Profile Palimpsest, and Other Ruminations
Los Angeles-based artist and architect Stephanie Jazmines, winner of the 2018 Rieger Graham Prize, shares her experiences from her three-month Classical Design Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, the premier American overseas center for independent study and research in the fine arts and humanities.
Following his own fellowship at the American Academy, famed scholar and architect, Robert Venturi wrote the seminal text, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). The influence of Rome is palpable in his work, especially evident in the way he addresses the need to study ordinary things as well as extraordinary. In regards to the ordinary, Venturi emphasizes that “there is convention in architecture, and convention can be another manifestation of an exaggeratedly strong order more general in scope. An architect should use convention and make it vivid.”
Rome is where the ordinary is extraordinary; where the conventional is vivid.
As the 2018/19 Rieger Graham Prize fellow at the American Academy, I focused on a rather conventional subject: mouldings. The interest in this topic was triggered by a number of experiences with architecture, where I felt a palpable difference in how the perception of a building changes and shifts upon approach. The richness and complexity of a façade can be attributed to how its details reveal themselves at eye level. The beauty of an architecture rooted in a language such as Classicism is that these details are perceptibly scalable. There is an inherent construction methodology, an approach, a syntax, by which details can be read as fractals of a larger network.
Dissimilar to C. Howard Walker’s thorough extrapolation of moulding profile types and nomenclature, and Lucy Shoe Meritt’s carefully measured sets of Republican and Etruscan profiles, my research is more concerned with the aesthetics and treatment of these small parts as they contribute to and are influenced by the composition of the whole façade. With the aforementioned studies in mind, I set parameters on my own project, attempting to create a framework by which to look at a wide spectrum of moments in mouldings as they change stylistically over time. Limiting the scope of the survey by building type and material, roughly 25 buildings were documented over the course of 10 weeks. Looking at Church facades from Ancient Roman to Baroque to mid-20th century, I located 3 key locations (thresholds, plinths, bases, typ.) on the façade that would be most informative in understanding the way mouldings are used as transitory and terminating elements. These areas were documented through detail photos, 3d scans, and measured drawings done on site with the help of a profile gauge
An exemplary starting point for this study is the article by Italian architect Luigi Moretti entitled “Valori della Modanatura” (1951). Here, Moretti argues for two principal ways of understanding the value of “the cornices of an architecture.” The first is legibility. The parallelism and horizontality of mouldings allow the basic rhythm and syntax of the buildings to be read with relative ease. The shadow lines that run across the entirety of the facade width break down the overall scale. The second aspect of mouldings, Moretti writes, is their “ability to condense to the utmost the sense of the concrete, of existence, of objective reality […] Cornices and profiles are, in fact, the elements where the reality and concreteness of an architecture seem to be revealed with the greatest force.” That is to say, these projections are – by default – interruptions and assertions where the wall expresses its own compression and structure.
By concentrating on these oft overlooked details in context, its possible to analyze these facades in a very different way. Zooming into the deep cuts of a scotia, how a vertical plane meets a horizontal, and the assemblage of parallel elements into larger groupings indicates an immense intentionality in design. Each conjunction is a decision made in construction, legibility, interpretation, and, in some cases, symbolism. With the resurgent interest in Classical and Post-Modern architecture, it seems even more valuable to revisit an element so often understood as “conventional.” Surprisingly enough, these details tend to be areas where the most inventive work is done.
Concurrent to this research, I also ventured out every day to hone my observational drawing skills. The connection of mind to hand in creation is of utmost importance. To look at the details is one thing. To zoom out, learn from the city, from the urban fabric, from the changing light and dramatic shadow, from the living breath of this palimpsest of heritage, memory, and structure is quite another. Drawing, seeing, and thinking happen all at once, and, for me, become the most visceral way to record an experience. The drawings themselves become a repository of memory.
I would not have been able to pursue this work without the support of such a supportive and tight-knit community. The concentration of mental prowess and skill from the collective was truly enriching and inspiring during my time in Rome. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of that community, to meet and learn from some of the great minds of our generation, and to engage in so many stimulating conversations. I feel fortunate to know them, and for having the privilege of executing some of their portraits for the Academy bar (a whole project unto itself).
I extend my deepest gratitude to the ICAA for the opportunity to pursue this research and return to a city I love so much. My work, and life, have only benefited from the experience of being at the Academy, and Rome remains ever vividly at the forefront of my mind.
You can follow Stephanie Jazmine on Instagram, under the username @spectacular.vernacular.