This High Georgian interior was designed by the author.

Figure 1
Trim provides punctuation, but is not differentiated by size.

Figure 2
Trim differentiated by size.

Figure 3
Trim differentiated by size and character.

Figure 4
Ratio of punctuation (1:5) sets height of dado.

Figure 5
Entablature is punctuated.

Figure 6
Punctuations of baseboard, casing, door entablature and ceiling trim.

Figure 7
Punctuations within the entablature.

Figure 8
Punctuations within the bed moldings.

Figure 9
Door opening is differentiated from wall surface.

Figure 10
Wall surface above the door is differentiated from the entablature.

Figure 11
Cornice is differentiated from architrave and frieze.

Figure 12
Cymation and corona are differentiated from bed mold; frieze is differentiated from architrave.

Figure 13
Cymation is differentiated from corona; ovolo is differentiated.

Figure 14
Differentiations within the Wall of Troy. of Troy.

Figure 15
Horizontal differentiations within the Wall of Troy.

Figure 16
Cornice and frieze are equal in size, yet different in character.

Figure 17
Ratio of punctuation set at 1:7 rather than 1:5

MARCH 2006 » FEATURE

The Anatomy of a Georgian Room

Adapted from a lecture given at the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, this article demonstrates how proportion guides the design of a Georgian room.
By Richard Franklin Sammons

The room is the basic spatial building block of architecture, but our understanding of the nature of rooms has been diluted by the popularity of the "non-room" utilized in non-traditional architecture. Notable examples of this are the "open plan," Frank Lloyd Wright’s "breaking the box" and Le Corbusier’s "universal space."

Space is, of course, an uncountable and non-objective noun. It can therefore be neither singular nor plural, nor can it have any specific characteristics. A room, on the other hand, is a volumetric enclosure which, given its shape or size, can have various characteristics, ritual uses and specific names. This volumetric enclosure does not necessarily need all four walls, ceiling and floor to be perceived as such: oftentimes the character of a wall plane can be created by employing a colonnade, columns in antis or any other space-defining element. Likewise, the often overlooked detailing of the ceiling can be used to reinforce the perception of a discreet volume, as can the patterning of the floor surface.

In the typical Georgian room, the detailing of the enclosing walls generally follows the elements of a Classical order expressed in full or in dilution, showing some details and excluding others for the desired effect. At a minimum, three types of elements – the baseboard, crown and casings around the doors and windows – are included.

Another element is the dado or datum, from which the proportions of the room’s details are generated according to the particular order being employed. The dado is commonly called a chair rail, for obvious reasons. Likewise, the trim around the doors and windows are called architraves (as they technically derive from that element of the order) but are typically referred to as "casings" by carpenters, as they encase the actual structure surrounding the opening.

The term "crown" which is commonly used for any molding at the junction of the ceiling and wall is also an inaccuracy: the crown (or corona) is only one part of the cornice, also known as the dripstone. In Greek antiquity, a terra-cotta gutter often molded in the form of an S-curve (or cymation) is the ancestor of the molding we commonly call the crown. Since the dripstone was the highest stone element, it was referred to as the crown and the terra-cotta gutter was not viewed as part of the order. Later, the Romans incorporated this gutter into the stonework, so that our cornice today consists of the cymation (terra-cotta gutter), the corona (dripstone) and the bed molds which were used to cantilever the dripstone away from the foundation and walls.

In addition to disguising constructional joints, trim helps to punctuate each element of the room: the crown and baseboard signal that the wall is ending and the floor or ceiling is beginning; casings signal that the wall surface is about to be interrupted by a door or window opening. Figure 1 demonstrates the use of trim to punctuate the room, yet the sizes of trim are all identical and are therefore unable to indicate their different uses. However, differentiation can be introduced by modulating either the size of the moldings (figure 2) or their character (figure 3).

Figure 4 shows a typical Georgian interior, an analysis of which is useful because it embodies all the elements of a Classical order in a succinct and interrelated fashion. Note the column, pedestal and entablature superimposed to the right of the door. The actual presence of this column is not absolutely necessary within the interior, yet it helps demonstrate the way in which the orders can extend to all areas and scales of design.

A ratio of punctuation sets the height of the dado, which determines the relation of the chair rail to the total height of the room (figure 4). While it is ideal to set the height of the dado in this manner, oftentimes a low ceiling height necessitated by the exigencies of construction makes this impossible. In this case, the dado should be set at 2 ft.-10 in. or a similarly practical height.

Following the placement of the dado, a punctuating move upwards sets the height of the entablature. This determines the relationship between the size of the entablature and the room height (figure 5). Even though the sizes determined by these two punctuations are different, both repeat the same ratio. Punctuation also sets the size of the skirt (baseboard) within the chair rail, the height of the door’s entablature above the chair rail and the size of the architrave as it moves down the sides of the doorway. It also informs the placement of any bounding trim on the ceiling (figure 6). The same ratio of punctuation is also applied to the details of the entablature: the architrave to the complete entablature, the taenia to the architrave, etc. (figure 7). Likewise, punctuation is used to determine the sizes and relationships between even the smallest details of the interior (figure 8).

Differentiation also plays an important role in the design of the interior. The first differentiating move should be to determine the size and location of the most important distinction in the composition at hand: in this case, the violent act of opening a doorway in the wall is the most significant. Therefore, a ratio of differentiation will determine the height of the doorway in relation to the height of the room (figure 9). Similarly, the same ratio is used to set the bottom of the entablature above the doorway (figure 10). Within the entablature, the proud cornice is more elaborate than the simple architrave and frieze, therefore it too is differentiated (figure 11). Figure 12 differentiates the cymation and corona from the bed molds below them; the frieze is also differentiated from the architrave. Likewise, the cymation is differentiated from the corona, and the ovolo from the Wall of Troy (figure 13). Even the solid and void portions of the Wall of Troy are differentiated, as is the solid to the fillet below (figure 14). Differentiation is also applied horizontally (figure 15).

Although no dualities (equal-equal relationships) were purposefully designed, the repetition of like ratios will inevitably result in some equal elements. However, in this case the greatly differing characters of the cornice and frieze provide a measure of differentiation that alleviates their equal size (figure 16).

There are numerous proportional systems that can be used to give order to the ratios of punctuation and differentiation employed in a design. A common ratio of differentiation found in Georgian work is the arithmatic approximation of the "Golden Section," 3:5 or 5:8. These illustrations used a ratio of punctuation set at 1:5, yet figure 17 shows a similar interior designed using a punctuating ratio of 1:7. It should be obvious that scaling the ratios of both punctuation and differentiation has a great effect on the character of an interior, in this case giving the room a Federal character.

The guidelines related above provide an outline for designing Georgian rooms ranging from the simple subject of these illustrations to the more elaborate example shown at the beginning. Regardless of the room’s level of complexity, applying the proportional principles of punctuation and differentiation to the creation of an interior can give it both a rigor and beauty not common in contemporary building.  

Richard Franklin Sammons is a partner of Fairfax & Sammons Architects, P.C., a firm that specializes in traditional residential design. He is a board member of the Historic House Trust and the Merchants House Museum and also serves on the Board of Directors of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America and the Royal Oak Foundation. This article is an edited excerpt from his forthcoming book The Elements of Architectural Proportion.

 

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