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The Quintessential Classicist

As a designer, educator and author, Christine Franck is one of Classicism's most compelling proponents.

By Nancy A. Ruhling

"Classical architecture is not a style," says Christine G. H. Franck. "Rather, it is a tradition of thought, a tradition of place-making."

That the award-winning New York City designer makes this statement in the present tense is no accident. "Classicism views the past as useful to the present," she says. "In this view, the best knowledge of how to do things is conserved and transmitted from the past to the present, rather than creating new things for the sake of the new."

To emphasize her position, Franck points to her own past. Growing up in Williamsburg, VA, in a simple Colonial-style house designed by her parents, she acquired an early appreciation of Classical architecture. "Williamsburg's architecture and urbanism are so rich with beauty and meaning that you can't help but learn and be interested," she says.

As a child, she designed her first house on a piece of graph paper her father gave her. Later, thanks to her junior high school's gifted and talented program, she enrolled first in a self-directed architectural mentorship at the College of William and Mary and then in an internship with local architect Robert Magoon. "I was very lucky, because my teachers, mentors and parents guided, supported and encouraged my interests," she says.

Trained as an architect – she holds a bachelor of science in architecture from the University of Virginia and a master of architecture from the University of Notre Dame – she works today as a designer, educator and author.

"In college, we were taught Postmodernism, but it lacked depth and beauty," she says. "The architecture posited by Postmodernism paled in comparison to that of Williamsburg and early American towns. When my parents moved to suburban northern Virginia while I was in college, I was exposed to the dire state of America's built environment and its threat to our well-being. I felt compelled to change that for the better. The contrast between Williamsburg and suburban northern Virginia showed me how much was lost when Modernism rejected the past. After completing my undergraduate work at Virginia, I was thrilled to find others who thought as I did, such as Thomas Gordon Smith, who had formed a new program in Classical architecture at Notre Dame. There I began my education as a Classicist and started filling in the gaps left by my undergraduate education."

During the two decades of her career, Franck has continued to see a vital, contemporary Classical tradition as the answer to today's dysfunctional built environment. "My mission is to make certain that this tradition of architecture – both its Classical root and many traditional branches – continues to be available to new generations so we may create places worthy of us," she says.

Principles at Work
Chadsworth Cottage, the first home Franck designed, is a stunning example of how she has put her principles into practice. The cottage, which won the 2007 Palladio Award for best new residential construction under 5,000 sq.ft., proved that beauty and budget can live happily ever after.

"A common myth is that you can't afford to build Classical architecture today, and that nobody makes the products you need," she says. "This project, which relies primarily upon stock items, shows that you can."

The house, completed in 2005 on Figure Eight Island in North Carolina for Jeffrey L. Davis, the founder of Chadsworth Columns, was to be formal in language yet relaxed enough to function as a primary residence for the owner and a vacation home for his guests. "We drew upon details from North Carolina towns such as Wilmington and New Bern to ground the house in local traditions," says Franck. "The design is canonically Classical but modified to meet a moderate budget."

Franck designed the house then sought high-quality products, modifying the design to fit them. "This was a challenge for me because I had begun my career interning with Allan Greenberg and working on custom projects with rather large budgets," says Franck. "It took research, creativity and a willingness to forgo dimensional perfection to make this work."

She used Classical architecture to her advantage. "An example of the power of the Classical language is that through careful use of scale, you can manipulate perceived size," she says. "Most people think Chadsworth Cottage is far larger than the mere 3,500 sq.ft. that make up the two main living floors of the house. This is because of the use of the giant order, the corner pilasters and the full entablature, all of which set one large scale for the house. This large scale, through moldings and details, is then broken down so that it is approachable. It feels grand and hospitable at once."

Fluency
During the 1980s, a 1930s Colonial Revival house in an historic neighborhood in Fort Worth, TX, had been modified with poorly scaled Classical details. "This home shows how important it is to understand the language if you plan to use it," says Franck. "The changes in the 1980s were the equivalent of poor grammar. They demonstrate the difference between the all-too-common uniformed pseudo-Classical architecture and knowledgeable Classicism."

Franck brought the home back to its 1930s grace by undoing the overdone Classical details in the renovation of the front façade. She replaced the Corinthian columns with attenuated Ionic columns and removed the heavy cast-stone trim around the windows and entablature, the cast-stone cladding in the tympanum and the bulbous balusters and added correctly detailed and proportioned wood trim and weatherboards in their place. In keeping with the original, she re-whitewashed the bricks and added green wooden shutters to the windows.

