Guest Article: Hugh Petter – James Gibbs And The Enduring Legacy Of Popular Classical Architecture

Hugh Petter BA(Hons), DIPL ARCH, RIBA, FRSA, MRIAI (IRL) is an architect and urban designer, specialising in traditional design. His work includes new buildings, alterations, extensions and repairs to historic properties, as well as design consultancy and master-planning in Britain, Italy, the Caribbean, North America and Russia. Hugh’s architectural and academic projects have won a number of prizes and he is committed to supporting the development of modern classicism through his numerous professional memberships. He has published various articles and essays on architectural subjects and is a visiting tutor to several colleges in the UK and abroad.  Hugh is currently Architectural Director at ADAM Architecture.

In this article, Hugh discusses the enduring legacy of James Gibbs and how his classical designs influenced Hugh’s Gibbs range of classical porches, in collaboration with Haddonstone.

Abstract
James Gibbs’s ambition for his Rules for Drawing the Several parts of Architecture was that it should be “of use to such gentlemen as might be concerned with Building, especially in the remote parts of the Country where little or no assistance for designs can be procured.” His influence extended quickly to North America and the West Indies and, more recently, to India and South Africa. Gibbs’s innovation, describing the Orders with simple proportions, made it possible to produce good classical designs using mechanical dividers rather than complicated calculations.
Gibbs’s details from his own publications were soon included in the work of compilers such as William Salmon and Batty Langley. Later, in 1732, his Rules were republished in weekly parts, putting them within financial reach of craftsmen.

In 1985 Robert Chitham published a new book on the Orders. He recognised that modern students worked in metric, and used pocket calculators, so his version included decimal fractions of a hundred part module that was the base diameter, but with designs rooted on Gibbs’s popular Orders. The second edition also included a set of ninety six part module Orders that were applicable to students working with imperial dimensions in the United States.

More recently, Hugh Petter and Haddonstone have produced a new range of classical porches based upon Gibb’s designs which are now available in the United Kingdom and North America. This range, like those by Gibbs, endeavours to make nicely proportioned and literate classical detail more widely available and at an affordable price.  Gibbs’s original ambition lives on!

Article

James Gibbs (1682-1554) was the only architect of his generation to go to Rome.  Registering first at the Scott’s College there in 1703, Gibbs stayed in the city for ten years, working from 1704 with the accomplished Baroque architect, Carlo Fontana.  Fontana was also Principe of the Accademia di San Luca, an expert on Antiquity and, in his youth, had been employed by Bernini for ten years.

Whilst in Rome, Gibbs came to appreciate the importance of publications as a means for an architect to extend their influence.  In 1728 he published “A Book of Architecture, Containing designs of Buildings and Ornaments”, the first pattern book by an architect of his own creations, its purpose to be “of use to such gentlemen as might be concerned with Building, especially in the remote parts of the Country where little or no assistance for designs can be procured.” (1)  The influence of this book was profound and, within twenty years of its publication, there were Gibbs inspired buildings not only scattered across Britain, but also in North America and the West Indies.  Later on, his influence would extend still further to India, south Africa and to other corners of the British Empire.

Gibb’s influence in North America can be seen most readily through his church designs.  His design for St Martins in the fields in Trafalgar Square in London (1720-27) was included in the Book of Architecture.  This church is not based upon a medieval plan with a nave and transepts, but instead is a temple body with a portico surmounted by an elaborate steeple.  This arrangement, an auditory plan, affords good sight lines for the congregation for the sermon which sits at the core of a protestant service.  For these reasons, it was perhaps inevitable that St Martins in the Fields became the inspiration for thousands of protestant churches across the United States.

The house designs in A Book of Architecture also found favour in the United States where the family lived in the main house, but the service areas containing the kitchen, staff quarters and so on were housed in dependencies and separate buildings.  Gibbs’s relatively compact villa designs were readily adapted to suit this pattern of living, in contrast to the grander houses and palaces of William Kent and Colen Campbell.  For example, Mount Airy in Richmond County Virginia, built in 1764 for John Tayloe, is based upon plate 58 in the Book of Architecture, “Design for a gentleman in Dorsetshire.”

