For years I’ve tried to understand why Andrea Palladio’s buildings speak so deeply to me and why, beyond the obvious sculptural beauty of his work, his villas and palazzi leave me feeling so transformed. I think I have the beginnings of an answer:
When we build to impress, we employ architectural scales of intimidation. We explore unusually tall ceilings, expansive floor plans, grand progressions through space. These configurations leave us feeling impressed for certain, but on a subconscious level we feel personally small and unimportant in the face of a greater master (usually the building’s owner or the subject of its purpose). At a natural level, its the sense of ‘awe’ we feel when walking into a grand place of worship – somehow this scale helps us understand divinities that are otherwise beyond our comprehension. In homes of this scale, even noble masters would feel lonely without an entourage for company.
When we build for comfort, on the other hand, we employ architectural scales of intimacy. We build niches, modest doors and windows, shortened transitions and sequences of movement. We feel comfortable in and around these elements, because they speak to a natural, subconscious sense of personal shelter. We feel safe and protected around elements of this scale. It’s the reason for private chapels in grand cathedrals, and the reason we find country cottages to be so filled with charm.
Palladio’s work consistently combines both essences. There is a subconscious interplay between the two scales that leave a visitor feeling at home in the grandeur of the interior spaces, and comfortably awed by the buildings’ compositions from without. Rather than making a proportionally large window fill a massive wall (as you’d find in a typical renaissance structure), Palladio places a short and narrow one there instead. The consistent mixture of scales bring a calming sense of balance to these suburban farmhouse-palaces: grandeur and security all at once, and every bit in keeping with the idea of a palatial retreat tied to nature.