve your capacity to lean about, and experiment with, a wide variety of architectural modes, styles, and languages. On the one hand, this is for your own professional development and to avoid professors dictating what good taste is; on the other, it is meant to make you flexible and responsive to future clients, so that your work can best fulfill Luther's guidance to serve through your vocation. It's because of this context and from this perspective that I prefer we use the term discernment rather than judgment when we talk about aesthetics. While the Bible is not a style manual and will not tell you which kind of architecture is the most beautiful and best, it does tell us how to treat people and the world they live in. The question that is left, then, to a person of faith, is to figure out: to what extent can aesthetic decisions fulfill the Gospel message?

The Week at a Glance

Before you proceed with this week, make sure to finish last week by:

  • watching this  video overview of the week to come
  • writing (doing a mind-dump) in your personal journal for at least 15 minutes--distill the whole week into what seems most important to you
  • distilling what you wrote in your journal in the "Journaling" exercise for Week 05 on Blackboard
  • If you haven't yet made a habit out of reaching for your copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, it's time to get used to doing that.

To successfully complete this week ARC 1015, follow these steps:

(1) Read the current assignment in the Paul Goldberger book, Why Architecture Matters (Chapter 3).

  • Find the current assignment and a list of questions to guide your reading in the "Why Architecture Matters" link in the Blackboard site.

(2) Work through the narrative and activities that follow on this page, noting the following upcoming due dates:

  • Monday (11:11 AM):
    • complete the "Classical Traditions" VoiceThread (comments required) & quiz
    • complete the "Modernist Traditions" VoiceThread (comments required) & quiz
(3) Show up on Tuesday, according to the attendance rolls listed at the bottom of this page.

Special for Weds., Sept. 23

At 7:00 PM, join the virtual meeting with Makoto Fujimura. For bonus points in ARC 1015, answer the prompt in the "Journal" section of the Blackboard site.

Special for Mon., Sept. 28

In addition to the exercises focused on the Classical and Modernist traditions named in the narrative below,

Learning Objectives

At the conclusion of this unit, you should be able to:

  • Explain approaches for aesthetic judgement [UNDERSTAND]
  • Correctly employ discipline-specific vocabulary related to aesthetic critique [REMEMBER]

for Monday (11 AM)

Classical Traditions

Note: Because this week we are aligned closely with the reading in Why Architecture Matters, don't wait til the end of the week to read it.

Early in the class we saw Vitruvius lay out one way for the merit of buildings to be judged: on virtue of their structural stability, functional utility, and their aesthetic delight (firmitas, utilitas, venustas). Because there was a such a strong prevailing taste in ancient Rome (not to mention Imperial projects that literally stamped Roman preferences across the Empire's built landscape), he did not need to identify what he meant by good taste or beauty. For centuries the acknowledged, highest achievement in architectural design was summarized by Classicism, especially as denoted by the Classical Orders: the decorative and essential parts of a trabeated (post and lintel) structure exemplified in the construction of Classical Greek temples. The video below provides a great introduction to the Orders.

After the centuries we now call the "Middle Ages" (more on them next time), Vitruvius' ideals were embraced by the Humanists of the Renaissance. From the fifteenth century onward, in places like Italy, France, an England, self-proclaimed architects looked back to ancient Rome to define standards of beauty while those practicing from the longstanding tradition of builder-designers likewise followed suit, just probably without the benefit of Palladio at their side. For an introduction to Classical architectural theory,

  • Read through the VoiceThread immediately below.
  • Leave comments (and questions, as you have them) on at least two of the question slides. One of them should be the writer you're assigned to below; the other is your choice.
    • Vitruvius: Kayli, Rachel, Melanie, Heidi & Taylor
    • Alberti: Dylan, Harry, Ryan P., Keily, Reggie & Nathan
    • Palladio: Benjamin, Jesse, Brendon, TJ, Tess & Sierra
    • Walter: Sarah, Peyton, Emma, Honor, Anthony & Chase
    • Porphyrios: Anna, Katellen, Ryan M., Lauren, Paige, Jason

For future reference, download the excerpts here.

The Renaissance also presents for us what we might, for the first time in the Western canon, consider a style. This can be a challenging word, used so frequently to mean synonymous, but ultimately distinct, ideas. For our purposes, consider style to always be connected to a matter of choice. Consider the notebook you keep for class. Its general dimensions, use of tree-based paper product, binding mechanism, and general functional considerations do not vary much among your colleagues in the class, since there's just a few ways to make a notebook that functions for writing down stuff. On the other hand, its cover may represent a very stylistic choice: is your notebook a costly leather-bound volume or inexpensive mass-produced product; does it bear the picture of a sport-ball team or the insignia of your Hogwarts house? Whatever it is, you made a choice, one among many, and (like it or not) that can project something about the choice-maker to their audience.

For centuries, people have had vast options in stylistic matters rather than a single prevailing theories that dictate what everything looks like. Because of this, the author of Why Architecture Matters is not incorrect in stating that "there is no way to quantify excellence in ... formal styles."  However, it is important to note that doing exactly that has been, and remains, a (perhaps the) prevailing interest of architectural theorists.

Once Classicism becomes a choice among many options, that choice bears a new kind of significance in terms of its story-telling potential. This is the kind of thing that Goldberger is talking about in the current chapter when he references the social and/or political messaging of some architectural "objects."  A new concept comes up by the nineteenth century called associationism that speaks just to this concept. Usually architects who want to make specific associations between their modern Classical buildings and ancient Classical buildings will be very clear about copying or emulating specific precedents. Others choose the Classical tradition because its principles are more guidelines than actual rules. The outgrowth of this elasticity accounts for the development of the Baroque from the Renaissance, and the ability to refer to some Modernist buildings as classical, since some of them are actually more in the spirit of Vitruvius' approach to design than are the later Post-Modernists who, at first glance, seem all about emulating historical traditions.