Within the Book of Architecture there were also designs for classical building components such as doorcases and fire surrounds.  These details were republished in anthology pattern books by authors such as William Salmon and Batty Langley: these books were widely used by stone masons, carpenters across the country, so ensuring that at this level of fine detail, Gibbs’s influence spread to provincial craftsmen working across the country.  For example, at Stamford in Lincolnshire, a market town famous for its beautiful limestone Georgian classical buildings, the idiosyncratic and distinctive Gibbs inspired three-part keystone is widely in evidence.

In 1732 Gibbs published his Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture in which, as he explained in his foreword, he explains a new geometric way of setting out the Classical Orders in “a more exact and easy manner than has been heretofore practiced, by which all fractions, in dividing the principal members and their parts, are avoided.” (2)

Earlier treatises on the Orders, such as that by Palladio, provide a system for setting out the classical columns based upon calculation.  For example, Palladio divides the column base into two modules, and each of those is divided into thirty minutes.  His version of the Doric column is fifteen modules, or seven and a half diameters high; the Doric entablature is four modules or two diameters high, and the setting out of all the fine details is expressed thereafter as multiples of a minute. With such a system it is relatively easy to make an arithmetic mistake, all more so if one imagines working too with imperial dimensions!

In contrast, Gibbs simply divided the overall height of the Tuscan and Doric Orders into five equal parts, one of which would be the height of the pedestal.  The remaining portions of these two Orders are then divided into five equal parts again, the top fifth of which becomes the zone for the entablature.  As before, Gibbs divides the overall height of his Ionic, Corinthian and Composite Orders into five parts, the lowest of which becomes the pedestal.  The remaining portions of these three Orders are then divided into six equal parts, the uppermost of which becomes the zone for the entablature.

Gibbs divides his Tuscan column into seven parts, and one of these becomes the diameter of the shaft at its base.  His Doric is divided into eight diameters; his Ionic into nine, and his Corinthian and Composite Orders are divided into ten diameters.  The height of the column capital of the Tuscan and Doric Orders is half a diameter, and the height of all column bases is similarly half a column diameter.  Similar geometric principles apply for the setting out both of the larger components and of the fine details on all his Orders.

For example, Gibbs’s Tuscan entablature is simply divided into seven parts: two parts form the height of the architrave; a further two form the height of the frieze, and the remaining three form the height of the cornice.  The bottom third of the cornice forms the bed mouldings; the middle third the corona, and the top third the crowning cyma moulding.

Gibbs understood that stone-masons, carpenters and other tradesmen set out their work using proportional dividers.  His mechanical geometric system for setting out the Orders responds directly to this method and so explains, at least in part, why his version of the Orders was so widely copied by provincial craftsmen on both sides of the Atlantic.

A second edition of Rules for Drawing was published in 1736, after which Gibbs sold the copyright.  The new owners, Bettesworth and Hitch, Innys and Manby, and J and P Knapton began selling “Rules” in 21 weekly parts, priced at one shilling each, so putting this information within the range of ordinary craftsmen and tradesmen, and so helped to cement his dominating influence over provincial classical architecture at that time.

Rules for Drawing was thereafter reprinted regularly until after World War II (3) when the rise of International Modernism in Schools of Architecture made the study of the principles of classical design and composition unfashionable amongst architecture students in the United Kingdom.

From the late 1960’s onwards, the only School of Architecture in Britain (4) that continued to teach the classical Orders was at Portsmouth where the head of School, Professor Geoffrey Broadbent established a curriculum designed to expose his students to all theories of architectural design.  To that end, he employed a young American scholar, Peter Hodson, a graduate of the University of Virginia and ex-student of David Watkin at Cambridge, to teach both the Orders, and the history of Western Architecture.  Enriched by this broad view of education, students were then encouraged to pursue their particular interests, with debate focused upon the quality of the design, not simply the appropriateness or otherwise of any particular architectural style.  In the absence of any other readily available handbook on the Orders, Hodson used the Dover edition of Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture.  It was difficult, especially when teaching students who worked in Metric and were used to reaching for their pocket calculator whenever it was necessary to do a sum.  All too often they resorted to building up the Orders, one moulding at a time, and not understanding properly the overarching proportional principles that tie each element to the whole Order.

