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beautiful architecture-1

The Simple Truth About Beautiful Architecture

A New York architect shares timeless lessons from world architecture

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“Beauty is the element that gives the design a connection to the human spirit. It connects people to the truth, and people can recognize it when they see it.”
—James Howard Smith

James Howard Smith grew up amid the rich, natural landscapes of Australia. His father was an international pilot, and as a boy, Smith travelled extensively to Asia and Europe, where classical buildings inspired him to become an architect and architectural photographer.

Smith has since worked on private dwellings, hotels, and large master planning projects at a village scale. Now settled in the Hudson Valley, New York, in addition to his photography and design work, he lectures on classical architecture at local colleges as part of his goal to inspire appreciation for this tradition and to bring harmony to people’s living environments.

Architect James Howard Smith talks about the importance of beautiful architecture. Photo courtesy of James Howard Smith.

When did you first become drawn to classical architecture?
I remember walking around Athens, Greece as a boy and noticing the beautiful sculptures and architectural ornamentation. I was amazed the public squares had ancient ruins at 10–20 feet below street level.

The Athenian architecture, nestled into the city’s fabric, created a lasting impression. This beautiful art form and ancient wisdom stood boldly in front of me. The Parthenon was a particularly impressive example of this architecture. It was stunning, bold, and beautiful sitting atop the Acropolis, overlooking the city.

What role does beauty play in architectural design?
Beauty brings people delight. After many years of thinking about what beauty means to me, I think these lines by John Keats in his poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn sum it up perfectly:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”

At some level, the concept is very simple—beauty is an expression of truth. Truth in its raw form is beautiful. It works both ways: beauty and truth co-exist, bringing people back to a pure and simple outlook, reminding us that life can be simple yet beautiful in its essential form.

The simple beauty of the neoclassical French Pavillion by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, found in the Gardens of Versailles. ©Photo by J.H.Smith/Cartiophotos

How does that philosophy relate to design?
You need to consider a plethora of aspects when you design a building or a space. Its practical use must be intuitive and user-friendly, while the build should be resilient and strong so it endures over time.

Beauty is the element that gives the design a connection to the human spirit. It connects people to truth, and people can recognize it when they see it.

Has your perception of design shifted over the years?
When people start out in design, they often want to pull all the tricks out of the basket and create something amazing. But as they mature, they realize that subtlety is important for creating a calm, uplifting space.

Through studying architecture, my appreciation and understanding of beauty are continuously being enriched. It’s similar to when you start to learn about and experience the different instruments in an orchestra. When you subsequently hear a piece of classical music, you recognize the different elements that create the music and appreciate its depth better.

The spiritually inspiring interior of the Florence Cathedral. © / Chris Hill

Florence, Italy, was the birth of the Western Golden Age. Did you have any special feelings seeing the architecture there?
Walking into the entrance of the Duomo of Florence, coming into this enormous void held within the main nave was awe-inspiring. As I continued walking down the nave, I came into the majestic presence of the dome.

The paintings on its interior impressed me with their incredible depictions of the layers of existence, going up from hell to the heavens. I felt connected to the universe in that space. It was that moving.

Do you try to translate the concepts of architectural feats such as the Duomo into your own designs?
While I haven’t worked on a building of that scale yet, the technique that fascinates me, which I’ve seen in both classical Italian and Chinese architecture, is the ability to bring natural light into space by way of a courtyard.

In the old temples I’ve visited in Taiwan, the courtyards give the building a focus. The building welcomes you and creates a shadow under the roof that acts like a threshold. The light coming in from the open courtyard draws you towards it, and once you’re there, it casts your attention upwards.

In traditional Chinese architecture, the opening of the courtyard is called a Tian Jing or heavenly window. It’s as if the temple courtyard connects you to the heavens. Likewise, when you enter many Chinese and Italian houses, there’s a glowing light coming from the courtyard. The light is inviting, drawing you inside, connecting you to the cosmos.

The Tian Jing, or Heavenly window, allows the house residents a direct connection with the heavens. © / QinJin

Have you used this traditional feature—a courtyard—in your own designs?
The courtyard was one of the main concepts driving the design of my Fo Tang House. This architectural component was used prominently during the Tang Dynasty, China’s Golden Age of art and culture.

With the house’s large windows and glass front door, natural light fills the space of the atrium as if it were a courtyard. The atrium also acts as a transition between different parts of the house in a similar way that a courtyard does.

A common view from the streets of Siena, Italy. The courtyards of houses and public spaces invite you to discover what lies within. ©Photo by J.H.Smith/Cartiophotos

How did you get the idea for this design?
I designed this house thinking about an imaginary client who would be drawn to Eastern spiritual traditions.

The name “Fo Tang” comes from “Fo,” meaning Buddha in Chinese, and “Tang,” meaning room. In other words, it’s called a Buddha Room, and since Buddha means “Enlightened,” it’s an enlightened space.

As you enter the house, you can either head towards the secular living and bedroom spaces on the left or cross the atrium and go up a few stairs into the sacred space—the Fo Tang—a room meant for people who do daily meditation and study teachings with the aim of spiritual refinement.

The Fo Tang, or enlightened room, beckons residents to spiritual life with its glowing shoji screens. © Photos by J.H.Smith/Cartiophotos

As they wake up in the morning, shower, and look down the hall, they can see the Fo Tang room on the other side of the atrium with the glowing rice paper of the Shoji screen beckoning them. They’re drawn to that room to meditate as the room fills with natural light from the several windows and large glass doors of a balcony that opens onto nature.

At the entrance of the house, there are two large wood posts with brackets on top, which are representative of the strong, upright, wooden Tang architecture. The roof overhang is also larger than a typical American house, reminiscent of the Tang Dynasty.

It so happened that a young family who leads a spiritual life gravitated toward the design of my Fo Tang house. They found it connected with their character. In a sense, I was designing it for them even though I didn’t know it at the time.

The Fo Tang house welcomes guests with its horizontal overhanging eaves and bold Tang columns. © Photos by J.H.Smith/Cartiophotos

Spiritual life seems to be important to you.
As a young man, I explored different spiritual disciplines. One day, a good friend introduced me to Falun Dafa, an ancient Chinese meditation that changed my life.

I had fractured my back at the time, but I could still do the gentle Falun Dafa exercises. Miraculously, within a month, my back healed itself. My posture straightened, and my sleep also improved.

Not only did my physical body become healthy, but Falun Dafa also cleared my mind. Gradually, that background noise of busy thoughts sifted away. It’s analogous to living in the city. You get used to the cars honking and the city sounds. But as soon as you drive out to the country, all of a sudden, it’s so peaceful.

The spiritual improvement I experienced cleared and opened my mind. When the haze disappeared, I was more receptive to the beauty around me.

This peaceful state of mind has guided me, allowing me to experience the beauty and power of classical architecture more profoundly.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 114

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Inspired for a Beautiful Life

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