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date: 21 January 2018


The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture

James Stevens Curl,

Susan Wilson


The principles of Greek and Roman art and architecture, so Classical architecture is derived from Antique precedents that were respected as having some kind of authoritative excellence. Later revivals of Classicism were associated not only with a desire to emulate the magnificence of Antique architecture, but to establish laws, order, and rules in artistic matters. The first Classical revival is associated with the Carolingian period (not unconnected with ambitions to re-establish Imperial power), and the next with the C11 Tuscan proto-Renaissance, which influenced early Renaissance architects, e.g. Brunelleschi. From C16 Renaissance architecture and publications had even more of an impact on design than Antique models, for new theoretical writings appeared prompted by the work of Vitruvius, and there was much written about the canonical nature of the Roman Orders of architecture. In the late C17 a tendency towards a more severe Classicism was apparent in the works of Mansart and Perrault, and in the early C18 a revival of Vitruvian, Antique, and Italian-Renaissance architecture took place, under the aegis of Burlington, prompted by the works of Campbell, although the chief models were the oeuvres of Palladio and Inigo Jones. Burlington and his circle (including Flitcroft and Kent) established a veritable tyranny of Taste, with very precise rules about proportions, details, and precedents, called Palladianism, which was the predominant movement in British architecture for most of C18 from 1714, a reaction to the Baroque of Wren, Vanbrugh, and Hawksmoor. It was no accident that Palladianism (or, more accurately, the second Palladian Revival) coincided with the arrival of the Hanoverian dynasty and the ascendancy of the Whig Oligarchy from 1714, and indeed Burlington’s championship of Palladianism may have been a form of architectural continuity from the first Palladian Revival in the reign of King James I & VI (1603–25) after the Baroque interlude of c.1660–1714. Some writers have viewed Palladianism as a stylistic cleansing after ‘excessive’ Baroque exuberance, a notion that was particularly held some 60 years ago, but it should not be forgotten that Baroque architecture was based on Classical precedents, and there were also examples of Antique Roman architecture that displayed similar tendencies to Baroque, especially in C2.

Palladianism has been seen as an early type of Neo-Classicism, but the latter properly started in the mid-C18 when architects and artists began to study original Antique buildings anew rather than derive their Classicism from Renaissance exemplars (as Burlington and Campbell had done). Piranesi’s engravings revealed and exaggerated the grandeur of Roman architecture, while the excavations at Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabia revealed many aspects of Roman architecture and design that quickly entered into the architectural repertoire. Scholarly archaeology became a primary source for design. Inspired by Winckelmann, Greek architecture began to be appreciated, and the tough, rugged, masculine qualities of the powerful Doric of the temples at Paestum touched chords in those who thought that architecture, like Mankind, was superior when it was at a stage of primitive simplicity. The search for archaeologically correct motifs from Roman architecture was extended to include Greek exemplars, and so surveys were made of Greek buildings, notably by Stuart and Revett, whose Antiquities of Athens, one of the prime sourcebooks for the Greek Revival, began to come out from 1762. Influenced by the writings of Cordemoy, Laugier, and Lodoli, architects sought a cleansed and purified architecture that looked to Antiquity and even to primitive forms for appropriate precedents, and this led not just to Greece, but to stereometrically pure forms such as the cone, cube, pyramid, and sphere, exploited initially by architects such as Boullée, Gilly, and Ledoux. Simple geometries, clearly expressed, encouraged some extraordinary syntheses of Antique themes, drawing Ancient-Egyptian elements into architecture, while decoration became sparse and was sometimes completely avoided. The Orders, if used, were structural, supporting entablatures or primitive lintels, and not engaged. Neo-Classicism was severe, even chilly, the antithesis of the Baroque.

By the early C19 Neo-Classicism mellowed in favour of a greater opulence, while compositions became more free, drew on the Picturesque, and had powerful archaeological, emotional, and allusory aspects. Imperial Rome, Greece, and Egypt provided a rich vocabulary for the inventive Empire style of Napoléonic France and Regency England. The reaction from 1815 led to a widespread Greek Revival in Europe and America, while in Prussia Schinkel created an architecture that combined refinement, scholarship, inventiveness, and richness of effect using the simplest of means, though strongly based on Neo-Classical principles, including clarity of expression, logic in structural development, truthfulness in the use of materials, and expression of volumes both outside and inside. In the middle of the century taste again moved towards Renaissance show, expressed in the Paris of the Second Empire (1852–70) and in the Vienna of Kaiser Franz Joseph (r.1848–1916), followed by a Baroque Revival. In England this was associated with the Wrenaissance, but in France and the USA with the Beaux-Arts style, which once more led to a reaction in a C20 Neo-Classical Revival in which an architectural language, stripped down to its elements, and free of excess, evolved. This stark Neo-Classicism was widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, notably in Scandinavia, France, and the USA, but it was also found in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union, which gained it opprobrium in spite of the fact that it had many distinguished practitioners in the democracies. In recent times elements of Classicism have reappeared in the disparate architecture that has been categorized as anything from New Classicism to Post-Modernism.


J.Curl (2001); P & W (1990); Pn (1982); Wn (1969)