"Because the slate roof and column center lines were to remain, I designed the entablature moldings with slightly less projection than canonically acceptable," she says. "Gibbs' Ionic order, as well as several other sources, helped in resolving the limitations on the projections without sacrificing the alternation of forms."

The renovation, carried out by Brent Hull of Hull Homes, won the 2010 Historic Fort Worth Residential Award for Excellence in Preservation.

"The house looks much as it did when it was built," says Franck. "The Classical language restored the home to its original balance and grace."

Warm Welcomes
Franck, who lives in an Upper East Side townhouse in Manhattan, is equally comfortable working in public spaces. She has decorated and renovated a number of apartment building lobbies.

"This gives me a wonderful opportunity to work in historic buildings," she says. "The lobby is like the vestibule of a private home; it's the first impression for guests."

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for instance, Franck brought new life to the old-fashioned lobby of an apartment building. The pre-war space had been altered over the years to create what Franck calls a "mishmash" style all its own. Partnering with the New York City decorator Eric Cohler, Franck added new lighting, furniture, a rug, artwork and custom-designed decorative millwork for the walls and fireplace surround.

"The overmantel was made with stock pieces, which made it a very inexpensive part of the project," says Franck. "The wall moldings were designed to create a pattern of panels that de-accentuate the horizontal nature of the room while integrating the ventilation grilles into the panel scheme, bringing order to the space."

Spreading the Word
Franck's work extends far beyond the walls of her projects, whether they are public or private. The author of several books, including José M. Allegue: A Builder's Legacy, Winterthur Style Sourcebook: Traditional American Rooms, co-authored with Brent Hull, and the ICAA's forthcoming Classical Architecture: A Handbook of the Tradition of Today, Franck devotes nearly half of her time to teaching, writing, speaking and advocacy.

"Writing books and essays and teaching forms an essential part of my work as this helps educate students, professionals and the general public alike about good design, architecture and history," she says. "The greatest obligation we have is to teach. I'm so proud of the students I've worked with over the years."

She began her teaching career in 1996, when she helped create a traditional architecture and urbanism program for the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture's first American Summer School. "These programs acted as catalysts for two American towns to help change their thinking about the built environment. They also changed the lives of the many students who attended them," she says.

Later, as the first executive director of the Institute for the Study of Classical Architecture (today's ICAA) in New York, she created a series of highly respected programs that vastly increased the influence of the organization and helped bring it international standing. She developed its existing summer program into one that gave students hands-on experience in confronting urban and architectural issues in New York City. Students in this studio program met with local authorities, developed a master plan, created building designs consistent with the plan and presented them to the public.

Franck also revamped the institute's professional continuing-education courses, adding an international program that includes drawing tours of Rome and Naples, and set up a program for the American Institute of Building Design to educate residential designers and homebuilders.

"When I was working on Chadsworth Cottage, I gained an appreciation of the challenges homebuilders face today," she says. "This program, which introduced them to Classical architecture and traditional urbanism, met them where they were and helped them make better design choices. These residential designers and homebuilders are crucial to significant change in the industry because they are the people designing the vast majority of houses."

The homebuilders' program, which included travel, lectures and a residential design project, received the American Institute of Building Design Award of Excellence.

Harkening back to her initial introduction to architecture in Williamsburg, Franck's teaching includes a residential design studio that she has taught at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she was the 2007 Harrison Design Scholar, and in several studios at the University of Notre Dame. "Houses are often considered too simple of a project for students, yet to me they offer an excellent arena for the student to develop a methodology of study and design," she says.

Mapping the Future
Franck's passionate devotion to better architecture, urbanism and education has led her to play integral roles in the formation and development of the International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism; the New Urban Guild and the Council for European Urbanism; and, most importantly, the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. As a long-serving trustee of the institute, she not only led the development of its academic programs but also the initial formation of its chapters, now the vibrant life-blood of the institute.

In 2002, she received the Prince of Wales' Foundation for the Built Environment's first Public Service Award for her "outstanding contribution to architectural education and design."

In the two decades Franck has been in practice, she has seen great changes, but she also sees a long way to go before the built environment is what it should be. Her career came of age when today's Classical renaissance was in its infancy.

"Thirty years from now, I'd like to see more professionals trained as Classical architects because that's the best way for them to learn how to think responsibly and rationally about the built environment," she says. "The breadth and depth of the Classical tradition over time shows us how to best meet the challenges of today so we may leave a better, more just and beautiful world to subsequent generations."  

 

 

 
 

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