Classicism Reclaimed… and Relieved.

The purpose of these past 6 blogs has been to get to the heart of what we mean by the term Classical Architecture. The reason to do this is simple; although most people have a vague notion of what Classical Architecture is, my experience has taught me that very few people truly understand it, and so I wanted to understand why this is. Also I wanted to test my own understanding of the subject because it seems to differ so much from those who really should know better, especially trained architecture professionals and academics.

My investigation started off by laying out the generally accepted definitions; these being that Classical Architecture is defined by the actual physical buildings that survive from Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the style and practice that survived from antiquity through to the Renaissance and up to the beginning of the 20th century.

When exploring the generally accepted basic concepts, I thought it important to also look at how Classical Architecture is judged by people today. This exploration of how people perceive Classical Architecture is important because it exposes many misunderstandings and prejudices that have built up over time. By explaining how they came about, we get to a much more secure and accurate starting point.

With the basic definitions set out and the misconceptions exposed it is much easier to build up an accurate explanation through three basic themes. These themes are Nature, Tradition and Language.

Classical architecture’s roots lie firmly planted in the Natural world. It understands and manipulates the materials and physical properties that the natural world provides us and then brilliantly extrapolates from them while still being true to its roots.

Moving onto Tradition, it can be best be described as a vehicle by which the knowledge observed in Nature is developed by building on every generations’ work while again being faithful to the foundation principles.

Then we get to the next big leap which is the development of Language. The ability of humans to develop any language whether it is spoken, written or architectural is one of the traits that’s marks our species out as being unique. The development of language is often cited as the key leap forward in the evolution of humans as a species. And similarly in architecture, the development of Architectural Language is what marks out Classical Architecture as being the elite form of the living tradition.

So to bring it all together, Classical Architecture should be defined as the most elite iteration of traditional architecture; it is the most beautiful, the most functional and the most durable (most physically and aesthetically). It is the evolutionary peak of the language of the living architectural tradition at the time it is built. Of course Vitruvius said it best with his three requirements for Architecture being Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas, which translate as Strength, Commodity and Delight. Or to put it another more poetic way, for architecture to be considered as being Classical is must be Good, True and Beautiful.

With a clearer understanding of what Classical Architecture really is, we can better appreciate it as the priceless repository of tools for creativity that it really is. It is also obvious at this point to realise that an understanding of Classical Architecture is rare in the world today. It is more often than not seen as a relic from the past, something that is superfluous and indulgent, and best kept separate from today’s architectural profession.

Finally and probably most important of all I would like to explain the title “Reclaiming Classicism”. I use the word Reclaim deliberately because there are so many competing factions claiming that Classical Architecture can only be defined by their own specific definitions. By using sometimes wilful misunderstandings as evidence that their claims are most valid, they are trying own and exploit Classical Architecture for their own questionable reasons.

Take for example the current trend of online trolls claiming Classical Architecture as evidence of the superiority of their race and culture. Or think of the Modernists who claim that their alien design philosophy is a direct descendant of Classical Architecture and is therefore evidence of the legitimacy of their work. And then there are well-meaning academics and connoisseurs who claim Classical Architecture as their exclusive domain but who end up drowning it in saccharine over-analysis and labyrinthine theory.

It must be asked, whom among us can really and truly claim Classical Architecture as ours alone? Or perhaps we can all claim it as whatever it means to us? Whatever the definition, it is imperative that we should relieve it of all the unnecessary burdens we place upon it and simply let it be what it is.

I believe that rather than thinking of Classical Architecture as something to be owned or controlled, it would be so much simpler to define it as something that we can do or could be doing. In other words, if we think of Classicism as an action rather than a thing, that would far better because it’s the practice and process of architectural composition and construction, rather than merely the studied observation of the product that leads to true mastery”.

In the next series of blogs I would like to explore how all this came about, how over the past 2000 years the reputation of Classical Architecture has waxed and waned.

There are many different reasons for how we got to this point as it is a complex and ongoing story. It is hard to believe that we have got to a point where thousands of years of architectural culture was cast aside. My gut tells me that it is part of a natural cycle and that the current lack of appreciation and understanding of Classicism is hopefully a temporary situation. I believe this because the underlying truths and benefits of Classical Architecture cannot fade as long as we live in a world that is based on Nature (no matter how far removed we get from it) and as long as we remain true to our essential humanity.

The main culprit for the state of affairs we find ourselves in is nearly always named as a concept known as Modernism, but Modernism is just the culmination of a much longer and broader story that ranges from growing human individualism to increases in industrialisation.

Just like with Classicism, the concept of Modernity also needs to be better understood. Modernism has also has been misconstrued and hijacked for shallow gain and greed so perhaps Modernism and Classicism are not so different after all. If we again peel back the layers and get to the truth maybe can we also Reclaim Modernism?


2 thoughts on “Classicism Reclaimed… and Relieved.

  1. Brilliant essay as usual, Hugh. You give as fine a rendering of the well structured truth of classicism as anyone. The last couple of lines were perhaps a little scary for me, but I’m hoping you mean that modernism, properly understood, is not the architecture that goes under its name, which one might plausibly declare is not architecture at all. Rather, peeling back the layers may expose the word modern and enable us to return it to its true meaning, long ago hijacked by the modernists. Classical architecture is the truly international style, and is equally the truly modern style. Those who use the word as a false flag for a false architecture should be exposed and expunged from the profession. Gently, of course, to the extent that this is permitted. Cheers, David

    PS – There are a couple of typos that I’ll be glad to point out if you want.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks David. Lovely to hear from you. As regards my next blog, you can rest easy! It will be just as you describe, that modern and modernist are not the same thing at all.
      Regarding typos, they are like weeds… the more I try to root them out, the more they appear! So I would be delighted if you could point them out


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