The Marcantonio Architects Blog

The confessio below the high altar at Santa Maria in Trastevere makes it impossible to say Mass from the assembly's side of the altar.

How Would St. Germanus Site Your Church?

In recent years, much work has been done to restore the traditional principles of church design; one principle, however, is still often overlooked: siting. St. Germanus is brief and clear on the subject, as always. In the final section of Ecclesiastical History and Mystical Contemplation, which deals directly with architectural matters, he says: Praying toward […]

The Apartment House Entry Hall

The Apartment House Entry Hall

The calles and avenidas of Madrid are decorated with some of the most elegant apartment house entry halls in the world. What a delight to take a stroll just after sunrise when doors are flung open, floors are swept, brass is polished—the city’s portales are made ready to welcome and to bid goodbye in style. […]

The Glorious Life of Architecture

The Glorious Life of Architecture

We’ve discussed how the church building is an earthly heaven, in particular how all the structural elements seem to be alive. The column capitals are like floral bouquets, the beams sprout leaves and eggs, the heads of animals and men form bosses, etc. There is no death in the Garden of Eden, after all, so […]

And the crowning element of it all, in glorious gilded bronze cast from metal recovered from the Maine: three hippocampi pull Columbia over the seas she now rules.

Remember the Maine Monument

The Maine Monument at Columbus Circle is one of the most beautiful in Manhattan. Architect Harold Van Buren Magonigle, and sculptor Attilio Piccirilli, there provided us with an object lesson in memorial design that is more important and more relevant now than ever. What it does, and what all monuments should do, is very simple: […]

Composite capital at the Hagia Sophia

Byzantine Simplicity

The Byzantine style, like Gothic, Georgian, and Art Deco, is another wonderful experiment in that great laboratory called the Greco-Roman tradition. Constantine planted the seed when he moved the capital of his empire from Rome to Byzantium. At that time, owing to its history, the tradition in Byzantium would likely have been Greco-Roman with a […]

The ambo at St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. I hope the lower level is not normally used to store folding chairs.
[Image Source]

Parts of the Church Building: the Ambo

Returning to our series on the parts of the church building, with St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople as our guide, he continues: 10. The ambo manifests the shape of the stone at the Holy Sepulchre [on which the angel sat after he rolled it away from the doors of the tomb,] proclaiming the resurrection of the Lord […]

View of the nave of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, looking through the gate of the Schola Cantorum toward Titian's sumptuous Assumption of the Virgin over the high altar. Note that no tiles in the floor have been left missing for the sake of historical meaning.
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Koolhaas’s Cronophobia

Nicolai Ouroussoff teams up with Dutch architect and uber-gobbledegook-meister Rem Koolhaas to sow more confusion regarding principles that are fairly obvious to most people. For example, it is obvious to most that it is good to preserve things which are worth preserving. Likewise, only get rid of something when you can replace it with something better. […]

Les Invalides, Paris, a home and hospital for aged and unwell war veterans.
Louis XIV commissioned architects Libéral Bruant and Jules Hardouin Mansart.
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Scruton Speaks Truth to Gobbledegook

The formidable Roger Scruton, writer and philosopher, is always worth reading on the subject of architecture. He’s written several commendable books and occasionally produces a good, pithy article. This latest one, an opinion piece published in the Times of London, is quite trenchant, and even provoked an angry response from Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic of The Guardian. The […]

Watercolor study of the Schola Cantorum by my wife and partner, Paloma Pajares. Read her book Cosmatesque Ornament for more information on the subject.

Ode to an Ideal Church Building

If you are looking for an ideal model of a church building, then look no further than the Minor Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. It has all the traditional symbolical elements expressed almost entirely without abbreviation, from the spatial sequence to the liturgical furnishings. And its perennial relevance is attested to by its age–it […]


An Introduction to the Facade

This in my opinion is the most beautiful facade in all of Rome. It is the church of Saints Luke and Martina, by the great Pietro da Cortona, and it will make your heart skip a beat. It positively oozes Roman gravitas and austere grandeur. So muscular without being flamboyant, so robust it borders on forceful, […]

Noble repose at Castle Howard by Sir John Vanbrugh, 1699
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An Introduction to Massing

By the term “massing” we mean the general shape or shapes of a building. It is analogous to the composition of a painting, its broadest strokes, but in three dimensions. And like a painting’s fundamental composition, if a building’s massing is not right, no amount of excellence in the details will compensate. Look at the […]