The rise of Post-Modernism in architectural fashion in the 1980s led to a revival of interest in the principles of Classical Design.  Robert Chitham was the first Directing Architect of English Heritage; President of ICOMOS UK; Chairman of the Register of Architects Accredited in Conservation, and a partner of the Commercial firm of Chapman Taylor Architects.    In parallel with Peter Hodson at Portsmouth, he identified a need for a new primer to explain the underlying principles of Classical design to a new generation of architects.  Chitham understood the broad and enduring influence of Gibb’s Orders as explained earlier in this paper and found that, by dividing the shaft base diameter module into 100 parts as opposed to the 30 or 60 parts commonly used previously, and then expressing each proportion as a decimal fraction, the Orders could be set out in metric dimensions using a calculator.   In 1987 The Architectural Press published Chitham’s treatise, The Classical Orders of Architecture, which included a potted history of each Order; a parallel of both Ancient and Renaissance Orders to help students understand the range and the scope for originality within the canon, and culminated with detailed setting out advice for a set of idealised Orders based upon those of James Gibbs.

For the next 18 years Chitham’s publication became the default reference book for students at Portsmouth School of Architecture, The Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture in London and other places where pockets of enthusiasm were re-emerging to study the principles of Classical design. But, surprising as it may sound, as this was still not a core part of the mainstream education of an architect, and so sale numbers of Chitham’s book were not reaching the desired targets of the Architectural Press. It was proposed therefore to take it out of the list of current titles.

However, during the late 1990s Peter Hodson had begun to run a summer school in Richmond Virginia (5) teaching young American architects how to design with the Orders. Chitham’s 100 part decimal version of the Orders did not work for designers there working in Imperial dimensions, and so an ex student of Peter Hodson, Christopher Cotton (6), developed a revised version, dividing the module or base diameter of the shaft into 96 parts. This proved so successful and popular, that a proposal was made to the Architectural Press for a second edition that included both the 100 part and 96 part modules making the book equally attractive to students working in both metric and imperial and so boosting sales in both the UK and America, and in order parts of the world. This second edition, published in 2005, included an essay by the distinguished architectural historian Calder Loth, The Senior Architectural Historian for the Commonwealth of Virginia, focusing upon the influence of Gibbs in the United States. Fourteen years on, it continues to sell well on both sides of the Atlantic.

As a part of the revival of interest in Classical architecture in the early years of the Millennium a number of cast stone companies began to expand their catalogues with a variety of Classical details. Unfortunately all too rarely did the designers of these ranges have the benefit of a proper grounding in the underlying compositional principles of Classical design, and so almost every element contains basic design errors, unsatisfactory proportions, and illiterate detail.

  • haddonstone cast stone white portico on green building

With this in mind, I determined in 2010 to try and do something to improve this state of affairs and so, working with the cast stone company Haddonstone, we developed a new range of classical columnar porches available from their catalogue, based upon Gibbs’s Orders: this was of course the logical choice given his unparalleled influence across the UK and United States where Haddonstone also had a production plant.  The objective was to create a variety of porch designs using a limited range of moulds that would be equally suitable both for new buildings, and for more historic properties.

As mentioned earlier in this paper, Carlo Fontana, Gibb’s master, had been the Principe of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome where the evolving classical tradition in that city formed part of the curriculum.  For example, the Theatre of Marcellus was the first Antique theatre built upon an arcaded sub-structure, or fornix, articulated with stacked arcades of classical Orders.  The Doric Order on that building is unusual in that it has a denticular cornice more normally associated with an Ionic Order, and the crowning moulding, normally an S shaped cyma, has been replaced with a concave cavetto moulding.

