Reclaiming Classicism Part 6 – Language

So far we have looked at the influence of Nature on the early development of architecture and we have looked at how Tradition helped to consolidate and perpetuate this influence. The next and final advance we need to consider is how Nature and Tradition developed into an agreed code or Language.

Architectural Language at its’ simplest is a codified version of the knowledge gained from Nature and Tradition; in a way it is the next step in the evolution of the first two. It develops in response to new more advanced societies and cities, which in turn brings the need to create the greatest and most aspirational civic architecture possible, such the architecture we see surviving from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. This architecture is of the very highest possible calibre that a society could achieve at the time and this is where we finally get to a point that is more commonly known as Classical Architecture.


Every language at its most basic is a set of agreed components (alphabet and vocabulary) that is arranged in an agreed manner (grammar). Architectural Language works just like a spoken language with pre-set units or components which act as a vocabulary which can be arranged according to a set of rules.

Mouldings work like the abc’s of Classical Architecture. When combined in complex mouldings such as cornices or architraves, they act like words which can be arranged into architectural statements.

To make things a little easier to understand, it is helpful to think of mouldings as the alphabet of Classical Architecture and by combining this letters or moulding we end up with words or elements like cornices, capitals and architraves. To arrange these words into sentences we need certain rules and this grammar is found in the rules of the Orders with the differing variations working like dialects.

How these architectural “words” are combined into statements is also governed by a grammar; rules set out in the classical orders.

It is said that Christopher Wren compared the study of classical architecture to the study of Latin; a language which forms the basis of most European Languages. What he meant by this is that we may not be speaking Latin today but its’ influence on modern languages is extensive. So by learning Latin we gain an invaluable insight into the grammar and vocabulary of modern languages.


Although language is defined as being a code or set of rules, these rules are constantly being challenged to evolve and adapt, in the same way that earlier traditions are. This is also true of spoken languages which are changing in subtle ways all the time, due to new influences but with the basic foundations staying more or less the same.

The essential ability of language to evolve is down to the way the basic foundations are set up. The classical architectural language I speak of also has this ability to constantly adapt and evolve by relying on a set of foundation rules that we refer back to.

The English language as written by William Shakespeare is not spoken today, but the basic foundations are the same.

What is also helpful is that these rules are not rigid, they are set up precisely in a way which allows for creativity. The canon of classical architecture is actually a set of basic but infinitely adaptable tools that allow for self expression; the canon is not a restriction on creativity, it in fact enables creativity and acts as a medium for self expression. For example we would never think that the use of correct spelling or grammar as a limitation on creativity for writers like Shakespeare or W. B. Yeats.

When we talk of creativity in any language, be it poetry, music, or drama, we more often than not call this composition. With a language much of the hard work is done for us; we don’t need to invent the letters or words or notes, or wonder how they go together, this heavy lifting is all done by the rules of the language. To be creative using a language we compose; that is, we arrange the known parts in ways that allow us to concentrate on the real creativity; getting to the heart of what we are trying to express.

With this in mind, it might explain why we also talk of Classical Architecture being composed as opposed to being designed. Design implies problem solving, and is more accurately associated with industry or engineering; for example we don’t design a piece of music or a poem, but we do compose music and poetry. We use composition because we don’t need to waste time inventing new words or grammar; the creativity is in how we adapt and shape the language to match what we feel and what we want to express.

Similarly we don’t design classical architecture, we don’t need to invent new types of doors and windows, or floors and roofs. We adapt these elements using the set vocabulary and grammar in an infinite number of ways to create a composition.


Another important aspect of all languages is the use of ornamentation and decoration. This is especially pertinent in relation to architecture as the slogan “Ornament is a crime” is continually cited by modernists as a cornerstone of their philosophy. What is rarely understood though is that when Adolf Loos came up with this term in 1903, he was actually referring to his belief that people with tattoos and indigenous tribes who ornamented their skin were more likely to be criminals that those without skin ornamentation.

For more on Adolf Loos’ writing, I heartily recommend Patrick Webb’s book review of “Ornament and Crime” at this Link

The misunderstanding of the purpose of ornamentation is closely linked to the other modernist slogan that Loos created; that architecture should have “honesty of expression”. In other words, ornamentation and decoration detracted from the honesty of a building.

To set this story straight we must look at what kind of honesty we mean.

With the use of ornament, we know exactly which of these openings is the doorway.