Parts of the Church Building: the Altar Rail

Continuing our series on the parts of the church building, St. Germanus goes on to say: 8. The entablature is the legal and holy decoration, representing a depiction of the crucified Christ by means of a decorated cross. 9. The chancel barriers indicate the place of prayer: the outside is for the people, and the […]

There's no mistaking this for a Louis Vuitton outlet.
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Hunters Point Library

In 1929 the Belgian painter Rene Magritte unveiled his iconoclastic work “The Treason of Images.” Below the image of the pipe is the statement “This is not a pipe.” The man apparently was scrupulous enough not to want to lie to his audience, yet not so scrupulous as to have minded boring the audience with […]


The Quincunx: Queen of Symbols

A quincunx (pronounced kwin-kunks) is simply a cluster of five points arranged as on a die. One finds the pattern everywhere, from the common arrangement of trees in an orchard, to the exalted arrangement of domes on a church. There is much more to the pattern than it might at first seem. In fact, in […]


Social Justice and Architecture

It’s the birthday of Fr. Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio (1793–1862), the man who coined the phrase “social justice.” Here’s a nice little piece by Ryan Messmore in First Things which summarizes his contribution. Give it a quick read and consider the implications for architecture. He taught: … that human beings naturally join together in groups. “The […]

thumb soldiers

The Future of the Past – the Full Review

My review of Steven Semes’ book The Future of the Past is up at the American Arts Quarterly website. Here it is in its entirety below.   ‘The Future of the Past,’ by Steven W. Semes The Future of the Past is not merely about architectural preservation, as the title might at first glance suggest, […]

The Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France.
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Shedding Light on the Gothic Style

The Gothic style is a favorite for many, particularly when it comes to ecclesiastical structures. Indeed, who is not impressed with the majesty of the ordered cosmos arrayed on the facade of Reims cathedral, the other-worldly luminosity of the Saint Chapelle (below), or the virtuosic vaulting of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge? It can rightly be […]


Parts of the Church Building: the Bema

The term Bema has several different meanings. The word is most commonly a synonym for the Sanctuary, especially in the East. However, it can also refer to: 1. The raised, gated area which projects from the Sanctuary into the nave called the schola cantorum 2. A separate raised platform for clergy which, in antiquity–particularly in […]

The Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche), Dresden, Germany. This masterpiece is an 18th century Baroque reworking of a tradition which stretches back to antiquity. Completely destroyed in World War II, its meticulous reconstruction was completed in 2005 by popular demand.
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Traditional Architecture FAQ

What is traditional architecture? Traditional architecture is that way of building which makes serious use of the familiar symbolic forms of a particular culture of a particular people in a particular place. 2. What is classical architecture? Classical architecture is that segment of the body of traditional architecture of a people which has achieved the […]


Learn How to Learn from Palladio

The Palladio exhibit at the Morgan Libraryis sadly coming to a close. August 1st is the last day of the exhibit which moves on to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. It is well worth a visit by both laymen and professionals alike. Curators have put together an impressive range of works by the […]


Alain de Botton’s Mirage

You have to hand it to the apologists of Modernism for their steadfastness. They’ve been trying for a century now to gain general public acceptance for their wares, and though they are nowhere closer to that goal than they were when they first started, they continue to chase the mirage with all the fervor they […]


Parts of the Church Building: the Sanctuary

In the eastern tradition, the term “altar” is a synonym for “sanctuary.” Substitute the word as you read the following passage from St. Germanus, and it will make more sense: The altar corresponds to the holy tomb of Christ. On it Christ brought Himself as a sacrifice to [His] God and Father through the offering […]

Gertrude Whitney's Fountains of El Dorado

Whither and Whence the Whitney?

The Whitney Museum, designed by Marcel Breuer, is truly one of the most hope-depleting contributions to the Upper East Side. The same year it was completed, 1966, public hearings were held to discuss protecting the neighborhood from future assaults with landmarks preservation legislation. It was a thoroughly rational response in this architect’s opinion. And fifteen […]


Project for a Small House in Texas

Here is a quick proposal for a small, single story vernacular house in Waco, Texas. This part of the Lone Star State definitely falls in the Anglo tradition, so we looked to precedents like the Sam Rayburn House, and Fort McKavett, rather than the Spanish Governor’s Palace, for details, massing, and general character. The scale […]


Can Anything Good Come Out of Modernism?

