It is always a seminal moment in any Cornell architect’s education when some careless professor suggests he or she first look at Colin Rowe’s “Mathematics Of The Ideal Villa”. This collection of essays, groundbreaking in its day, found that the same mathematical laws and proportions which governed the designs of Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio are also the dynamo hidden in the plans and elevations of the great Modernist, Le Corbusier. The ardent traditionalist begins to see elegance of line, form, and volume in even the most Modern elevations and plans.
I recently had a Colin Rowe moment when a friend who directs programs for “Historic New England“ sent me a link to their property, Castle Tucker (1807) , in Maine. I was struck by its similarity to Le Corbusier’s Swiss Villa Scwob (1916); one of that architect’s earliest residential commissions. Both residences are essentially cubes fronted by double-height studio windows. Apsidal volumes swell on either side of the central cube in each instance, creating a dynamic Greek Cross floor plan that strongly registers on the exterior. The restrained ornamentation on the early Nineteenth Century American villa compares favorably to the relatively exuberant (for Le Corbusier) ornament employed in the Villa Schwob. In many ways, the older house looks more “Modern” than the Modernist masterpiece. In fact, I would guess that if Corb had been aware of the historic Castle Tucker he would have viewed it as a promising early shoot of American proto-Modernism, struck down by the succeeding century of mass produced historical ornament.