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Classical Architecture for the Modern World

By Sara Stackhouse


The rapid modernization evident in the world we live in today has falsely led many people to overlook the relevance of the classical tradition. One mistake that is often made is the consideration of classical architecture as obsolete. However, after thousands of years, the classical style remains very prominent in our modern societies and is anything but obsolete. Because people are often caught up in the present moment and tend to focus only on the latest innovation and newest advancement, the past is easily overlooked. For this reason, I would like to argue that while the majority of today’s architectural schools are founded upon modernist philosophies and focus only on the most futuristic of design ideas, the best way to train aspiring architects is through the more traditional approach of studying classical architecture. Studying the classical tradition is the best way to train aspiring architects for their future careers because a firm understanding of classical conventions can be applied to all styles of design and provides the student with a better overall understanding of the architectural language.

In differentiating between classical and modernist philosophies it is necessary to define the terms “classical” and “modern” as they relate to architecture. In The Elements of Classical Architecture by Georges Gromort, the foreword written by Steven W. Semes offers a definition of classical architecture in which he states that “classical design arises from understanding composition based on a hierarchical formal system governing the interrelations of parts and whole: every part is also a whole, and every whole is also a part” (16). He explicitly states that “a building is not classical simply because it has columns and moldings of some order attached to it” (16). However, the classical orders are of irrefutable significance in classical architecture because they serve as foundational components of the classical language. As defined in The’s Identification and Glossary of Terms, the five orders are “the basis of architectural design in the classical tradition, providing lessons in proportion, scale, and the uses of ornament” (187). Also in The Elements of Classical Architecture, in another foreword, Richard Franklin Sammons claims that “the orders were so tightly entwined with the war and wood of theory and practice that not even the nineteenth-century architects of the Gothic Revival, or the idiomatic architects at the beginning of the twentieth century, would ever question the relevance of their study” (14). Ultimately, classical architecture, as originated by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, formed the foundation for the architecture that we know today. As people are failing to recall the influence it has had on architecture all over the world throughout history, it is becoming wrongly overlooked and its relevance is being undervalued.

In contrast to the strictly proportioned, symmetrical, and balanced nature of classical architecture, most modern architectural trends are characterized by abstract forms, futuristic materials, minimal ornamentation, and a general disregard for the relationship between the “part” and the “whole” mentioned above by Steven W. Semes. In his foreword, Semes mentions that Gromort, the author of The Elements of Classical Architecture, “was well aware that the growing tide of abstraction, even in 1920, was proceeding to strip away ornament and the decorative arts from buildings, reducing their “classicism” to the most austere application of the Tuscan and Doric orders” (16). In making this statement, Semes calls attention to the stark differences between buildings that we have come to classify as classical or traditional and buildings that we have come to classify as modern. The working definition of modern architecture that will apply throughout this paper is a style characterized by the emphasis it places upon futuristic appearance and the straining away from classical ideals of balance, proportion, symmetry, and attention to the orders.

Many people view the modernist philosophy as the optimal method by which to train young architects because of the highly technological and increasingly modern nature of today’s world. Because we place a great deal of emphasis on the innovative nature of our culture and society, it is easy to understand why the natural reaction is to modernize all aspects of our lives out of the fear of being left-behind. At first consideration, this might lead people to believe that studying modern architecture and only focusing upon the newest trends and technologies would be the most advantageous approach to training. However, while there may be short-term advantages in steadfastly pursuing the modern, trendy idea, the true advantages lie in the permanence and timelessness of classical architecture.