Two friends and I recently visited the excellent Palladio exhibit at the Morgan Library. It provoked an interesting follow-up discussion regarding the shortcomings of modern architectural education and practice, my friends suggesting that there is something to appreciate in modernist work. Wrote Finbar [all names have been changed to protect the innocent]: Didn’t the modernists […]


Parts of the Church Building: the Ciborium

St. Germanus states regarding the ciborium: The ciborium represents here the place where Christ was crucified; for the place where he was buried was nearby and raised on a base. It is placed in the church in order to represent concisely the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It similarly corresponds to the ark of […]

Palladio, Villa Pojana
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The South Lawn at the University of Virginia

A student recently reminded me of the architectural hubbub of a few years ago at our alma mater, the University of Virginia. In September 2005, to kick off the semester, a large majority of the faculty members of the school of architecture signed “An Open Letter to the Board of Visitors, the University Administration, and […]


The Simple Truth About Context

Architectural styles are like languages. If you want to be understood, you have to speak using the language of the people. If I am to give a lecture to a German audience, I would be a fool to speak in Chinese. And it would add insult to injury to grunt unintelligibly. This, in brief, is […]

A computer model of a Composite Capital, impossible to achieve parametrically.

Architectural Quackery At Its Finest: Parametricism

If you’re in the mood for a strong brew of architectural hucksterism–a marketing effort disguised as deep theory–read this hilarious piece by Patrik Schumacher, partner of Uber-starchitect Zaha Hadid. In it, he heralds the advent of a new architectural style, important enough to succeed Gothic, Baroque, and neo-Classical. He calls it: Parametricism. What is Parametricism? […]


Parts of the Church Building: the Altar

The altar is the central focus of the Christian religion. So, naturally, it is the central focus of every church building. St. Germanus is marvelously succinct about it: The holy table corresponds to the spot in the tomb where Christ was placed. On it lies the true and heavenly bread, the mystical and unbloody sacrifice. […]


The Glorious Frick Mansion

Henry Clay Frick was a college dropout and a hated industrialist, but he built perhaps the most magnificent of all residences on the rocky isle of Manhattan. Designed by Thomas Hastings to hold Frick’s expanding art collection, he willed that the house should become a public gallery on the death of his wife. And thus […]

Bath Abbey and

I Refute Modernism Thus!

Look back at the sweeping canvas that is the whole history of art and architecture and focus on the broadest strokes. You will see Victorian, Neo-classical, Baroque, Renaissance, Gothic, Romanesque, Byzantine, Roman, Greek, Egyptian… You can see as far back as about 5,000 years. Each generation has added a broad panel to the historical canvas, […]

Burano, near Venice, Italy
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The Orders of Architecture: A Primer

Let’s spend a little time talking about the orders, the names of the parts, and how they are put together. It’s much easier to talk about architecture when you have names for things. Once you develop a vocabulary, you will notice subtleties that you had not seen before. And while there is much to traditional […]


Parts of the Church Building: The Apse

St. Germanus of Constantinople writes: The apse corresponds to the cave in Bethlehem where Christ was born*, as well as the cave in which he was buried, as the evangelist Mark says: “There was a cave hewn out of the rock; there they placed Jesus” (cf Mark 15:46) Knowing now as we do that the […]

Santa Croce a Via Flaminio

Rome, Maxxi, and Maxentius

The latest sensation in the architectural press is the new Maxxi Museum, designed by Zaha Hadid. Even Francis X. Rocca, Vatican correspondent for the Religion News Service dolloped praise upon it in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Why is a mystery to me. It’s got all the warmth of a pillbox bunker, the timelessness […]


The Architecture of Furniture

The orders are not just for buildings. They are also used on furniture to bring its structure to life, to give it meaning, and to give it status. On the most formal pieces, the order is fully developed. Here, for example, is a highly articulated French Renaissance buffet with composite entablatures at each story, slightly modified […]

Church of St. Lazarus of the Mendicants

Experimentation on the Poor

This is not Cell Block D at your local Supermax. It’s the last word in architectural experimentation on the poorest and most vulnerable of Los Angeles. On South Hope Street of all places. According to the New York Times’s architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, this hope-sapping building, the latest in a series for the Skid Row Housing Trust, […]

Passau Cathedral
(Photo by Aidan McRae Thomson)

The Church Building and the Garden of Eden

Turning again now to St. Germanus, Archbishop of Constantinople, he states in the opening section of his Ecclesiastical History and Mystical Contemplation: The church is an earthly heaven in which the super-celestial God dwells and walks about. It represents the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Christ: it is glorified more than the tabernacle of the […]


