When considering classical buildings, either from the very distant past or historical revivals from the Italian Renaissance onward, we most frequently begin with an examination according to their formula. We look at whether they offer the correct proportions, the order under which they were created, their monumentality, materials used, and purpose. All of these considerations are perfectly necessary and useful ways of thinking about the architect’s thought process in responding to society’s need to construct a certain type of building.
We also consider, but usually secondarily, ornament or decoration on a particular building in the context of whether or not it fits within the formula of the overall plan. Is there the correct number of guttae? Is the frieze in the right proportion to the rest of the architrave? Is the volute of the capital the right size according to the classical order? Are the battle scenes depicted accurately or metaphorically? Again, these are all relevant questions when examining a building’s overall impact. And yet, there is much more to examine.
A field trip sponsored by the Washington Mid Atlantic Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art this past Saturday to Iron Masters in Frederick, MD, prompted me to consider a material that is an integral part of the classical vocabulary but is seldom considered. Iron Masters is a metal studio near Washington, DC, that designs and fabricates a great number of fine and distinguished stair railings, gates, grates, door hardware, lighting devices, and just about anything that the fertile union of the minds of architect and client can dream up. When considering my favorite buildings from Imperial Rome, one of the first things that come to mind is that excruciatingly identifiable cross-over-cross motif that served to function as both window and barrier on civic buildings. It is an iconic motif, but I never stopped to consider the role of metal in the fabric of classical buildings until last weekend. In fact, right here in our nation’s capital, we have a living example of these traditions in the exquisite metalwork incorporated in the buildings of the Federal Triangle complex, as well as in the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and the original west building of the National Gallery of Art.
Metal in the context of classical antiquity, whether it be bronze, copper, brass, or iron, usually conjures up images of soldiers’ helmets, gladiators’ swords, or Athena’s aegis–objects that were developed in the pursuit of warfare. We don’t ordinarily associate metal with the pre-industrial building traditions in the West, perhaps with one notable exception with which I am sure Gustave Eiffel would agree. Metal shares a language with other building materials in its flexibility, utility, and vitality. Seeing a raw piece of iron being shaped in the hands of a skilled blacksmith, transformed into a slender and elegant finial for a special historic restoration project, demonstrated to me how truly alive metal can be. These artisans demonstrated their facility in resuscitating work on which time had taken its toll as well as their virtuosity in creating new work designed by architects and their own studio.
A tour of the town’s renovated riverfront central park revealed a fanciful metal clock, festooned with figural signs of the zodiac, very similar to what one might have found in a prosperous medieval square. The bridge could be viewed from a superb vantage point–another bridge surmounted by a superb and exuberant Art Nouveau-style railing which was a work of art in itself. Both of these works were clear statements of the commitment of these artists which breathed new life into their community.
Our tour of the Iron Masters studio concluded with a discussion about the need for more architects and designers to visit studios such as this. Understanding the process from the initial design phase through to fabrication and installation provides a greater understanding as to what can be created to suit the client’s vision without having to embark on countless revisions. A close working relationship with studios that fabricate metal, whether it be ornamental or structural, helps to more efficiently get to the final product with minimal delays.
I would encourage any of my clients to visit the studio and have some work commissioned, however small. While the studio’s portfolio is replete with large-scale projects for notable homes, it is just as populated with work that was ordered by homeowners who wanted a personal statement for their own homes. Supporting our crafts traditions honors work that came to us from the earliest reaches of Western civilization. It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that these traditions continue and remain viable today and for the next generation. After all . . . the triumph of Rome over the known world was primarily due to its mastery of iron.