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 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 resultant (both 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 or lazy misunderstandings as evidence that their claims alone are most valid, they are trying possess and exploit Classical Architecture for their own questionable reasons.
Take for example the Modernists who wrongly claim that their alien design philosophy is a direct descendant of Classical Architecture. They use this myth as evidence to legitimise their work, while at the same time denying students the ability to study classical architecture in any meaningful and practical way. Then there are well-meaning connoisseurs who claim Classical Architecture as their exclusive domain alone, but who often do more damage than good by end drowning it in saccharine over-analysis and labyrinthine theory. And finally we have the current trend of online trolls exploiting the obvious popularity of Classical Architecture, claiming it as evidence of the superiority of their race and culture.
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 Classical Architecture of all the unnecessary burdens we place upon it, and simply let it be.
Classical Architecture in not something that can be owned or controlled, so it would be a lot simpler to define it as something that we do. In other words, we should think of Classicism as an action rather than a thing, because it’s the practice and process of architectural composition and construction that leads to true mastery, and not just the studied observation of the resulting product.
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 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 the laws of 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 needs to also be better understood. Modernism too 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, can we also perhaps Reclaim Modernism?