The Bowery Savings Bank on 42nd Street, by York & Sawyer

Put York & Sawyer on the list of great unsung architects overdue for a coffee table monograph. Edward York and Philip Sawyer both trained in the office of the legendary McKim, Mead, and White, and, after forming their own firm in 1898, went on to contribute a wonderful body of work to the American Renaissance. […]


Collegiate Gothic, Alive and Well

In an op-ed in the Star-Phoenix, Ian Innes, retired campus architect for the University of Saskatchewan, criticizes columnist Gerry Klein for hoping that the university might encourage the collegiate gothic style in its College Quarter/Clarion Project. Says Innes: Collegiate gothic, for all purposes, is “dead architecture.” It has served its purpose to establish the initial […]


Parts of the Church Building Explained – Episode 1

I recently had the privilege of attending the annual Society for Catholic Liturgyconference, this year in Greenville, South Carolina. And there I was able to catch up with old friends, meet new people (who quickly became like old friends), and learn a great deal. Among those old friends was Dr. Michael Foley, patristics scholar, author, […]


From the Sketchbook


Awry In Dubai

Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for the New Yorker and long-time Notre Dame Driehaus Prize juror, gives a positive review of the Burj Khalifa, the insanely tall tower in Dubai. He says it should be an easy building to loathe, and the embarrassing way that its completion coincided with the near-meltdown of Dubai’s economy makes it easy […]

Church of St. Vincent Ferrer

The Fallacy of “Honest Architecture”

It is not uncommon to see good people getting brow-beaten into accepting ugly architecture on the grounds that the alternative, an intervention which is complementary to its situation and unabashedly traditional, is dishonest pastiche. Modern architecture, in contrast, is honest and authentic. Traditional architecture is nostalgic Disney World, while modernist architecture is for the present and […]


Ouroussoff: “Preservationists Should Put Away their Torches and Pitchforks”

The ever-supercilious Nicolai Ouroussoff opens his favorable review of Renzo Piano’s addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with a couple of put-downs to his presumed critics. “The cultural watchdogs of Boston don’t take well to change.” “Preservationists Should Put Away their Torches and Pitchforks” Well, you don’t have to be a redneck to have legitimate […]


Evelyn Waugh on Modernism

Here’s a humorous passage from Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, published in 1928. The rich and glamorous socialite Margot Beste-Chetwynde has decided to demolish her centuries-old house, “King’s Thursday,” and commission a young Modernist to replace it with “Something clean and square.” Professor Silenus – for that was the title by which this […]


What Makes a Building Classical?

A building which is classical… 1. Serves man, whose nature is not infinitely perfectible or subject to reinvention, but rather is stable and fundamentally social. Society is by nature hierarchical, from the institution of the family, to the village or tribal community, to confederations of villages (i.e., a commonwealth), to institutions with a claim to […]


Architectural Styles, Literary Styles

It is often said that the different architectural styles–Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, etc.–are like different literary styles. Here are a few comparisons:   St. Thomas Aquinas Word-made-Flesh, the bread of nature by His word to Flesh He turns; wine into His Blood He changes; what though sense no change discerns? Only be the heart in earnest, […]


Natural Laws of Architecture – The Elevation

First Law: Living Structure Before there is architecture there is mere building: posts, beams, roofs–no symbolic content whatsoever. The moment you need a monument, however, a merely functional building will not do. So you take those basic structural elements, the post, the beam, and the roof, and you transform them into something beyond the functional. […]


Novartis – Another Starchitect Snore

“Many Hands, One Vision” trumpets Nicolai Ouroussoff in his review of the Novartis campus in Basel, Switzerland. One wonders whether the vision was worth having. The head of the pharmaceutical admits that “many of the workers don’t like it.” Well, if the New York Times won’t speak truth to power on behalf of the worker, I […]

This famous watercolor by Joseph Gandy of Sir John Soane's Bank of England depicted as a ruin effectively reveals the clever plan which takes full advantage of the laws described above.

Natural Laws of Architecture – The Plan

So much architectural criticism today is based on subjective impressions that it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that there are some basic, objective laws which command our respect in the design of buildings. If we contradict or ignore them, our designs risk looking unnatural and ill-fitting to their purpose, or worse, […]

The Doric capital at Grand Central Station, New York City, shows sculpted leaves where the ancient Greeks would have painted.

On the Origin of the Doric Species – The Missing Link

The typical explanation for the origin of the Doric order starts with the idea, depicted below by Sir William Chambers, that the ancient Greeks had developed traditions of joinery which were later commemorated in stone (once they were capable of building monumentally). Optical refinements were added to the forms originating in joinery, so the theory […]