Reclaiming Classicism (Part 2)

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Classical architecture is often accused of negative associations such as elitism and racism; for example the White House is often described as being built by black slaves. While at the same time examples like the Lincoln Memorial with positive associations such as democracy, justice and liberty are conveniently swept under the carpet.

With so many definitions, it’s interesting to note how many preconceptions there are on the subject of classical architecture. The reason I am writing this is to tease out these misunderstandings, to see where they are coming from, and to set the record straight if I can. To do this we have looked at existing definitions but now we must peel back the layers archaeologically and methodically without losing the essential meaning and truth. Despite covering such a wide swathe of knowledge, the three commonly understood definitions do nothing to hold back the tide of misunderstanding and prejudice that classical architecture is subjected to.

This blog is an attempt to get to a truth that can be understood and explains why traditional architecture and classicism is important and worthwhile for new buildings. My motivation to write is based on a difficulty in being able to defend my position in the face of obvious ignorance and deception.

Some of these misunderstandings are quite benign, such as the belief that classical architecture is simply obsolete and old-fashioned. If we seeing classical architecture only as ruins and temples to long-forgotten deities, then of course they are obsolete. How many people today are in need of a building into which to deposit offering to the gods of Olympus?

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The Tower of Winds in Athens – built around 50BCE and is considered the world’s oldest meteorological observatory. Of course a building with such a function is obsolete today, but does that make it irrelevant?

Then there is the tendency to be overly precious about our cultural heritage seeing it as some kind of unattainable ideal, spending enormous amounts of resources and energy on conserving the physical remains but then casting aside the knowledge and traditions that they emerged from. This attitude seems to me very defeatist and patronising.

If I’m being generous, these misunderstandings are based on ignorance and could be forgiven. If we see classical architecture only as the objects from the past, then of course they have no practical purpose, other than providing material to be consumed by cultural tourists. This is typical of our modern times, where everything is seen only in terms of short-term commercial consumer value; making architectural heritage just another commodity to be strip-mined and consumed by culture-starved voyeurs. In the recent past, architectural heritage was literally and physically mined by treasure-hunters and opportunists who broke up these buildings into souvenirs that would be passed around after dinner to impress your neighbours and competitors. Thankfully this does not happen anymore, but instead we have turned much of our classical architecture into sad exhibits in a zoo, where they can be prodded and poked into unnatural poses and postures, unable to live and be lived in.

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Venice, Italy – As visitor numbers soar, residents abandon the city as their quality of life is destroyed.

The perception of classical architecture as being ideal, priceless, ancient and obsolete nails it firmly in our past, with no practical role for it in the future.

Then of course there are the deliberately negative connotations; there is no point in avoiding them. Whenever one pushes forward with the idea that classical architecture might play a role in future architectural developments, these fatuous mis-truths are wheeled out to muddy the waters and poison any potential opportunities.

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Only the worst new classical buildings are held up as typical exemplars by snarky, negative commentators such as mcmansionhell.com. This is typical of the double standards of the modernist establishment where classical architecture is held to impossible standards, but modern architects can do whatever they like as long as they can sell it.

These negative connotations start usually with branding new classical architecture as pastiche… as an ill-informed, shallow and cynical cut-and-paste from the past. Looking to the past for inspiration is modernism’s mortal sin, and so it is predictable that any attempt to do so is ridiculed with such venom. Only the worst examples of new classical architecture are held up as typical, with all successful new traditional architecture being airbrushed out from the ongoing architectural narrative. There is no doubt about it, this behaviour can only be described as Orwellian “double-think”; with our shared architectural culture memories being deliberately shamed and misconstrued, ending up confined to the intellectual formaldehyde of academia and conservation.

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The New Reich Chancellery, Berlin – A typical example used to slander our classical architectural traditions

Then worst of all are the inevitable accusations that classical architecture closely aligned to fascism, racism, slavery and authoritarian religion. Examples of Nazi government offices and Mussolini era monuments are cited as examples of the Fascist/Classical Style, and even the US White House and Capital seen as symbols of racism and authoritarianism. What is conveniently swept to one side and regarded as irrelevant are the examples of classical architecture that represent the first experiments in democracy in Ancient Greece, justice and fairness in the form of our courthouses and civic buildings, and monuments to emancipation such as the Lincoln Memorial. Classical architecture is undoubtedly associated with authority and civic structure; structures that modernists like to ignore, but also provide the freedom, security and prosperity that they enjoy. It is the responsibility and duty that is embodied in civic and classical architecture that the modernists really reject, so that they can carry on regardless of others, exploiting and wasting our precious resources and shaming anybody or anything that might undermine their undeserved position.

Modernism seems to have all the easy answers. It is confident and arrogant in its assertions, and it seems these days that easily digested and understood answers hold more respect than anything more complex. There is a suspicion around anything complex. Simple easy answers are regarded as more pure and truthful while complexity is viewed with suspicion, as if something is being hidden. Modernism revels in an arrogance that is fueled by its wilful ignorance. It lacks any sense of doubt or faith in anything greater than themselves; the qualities that rather than holding back progress, actually propel it forward.

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