Reclaiming Classicism (Part 1)

An architecture lecturer at University College Cork told me recently that there is no classical architecture in Ireland, and that I was wasting my time by studying it. This statement completely floored me at the time and I found it almost impossible to counter his statement with any coherent argument. What exactly did he mean? And what exactly did he think Classical Architecture was?

When I speak to others about classicism it’s easy to assume that my understanding is the same as everybody else’s. I’ve learned very quickly that this is rarely the case, with architects and academics showing a very shallow and biased view of classical architecture, while general members of the public often showing great insight and understanding, based on nothing but their personal experience. Obviously something is wrong here and so I want to begin this series of blogs by exploring and teasing out the subject that I’m so passionate about sharing and promoting.

So, what exactly is Classical Architecture?

From what I can work out there are 3 general definitions that seem to make up people’s perception of Classical Architecture. None of them is perfect but together they seem to cover the general view of Classical Architecture in the public’s eyes. I do not necessarily agree with them but it’s important to work out what others’ think first before I explain my own personal view.

The_Parthenon_in_Athens
Common definition no. 1. Classical Architecture is the architecture built by ancient Greek and Roman civilizations between 500BCE to 500CE.

Definition number one is quite narrow and is a description of the sum of the actual physical building remains from Greece and Rome from antiquity. It’s easy to point to an object like the Parthenon and say “this is Classical Architecture”, and perhaps this is what my architecture lecturer friend meant by saying there was no classical architecture in Cork. Perhaps he meant that the Romans and Greeks never got to Ireland and so never left any of their buildings behind. This is true, but western classical culture got to Ireland in other ways, most notably through the Church, with many Early Christian buildings showing tell-tale signs of direct classical influence. Classical influence is also obvious in the use of Latin in our great illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and in examples of magnificent Early Christian metalworking such as the Ardagh Chalice. Roughly speaking, this definition states that Classical Architecture is the architecture built by ancient Greek and Roman civilizations between 500BCE to 500CE.

palladio_rotonda1566.jpg
Common definition no. 2. A “style” of architecture developed in Greece and Rome that influenced later styles that we now know as Byzantine, Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical. For example, the term “Palladian” is often used to describe what many people consider as being built in a strict classical “style”.

Definition number two is broader and concerns the concept of “style”. Buildings from any era can have a “classical” look to them. Most people can tell by looking at a building whether it is classical or not, no matter when it was built. A number of factors can lead to people making up their minds. Sometimes it may be the age of the building. It may be the scale or the use of the building, especially if it is a civic building. It may be down to the actual “look”; the various elements such as columns, capitals, mouldings, temple-fronts can all indicate classicism of some degree or other. So this definition states that is a “style” of architecture developed in Greece and Rome that influenced later styles such as Byzantine, Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical.

000 combo
Common definition no. 3. The “canon” set down in published form; the set of rules governing the orders, and the various patterns and samples that can be studies and followed.

Definition number three casts it’s net wider again and concerns the set of rules that govern the actual buildings from antiquity and the “style” that we perceive. This is what we like to call the “Canon”; the careful study of the buildings and the style; distilled into written form. This is the collected knowledge in all the various treatises stretching from Vitruvius, to Serlio, Vignola, Palladia and onto modern masters such as Robert Chitham. So this final definition can be summed up as the “canon” set down in published form; the set of rules governing the orders, and the various patterns and samples that can be studies and followed.

All these definitions are fine on one level, but we need to look far deeper. These definitions tell a very simplified story, and miss out on one crucial aspect of Classical Architecture. All these definitions rely on thinking of Classical Architecture as something dead and from the past. None of these definitions think of Classical Architecture as something that could be relevant to today, something that is vital to our culture and our future.

The idea that something from the past could be not just be relevant in the future, but also crucial to our well-being is so far off radar, that we have been left with only two publicly acceptable views; Classical architecture is something from the past and should be kept safe in a box, and it is something to be feared and something with potentially dark and corrupting influence on the present.

I will explore these negative perceptions in the next blog.

cormacschapel450
King Cormac of Munster built this Romanesque Chapel at the Rock of Cashel C.1130. The Greeks and Romans never quite made it to Ireland, but their architecture and language certainly did, through the Church.
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