Vitruviana 2014: The Legacy of Classicism in Charleston's Public Realm


"Classical influences were pervasive [in the southern library] including architecture through the Renaissance Italians and their British imitators."

- Richard Beale Davis (Intellectual Life of the Colonial South)


Vitruviana 2014 has come and gone. We loved this year's theme - Civic Order: The Legacy of Classicism in Charleston's Public Realm.  It was a wonderful event where we met many lovely people, heard interesting lectures, and got the chance to offer our own thoughts on the legacy of Classicism in our lecture, "Practical Lessons in Classicism from Charleston's Earliest Sources: Pre-Revolutionary Architecture Books at the Charlestown Library Society."  

As we see it, the legacy of Classicism is its ongoing practice. Old buildings are legacies from previous generations, to be sure, but they are not legacies of Classicism in the sense that Classicism has died and left them as relics.  Relics are dead remains of formerly living entities.  Old buildings are not dead remains but rather living models with much to teach about architectural principles.  These principles can and do inform practice today.  No matter how well built, buildings cannot last forever.  If we are to ensure the legacy of Classicism for future generations, it will only be through its ongoing practice.  Vitruviana 2014 was a great opportunity to discuss how this collection of books might have assisted in transmitting principles of Classicism to pre-revolutionary Charleston and to share a few instances when we have applied similar lessons in our own modern Classical designs.

A summary of:



The collection of architecture books at the Charleston Library Society prior to 1776 was a carefully curated collection and includes highly celebrated designers such as Andrea Palladio, James Gibbs, Sir Christopher Wren, Fréart de Chambray, William Chambers, William Pain, and Francis Price.  To better understand the architecture books available to early designers in Charleston, we also expanded our study to include "supporting books" on topics such as Mathematics, Travel, Philosophy, Materials, as well as Magazines and Journals, all of which discuss topics of direct or indirect relationship to architecture.




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In his A Book of Architecture, James Gibbs explores the infinite variety of design possibilities for a garden folly.  The commonalities in his designs help to reveal essential principles underlying them.  The garden folly at the Gabriel Manigault house exhibits similar design principles and yet is another entirely unique design.  Principles can also explain many of the reasons behind particular elements and details of Classical architecture.  In the image above right, The Builder's Dictionary gives three principles behind the corona and its drip, including principles of aesthetics, durability and sustainability.



Proportion can be applied simplistically (as in the relationship of a facade's height to width) or with great complexity.  In a design with complex application of proportions, the pieces of a building relate to similarly to each other and to the whole.  In the introduction to Parallel of the Ancient Architecture with the Modern, John Evelyn explains the relationship between beauty and proportion in his discussion of harmony: "The true and essential Beauty of Architecture ... does principally result from the Symmetry and Oeconomy of the whole, which is the Union and Concourse of them all together, producing ... a visible Harmony."



In his introduction to Charleston Architecture 1670-1860, Gene Waddell writes that, "So consistently high a level of achievement was made possible by talent, education and agreement about what constituted excellence."  This "agreement about what constitutes excellence" derives, in part, from a Classical view that beauty is objective and can therefore be discussed and debated.  The books in this collection, from authors such as Palladio, Gibbs, Hogarth and Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper support this view and tie architectural beauty to the designer's ability to resolve proportional relationships into a harmonic composition.

With gratitude to the many collaborators and sponsors of Vitruviana 2014, including: