In July I had the good fortune to travel to Sweden and to teach for a few days at the European Summer School in Classical Architecture (ESSCA). The course has just been established and is run by the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism, generally supported by the Ax:son Johnson Foundation.
For all who love good architecture, the summer school is an encouraging venture. For this initial season, 21 students of all ages from 14 countries were enrolled. It was a thrilling and energising experience to teach them. Many already had some familiarity with the classical way of doing things but it is a huge field capable of all types of architectural expression and, of course, with a very long history. Whatever their knowledge or skills all were keen to improve the current state of contemporary architecture.
A common criticism made against Classical architecture is that it is merely copying. One of the set exercises was to draw one of the Orders in full detail. Students were free to choose which they wished to draw – Tuscan, or Doric, or Ionic etc – but all were to be to a uniform size. The results were fascinating! Within a seemingly rigid formula no drawings were even similar, each was an individual interpretation as individual as each of the authors.
The next exercise was even more rewarding, designing a house based on a 12m cube. Over 2 days the students worked with intense concentration, exchanging ideas, inspiring on another and at times encountering some of the difficulties of working within the Classical language. But also discovering how expressive, flexible and meaningful that language can be.
Pinning up the designs at the end was a revelation. Unlike a crit in other schools of architecture, where lengthy (and tiresome) explanations are given explaining what each design aspires to achieve, here it was unnecessary. The designs spoke for themselves – as any building must do when its architect is not in attendance to explain it.
The range of designs was extraordinary: rustic to urban, tropical to temperate, economical to extravagant, grand to humble, complex to simple, introverted to extroverted, and so on. But all recognisably classical and all portraying a desirable place to live.
The Summer School is based in Ängelsberg (Engelsberg), about 120 miles north-east of Stockholm, is an 18th Century manor that was once a centre of iron production. The manor itself is an exemplar or rustic elegance, combining log built houses with circular pavilions of blue-green vitrified blocks (as by-product of iron smelting). And all composed into a lightly symmetrical layout.
This first season of the Summer School has been a triumphant success. It must surely continue.