Professor Documents Rebirth of Classic Architecture

Design firms return to the use of traditional motifs

Although the past century includes incredible watershed moments -- the splitting of the atom, mankind's first foray into space, new forms of music and art -- it also left "buildings of unequaled boredom" in American cities from coast-to-coast, according to an architectural historian at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

In two new books - one released in December 2003, another due out this month -- Associate Professor Elizabeth Dowling in Georgia Tech's College of Architecture addresses the revival in traditional and classical forms of architecture among young and emerging professionals, both in the United States and abroad.

"Everybody has this desire for connection and memory that feels comfortable, and it's not always found in Modern design," Dowling said.

Her required course in the College of Architecture introduces students to architectural forms produced from about 2000 B.C. to A.D. 1800 by cultures throughout the world, with an emphasis on sources that influenced the architecture of the Americas. But the same topic is on the mind of more and more people these days, as Modern architecture has failed to capture the hearts of many in today's world.

"I think that Modernism is an aesthetic that is unfamiliar, that doesn't have any human warmth and comfort to it," Dowling said. "[A Modern building] doesn't typically represent the individual natures of its inhabitants or users, and it doesn't reflect the usual messiness of people's lives from day to day."

That's why many designers, architectural firms and others have once again turned to the use of Classical forms and motifs in their work, Dowling said. It's also why many people today choose to spend millions of dollars on a home that is reminiscent of a Classic Roman villa rather than on one that looks like a Modern glass-and-steel box.

Dowling explores this latter phenomenon in Timeless Architecture: Homes of Distinction By Harrison Design Associates, released this past year by Schiffer Publishing Ltd. The book re-introduces students, historians, architects, designers and others to the principles of Classic or historic design for the modern home, illustrated with more than 400 color images.

"Classical design is both the oldest and the newest trend in Western architecture - so new that few architects are trained in this time-honored tradition," Dowling writes. "This book draws from one of the nation's leading design firms as a means of presenting the traditional concepts that all fine buildings must satisfy - being well-built, easy to use and inspiringly beautiful."

Dowling said that the principals of Atlanta's Harrison Design Associates - Bill Harrison and Greg Palmer - are highly sought-after because they're among a precious few in the world who design buildings that "fit their context and climate, provide comfortable and familiar imagery, and respond to the time-honored desire for a beautiful environment" - mostly through their use or emphasis on Classical or traditional designs.

"Bill felt that his firm was sufficiently mature that it needed a book to show what it has produced, and I think his firm has done some amazing work," Dowling said. "They're part of a movement in the United States that's using historic styles to produce not just residences, but entire townscapes. Bill, in particular, is producing residences, and his work satisfies the desire by many people to see something familiar in their home designs."

Dowling's latest book -- The New Classicism: The Rebirth of Traditional Architecture, published by Rizzoli International Publications - looks at a similar trend among five British and nine American architectural firms. Harrison Design Associates again features prominently in it.

"This book looks at more firms because the movement is becoming international, and the strongest nations involved in it are Britain and the United States," she said. "[The book] is part of the growing body of literature based on the revived interest in Classical design. There's now a large number of books on traditional design issues. And a lot of people who were formerly Modern designers are moving over into this area."

Dowling graduated from Georgia Tech's College of Architecture when Modernists reigned in design circles. Many of them sought to exhilarate the public with buildings that had simple forms, spare, clean lines, expanses of glass and flat roofs, she said.

But this look of utility became so ubiquitous in the United States that "American cities are consequently filled with buildings of unequaled boredom," she writes.

"European cities have fared somewhat better with Modernism, mainly because their cities had the texture of 2,000 years of varied architecture," she writes in Timeless Architecture. "A few modern buildings inserted into a strong context did not destroy the character of the whole. In America, however, the young cities grew enormously in the 20th century and the new construction was dominated by the image of monotonous uniformity. In a modern city there is little that allows the passersby to learn of the history of a place or to indicate the city is unique and characteristic of its place in the world."

Dowling said she felt out of alignment with Modernists upon graduation, and she has since maintained a foothold in the Classics with an eye toward Post-Modernism and New Urbanism.

"There was almost no movement in this direction at all when I began," Dowling said. "But I saw this as my outlet, as a way to stay in the mental world of classic architecture."

Dowling since has become a go-to expert on Classical and Traditional architecture and, for more than 10 years, she has been a faculty leader for the "History of Art and Architecture in Italy," a six-week traveling program that introduces Tech students to Italian architecture, painting and sculpture through instruction on-site at museums, in historic buildings, and on walking tours through Rome and other neighboring Italian cities.

"Beauty, for many of us, can be found in many different architectural styles," Dowling said. With the return to Classical and Traditional architectural forms, "You're bringing to life the dreams of your client, and I love that," she said.