When I attended architecture school in the 1980s, I was rather skeptical of the modernist project. Instead, I adhered to the novel idea that it was more important for buildings to be beautiful, harmonious, and ennobling than to be cutting edge. After rejecting the common wisdom that architecture must express the nebulous spirit of the age, I was free to look at all periods of architecture. In fact, it became necessary to study the past to judge my own work. Great buildings stood the test of time, and if I wanted to build a timeless architecture I would have to relearn how the architects of the past did it.
It is much easier to tear down the walls of Jerusalem than to rebuild them. Relearning the forgotten principles of classical architecture is no easy task. One studies architectural treatises for their insights, and seeks out the advice of living architects. But the best teachers are the great works that still speak to us today.
It takes humility for an architect to learn from tradition. Yet once immersed, one finds that tradition means conversing with the past’s great architects. At Thomas Aquinas College, I found myself conversing and competing with Brunelleschi, Palladio, Herrera, and even Bernini.
I do not claim to have rivaled them, but the building is much richer for their advice. While designing the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I became friends with Vignola, Della Porta, Maderno, and Fuga. Through them I was taught by met both ancient and modern architects. All part of a veritable School of Athens, they still speak across space and time and enrich our lives through their work.
The true artist admits he can be original only after mastering the language. The classical architect has to become fluent in moldings, columnar orders, arches, vaulting, and more. This vocabulary is then arranged into such motifs as colonnades or serlianas, then composed into façades and interiors. Only after years of experience and exposure to great architecture can the architect create original architecture. But only time will tell whether his building is merely a functional structure or has become a work of art.