Reclaiming Classicism (Part 3)

At this stage of our exploration we are left with a number of reasonably accurate but incomplete definitions of what classical architecture is; definitions that unfortunately consign classical architecture well-and-truly to the past. On top of that there is a broad swathe of prejudices and misunderstandings that muddy the waters and render classical architecture as an empty vessel that can be used and abused to justify certain views, ranging from simple stylistic opinions to dangerous political assertions.

The Four Courts, Dublin – 1802 James Gandon. Civil architecture like this is built to be the best because it is meant to embody the best that we can strive for. It is elite but not elitist.

These definitions of classical architecture are very new and only came about as a way to justify the modernist movement. Because classical architecture was established for so long, perhaps we took it for granted; we just assumed this was the way to do things because we had done it this way for so long. If the modernist movement has done anything positive in the long-run, it may have actually allowed us to re-evaluate this essential part of our heritage. Let’s hope we can save it before it is too late though.

However, it is with some alarm to see how classical architecture is being hijacked by those with extremist agendas to support their odious views about superiority and dominance. From my understanding of classical architecture, nothing could be further from the truth and using classical architecture in this way completely undermines and misconstrues its qualities and purpose. It is true to say that classical architecture is the elite form of the tradition, but this does not automatically mean that it is elitist. To think this way is lazy and wrong. In fact the civil and social structures that classical architecture was designed to uphold in physical and permanent form are about establishing order and cohesion to cater for a diverse population, and not the angry brand of cheap division and dissent being sown by such fundamentalists.

cara and ps copy
Classical Architecture built for people not profit – Penn Station, NYC, 1910-1963 (above) and The Baths of Caracalla, Rome built C. 215CE (below)

I’m very aware that I seem to be coming from a very different angle to everyone else in regards to this topic. I’m an architect in my head but an archaeologist in my heart. The technical skills I have such as drawings and designing all relate to architecture but my motivation all relates to understanding the past. What makes this combination so different is that archaeologists don’t usually use their knowledge in a practical modern way, and architects don’t usually use the past to inform their design philosophy. Even with other classical architects, I find that my approach is quite different. Archaeologists really try to inhabit the past to gain understanding, they put themselves into the shoes of the people they are studying, and this is what I tend to do too. Classical architects generally don’t work this way, concentrating instead on study of the buildings or treatises that have been handed down to us instead of getting into the head of the people who built and inhabited the buildings that they study.

Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard, Languedoc, France. Unesco site.
The Pont du Gard Aquaduct C.50CE – Classical architecture is about building bridges within our civic society, not walls to divide us.

To gain a more rounded definition and understanding of what classical architecture means to us today and where it may lead us in the future, we must look back at its’ origins and the kinds of peoples and societies it emerged from. It is by looking at traditional architecture in a holistic and global sense that we can see how classical architecture fits into the whole.

To do this I have devised three separate strands of thought that gradually coalesce into one coherent whole as we explore them.

These three strands are

  1. Nature,
  2. Tradition and
  3. Language.

Under nature we will see how architecture developed from the natural world and is still very much bounded by its’ structures and how humans relate to nature and the natural world.

With tradition, we will see how architecture has evolved from earlier natural structures into the complex and wondrous historic creations that we all hold so dear.

And finally with language we see how through, nature and traditions we have created an elegantly complex and evolving set of architectural tools that when used properly can be just as useful today as they were thousands of years ago.


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