I don’t generally look to discuss breaking news here, but sometimes a news item is just sitting there waiting to be poked. The news item in question is the speculation that the federal government will be pushing architects designing new government buildings to “default” to classicism. This may or may not actually happen, but it’s being taken quite seriously – with, for example, the AIA giving a formal statement – so it’s worth thinking about for a second.
The first piece the idea that I fixated on was what is meant by “the classical architectural style.” I could get snarky and suggest Egyptian lotus columns and statues of Anubis, but obviously that’s not what is meant. But there is no single classical style and there never was. When Greeks were building the temples of the Acropolis that we see today, some 2500 years ago, they did not have a style book labeled “classical.” More to the point, their styles evolved over time, as did related styles in nearby nations, so there were always variations within the theme. Today we lump Roman and Greek designs together as classical, but there are significant differences, most obviously the Roman use of masonry arches and domes.
Then we have the Renaissance, starting close to a thousand years after the high point of Roman classicism, which started with slavish imitations of not-entirely-understood older models, and gradually evolved in some strange directions. Then, looking at the US, we have another revival in the early 1800s as the new country tried to take on the symbolism of Greece and Rome, and then again after the 1893 World’s Fair. Each revival was different in various ways, sometimes subtle and sometimes not.
So at best we’re talking about multiple related styles. “Style,” like all categorizations, is subject to debate and will always fail to deal with gray areas and edge conditions. Certainly no one in classical times had the ability to create a huge iron dome, as you see above, and the proportions of the Capitol break multiple rules of the Roman style. So, is the Capitol classical or classically-inspired? What about a post office not far from our office, which has been described as Neo-classical but would be bizarre to an actual Roman:
The problem with mandating a style is policing that mandate. Few modern buildings are going to fit the paradigm of true classical architecture – low rise, frequent columns and walls on the interior (for structure support) that break up the spaces, relatively small windows – so they’re going to be “classical inspired” even if they’re called “classical.” And then someone is going to have to decide what’s too far from the original models and what’s not; the leaked proposed rule suggests that there will be review panels that exclude architects.
More importantly, architects are not trained solely in the classical style. Even if they were, there are a thousand issues in modern construction that would interfere with pure classical styling. Egress, fire protection, HVAC systems, energy efficiency, and flexible space usage are just a few of the issues that affect design and therefore make it difficult to match classical styling today. What happens when you force architectural design to go in a specific direction is that you get a lot of bad design. Mandating a specific style rather than broad guidelines is likely to produce ugly and badly-functioning buildings.
The various classical styles developed out of the societies of their times. Even the “American Renaissance” that followed the 1893 fair was representative of our society at that time in terms of its aspirations and its building technology; the buildings it created were modern for their era but used symbolism of the Roman models. Used classical symbolism…just like deconstructionism does. Just like the 1930s post office does. Just like the Romans did.