Sunday, February 16, 2014

Classical Traditions Conference 2014

The Mormon Tabernacle, as seen from the Joseph Smith Memorial Bldg

Just returning from a whirlwind visit to Salt Lake City to participate in the first Classical Traditions Conference, a gathering of architects, artists, designers and other professionals interested in the design and execution of places and spaces that are built to last and connected to the heritage of Western design that stretches back at least to the Greeks. It was associated with the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, a group to which I belong, and was organized by Robert Baird, a passionate Utahan and member of a dynastic family that owns one of the finest metal casting companies in America. The event brought together numerous luminaries in the varied fields represented, including keynote speaker Quinlan Terry, an English architect who has been in the forefront of a growing resurgence of classical architecture in Britain and abroad.

Mr. Quinlan Terry in sartorial resplendence. Photo by Christine Franck
My involvement was prompted by my friend Domiane Forte, an architect and artist who graduated from the Notre Dame architecture program when it was the only place in the U.S. to study classical traditions (it has since been joined by a growing number of small programs as students have sought a more substantive design instruction.)  We were charged with creating a large (7'4" by 11', a 2x3 ratio at Dom's insistence!) charcoal drawing that would reflect the traditions of architecture and art in both Utah and outward. We were joined by Dom's friend Matt McNicholas, a Chicago architect who shares my enthusiasm lust for all things ornamental.

Matt, myself, and Domiane as we began to get the structure of our drawing filled in. Photo by Christine Franck

When we arrived on a Tuesday afternoon, I couldn't imagine how I would fill my days before the actual drawing process began on Friday. Ha! From the moment we arrived, we were taken straight to the studio of Jeff Cobabe, a local furniture maker and artist, who graciously allowed us to use his space to set up our large easel and do a test run of the drawing. It quickly was apparent that there would be very little spare time for us, as the prep and method were critical, since we would be doing this live in front of an audience of about 250 highly trained fellow practitioners. We did not want to trip up in public, thus we very carefully mapped out our image on a practice sheet of (photo drop) paper, going through the elements of the perspective view of the Utah State Capitol and the central panel of a variety of allegorical figures set in a triumphal arch.

A view of the interior of the Utah State Capitol. Photo courtesy Christine Franck

By the end of the second day, after working until about 10 pm, we felt like we had a pretty good handle on things, and I was able to opt in on the bus tour that was a part of the convention's offerings. Spent a great day, starting at Historical Arts and Casting, the Baird family's legacy, which as its name suggests, creates very fine ornamental elements in a variety of metals. I love industrial places, and this one did not disappoint, with roaring furnaces, molten streams of smoking metal, and stacks of beautiful completed pieces done with style and fine finish.

The glowing crucible at Historic Arts and Casting

We also got to tour the studio of Ed Fraughton, a sculptor who has created the largest bronze sculpture set in the world, and 1-1/4 scale pioneers' wagon train that stretches 5 blocks long in Omaha Nebraska. We got a fascinating glimpse into his creative process, with models, drawings, and full scale maquettes on display. After that we had lunch at the headquarters of Kepco+, a large stone contractor that was responsible for the exterior makeover of the State Capitol, an amazing process that we saw in a short video while we ate.

Clay model made by Ed Fraughton for his large bronze sculpture of pioneers crossing the plains.

We returned to the center of town to take a look at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, built in 1910 as the Utah Hotel, and saved from the wrecking ball in 1993 by a group of determined preservationists who became the core of the local interest in classical and traditional building arts. As the name of the building would indicate, the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) have a strong influence on almost every aspect of business in Utah, and they were deeply involved in creating this event. They are poised to be a major influence also on the wave of interest in this type of building, with an ambitious program of temple construction around the world, and a growing interest within their ranks in the classical style.

Elaborate Ionic order in the lobby of the Jos Smith bldg, formerly the Utah Hotel.

For the rest of the tour, we re-boarded the bus and saw a number of residential and commercial landmarks, including the ZCMI, claimed to be the world's first department store, which featured a cast iron facade, the restoration of which was the genesis of Historical Arts. We returned to the site of the convention, a five diamond hotel called the Grand America, where everyone except us (no comment!) was staying. It lived up to its moniker, with luxurious marbles and furniture throughout, and some of the best convention food I've ever eaten! Made us feel like the low rent cousins with our (actually perfectly acceptable) Hampton Inn lodgings.

