Tracing the McMansion Palladian window back to 16th-century Italy

A common design feature of the American McMansion is the Palladian window, often over the front doorway and showing off the expansive, two-story foyer. One writer suggests Palladian design features can be found throughout the Pittsburgh region:

Want to see more? OK, let’s take a walk in any local area. Aspinwall or Avalon? Highland Park or Shadyside? You’ll wear yourself out counting Palladian features on houses and apartments, occasionally a grand facade in one place, sometimes just a simple Palladian window ornamenting the attic of a modest home in another.

And then, before you’re totally exhausted, take a drive through Upper St. Clair or Peters and take in all of the Palladian windows you will find on what seems like every fifth McMansion built in those towns in the past 30 years.

Continuing, the same writer gives us some insights into how Antonio Palladio’s designs became popular and part of the American architectural vocabulary:

Palladio designed about 45 villas and palazzos (country houses and town houses) for wealthy clients in and around his adopted home town of Vicenza and nearby Venice, which is about 40 miles away. He also designed significant public buildings in both towns, including major churches in Venice — the best known being the church of San Giorgio Maggiore — which is directly across the water from the Piazza San Marco and the subject of thousands of picture postcards over the years.

But, what really brought him fame is his published work “I Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura” or “The Four Books of Architecture.” These books, when translated into English at the beginning of the 18th century, captivated English architects, who eagerly copied his works and his style. Palladianism coursed like a river through the architectural styles of the Georgian Period — the approximately 120-year reign of the Kings George I through IV. As the prevailing styles in England at the time of the flowering of the American colonies, they were copied here in public buildings, churches and houses.

Thomas Jefferson, as a gentleman architect, was infatuated, and based his designs for Monticello on Palladian ideals. He even proposed a near-copy of a famous Palladian villa as his unsuccessful bid for the design of a presidential mansion in Washington. (Today’s White House is a somewhat more Anglicized version of Palladianism.)

What makes the Palladian features of McMansions problematic for critics (an example here) is that it is not seen as being “authentic.” For example, the Palladian window might sit beneath a French gable roof. Thomas Jefferson may have popularized the style but he did so in a more “true” structure that incorporates a number of a Palladian elements rather than simply picking one part out and slapping it up on the facade because it looks nice.

Even though I have heard about Palladian features many times, I was unaware about its roots in 16th century Italy. Is there anywhere in the general American education (grade school through college) where more modern architectural features comes up? I know students learn about Greek columns and temples but what about more modern buildings, like the steel skeletons of skyscrapers, the balloon-framed house, roof styles, and more. Is this a deficit in general knowledge that encourages architectural pastiche like McMansions? Is this generally left to history and art classes? What if all college graduates had the knowledge of a basic architectural field guide that they then could mentally carry around for the rest of their lives?

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