If you plan to design a new-build Victorian home, you’ll face three problems: first, how to capture the essence of a classical style without creating a mere cliché; second, how to design a structure that will enhance your contemporary lifestyle and enchant contemporary eyes; and third, how to do it all with contemporary materials and a contemporary budget.
As architect Andrew Skurman explains in his new book Contemporary Classical, “It’s about doing more with less.” To illustrate, he points to one of his greatest influences, 19th-century architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel: in spite of his clients’ modest means and the homes’ modest dimensions, Schinkel managed to “convey a sense of supreme elegance” in his Palladian structures. Like new-build Victorian home owners today, Schinkel employed clever money-saving tricks, such as painting faux panels and molding on interior walls and ceilings. But the key to his success, Skurman suggests, was that he grasped the heart of the classical style he strove to recreate.
So before you begin your new-build Victorian home, follow Schinkel’s lead and, as Skurman says, learn to speak the “language” of classical architecture and then “to create a variation” of it:
Organize: Buy a binder, dividers with tabs and a hole punch. You’ll need them to keep your ideas straight as your mental picture of your ideal home changes.
Input: Find photographs of homes you would love to live in, both exteriors and interiors. Consider both how the house looks and how it would function, but trust your gut reactions.
Identify: Gather books about every kind of classical architecture you’ve heard of, and even a few you haven’t. Match your photos to the books’ images and diagrams to identify your favorite structures’ classical roots. Beware unconsciously limiting yourself to any one style or era; in the tradition of “American classicists,” look back to ancient Greece and Rome and medieval Europe and Asia.
Study: Once you’ve matched your favorite homes to their originating classical style, study that style. Puzzle out how these timeless buildings “give the impression of effortless harmony,” Skurman says. Each style of building achieves harmony differently; to stay true to a particular architectural style, you need to discover its particular method of balancing various elements. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, it’s important to try sketching the façades and floor plans of classical buildings.
Output: Begin to design your home, practicing “selective omission.” Although we can create exact replicas of ancient buildings, a perfect reconstruction of an ancient Roman villa would be neither pleasing nor practical for us today. For example, you might not completely cover your contemporary villa’s interior walls with florid red and green scenes, but you might use a single fresco as a focal point in each room. As Skurman points out, “[O]ur eyes have adjusted to a less-ornamented world,” making historic embellishments ideal statement pieces.
by Elaine K. Phillips