Architecture: How to be Classical without being crude: The austere tradition followed by Francis Johnson provides a contrast to the bowdlerised versions of recent converts, says Giles Worsley

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The Independent Culture
IN THE past decade a Classical revival has crept steadily towards the centre of the architectural stage. The most recent example is a scheme highly decorated with columns and pilasters that may yet be built at Paternoster Square, in the City of London.

The latest Classicists argue that since the style satisfied our forefathers for centuries, it is right to return to it today. Their opponents say that society has changed so radically in this century that it is no longer appropriate.

While the debate rumbles on, in the east-coast port of Bridlington, Francis Johnson continues to work in an age-old Classical tradition that owes nothing to revivalism or pastiche. He has been doing so for 60 years.

Genial and modest, the 81-year-old Johnson makes no great claims for his work, yet he stands firmly in the tradition of John Carr, the solid, dependable Classical architect who dominated building in 18th-century Yorkshire. As with Carr, there is something eminently satisfying about Johnson's buildings, alongside which the work of most modern Classicists seems nervous, strained and self-indulgent. Identifying the reason for his success goes a long way towards explaining the current malaise evident in British Classicism.

To Johnson, Classicism is the natural way to build because his architectural education predates Modernism. He trained at the Leeds School of Architecture in the Twenties when, as he puts it, 'Classical principles of composition and detail were still being taught, albeit with diminished enthusiasm'. Thus his career has never suffered the conversion seen in other modern Classicists, nor the struggle to learn about the orders in the face of ignorant or obstructive tutors.

The Classical orders are highly expressive statements. They can symbolise hierarchy within a building: the Doric, being an inferior order, is appropriate to the entrance hall, leading in succession to the slightly superior Ionic in the staircase and ultimately to the grand Corinthian in the drawing room. They can also symbolise hierarchy between buildings. Thus the Tuscan order - the simplest and rudest - is appropriate for plain buildings such as stables, barracks and farms. Corinthian and Composite - the most elaborate - are for churches and palaces.

Johnson's understanding, conscious or otherwise, of what is expressed by Classical architecture, sets him apart from many of today's Classicists. In his work the orders are never decoration to be applied to facades without regard to their meaning.

'I always appreciated the orders and still do,' Johnson says. 'They're timeless and I feel that things that took millennia to perfect cannot be matched by the efforts of a few hours. Their system of proportions has become second nature to me.'

It is in his natural sense of proportion that Johnson's confidence comes out most clearly, and in his modelling of interior spaces - particularly the corridors and staircases of the country houses which form the bulk of his practice. For a Classical architect, Johnson uses the orders and decorative materials very sparingly. For him they 'are still the basis of Classical proportioning, but today we see them misunderstood and unfortunately bowdlerised in the crudest possible way because people are too lazy and greedy for quick returns'. The orders can usually be found in his buildings only on the doorframes or porches.

His buildings, mainly in the north of England, are predominantly in brick, with simple, repeated windows set cleanly into the walls. Not for him the elaborate mixture of highly detailed orders, restlessly varied windows and contrasting stones of, for example, Quinlan Terry's Howard Building at Downing College, Cambridge, which from the outside appears to be one of the most important buildings of the college, but turns out to be no more than a lecture theatre.

In part, Johnson's austerity springs from the architectural climate of the Thirties, when Regency and late Georgian architecture enjoyed renewed interest and the contemporary stripped Classicism of Scandinavia exercised a particular fascination. For Johnson, a brief trip to Denmark was especially influential. His description of what appealed to him there - 'the simple clarity, beautiful detailing and lack of self-conscious cleverness' - could equally well be a description of his own work.

In the Thirties Johnson bought Craven House in Bridlington High Street, and for 20 years the building, refronted in 1810, was both his home and his office. Johnson now lives in an 18th-century house outside the town, but Craven House is still home to his partnership, which comprises Johnson, two other architects and five technicians.

Johnson has done more than just continue the aesthetics of the Thirties into the Nineties. Whether consciously or not, he has adapted the vocabulary of the Classical country house to suit the reduced circumstances of the landed gentry.

Apart from the hierarchy of buildings themselves, the Classical orders also express the hierarchy of an organised society. This used to be implicit: the aristocracy decorated their houses with Ionic porticoes; the middle classes with Doric porches; the poor with nothing at all. But today we live in a more egalitarian society: whereas once the landed gentry were the dominant political force in England, and built rich and elaborate country houses with porticoes and columns to express that dominance, today they are a tolerated minority of little more than local significance.

The houses that Johnson designs for them are simple and austere, with perhaps a pediment at most to distinguish them formally from their neighbours. It is not richness of ornament that sets them apart from other houses, but their scale and their noble proportions.

(Photographs omitted)

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