While waiting to hear a lecture given on the subject of the gardens of Newport, Rhode Island, at the Athenaeum Library on Boston’s Beacon Hill, my eyes fell upon their copy of James Gibbs’ 1728 “Book of Architecture: Containing Designs of Buildings and Ornaments”. While Gibbs’ opus has long been a favorite resource in my office, I must confess I had never done more than look at the pictures. Now, carefully opening the first few pages, I read for the first time Gibbs’ dedication to “His Grace, John, Duke of Argyll and Greenwich, &c.”. What followed was as succinct a summation of reasons why every thoughtful person (whether Privy Councilor, Master General, or Knight of the most Noble Order of the Garter) should hire an architect to design and direct the construction of his house.
In Gibbs’ own words:
“What heaps of Stone, and even Marble, are daily seen in Monuments, Chimneys, and other Ornamental pieces of Architecture, without the least Symmetry or Order? When the same or fewer Materials, under the conduct of a skilful Surveyor, would, in less room and with much less charge, have been equally (if not more) useful, and by Justnefs of Proportion have had a more grand Appearance, and consequently have better answered the Intention of the Expense. For it is not the Bulk of a Fabrick, the Richnefs and Quantity of the Materials, the Multiplicity of Lines, nor the Gaudiness of the Finishing, that give the Grace or Beauty and Grandeur to a Building; but the Proportion of the Parts to one another and to the Whole, whether entirely plain, or enriched with a few Ornaments properly disposed.
SOME, for want of better Helps, have unfortunately put into the hands of common workmen, the management of Buildings of considerable expense; which when finished, they have had the mortification to find condemned by persons of Taste, to that degree that sometimes they have been pull’d down, at least alter’d at a greater charge than would have procur’d better advice from an able Artist; or if they have stood, they have remained lasting Monuments of the Ignorance or Parsimoniousness of the Owners, or (it may be) of a wrong-judged Profuseness.”
This last charge, that less money could have been spent to better effect if an architect had been engaged, is one I see every day in my practice. I have helped many clients, sometimes at considerable expense to themselves, remedy the myriad deficiencies and crass features of their Contractor-built homes. I am always struck that these good people have paid top dollar for McMansions they eventually come to feel as embarrassments and marks of personal naivete, rather than showcases of elegance and refinement they had hoped.
If you find yourself building a house and are assured by the Contractor that you don’t need an Architect, please reflect on the words of James Gibbs, given over 250 years ago:
“I mention this to caution Gentlemen from suffering… by the Forwardness of unskillful Workmen, or the Caprice of ignorant, assuming Pretenders.”