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Andrea Palladio's influential architecture at National Building Museum

What one would give for an architecture of openness and access, irregularity and porosity, buildings so truly permeable that bureaucrats couldn't undermine them so easily. But that wasn't Palladio, who loved a centrally placed front door that can be plugged up. But of course he can't be blamed for how thoroughly we've diluted the power of his buttoned-up, tightly wound designs.

The current exhibition is best appreciated as a survey of Palladio's drawing, rather than for the blindingly obvious fact of his "transatlantic legacy." A few early drawings show him working in perspective, but these were copies of earlier architects' work (copying was a form of learning for young designers). For the most part, Palladio worked in straightforward plans and elevations, using only a bit of shading to indicate curves and depth. In this he was following the fashion of the day, but also giving the best and most useful information to builders.

In some cases, Palladio was transcribing what he found in Roman ruins; in others, he was speculating on what those ruins might have looked like before time took its toll. In one particularly finicky and academic drawing, made early in his career, he imagines an Ionic colonnade as described by Vitruvius, the Roman author who left detailed (and often confusing) descriptions but no actual representations of architecture from the supposed Roman golden age. It looks so hard-edged and tightly coiled that you can practically see the tension in the artist's hands.

The more free-form drawings, the ones that capture Palladio thinking aloud rather than beautifying ideas for patrons and posterity, are the most fascinating. In one particularly interesting example, we see him reconstruct a massive Roman temple, the Temple of Fortune, but in sketchy form, with "how they did it" merging with "how I'd do it." That technique was the essence of his architectural philosophy.

Along with rare drawings of Palladio, the exhibition also includes beautiful models made by contemporary modelmaker Timothy Richards, including a magnificent reproduction of the Pantheon and a fascinating rendering of Jefferson's Monticello with a classic Palladian two-tiered pediment, which would have offered great views from the second floor but was scrapped in favor of the lower, single-level pediment we know today. Together, the drawings and the models make for excellent study and a worthy afternoon.

And while it's tiresome to feel so obliged to genuflect before Palladio, maybe he deserves it. If nothing else, he gave America a neatly simple-minded vocabulary for making buildings, a tool kit of mostly interchangeable parts that limited the chances for monstrous abortions of taste. Bad Palladio would always be more palatable than bad Bernini or Mansart. It bore up well to American frugality, and we weren't old enough or wise enough to master much else in the early years of the Republic. Perhaps we should be thankful.

Palladio and His Legacy:

A Transatlantic Journey

is at the National Building Museum,

401 F St. NW, until Jan. 9. Admission

is free. For more information,

visit http://www.nbm.org.


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