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Janet Surkin

From Style to Icon: The Palladian Window and National Identity

           Today, the Palladian window is everywhere.  How did it evolve from a style to a national icon? Is it just random: a cluster of forms around a style?  Or is there more structure to this process? Is there anything intrinsic in Palladian windows, or any other architectural style, that implies today’s meaning?

           To understand the background of this style, it involves studying the history of England and its American colonies, the methods of the Palladian window’s dissemination, its uses and reuses in the United States, and the evolution of its meaning in architecture, as well as in popular culture.  As the Palladian window has been used in governmental, religious, and commercial structures, as well as in residential architecture, there is a lot of material to discuss. 

           The Palladian window is a useful example of how architectural design is used in the U.S. to show how people see themselves, how they wish others to see them, and their hopes for the future. This is not a new impulse:  it can be seen consistently in both low- and high-end use, continuing the pattern established in the pre-revolutionary colonial period.  What is now seen as the more historic, academic strand of the form was not pure, even in the colonial period. That use ensured the historical base for the window’s longevity and its entrance into the core of our vernacular architecture as a cultural stamp of approval. Will the visual reinforcement through construction remain true with its use and possible misuse in the McMansions of the 1980s and on? 

           Ultimately, the Palladian window has become such an all-encompassing symbol that it can become invisible from the architectural standpoint, just one of the necessary components of a ‘serious’ house. It is not clear that the home-buyer, modern or from earlier periods, has or had any intellectual understanding of the historic nature of the Palladian window in U.S. colonial architecture. It is clear that presenting this credential to the world, in a self-referential ‘conversational’ gambit, reflects well on its owner.

           Perhaps the Palladian window has a double-life.  In the world of serious architecture, it is an elegant, historic ornament.  In the alternate arena of today’s popular culture, it signifies a yearning for success, a belief that its use connects with the mainstream of American aspirations, and a concrete representation of  national identity. A vital design is continually reinvented. Through this paradoxical process, the meaning has both changed and retained its staying power.


           Janet Surkin received an AB in History from the University of California, Berkeley, with honors in Art History, and a JD from the University of San Francisco. She has worked in fund raising and event planning.


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