The Architecture of the Classical Interior
ROBERT STEUTEVILLE    MAR. 1, 2005
By Steven W. Semes W.W. Norton, 2004, 192 pp., hardcover $55. “Despite the urgings of the avant-garde in favor of radical experimentation and the relentless search for the unprecedented, traditional design remains the overwhelming choice of people who build and buy houses when the marketplace offers alternatives,” says New York architect Steven W. Semes. “New public buildings are also reviving classical design, especially on university campuses.” So there ought to be a sizable audience for The Architecture of the Classical Interior, which Semes describes as the first book “setting out the principles and elements common to classical rooms of all characters, styles, times, and places.” Illustrated with 175 photographs and drawings— most of them documenting historical buildings but some depicting recent work by Thomas Gordon Smith, Robert A.M. Stern, John Blatteau Associates, Steve Bass, and others — this large-format book is both comprehensive and crystal clear. Written by Semes in association with the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, the book argues that “the past, even the distant past, holds models, lessons, and paradigms that we would be foolish to disregard.” the power of proportions One important lesson from the past: people savor the power of a well-proportioned room. Classical design is, to a large extent, about rooms — about how to give them pleasing dimensions, appropriate moldings and surface treatments, effective light and color, and other features that will enhance their appeal. “A room has boundaries, is governed by proportion,” and should possess character, Semes observes. Semes makes use of classical and architectural terminology — the reader is introduced to intrados, extrados, abacus, and many other words that may be unfamiliar — but the text never becomes clogged or confusing. With remarkable ease, he explains principles that govern space, structure, the classical orders, composition, decoration, and other matters, gracefully making a case for the classical ideal of “rational beauty.” He tells how to deal with elements such as ceilings, wall treatments, moldings, paneling, floors, doors, windows, fireplaces, stairs, and casework. Though the book concentrates on interiors, some of the discussion lends itself to use by new urbanists involved in the design of “outdoor rooms” — squares, courtyards, and other well-defined exterior places. A reader need not be a classicist to find things of interest in its pages. Also in 2004, Editions Flammarion published Classical Greek Architecture: The Construction of the Modern by Alexander Tzonis and Phoebe Giannisi (288 pp., $75). Intended as a definitive account of classical architecture, its influences, and its significance for design today, this large-format book presents stunning contemporary and vintage photographs from major archives, capturing with great power the landscapes, buildings, and statuary of ancient Greece. The writing is opaque — nearly every paragraph seems to contain an obscure historical reference or a word or phrase in Greek, Latin, or French — but the photos and drawings are artful, exquisitely produced, and full of feeling. They are classics in their own right. — P.L.