NEW HOPE, N.Y.—“If you sing the perfect note right in the center stage, the person at the back of the amphitheater can hear it just as well as a person in the front,” says James H. Smith, educator and founder of Cartio, an architectural photography and design atelier. The ancient Greek amphitheaters “aren’t something that just happened by mistake. This was highly advanced design.”
Smith now designs homes in New York, but he grew up in Australia. His father was a pilot, so they visited many places in his youth. He’ll always remember his trip to Greece as a boy. Walking around Athens, he noticed the beautiful sculptures and architectural ornamentation. He recalls the public squares that dropped 10 feet below street level, revealing ancient ruins. The architecture, nestled into the fabric of the city, created a lasting impression on him.
“This whole art form and ancient wisdom was right there in front of you, present in people’s everyday life,” he says of the city’s ancient architecture.
Smith explains that the ancient Greek philosophers inspired a spiritual realm of thought that set the tone for the designs of subsequent classical architects. Plato, for example, understood higher truths and the connection between humanity and divinity.
“There is beauty and order in higher realms of existence from which we all came,” Smith says of Plato’s philosophy. “Proportion, rhythm, color, space, light, geometry, and ornament would come together to create unity, order, and beauty. These carefully composed buildings stimulate the soul as we connect with the very nature of creation.”
The Parthenon exudes that deep feeling.
“It is stunning, so bold and beautiful,” sitting atop the Acropolis, overlooking the city, Smith says. “It has a real, majestic presence to it.”
Smith believes that the role of classical architecture has a higher purpose.
“Passive daily experience of classically inspired settings creates semidivine living environments and, in this way, the human realm aligns with the divine,” he says.
When the Noise Fades, Beauty Appears
Through young adulthood, Smith had explored different spiritual disciplines. A good friend introduced him to Falun Dafa, a Chinese practice that changed his life.
Smith had fractured his back, and when he began doing the gentle Falun Dafa qigong exercises, within weeks the injury mended itself. His posture straightened and his sleep improved. But the practice didn’t just elevate his physical body.
“Falun Dafa really started to clear out my mind,” he says. “Gradually, over time, all that background noise sifted away.” He likens it to living in the city. You get used to the cars honking and city sounds. When you drive out to the country, all of a sudden it’s so peaceful.
“Cultivation is like that; the mind clears and opens. In that process, when the haze cleared, I started to observe beauty more.”
During his first trip to Italy, for example, he was awestruck when he entered a piazza and came upon the beauty of one building with a noble travertine facade.
“It wasn’t extravagant. It was just so elegantly beautiful,” Smith says. He owes the experience to his spiritual practice, which gave him the mental tranquility to slow down and appreciate its simple beauty.
“In that peaceful state of mind, the beauty, the power of classical architecture really hit me. It just stops you in your place. It connects straight to your heart,” he says. That trip inspired him to later become a New Classical designer.
Learning From the Renaissance
“Architecture integrates the visual arts,” says Smith, who had been a sculptor before studying architecture. “It learns from and brings together the beauty of painting and sculpture, integrating them into people’s lives,” he says.
Smith says that in addition to studying visual arts, photography has helped his understanding of design.
“Photography gives you the foundational understanding of design. Line, tone, texture, shape, and color are the fundamentals of overall composition in photography,” which translate to designing a house, he says.
Similarly, during the Renaissance, architects grasped compositional fundamentals through the study of drawing, painting, and sculpture.
“Learning the visual arts were the foundational steps to understanding how the rules of art came together in architecture,” he says.
The Golden Age’s holistic approach to studying multiple disciplines contrasts with today’s modernist approach. For example, the latter omits the broader training. The student seldom learns the core fundamentals underlying the broader design field.
“In three years of undergrad and two years postgrad, I don’t remember a single class about aesthetic composition. Proportion was just a word that was said to critique your work, but it was never taught,” says Smith, who attended a top design school in Australia. “We weren’t taught some of the basic grammar of the language we were trying to learn.”
“Beauty is what brings delight to people,” Smith says. Schools in the past systematically taught and created beauty. Beautiful architecture is ubiquitous throughout Europe. On one recent trip, he visited Versailles. While periods after the Renaissance in Italy became overly ornate, Smith believes that in France, King Louis XIV further improved the era’s elegance.
“King Louis XIV kept the simplicity of the Renaissance, but he refined it, made it very tasteful, elegant, and nuanced,” he says. That’s the style of architecture inspiring Smith’s current designs, he says.
After Louis XIV set the standard, others carried it on. Louis XV, for example, built the Petit Trianon, a neoclassical-style château at Versailles.
“It had this propriety or nobility to it. The proportions are simple; the building is astute,” Smith says. “The way the French windows have this verticality to it, ornamented elegantly. They speak to my inner realm. It makes me feel more upright as a person and more alive,” he says.
Smith believes that this stimulating effect is a moment when we connect to our true selves that originated in the higher realms, as discussed by Plato.
“Classical settings create noble, upright, and dignified living environments that stimulate the true self within each of us and evoke one’s genuine true character.”
J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.