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Palladian Design: The Good, The Bad and The Unexpected review

Blueprint

RIBA Gallery, London
Until 9 January

Whether you realise it or not, we are steeped in Palladianism in this country. The 'Albion tradition' of classicism, as it has been dubbed, is indebted - via Inigo Jones, Lord Burlington, Robert Adams and many others, right down to Prince Charles - to the singular figure of Andrea Palladio.

How did this come about? The current exhibit at the Royal Institute of British Architects attempts an ambitious prospect within modest means: to elucidate the principle ideas of Palladio - perhaps the most influential of the Renaissance architects -- through the discourse and spread of a global architectural culture, bridging these ideas with declensions seen in the architecture of today.

It is no exaggeration to say that all students of architecture, without exception, will have encountered the legendary Paduan architect, not only through his paradigmatic series of villas built in the Veneto - the grand pastoral real estate holdings arising from the wealth of La Serenissima, pre-empting the latter's naval decline - but also through his books.

I Quattro Libri dell'Archittetura is one of the most important architectural treatises there has ever been; not the first - widely ascribed to the Roman scholar Vitruvius, and later 'rediscovered' by early Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti - but the most significant, in the sense that it addressed and spread across to greater parts of the profession. For starters, the Four Books were written in plain Italian, not Latin, making it much more accessible to the actual practitioners of architectural craft, as well as to a great many patrons from the burgeoning merchant class across civilised Europe and beyond.

The main thrust of Palladio's book was to put forth the principles and techniques of classical architecture, from geometry and symmetry to ornamentation, while crucially placing Man, his proportions and needs, at the centre of it all. Through a system of what could be termed architectural grammar, Palladio's classicism became a widespread language, that the historian Rudolf Wittkower called humanist - for its humanely edifying, if not outright political, aspirations.

The exhibition starts with a facsimilie of the hallowed tome, alongside some early sketches for residential projects. Look at the barchesse, the barn structure next to a sketch for low-cost housing classical pediments and the trappings of the gran palazzo are married with the utilitarian agricultural form - colouring the countryside with a sense of the urban, and of governance (incidentally, this is nicely bookended by the exhibition's closing image, a photograph of Stephen Taylor's cowshed in Somerset, 2012).

Subsequent reprints, translations and editions - both faithful and interpretive, including a pocket guide made for builders - of I Quattro Libri demonstrate how quickly and widely Palladio's ideas spread during the 17th and 18th centuries (Thomas Jefferson apparently referred to it as his 'bible'.) The rest of the exhibition juxtaposes occasional drawings by Palladio against numerous variations across time and space. The explosion of Palladian style and thinking - the two becoming increasingly distinct - coincided with the expanse of imperial territories; the bulk of the exhibition follows a roughly chronological trajectory around the edge of the RIBA Gallery, but a central island shows Palladianism in its colonial tints: Lutyens' Delhi, Jakarta, Washington and Belfast.

Designed by Caruso St John together with the superb John Morgan studio, the exhibition display is a model of restrained simplicity; unvarnished wooden tables display the work on raked easels, suggesting the architect at work, while subtle coloured strips on the wall mark the topical sections within the curated works. Reference images tend to be placed on the wall, with 'working drawings' on tables or raised surfaces - minimal, sometimes counterintuitive captioning, forces the visitor to work to connect the dots, which, while inconvenient, at least resists a passive viewing.

Cowshed in Somerset by Stephen Taylor Architects
Cowshed in Somerset by Stephen Taylor Architects. Image: David Grandorge

Palladio's classical sensibilities are traced through more baroque, free-form and downright wacky interpretations - a wood-shingled 'villa' in Connecticut sticks out in the display, its Technicolor garishness contrasting with the painstaking cross-hatch of earlier times.

Post-modern and abstract Palladianism are labels ascribed to drawings by Aldo Rossi, John Hejduk and even Peter Märkli; indeed that Palladianism survives to this day is put forward most convincingly through a model of an unbuilt project, by practice OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen. The ingenious presentation of the model, despite the slightly awkward L-shaped gallery space, allows visitors to circumnavigate and so appreciate the clarity of perfect geometrical and human-scaled symmetry: the same room volume is stacked and replicated 25 times, with subtle variation to the ceiling height, resembling an inversion of Palladio's greatest hit, the Villa Rotonda.

There are omissions, naturally, in a smallish exhibition tackling such a gargantuan figure as Palladio and his even more expansive shadow of influence. I would have liked some sniff of Colin Rowe's work in decoding the geometrical parities between Le Corbusier and Palladio, as well as the playful, totemic foam version of the Rotonda, which FAT brazenly took to Venice in a little rowboat in 2012. But given the constraints of space, the quality of curated materials and clever restraint in their display makes this exhibit a real triumph, illuminating as it does not the genius of a single individual but the far-reaching extent of architectural ideas.