May 02, 2006

an architecture essay

Follow-up to an architecture essay from Team Colour

“Classicism in style is potentially stultifying to both innovation and function” (Tim Mowl). Is this a fair critique of the classical language of architecture?

When assessing the question it is important to look at the fact that it is divided into three arguments. These include how classicism is potentially a problem, how classicism can be rendered inconsistent or redundant (stultifying) and how these factors contribute to the actual function and innovation of architecture. It is important to remember that classicism has been highly influential in architecture as it not only set down the basic principles of harmony and proportion as documented by Vitruvius but also due to the associations, such as power and status, provided by antiquity. This can be seen especially with the classical revival experienced with the Renaissance period, Neo–classicism and in present with modern buildings being fronted with classical motifs. It is the most recent past, commencing with the architecture of Germany and Italy from World War II to the present day that I would like to investigate and explore how these examples of architecture are affected by the issue of classicism.

It is hard to define what exactly classicism is as an architectural resource due to its being used by different architects, movements and leaders in ways that suits their aims and means, rather than using classical influence exactly as the Greeks or Romans would. In this way classical architecture has been broken down partially as with the technological innovations of the twentieth century the structural function of arches for example are left redundant as new materials such as iron and steel are being used to reinforce buildings and distribute weight. This can be seen in Rome’s “Esposizione Universale Roma” (EUR), a building from 1935 under Mussolini’s rule to expose the creation of his “new Roman Empire and partly to rekindle a new spirit of ‘heroism’…” . The EUR complex can be seen to be very classical in its architecture through the use of a square colonnade in Palazzo INA and the six sets of arches used on the Palazzo delle Civiltà del Lavoro. Yet, although these are classical features there is clear innovation as the colonnade is square instead of being on a usual curve as seen in Roman forums or at the Vatican in Rome. The arches used on the Palazzo delle Civiltà del Lavoro are without orders but left plain without applied decoration as would have been seen on the Colosseum. Therefore the classical ideal has been used but it has not been a stultifying factor as the architects have re–invented classicism by selecting the aspects that they want.

Yet, this is not the only example of how classicism has been altered as the Nazi leader Hitler, and the Fascist ruler Mussolini, used the classically designed buildings because of their association with the Roman Empire, therefore showing each leader’s consolidating their power by making a clear show that they too were building empires like the Romans. In this way the use of classical architecture has been somewhat abused as only the significance of what classicism represents is important for the functions of buildings produced, there is no architectural or structural need that can only be provided by classical architecture. Yet, this being said, the concept of using classicism as a form of propaganda was one used by the Romans themselves so it could, in fact, be seen as an inextricable part of the architecture. Therefore although the Nazi leaders only choose classical architecture for what it represents it is innovative, as an old form of architecture is re–invented to revive ideas of Roman power and status.

In contrast to this wanting to show this blatant show of supremacy we have the present day architect Quinlan Terry who intentionally moves away from the Modernist movement and looks back to classical architecture as a timeless way of design. Terry understands the idea of harmony and beauty that was hailed as the key to classical architecture as temple designs were based on harmonic proportions and were deemed perfect buildings, with the Parthenon being the “perfect [Doric] monument” By his own admission Terry acknowledges that classicism takes in its surroundings therefore seems to naturally evolve. In this way it should not be able to stultify function or innovation as it should allow for progression. This is true as it can be seen in his water–front complex, the Richmond Riverside Development. The latest addition, the brick and stucco building on the end of the terrace, seems to combine 18th century features of red brick, sash and casement windows, as well as being mixed with the five classical orders, showing it to partially explore the classical language of architecture.

Despite this, what Terry creates is more a classical illusion rather than a classical building as the underlying structure to the building is a steel frame due to the fact that sit is cheaper, stronger and quicker to set up. In this way although he gives a classical shell to the building, the actual structure is wholly modern. This can be seen as innovative as modern technology is incorporated with a classical front and it creates a more structurally sound building aiding the function to be able to hold a large amount of people. Yet, even with these factors the use of classicism across the waterside has left little room for a modern front to be included due to the fact that it would look completely out of place. Terry does add variety to the terrace as each building is different and seem to progress from a neighbouring design but the use of classical is left moderately redundant as it is purely aesthetic and no longer representing a building to a feat of engineering as it had back in antiquity, for example the Colosseum being architecturally magnificent with the ability to hold four storeys supported mainly through arches in a circular plan.

By looking to the past for inspiration classicism does seem to hinder progress as modern buildings that have not been so popular with the general public. The results of the Modernist Movement in architecture seem to dominate the minds of the public therefore not giving full consent for modern designs to be explored. Much like the classical buildings of the past modern architecture also has a lot to offer in both innovation and function as can be seen by Santiago Calatrava’s 1987 Lyon – Santolas TVG train station in which he uses the modern material of steel to produce a building that can cope with a substantial amount of people passing through as well as acting as a holding place for transport.

A building of this size could be created with classical proportion or design yet it would hinder the progress of modernity which has a considerable amount to offer with innovative design and use of materials. If classicism is continually used in construction we are certain of not losing the influence of the past but definitely endanger the loss of the present and future. Also as classicism has to evolve in order to continually fit in with the demands of modernity, there is the danger of it being so corrupted that it becomes an eye sore or “toy town pastiche” as so comically remarked by a critic looking at the works of Quinlan Terry at Richmond and his inadvertent propagation of the tawdry classicism arising from celebrity culture incorporated with architecture.

In reading Summerson’s “The Classical Language of Architecture” the book concludes with the question “…‘What has happened to the [classical] language [of architecture]?’ The generally accepted view is that the Modernist Movement killed it, and that is not far from wrong.” Yet, this is hard to believe that the classical of architecture has been lost as throughout history has been used in such a way that the idea of the classical has had to continually change and progress in order to satisfy the desires of the designer or the public. Therefore it can be seen that this necessity for change, will repeat itself, meaning that the classical language of architecture can not have died but merely fallen into submission until it is re–invented with new purpose, as well as innovation. It could be questioned that classicism itself may have disappeared with the amount of modifications that have been made, but how can classicism be defined when even from the Greeks to the Romans ideas of what was classical or what could be included were altered? Therefore, it can be seen that classicism can only be stultifying if it conforms to a fixed idea as it leaves no room for innovation or demands of function. This being said it has to be acknowledged that the classical language of architecture itself is not fixed and has been developed from Vitruvius to Serlio and Palladio, meaning that it too is evolving, leaving no way for it to be rendered redundant as long as it is part of a re–invention of the style.


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