Besides focusing study on classical versus modern buildings, another main difference between the classical and modernist approaches to training resides in the differences of opinion regarding methods of teaching. Most schools with modernist philosophies immerse students in “studio” and design projects almost immediately. For architecture students, studio is the design-intensive class in which professors put students in the shoes of professionals, provide a building program, and assign students the task of designing a building that meets the given requirements. In more traditional curricula, like the curriculum at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, design studio classes are not introduced until the second or third years of study because there is an initial emphasis on learning the basics of drawing and building a strong set of foundational skills. Because traditional curricula place a greater emphasis on developing skills before diving straight into architectural practice, traditional curricula ultimately help students build stronger foundations and a better understanding of basic architectural principles. In this sense, most modernist schools overlook the tremendous importance of developing drawing and rendering skills. This leaves graduates less prepared for the workforce than graduates trained through a more traditional curriculum.

Knowledge of the classical conventions is important for all aspiring architects because the correctness of traditional architecture is measured in accordance with the principles of symmetry, proportion, balance and compliance with the five orders. The oldest published book on architecture that still survives today is De Architectura, written by Vitruvius, the Roman renaissance man. In Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, author Jack McLaughlin explains that in De Architectura, Vitruvius officially states the laws of architecture that have applied throughout history (53). McLaughlin also credits Vitruvius with solidifying the classical orders and he states that “the rediscovery of Vitruvius’s work by the Renaissance humanists led to the canonization of the orders into architectural law, as if the marble columns had been carried down from Mt. Sinai by Moses” (53). Because knowledge of the five classical orders points directly to the understanding of broad principles such as symmetry, proportion, and balance, which are necessary for designing in any architectural style, a firm understanding of classical foundations can be applied to all architectural styles and is therefore more widely applicable than a strictly modern educational foundation. Ultimately, a firm understanding of classical architecture can lead to a broader range of architectural abilities for aspiring architects than the study of modern architecture alone would be able to offer.

Although very few schools in the United States have adopted a traditional curriculum and methodology, the study of classical architecture is the best way to prepare aspiring architects for their future careers because knowledge of classical conventions forms a strong, encompassing foundation that modernist approaches cannot compete with. While some may argue that the study of classical architecture and the orders is restrictive in nature, in reality, the classical style is the only style with principles that have withstood the test of time and apply to nearly all other architectural styles. In the foreword to The Elements of Classical Architecture by Georges Gromort, Richard Franklin Sammons says that, “even today, after almost a century of neglect, it remains inarguable that a significant percentage of architecture’s body of knowledge is contained within these seemingly simple forms—so much so that any architect who has not carefully studied them cannot be considered educated” (14). He also adds that “a careful study of the orders continues to be the most fruitful educational endeavor for any erstwhile architect, builder, or designer” (14). Though modernist practices are applicable to the “here” and “now,” they will quickly fade out of style. In contrast, classical conventions have been, and still can be applied to almost every architectural style throughout history. Therefore, a traditional education enables architects to design in a wider variety of styles.

For instance, the classical orders and classical principles of symmetry and proportion are still applied in nearly every building built today. When the study of classical architecture is neglected, architects are less familiar with the conventions of each order and, when this is the case, avoidable mistakes in proportion, scale, and ornamentation ensue. On the Notre Dame School of Architecture’s website, former chairman Carroll William Westfall argues that “rejecting tradition or launching a radical transformation at its expense as occurs in most other schools of architecture ill equips a person to use his or her God-given gifts to make the built world a better place for everyone” (Westfall). For this reason, the classical traditionalist training philosophy should be favored in architecture schools as opposed to the modernist philosophies that are currently more popular.

Just as the study of classical architecture teaches students about essential design principles such as symmetry, proportion, and balance, it also opens our eyes to the history and function of a certain city or region. Because of the rapid modernization that we have been experiencing in recent decades, buildings with similar abstract appearances are beginning to spring up across the country and all over the world. Although these structures are visually stimulating and beneficial in moderation, as a global community, we are quickly approaching maximum capacity for such buildings. As architect George Saumarez-Smith says in his TEDxTalk lecture, “the fashion at the moment is for funny-shaped buildings made of glass.” He continues on to add that, “they are being built in cities all around the world with the result that a lot of cities are now beginning to look the same” and that “people are concerned that cities are beginning to lose their individual identities” (Saumarez-Smith). He then makes the point that classical architecture is highly relevant and demand for classical buildings right now is increasing. He says this is true because people are beginning to look back at local architectural traditions for design inspiration so as not to diminish their city or region’s distinctiveness (Saumarez-Smith). In general, the architectural history of the western world was born out of the classical tradition of Greece and Rome. For this reason and because history is large component of every culture, it is important that future architects are educated in the classical tradition so that they will have the appropriate skills and knowledge necessary to meet the demands of society and design in a way that maintains the dignity and identity of various locales.