Detail of the cast iron facade of the ZCMI building, recently restored

Dom was sweating bullets that evening as the set up of our stage began, getting a late start, and, as usually happens at these things, a seeming lack of co-ordination between the hotel, the helpers, and the hosts. As I predicted, the next morning everything was in order and ready to go, though our own process was delayed while Mr Terry began his presentation on the current state of classicism in architecture, something about which he knows a great deal! Finally we were able to take the stage and begin our drawing.

The tabula rasa waiting for our loving lines!
As we were laying out our initial perspective lines and a few verticals, most people were simply mystified, having not been told anything about what we were going to create. After about an hour of working the framework of it began to emerge, and we heard from many that it was a (nice) distraction from the presentations that were going on simultaneously just to our right. By lunchtime much of our linear work was completed, so as the crowd reassembled we began to shade it, using block charcoal to map out shadows and give the composition depth and glow. We heard later that several people gasped when we began that stage, as it looked like we were wiping out the drawing, but we maintained the linear aspect as we went along.

Domiane and Matt at about the halfway point, with linear work still showing between the shaded sides

From our vantage, it was also very distracting having the presentations going on there, not because they were annoying, but because we wanted to better see what they were showing as they spoke. It took all my effort not to lay down my pencils and go see the slides from Marc Appleton, John Canning, and especially Alexander Stoddart, whose droll Scottish delivery kept us in stitches even if we couldn't see his images. As someone said there, "Sandy could read out the telephone book listings and keep us entertained."

Sandy explicates William Holman Hunts "Scapegoat" (1854) in his imitable way

As the first day came to a close, we felt good enough about our progress to break off and go to the reception held at the McCune mansion, a hillside house completed in 1901. Every aspect of this house is a finely crafted masterpiece, from the brickwork niches and spectacular quarter sawn oak panels in the entry, to the top floor ballroom dense with scagliola columns, ceiling murals, and copious ornamental details in every corner. Illuminating to compare this gem of craftsmanship and siting with many of the ponderous and shoddily built contemporary homes that one sees commonly around our urban centers.

Very fine cast bronze details at the McCune Mansion.
Besides the slide show presentations that were in the main rooms, there were also displays by practitioners and schools from around the country, such as the Beaux-Arts Academy in NYC (where I
went last January for their "Winterim" intensive) and the American College of the Building Arts, where my good friend Patrick Webb now teaches. It heartening to see students from all the schools represented here have the opportunity to meet and chat.

Display of student work from the Beaux-Arts Academy in New York

The next morning we huddled and mapped out an approach to finishing off our project as we listened again to the speakers and attempted to keep our eyes on the drawing in front of us. By lunchtime we were getting close to done, and we began to take short breaks to look at it from the back of the room to find areas that might need a bit more attention, making our finishing touches in between the final speakers. Our own Matt McNicholas was one of the last speakers to go on, giving a rousing sprint through the importance of ornament in architecture, and its "fractal" aspect, i.e. the power it has to focus our attention as we get closer and closer, giving both direction and meaning to surface and space.

As was noted by more than one person, the number of people watching the presentations at the end was just as many as has started, indicating the level of interest of both the speakers and those attending. Former ICAA president Richard Cameron capped off the event with his plan to push for the re-creation of New York's Penn Station, an ambitious project which, if realized, would create a momentous return of neo-classical architecture to the mainstream of America.

Richard Cameron, photo by Christine Franck

As an exciting climax to the event, it was decided (after numerous whispered offers) to auction our drawing off to the highest bidder, the proceeds of which would go to furthering classical artistic education. Now I had suggested $1,000 as an opening bid, but it was opened at $5,000, and very quickly shot up through the teens and into the 20's! Bidding slowed as it reached the upper 30's, and when the dust had settled, a whopping 43,000 dollars had taken it, donated by Richard Driehaus, a long time supporter of the ICAA.  The response to our demonstration drawing was so strong in fact, that we have decided to repeat the feat. More on this exciting development very soon.

Matt, Dom and I in front of our completed drawing.

We felt a bit like rock stars as the presenters and ourselves mounted the stage to receive beautiful bronze commemoratives created by Historic Arts for the occasion. The biggest reward however was to have had the opportunity to meet with the other artists in this field and share our enthusiasm for the hard work and study involved in reviving this far from dormant approach to art and architecture. It very much felt like being at the birth of a new (old) movement, and the excitement of this event will resonate for many years I'm sure.
Presentation of the awards, photo courtesy Christine Franck.