Follow by Email

Monday, July 9, 2012

Palladio - Rotonda- Universality

I've never been a huge fan of Palladio or his renaissance buddies.  I sat through Michael Grave's lectures; porosity and solidity, additive and subtractive, a little of the old in-out.  This whole focus on arcane numerical relationships, devotion to classic orders, manneristic gestures, none of it really spoke to me in a significant way.  Yet the various romantic revivals, the naturalistic explorations of Wright in all his succession of guises,  the purity and complexity of Corb, the rational reductions of Mies all seemed much more compelling.

Flash forward about 30 years, and the discussions between John Henry and Greg LaVardera in the old CORA forum "modernism vs tradition" forced a second look.  John (see is a master at adapting renaissance ideas to the Florida mansion.  Greg ( is a building science jock whose goal is to bring good affordable modern design to the masses.  Sort of an "Architecture Within Reach".  I find myself swaying in the breeze between these two.  A little of this, a little of that.  I mainly like my designs to look as if they "belong".  Maybe not arresting, but rewarding a second look.

In any event, John got me interested in Palladio a couple years ago and I went on-line and stumbled across a book, "Learning from Palladio" by Branko Mitrovic.  Now this guy has some serious scholastic "cred", Phd from Penn, postdoctoral studies at Harvard, and his book is a rather learned treatise, but highly readable.  Find a used copy on Amazon, its well worth it.  There are discussions of the various relationship values employed, analyses of the various structures, some good photographs, floor plan depictions, even a section on Palladian applications in recent structures.  A good read.

A couple days ago, John mentioned in a forum that a client was thinking about recreating Villa Rotonda, which any architect or home designer will tell you is the iconic Palladian Villa many of us hold in our mental repositories.  John figured about 12,700 s.f. for Rotonda.  Greg chimed in "just another damned mcmansion"  Tongue in cheek, I suggested one could add on a bit by finishing under the porticoes and stairs.  The seed was planted.  What kind of reasonable house could be designed using the parti of Rotonda, but scaled to a standard more attainable by mere mortals?

I started with the plan.  Rotonda has 4 tight passageways leading to the porticoes, with 4 large rooms in the corners and 4 small rooms along the horizontal axis.  I didn't want to work with that, so I adapted and simplified ideas from Trissino and Thiene.  The idea here is 4 square (1 to 1) rooms in the corners, and then a golden sectioned  room in the middle.  What this allows is a variety of spaces, with the large spaces giving access to the porticoes, so the rooms and terraces can be enjoyed along with the views.  The center is now a 1 to 1 core, over which a cylindrical raised dome can be placed.  The next step was to determine the size.  I started with a 14' square.  The golden section indicates a 22 1/2' center space, add walls and you have a 52' square.

The next decision was what to do with the stairs.  Rotonda has 4 sets, arrayed around the center salla.  Too much for my daintier version.  My idea was to do a plan with few redundancies. Stairs would have to go in only 1 quadrant.  I did like the idea of keeping them off to the side, not dominating the plan, but rather adding interest to a portion of the center core.  Next came the chore of identifying uses for the spaces.  Probably not too important in Palladio's time, but an imperative in our more scientific age.  As nature abhors a vacuum, we abhor an unlabeled room.  Here is how things would go in my country home.

Now we have to work on the platform.  I always assumed Rotonda sat on a knoll, sloping off on 4 sides.  Not so.  It is sited mid slope, with a huge built up platform creating a landing for the low side stairs.  Even my reduced version is over 80' front to back with the stairs.  A couple feet of fall is minimum to create drainage, and with the required 4 sets of stairs raising the living level 6-7feet above grade, it was a simple decision to place access to garage storage on the rear.  With tandem parking, and another 2 car storage space, we can fit 6 vehicles, along with a downstairs rec or media room.

The bedroom level is dominated by the gallery ringing the domed core.  4 equal bedrooms with separate closets and baths are in keeping with the universal four sided nature of the plan.  Subtle differences to be sure, but all four basically equal.

The facade produces its own problems.  With the stairs placed in their quadrant, height is limited by the number of 10" treads.  That along with cost expediency suggested 10' 1st floor.  I'm sure I can find an approved relationship to justify this.  10 to 14 is close to the square root of 2, or the diagonal of a square, a common renaissance proportion.  Next come the porticoes.  These have to be simplified.  No way to justify the expense.  4 columns each, max.  Their spacing to suggest the plan relationships.  Their height limited by keeping an egress window sill height above.  Non- palladian concerns to be sure.  I made them 8' deep because any less would be too small. I limited the stairs to the center section only.  See Villa Chiericati.

A word about the golden section.  This proportion ( a is to b as b is to a+b) was known in Palladio's time, but was not used by him, at least on this house.  Scholarship on this was only  popularized in the early 20th century, and then sources retroactively applied.  This proportion is related to the diagonal of a pentagon.  Palladio more liked diagonal of the square, and diagonal of a cube, as related to the side. square root of 2 and square root of 3.  My modern interpretation of Palladio only seems appropriate to use the favored 20th century proportion, so I used the golden section despite Palladio.

Another hesitation is exterior treatment. My inclination is to adopt the stripped down aesthetic seen in many of the villas.  There are couple ways to go here, all with reasonable precedent.  I f I come back to this, I'll flesh something out and update.  Another thing to note is the lack of fireplaces and chimneys.  I'm not sure what they did to ward off the chill in Vicenza, but we will be well air-conditioned and heated, so no worries there.  The usual focal point in the rooms is replaced by glass doors leading out to the porticoes framing the views.
Don't be worried about the 16' scale of the center dome.  Your eye will read the 22-6 rectangular core instead.  The total height is a square root of 3 proportion to this width. (1.73 to 1)  I should also note that in the plan, the narrowed section at the entry is a golden section relationship itself .

So there you have it, Palladio for the masses, stripped down and then pumped back up.  The 14' module delivers spaces of a comfortable and practical size.  But the central sala provides the answer to a question no one is asking in modern home design.  Its vertical core reaching up to the heavens (the dome painted as celestial soffit?).  It serves as an introduction to, and a respite from, the more mundane human activities on the perimeter.  What a way to start and end the day.  Universal design indeed.


  1. Well done, Thomas. FYI there are two adaptations of Monticello built- one in Falls Church VA and one on the St Johns River in Jacksonville. So this could happen, if the right person saw it. Though I go on about narrow lot homes, I forever have has a soft spot for romantic cottages as sketched in your headline. Looks more organic than what you would ususlly do for builders. Comment is not anon- but from PerryC.

    1. The cottage is itself a play James gamble Rogers design for his own house. 4 winds it was called on isle of Sicily in winter park. Had a lot of publicity in its day. I blogged about this a couple years ago if you search back