British modernist Basil Bunting once said, “To appreciate present conditions, collate them with those of antiquity.” This reflection could easily be the personal mantra of Nashville-based architect Eric Stengel. Stengel, a Renaissance man schooled in the disciplines of fine arts, decorative arts and, of course, architecture, keeps the work of the masters at the core of his designs while embracing modern conveniences and materials.
Eric’s classically-designed and meticulously executed luxurious estates inspire awe, because they are breathtakingly gorgeous, as well as academically correct and technically perfect. An ideal marriage of beauty and brains, if you will. Eric engages us in Classical ideology in this week’s tour of a Tennessee mansion he built in the 18th-century Georgian style. He offers an enlightening explanation of the three most important aspects of the Classical language in architectural design: its story-telling ability, its ability to evolve and compliment modern times, along with its meaning and worth to those who live in and work on this tradition.
Eric says, “Every great patron of architecture stands on the shoulders of past Classical architecture giants. Their work resonates with nature; it’s who we are and how we are made. The Classical language is a tradition characterized by its transformations. Every age takes its previous uses and lessons and transforms them to reflect a new culture’s identity. This is a Classical home in the same way that the English language has evolved over the last 300 years. It’s adapted as times have changed, but it’s still the English language.”
I was fortunate that this client shared my love for Classicism. The client gave me several pictures of Georgian homes from all different periods. I settled on the 18th-century style, as it perfectly encapsulates the Classical architecture I specialize in.
This home’s entrance sequence between the circle and the ellipse summarizes the religious changes during the time this house style was en vogue. The Papal dogma of the 18th century changed profoundly. This home captures a 1720-1760 date range and reflects the change in the church’s philosophy about geocentrism and heliocentrism at this period in history.
My patron is a Roman Catholic, so I wanted the architecture to tell the story of the church’s shift in how it viewed God, Earth and man. After centuries of insisting that everything revolved around God’s singular creation of Earth and man, the church began to embrace the reality of the heavenly bodies revolving around the sun. The church could now support a two-center shape in its creed, and this is reflected in the two centers (floor and ceiling) of the grand entrance.
The materials of the 18th century are typically brick and stone, as seen here in the home’s courtyard. Since Georgian architecture was derived from the Greek Ionic order, we used brick, limestone, slate and copper – all materials used by the ancient Greeks in buildings like the Temple of Athena. A concern in the community where this house is located is privacy something as old as time. A courtyard offers the family seclusion from the neighbors—and vice versa.
Whereas fountains were common in the 18th century, the culture of swimming is a relatively new one. Thus this pool is part of the transformation of classical design in modern culture.
Glass was not a part of the classical Greek language – it didn’t even exist! The use of glass in this house is another example of a modern (past few hundred years) cultural response to environmental conditions.
My finish carpenter wrote me to say that working on this house changed his life. He and his team found the work challenging, rewarding and worth doing. As a result, some of his crew started collecting special hand tools that can’t be found in stores today. They want to preserve the art of their craft before it’s lost in the fog of modernism’s agenda. This was rewarding for me as well and connects to one of my favorite quotes by the English artist John Ruskin: “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.”
When I contemplate the Classical form, and this house in particular, I am reminded of more exquisite prose from Rushkin:
When we build, let us think that we build forever.
Let it not be for present delight nor for present use
alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will
thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on
stone, that a time is to come when those stones
will be held sacred because our hands have
touched them, and that men will say, as they look
upon the labor and wrought substance of them,
‘See! This our father did for us.