This gets very confusing indeed. Let's look at some pictures (50 min.):

Modernist Traditions

At its root, Modernism appears to be, and in many cases is, antithetical to the Classical tradition.

  • Rather than rules of proportion and ornamental guidelines, it promotes freedom of expression
  • Rather than ancient materials like brick and stone, it is all about industrial materials like glass and steel
  • Rather than drawing from the past, it looks to the future

However, these points are thin and can be easily disproven:

  • Modernist architects often use sophisticated proportional systems, sometimes even the ones from antiquity and the Renaissance; "freedom" of expression is not absolute since certain principles like symmetry and applied ornament are no-nos
  • Modernist buildings can be, and have been, built in every conceivable material, including the marble of the Parthenon
  • The past/future/zeitgeist issue is a complicated one, and a matter of perspective: architects from Borromini to Bacon and from Soane to Porphyrios have all thought of themselves as modern, relevant for the present and future, even "speaking" in an updated--but recognizable--language of architecture.

An important distinction you might be picking up from this reading is between the words modern and modernist. These are not the same thing; don't use them interchangably!

It is true that you will almost never find overt references to recognizable historical ornament in Modernist architecture. But: almost is key there. Ultimately, rather than fighting about the rank of these two traditions that are too frequently pitted against each other, we should recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each in different contexts, Surely you've learned by now that architecture does not really admit a one-size-fits-all approach to anything.

What we are looking at when we turn to Modernism is  a worldview more than a style (although the latter often will give you cues about the former).

  • Modern architects recognize the needs of the present that may or may not be served by principles from the past.
  • Modernists are beholden to creating an image that is recognizable new and different, unprecedented in its formal character.

Like Classicism, Modernism is associated with vast stores of both theory and practice. For an introduction to Modernist architectural theory:

  • Read through the VoiceThread immediately below.
  • Leave comments (and questions, as you have them) on at least two of the question slides. One of them should be the writer you're assigned to below; the other is your choice.
    • Antonio Sant'Elia: Anna, Sarah, Benjamin, Dylan
    • Theo van Doesburg: Kayli, Rachel, Melanie, Heidi & Taylor
    • Walter Gropius: Harry, Ryan P., Keily, Reggie & Nathan
    • Le Corbusier: Jesse, Brendon, TJ, Tess & Sierra
    • Mies van der Rohe: Peyton, Emma, Honor, Anthony & Chase
    • Venturi: Katellen, Ryan M., Lauren, Paige, Jason

For future reference, download the excerpts here.

Although we often think immediately of something like the Bauhuas when we hear the word modernism, the impulse is much older than the 1920s. You can look back to Borromini for a very "modern" approach to Renaissance design; likewise for Soane and his work. In nineteenth-century America, especially after the Civil War, a lot of architects in the US wrote about their concern to invent a style that would be recognizably "American." Likewise across Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, scores of architects created new approaches to regional customs in the international movement we tend to group under the term Art Nouveau.

The European Modernists who are really at the heart of the twentieth-century developments also show a degree of variety--a great degree, in fact, from the start of things. In the decades around World War 1, numerous and diverse expressions of modernity popped up all over the world, from Russian Constructivism to De Stjil in the Netherlands, from Italian Futurism to the Expressionism throughout Northern European countries. They have almost nothing in common in terms of the formal nature of their proposals and buildings, but shared the fire of invention for the brave new world.

By the 1920s and '30s, when much of the civic architecture of Europe and the US was being built in different historical styles and another (for many, more palatable) modernism that we call Art Deco, a group of architects from places like Germany, Switzerland, France, and Austria developed the modernism that was named the International Style (by American architect Philip Johnson in a book published in 1932). This "style"--a word its makers would shudder to use--depended on flat roofs, clear volumes, a focus on "space" rather than mass, and the utilization of industrial materials in its construction; applied ornament was strictly verboten. Because of traditions in the building industry, the European version of this architecture is either built (or looks like it was built) of concrete, whereas the American steel industry gave a different character to the modernism that dominated corporate headquarters and city centers by the 1950s.

As you can see, as with the Classicists, the Modernists present quite a lot of variety, with variations in the balance of "order and invention" (per Goldberger). Let's look at some pictures (this will take at least 55 minutes):

for Tuesday

Attend Class:

Note: representatives from NAAB will join us in class today

on campus

  • Rachel, Melanie, Heidi, Sarah, Peyton, Emma, Honor, Anthony, Dylan, Harrison, Ryan P., Reggie, & Keily
  • Note: when you come to campus, please bring a table label with your name on it (a regular piece of paper folded longwise will work; you can be more creative, if you like), and a wifi enabled device (ideally laptop or tablet)
  1. (3:30) Review test; update on vernacular project
  2. (3:45) Aesthetic discernment: Classicism & Modernism
  3. (4:15) Building analyses; Goldberger, Ch. 3; break
  4. (5:00) Reconvene
  5. (5:15) Journaling
  6. If you have not yet already done so, please complete this brief midterm survey on the course


  • Anna, Katellen, Ryan M., Lauren, Paige, Jason, Benjamin, Jesse, Brendon, TJ, Tess, Sierra, Kayli, Taylor, Nathan, & Chase
  1. (3:30) Review test; update on vernacular project
  2. (3:45) Aesthetic discernment: Classicism & Modernism
  3. (4:15) Building analyses; Goldberger, Ch. 3; break
  4. (5:00) Reconvene
  5. (5:15) Journaling
  6. If you have not yet already done so, please complete this brief midterm survey on the course

group work

zoom recording

bonus content

“The Foundations of Classical Architecture”