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Interview With a Classicist

Five Questions for architect Steven Semes, the author of “The Future of the Past.”


Architect and author Steve Semes has some interesting ideas about how to introduce new architecture to historic locales. “Create variations on a theme,” he says.
  • Architect and author Steve Semes has some interesting ideas about how to introduce new architecture to historic locales. “Create variations on a theme,” he says.

We recently caught up with Steven Semes, author and Notre Dame professor of architecture, between lectures at the Woman's Club and the Virginia Center for Architecture. An avowed classicist with special interest in how to effectively introduce new architecture to historic settings, he stresses interweaving classicism when appropriate, an approach that flies in the face of much current thinking. We posed five questions to Semes.

Style Weekly: When were you bitten by the architecture bug and specifically, when did you become a classicist?

Steven Semes: I was born with it. My grandfather was a furniture maker. My father was a homebuilder who built colonial revival houses and my mother was an amateur interior decorator. We took vacations to places like Savannah and Charleston. By 6 I was making sketches of houses in Georgetown. When I was 14 my father made me a drafting board. Later in college, the overpowering lessons of the Lawn at the University of Virginia taught me more than a library or faculty. The architecture school back then stressed the Bauhaus: Leave your architectural history behind when you come to architecture. But one day I was in studio and at wits' end about a project. Professor Mario di Valmarana came to my desk and rolled up his sleeves. 'What would Bernini do?' he asked [referring to the great renaissance designer, Gian Lorenzo Bernini]. 'I want an axis. And then, what is to my right? And what is to my left?' That's when the light bulbs went off and I haven't stopped yet.

You lead a Rome studies program. What's your favorite space in the Eternal City?

The Piazza Navona at Christmas when all the tourists disappear and Romans take their city back. The piazza has Bernini and Borromini and all the 'inis,' but add food booths and Christmas shopping stalls with their manger scenes and it's a joy.

As an educator what advice might you have for those considering the study of architecture during a bad economy?

There is a downturn in the applicant pool but the good news is that 80 to 90 percent of our Notre Dame architecture graduates, who have been schooled in classicism, have found work in their field. 100 percent of our graduate students are working. These graduates can think, they can use words, they can draw, they have this added value.

Does Richmond get things right and how can the city be enhanced?

This is a treasury, one of the great locales for American architecture that goes back to the 18th century. And so much is intact: So few cities can claim that. Your neighborhoods, such as Church Hill and the Fan, go on and on and on in a good way. What can be improved? When you add to your buildings or renovate, the idea is not to copy what was there before, but create variations on the theme. Don't introduce things that architecturally are alien.

What do you want readers to take away from your book, "The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation?"

For people in historic preservation I hope they'll gain an intellectual framework for their field. For lay people it should provide a general introduction to traditional architecture. Finally, if one believes that traditional architecture is a continuum, then your approach will be different. We can't afford to throw away buildings: They embody energy. And for all the talk about sustainable buildings, we must build sustainable cities. S

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