If we think of honesty, do we mean something that is just factual or having truth. What is the difference if any between fact and truth? For example we can say that mythological or religious stories are not factually honest but there may be truth in the themes they express. We need to think of ornamentation and decoration in the same way, as not being necessary to express the facts but as a useful tool to express greater depth and truth.

Finding the entrance in a modernist building is not so easy, with signage usually needed to compensate for poor design.

Coming back to language, restricting the use of ornamentation in architecture is like restricting the use of adverbs and adjectives in everyday language; something that is almost impossible to imagine. A language without adverbs and adjectives would be factually correct but it would be incredibly dull. A basic sentence such as “the cat sat on the mat” can be transformed with ornamentation to become “the sleek Persian kitten rested gently on the luxurious blue carpet”. The sentence is still factual, it is still honest but with ornamentation it is now more vivid and precise.

The heavily decorated capitals by Deane and Woodward at Trinity College Dublin were used to convey that the purpose of this building was the study of the natural sciences.

Decoration works in a similar way to ornamentation but is used to express concepts outside of the immediate structure of the building, such as its’ ownership and its’ purpose. Decoration can be thought of as an applied layer of cultural references and symbols to express messages in the same way that signage might do today, but in a much more subtle and integrated way. Think of examples such as sculptures and symbols of justice used on civic and law buildings, or symbols of learning and knowledge for buildings such as schools or a libraries. No crude or obtrusive signage is needed if decoration is used in this way.


At this stage it is really important to point out the eclectic and diverse nature of architectural languages. Just like spoken languages, there are many different architectural languages and within those languages there are many variations like regional accents and dialects. Architecture is very similar. When we think of Classical Architecture, what we are referring to is more accurately described as the western classical tradition, which originated in the ancient empires of Egypt, Greece and Rome, but with many different dialects across their respective colonies.

Like many other global architectural languages, Indian buildings also follows its own classical Orders with names such as Elephant or Monkey.

Apart for the Western Classical Tradition there are many other classical architectural languages across the globe such as those in Japan, China, India, West Africa and South America. All of these developed from local natural living architectural traditions in the same way western classical architecture, by developing their own particular set of rules to set these traditions down in some kind of solid form.

The foundations of the modernist tradition are based on nothing more than the musings of a small number of dubious pioneers.

And to top it off, even modernism has developed its own kind of basic language made up from a very restrictive architectural vocabulary and grammar that was set down by the pioneers of modernism. Examples include primitive over-scaled geometry, vocabulary elements such as elongated horizontal windows, sharp corners, and an obsession with bringing light into buildings with the use of glass and skeletal steel structures. The problem with modernism however is that its’ language has no real foundations so its’ ability to allow for evolution or adaptation is severely curtailed.


Coming after Nature and Tradition, Language is far more than a simple next step. Like with spoken languages, it is huge leap forward to go from a natural understanding of the world and our learned traditions, to a point where all this knowledge is organised into a language.

In anthropology, the development of language is seen as a pivotal point in the evolution of human culture. Not only is language a way of organising our knowledge, it is in all likelihood, a huge leap forward in our mental ability to understand and therefore shape the world around us. When we humans began thinking in words and organising our thoughts in language, our view of the world and our place in it changed forever.

The invention of Language allowed us to hold concepts in our minds that would never have been possible before, and most importantly it allowed us to communicate such concepts to others in a way that was impossible up to that point. The development of language changed us as a species forever, and it was also a crucial tool to shape the world around us.

It has been shown by research in linguistics that language is a reflection of the culture it emerges from. For example the Piraha tribe in Brazil have no words for numbers or colours because of a cultural emphasis on immediate experience rather than on abstract concepts and so numbers and colours are always referenced in terms of what can be seen or experienced, such as blood for red or river for green etc..

The work of linguist Daniel Everett on the language of the Piraha people in Brazil has shed a light on the unbreakable bond between language and culture.

Language in turn has an influence on culture too. When we think and express ourselves using language we better understand the world, we ourselves are changed and consequently our culture and our communities change too. How we use language in our thoughts and in our spoken word has a direct influence on the kind of world we build, socially, economically and politically.

In other words it is no understatement to say that the words and the language we use every day really matter. We may not always be aware of the subtle meanings and connotations that that all words contain, or we may even feign ignorance, but how we use language is a direct reflection of who we are and in turn has a direct influence on the type of society we  build.

Of course how we use Language is relevant in terms of architecture too. Our use of architectural language has a direct impact on the architecture that emerges and the architecture that emerges from this language in turn effects the language itself; a virtuous circle if that language is based on good, but a vicious spiral if that language is based on something spurious.


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