In the High Renaissance period Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola adopted the Theatre of Marcellus Doric as the basis of his own version in his treatise, Regola delli Cinque Ordini d’Architettura, published in 1562, but whereas the Antique example has no base (7) Vignola’s version added a further distinctive and highly idiosyncratic detail, a two torus base.  Vignola’s version of the Orders is similar in many ways to those of Gibbs and his treatise was reprinted regularly in Rome for the next three hundred years.  Surprisingly, even architects like Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Baroque period, noted for this highly original, innovative and idiosyncratic designs, often reverted to Vignola’s version of the Orders, but manipulated them to suit his composition.  For example, at the Basilica di san Pietro in Rome, Bernini’s colonnade that surrounds the entrance piazza adopts the Vignola Doric with the denticular bed mould in the Cornice, and the two torus base, but the column proportions are stretched from the normal 1:8 proportions (base diameter:height) to a proportion approaching1:9 which is more commonly associated with an Ionic proportion  (8).

In Gibbs’s Book of Architecture there is evidence that Gibbs understood this principle of varying the proportions of the Orders for particular aesthetic effect.  For example, plate 78 showing designs for eight square pavilions for Lord Cobham, shows an Ionic garden temple but with the Orders stretched from their normal 1:9 proportion to a proportion approaching 1:10, creating a lighter and more elegant effect, especially as they appear as pilasters on the main wall of the building and so need less visual mass have the desired impact.

Understanding this tradition of manipulating the proportions of the Orders for particular aesthetic effect, we agreed to limit the Haddonstone Gibbs Range of porches to two shaft proportions with a common diameter: 1:8 – a normal Doric proportion, and a 1:9 – a normal Ionic proportion.  Thereafter there are three capitals – a Doric capital, an Ionic capital with straight volutes, and the Gibbs inspired variant of an Ionic capital with canted volutes.  There is a simple Tuscan (or Box) cornice; a mutule Doric cornice and a denticular cornice which, as explained above, could be applied both to a Doric and an Ionic Order, A full Doric architrave and frieze; a plain unadorned architrave and frieze to a Doric proportion; an Ionic architrave and frieze, and a plain Doric architrave.

As the base diameters of the two shafts are the same, it is possible to create a broad range of porches simply by interchanging some details: a 1:8 or 1:9 proportion Ionic porch with a simplified entablature; 1:8 and 1:9 proportion full Doric porches; 1:8 and 1:9 proportion Doric porches with simplified full entablatures, and a 1:9 proportion full Ionic porch with either straight or canted volutes.

The Gibbs Range of Porches are available in the UK and in North America and have been priced to match those of other ranges available from catalogues which do not have the benefit of canonically correct classical design and it is hoped that, in the spirit of their inspiration James Gibbs, that they may be “of use to such gentlemen as might be concerned with Building, especially in remote parts of the Country where little or no assistance for designs can be procured.”

As we approach the three hundredth anniversary of the publication of A Book of Architecture it is remarkable to reflect upon the genius of James Gibbs and the enduring legacy of his innovative method of setting out the Orders which continues to exert an influence upon the way in which the classical Orders are both taught and used by practitioners across the United  Kingdom and United States.

End Notes

1          Page 1, Introduction, Gibbs, James: A Book of Architecture, Containing designs of Buildings and Ornaments, London, 1728

2          Subtitle, Gibbs, James: Rules for Drawing The Several Parts of Architecture, London, 1732

3          For example, Hodder and Stoughton published facsimile editions of Rules for Drawing with the co-operation of the Society of Architects in 1932, 1937 and 1947

4          Such was the domination of International Modernism with in Schools of Architecture in Britain after World War II that nowhere taught the principles of classical design, and by the 1980s a student who expressed any interest in classical design would be attacked and bullied routinely by both academic staff and other students, and rarely would be allowed to graduate.  It is in this arid and depressing context that the bold vision of Professor Geoffrey Broadbent must be seen and understood.  His model of a pluralist education for architectural students was the exception to the rule, and yet even today, schools of architecture that tolerate an interest in classical design can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Portsmouth no longer teaches the Orders, but a new classical unit has emerged at Kingston University, and there are annual summer schools organised by the International Network of Traditional Building Architecture and Urbanism (INTBAU) in Sweden, and the University of Buckingham in London where classical design principles are taught.  The author uses Chitham to teach the INTBAU students.

