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Classical Architecture: Three Fallacies

Classicism has been wronged, argues Robert Adam. Although its longevity proves people still want classical buildings, three fallacies about style, relevance and authenticity are used to justify the hostility it receives from the profession

In Europe, the Americas, the Antipodes and even India you can’t get away from classical architecture. It’s been around for 2,000 years and has had an unbroken run in Europe for 500 years. Classical forms are so deeply lodged in our collective subconscious that every time an architect designs a building with a row of columns, square or round, and puts a beam over them, there seems to be something classical about it. Some contemporary architects, like Eric Parry, say this is deliberate, while others, like David Chipperfield, claim it isn’t. Classicism can even be attributed to its antagonists: RoberVenturi claims that Mies van der Rohe was a classicist and architectural historian Colin Rowe famously linked Le Corbusier’s houses with Palladio’s villas.

For all this, 60 years of anti-traditional architectural education have created profession largely ignorant of the history and vocabulary of classical architecture. Although they don’t know much about them, few architects will condemn great buildings of the past. To give their designs some sort of classical pedigree, architects sometimes claim they’ve used classical proportions (often of dubious provenance) or have drawn inspiration from the abstract qualities of a classical building. When dealing with literal new-classical designs, however, there’s little sympathy, and they’re frequently attacked as being ‘pastiches’ or ‘not of our time’.

Justifying this hostility, and fuelled by ignorance, architects entertain three common fallacies about classical architecture. The first is that classicism is just one style. While there is a common ancestry in ancient Greece and Rome, the differences between the renaissance, baroque, rococo and early 20th-century ‘Swedish Grace’ styles (to name only the most obvious) are profound and very visible. Use-types have moved from temples to churches, huts to palaces, and offices to airports. Following the single-style fallacy is the idea that classicism inevitably represents some distasteful political regime that corresponds with one period in its history. But such is the variety, flexibility and ubiquity of the type that it has, in its time, been used to express democracy in the USA, autocracy in Nazi Germany, civic pride in the 19th century, paganism in antiquity, Christianity from the renaissance onwards, and much more besides.

Now, to the surprise of many, the traditional construction at the source of classical design turns out to be the most sustainable

The second fallacy is that, due to its antiquity and origins in ancient building technology, classicism simply doesn’t belong in the modern world. But this can only be claimed if you have some determinist theory of what the modern world ought to be. Classical architecture is a part of the modern world. It continues to be widely demanded and supplied (both well and badly) around the world. It’s never been limited to one form of construction: the ancient Greeks imitated wood; the Romans not only added the arch, but made brick structures look like marble; renaissance domes introduced tension members and the industrial revolution cast-iron; early skyscrapers were classical; and glass walls date back to the 16th century. Now, to the surprise of many, the traditional construction at the source of classical design turns out to be the most sustainable.

The idea of obsolescence often leads to a comparison with dead languages – usually Latin. As any linguist will tell you, however, a language is only dead if no one uses it.

Most architects may have abandoned it,but in the wider world the classical language is alive and well. The overwhelming desire for traditional and classical houses has been established beyond doubt and the sale of classical cast stone, plaster mouldings and plastic details (regardless of how well they are produced) continues apace. These things mean something to those who want them. Research would be required to find out what this might be, but we can be fairly sure it’s not an association with the Greek Dorian tribe or animal sacrifice. In all languages meanings change, but this doesn’t mean the language has died. In fact it is exactly this quality that gives languages their richness and complexity.

The third fallacy is that it’s no longer possible to build ‘proper’ classical buildings, due to a lack of skills or the expense of decoration. In the first place, the skills are available and modern technology helps to deliver what was once complicated and labour-intensive. Classical buildings need be no more or less expensive than any building. In the second place, and most significantly, a lack of design practice has led to the idea that classicism is only the application of decoration, and the more of it the better. In fact, classical design is as much about what’s omitted as what’s included. Due to its complete familiarity, when decoration is stripped away there’s still the lingering impression that it could be put back. This gives classical design great flexibility, but it can also lead people to believe that buildings such as Foster + Partners’ Carré d’Art (1993) in Nîmes, France, are classical when they’re not.

This ambiguity is evidence of the underlying persistence of the classical ideal, which should be exploited rather than ignored. The architectural establishment often freezes out the few practising classicists or locks them safely in a box marked ‘reproduction’. For their part, too many classicists see modernity as the enemy. Neither attitude is healthy. A public desire for both the benefits of modernity and the depth of tradition is commonplace. A liberal profession should accept and even combine the energy of invention and the wisdom of classicism. The creative potential is enormous.

Classical architect Robert Adam is a director of Adam Architecture

Three Classicists will be at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 29 May. www.threeclassicists.com

Readers' comments (4)

  • I'm loving all this - modernism, classicism, pluralism, - ooohh I want to hug them all.

    Bring on the of mutual lovin'.

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  • At university the tutors would always tell us how the Modernist greats were taught classical architecture and that their new International Style style was born out of classical principles. Yet they expected us to design modern buildings from the start. I think they ought to have made us design a classical building in first year so we could truly understand these principles instead of just giving us so many lectures about it.
    Perhaps this is why so much classical architecture today looks pastiche, because we're always trying to work backwards to classical when we should be designing forward when we design modern.

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  • I'm voting for a coalition of parametricism (AJ, 6 May) and classicism. They're so oppositional they're made for each other.

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  • Classical Architecture are always been taken in consideration while designing the modern architecture, it also takes time to study the culture, geographic location of the area. I saw many classic design at http://www.formicon.com . Those interested may check those out.

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