The current state of architecture is in decline, and has been for the last 75 years or so. It is the result of a collective decision by architecture schools to abandon the teaching of classical architecture in lieu of the new modernism, despite the fact that the early modernist masters, Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Adolph Loos, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others were all trained as classical architecture before their pursuit of abstract architecture. I can’t fault the design exploration of these early architects, but the decision to abandon all prior wisdom and knowledge was a poor one. The thinking of the time was that this new architecture was so extraordinary that there would never be any need of a historical style revival from then until perpetuity, and therefore no need to continue teaching classical architecture in the schools. They could have looked at a timeline of the past 2000 years of architecture and seen how architectural styles come and go, how the evolve, and how revival periods occur, yet they concluded that within the next 100 years, 1000 years or 5000 years, the new abstract architecture would always be the relevant style.
I believe that preservationists were the first to sense that something was not quite right when replacement buildings for demolished landmarks were not aesthetically up to par with the buildings that they replaced. Gone were the times when a building was demolished and replaced by a better, more beautiful building. The emergency response by preservationists was to increase preservation laws and easements, create more historic districts, and to provide landmark status to buildings that were good representations of past architectural styles, or that were parts of a larger ensemble of buildings that were viewed as being more valuable as a group than as individual buildings. What was the hobby of a few is now the profession of many, but the problem that exists today in the historic preservation business is the lack of design professionals that are capable of using traditional architecture as a precedent for design. If a historic building is in need of restoration, and is missing its cornice, the likelihood of that cornice being replaced with a suitable replacement becomes more and more remote with each generation of architects. If a fire damages or destroys an historic building, the restoration or equivalent replacement becomes increasingly more difficult with each passing generation.
The problem with modernism is that it works best when the building is seen as an object surrounded by nature, with no other structures around, but is often a failure when trying to relate to historic buildings and neighborhoods, or to other modernist buildings. The failure rate of modernism is staggering. When I speak of modernism, I not only include all the latest published works of whatever starchitect is popular at the time, but all the ordinary buildings that are also built, the mundane auto repair shop, the ordinary medical office building in an office park somewhere, the strip shopping center and big box retail centers, the “worship warehouses” that are supposed to be churches, and the utilitarian parking garages. For every modern masterpiece that is produced – and there is no true consensus as to what is worthy of masterpiece status among even modernist architects and critics – a thousand or so failures are built. These are the everyday modernist buildings that are built, that never get published, are never acknowledged as contributions to the continuation of modernism, but either destroy historic neighborhoods and streetscapes where they are located, or contribute to suburban sprawl where they all collectively create an unwalkable, automobile centric environment that lacks any sense of place.
Classical architecture, on the other hand, is easily taught and is easily learned. There are pattern books and treatises on classical architecture, as well as 2000 years of design precedents that can be utilized by architects and builders. It can be used by carpenters and farmers as well as trained architects. The first architect of the US Capitol Building, William Thornton was a physician by trade; his design was good enough to win a national competition at the time. A competent architect or designer can follow the rules of classicism, and the result will not be unsatisfactory. It may also be unexceptional, but it will still produce a good building. Historic districts are filled with such buildings where they are often labeled as “contributing” buildings, where they contribute to the character of the neighborhood. A competent architect can continue practicing classical architecture master it, and be comparable to other classical architects throughout history. If there is anything that can save architecture from a dismal future, it is the renewal of classicism in the twenty first century and beyond.
The problem that is confronted with architects considering using classicism for today’s designs is that there is the belief that using classical architecture is regressive, a return to the past, and therefore is not suitable for a modern society. It is not possible for architecture to go backwards; architecture must continue forward. Classical architecture continues the good ideas of the past and adapts them to new building technology that is emerging in the present.
When considering a Twenty First Century classical architecture, the words “modernism” and “classicism” needs to first be re-examined. The word “modernism” refers to the abstract styles that currently dominated art and architecture, but the root word “modern” simply refers to the present. It may be difficult to image that an architect like James Gallier (Jr. or Sr.), despite designing buildings in the Greek Revival style, always considered themselves to be “modern architects” because they were designing buildings that were of their time. Although they were inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece, the designs produced are nothing like those of antiquity. Balloon framing, double hung windows, clapboard siding and other technologies of nineteenth century building construction were combined with the decorative motifs of Ancient Greek architecture to produce what we appreciate as Greek Revival Architecture.