5          Peter Hodson and Calder Loth, his college friend from University of Virginia days,  endeavoured to set up a classical summer school at the University of Virginia in the 1990s, but the attempt was thwarted by the academic staff at the School of Architecture there.  Initially they refused to recognise the summer program, denying it any academic credits.  After that, they set the level of the fees at a punitively high level, so ensuring that no-one applied.  At that time Professor Charles Brownell moved from the University of Virginia to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond where a course in interior architecture was running.  Brownell was sympathetic to the ambitions of Hodson and Loth and so helped establish a summer program in the Orders there, supported by the Christopher Cotton, Robert Chitham, Robert Adam and the author.  It was the success of this collaboration that led the author to press the Architectural Press for a second edition of Chitham’s treatise including both 100 part and 96 part modules.

6          Christopher Cotton graduated in the same cohort as the author from Portsmouth in 1990 is now a partner of the architectural practice Purcell in their York office.  He has worked with Martin Stancliffe when the latter served as Surveyor to the Fabric of St Pauls Cathedral, and is now the appointed architect for Durham Cathedral and may other significant historic monuments.

7          The Doric Order as described by the Antique author Vitruvius has no column base.

8          With the potential expense of clearing Borgo, Bernini decided instead to make a virtue of the warren of poorly maintained medieval buildings to obscure views of the Vatican structures from any significant distance. In this way, pilgrims emerged from the relative darkness of the city into the vast Baroque piazza – a sight calculated to inspire awe in first-time visitors to the Holy See’s seat of power.

About the Author

Hugh Petter RIBA FRSA is an architect and director of ADAM Architecture.  He retired as Vice Chairman of the Georgian Group in 2017 having served as a trustee since 2003.  He won two Rome Scholarships in 1990 and 1991 before returning to the UK to serve as Senior Tutor at The Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture from 1992-8.  He has taught the Orders to architecture students across the UK, Europe and the United States.   Recently Petter has recently designed The Gibbs Range of cast stone porches with Haddonstone, based upon Gibbs’s Orders.

Bibliography

Chitham, Robert:        The Classical Orders of Architecture, Architectural Press, Oxford, 2005

Curl, James Stevens,   The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, Oxford University Press,

& Wilson, Susan:        Oxford, 2015

Friedman, Terry:         James Gibbs, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1984

Gibbs, James:              A Book of Architecture, Containing Designs of Buildings and Ornaments, London, 1728

Gibbs, James:              The Rules For Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture, W.Bowyer, London, 1732

Harris, Eileen:             British Architectural Books and Writers 1556-1785, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011

Palladio, Andrea:        The Four Books of Architecture, Dover Architecture, 2000, reprint of Isaac Ware edition, London, 1738

Petter, Hugh:               Back to the Future: Archaeology and Innovation in the Building of Roma Capitale, in Ancient Rome: The Archaeology of the Eternal City, ed Coulston, Jon and Dodge, Hazel, Oxford University School of Archaeology, Oxford, 2000

Vignola, Giacomo       Regola delli Cinque Ordine d’Architettura, Rome, 1562

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Designed by Hugh Petter, Director of ADAM Architecture, the GIBBS Range of classical porches has been inspired by the Georgian architect James Gibbs (1682-1754). A rich legacy given a contemporary twist, this range of porch designs is equally suitable for new and historic buildings alike, including both elaborate and more restrained details.

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Drawing on the Orders of Roman architecture, this range is specifically conceived around the two oldest and most widely used ones: the Doric and the Ionic.

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