Though many advocates of the modern training approach would argue that classical architecture and the study of classical architecture are no longer relevant, the rhetoric that we associate with many classical buildings would lead us to see that this statement is invalid. For example, as our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. is one of the most prominent cities in the United States. It is also recognized as having a high concentration of classical architecture in comparison to many other cities. Many of the classically styled buildings in Washington, D.C. are utilized by highly regarded institutions such as the government, universities, or museums. Throughout history, classically styled buildings have always seemed appropriate for such institutions because of the associations we form. Many of the principles of classical architecture have established rhetorical meaning in our society and as a community, we generally associate classical architecture with academia and other matters of cultural importance. In his book Classical Influence on the Public Architecture of Washington and Paris: A Comparison of Two Capital Cities, John E. Ziolowski names Washington, D.C. “the new capital of the young republic that represented a new birth of freedom and democracy.” Ziolkowski states that in Washington, classical architecture “symbolized the similarities between America and [her] much-admired predecessors, and the first buildings—indeed, the very plan of the city—were intended to reflect the ideals of freedom, simplicity and greatness derived from them” (3). Thus, the rhetoric of classical architecture is incredibly powerful, as it speaks not only about the purpose of a specific building, but also about the purpose of a city and about the purpose of an entire country. Thomas Jefferson, after returning to Virginia from Paris, even spent the time to lecture on the rhetorical “role of public architecture in a new nation” (McLaughlin 286). Overall, the rhetoric of classical architecture is more highly regarded than the rhetoric of any other style and the fact that cultures continue to make the associations they do with classical architecture indicates its continued relevance and the importance of its study.

Another important, yet often overlooked, aspect of design that is emphasized through classical training is sustainability. When designing, many architects today are focused mainly upon the aesthetics of the building and the cost of constructing the building. Unfortunately, many architects today pay less attention to the financial and environment costs of running the building after construction is completed. This is the sustainability concern. Saumarez-Smith makes the point that most modern buildings are not efficiently sustainable. He outwardly states that “glass buildings are not very sustainable. They involve a lot of energy and cost in their construction and maintenance and use and they don’t last very long” (Saumarez-Smith). At architecture schools that have adopted the classical approach, such as the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, sustainability matters are thoroughly incorporated into each year’s curriculum. Written on the Notre Dame School of Architecture webpage is the claim that classical architecture principles “establish civic identity and facilitate long-term sustainability, built to a human scale. Great architecture meets present needs without compromising uses by future generations” (Westfall). With this in mind, it becomes clear that schools such as Notre Dame that have adopted the traditional approach place a great deal of emphasis upon instilling in their students the importance of sustainability in modern buildings because it contributes to the permanence and timelessness of buildings. In order to succeed in designing timeless and long-standing buildings, it is important that aspiring architects are equipped with the knowledge necessary to be inspired by the supreme examples of sustainability that are characteristic of the classical tradition.

Thousands of years ago, the origins of classical architecture developed in Ancient Greece and Rome with famous buildings such as the Parthenon of Attica. Since then, history has observed the come and go of many architectural styles and trends, but the only that style that has continued to thrive throughout time is classical architecture. In today’s modern world, there is a great debate among architecture academics over the correct approach to training aspiring architects. I ultimately believe that the traditional approach is the best approach because knowledge of classical architecture is much more encompassing than modern architecture alone because it enables architects to design in any style as long as they have a firm understanding of the classical principles that have lasted throughout history.