“Classicism” is often thought of as being an architectural style that preceded modernism, and it is this historical associations with the past that continue to make it difficult for architects to come to terms with its use in the presence. In actual fact, classicism continued into the mid Twentieth Century and beyond, it’s just that those practitioners were omitted from the architecture history books because they didn’t follow the natural evolution of the modernism. Despite its distinct visual characteristics, it is better to think of classicism as a language that is adaptable to whatever new circumstances are presented. Just as English is a written/spoken language that includes words, punctuation, sentences, and grammatical rules, classicism is likewise a building language that includes architectural elements such as walls, columns, arches, domes, vaults, windows, cornices, etc. It also has a set of rules that determine the arrangement of such elements similar to the way grammar arranges words into sentences and paragraphs. The English language used by William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain, has continued to adapt to modern times so that we can discuss topics such as nuclear physics, bio-engineering and rocket engineering. New words and terms must constantly be invented, but none would make since if we didn’t continue using old, familiar words and terms.
Classicism, as a language, must likewise continue to adapt to the present to remain relevant. This has always been the case with classicism from its very earliest beginnings. The architecture developed by the Ancient Greeks was limited to a trabeated system of posts, beams and walls. The Romans developed an arcuated construction system of arches, vaults and domes, which had a superior ability to span larger openings than the trabeated system. When the Romans adopted the architecture of the Ancient Greeks, they didn’t discard the trabeated system, they incorporated it into the language of classicism. Where short spans are needed, such as a portico or temple front, the trabeated system is used; where longer spans are necessary arches are provided, and often the arches are framed by columns, pilasters and entablatures to suggest the presence of structure in the arched walls beyond.
Finally, it is necessary to look back at classical architecture of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century, the point where modernism began to dominate and notice how technically advanced classical buildings were at the time. There were buildings such as McKim Mead & White’s Municipal Building in New York, which was a high-rise, steel framed building that was clad in stone, not too unlike today’s high-rise buildings. There were buildings that included large spanning steel structures. Some were engineering marvels in their own right such as the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair designed by George Post. There are also examples of classical buildings with glass curtain walls such as the Tietz Department Store in Berlin, which unfortunately no longer exists. The Manhattan Bridge is a large suspension bridge that spans the East River in New York. A close examination of its steel framed towers reveals elements that suggest cornices, brackets and finials, and therefore can be considered a great example of classical architecture. Who would have thought that an architectural language of trabeation (post and beam) and arcuation (arches and vaults) could also include suspended elements as part of its repertoire?
The downtown department store posed the dilemma of a high-rise classical stone façade, and its need for visible support at the ground level that was satisfactory to the eye, while at the same time providing large areas of plate glass window for merchandise display. This architectural conundrum was solved by locating the plate glass storefronts to a forward plane, treating the display window as a large display case, and allowing the perceived building structure to rise up behind it. I think of this and realize that regardless of the difficulty of the problem, there has to be an ingenious classical solution waiting to be found; it is no longer acceptable to assume that classical architecture won’t work in the Twenty First Century.
Architecture will be great once again when we lose the “envy of the past,” which is what I call it when one looks back on historic buildings, like the early preservationists did, and wish that today’s buildings were as beautiful as the ones of the past. Architects need to stop making excuses for lack of beauty and craft, like blaming it on the times we are in. If one believes that man’s destiny is to become better in the future then we need to not only be capable of building like we did in the past, we need to be better at it. Could you imagine if the medical profession once had a cure for cancer, but collectively forgot the treatment over time? They just stopped teaching the cancer curing treatment in medical schools until all the older generation that knew retired and died off. How unacceptable would that be? This is what happened to architecture. Architects must continue to innovate, and building technology must continue to evolve, but we must pick up all the lost knowledge and wisdom of classical architecture that was forgotten.
How can one become smarter if for every new thing that one learns, some piece of prior knowledge must be purged from the brain?