Overrated: Classicism

The default conservative reverence for ancient architecture too easily produces bogus, formulaic buildings

Stephen Bayley

Just because he is an ungracious, ignorant bigot does not mean that President Trump is always wrong. Broken clocks are, after all, right twice a day.

But when it comes to architecture, Potus is tragically misguided. Not just the nausogenic conquistador kitsch of Mar-a-Lago (pictured) or the glittery Versailles throne in Trump Tower (he likes “hard shiny things”, a decorator once explained).

No. It’s in his attitude to classicism. A reverence for the architecture of Greece and Rome is forever the default position of conservative taste, from the late Roger Scruton to the future King Charles III.

And recently leaked papers from Trump’s White House reveal that henceforth, federal buildings—courthouses, prisons and so on—must be in a classical style. This is the equivalent of grabbing the architectural establishment, which tends to be modernist, by the pussy.

The critic Sainte-Beuve memorably defined the classical in literature as “universal and permanent”. But in architecture, the Roman architect Vitruvius is the definitive source of the classical spirit, even as he drew on Greek examples.

Vitruvius defined the architectural orders and declared that the purpose of building was to create “commoditas, firmitas and voluptas”. Clearly, there can be no argument—practical or aesthetic—against commodity firmness and delight. But to suggest, as the peculiar trio of Trump, Charles and Scruton do, that a cornice here and a column there make a good building is a lazy travesty of the subtle and complicated process of building design. Lipstick does not enhance pigs.

Of course, there is no gainsaying that some of the world’s greatest buildings are classical. It would be hard to argue against the Parthenon. And who would bother trying? When Victorian Liverpool presented itself as the Athens of the North, magnificent neo-classical architecture was a helpful promotional device.

Very beautifully, the repertoire of classical architecture’s details was borrowed from primitive wooden structures. The triglyphs and metopes of the entablature are reflections in stone of wooden beam-ends and the pegs that retained them. The flutes of a Doric column are reminiscences of the gouges made by an adze when shaping a tree trunk.

But, why Mr President, would you want to replicate in concrete on a jailhouse in Chattanooga, TN, an effect created millennia before by a carpenter in the Peloponnese? Why would an Atlantic City hustler want to be mistaken for Pericles? Why indeed.

Because it is so easy to copy, classical architecture can quickly become sterile and formulaic. As it was intended to be. And this was why John Ruskin damned it so. The “universal and permanent” can soon become repetitious and inhuman. Indeed, slightly bonkers, maybe, but Ruskin likened classicism to industrialisation: dehumanising. Ruskin hated Rome and loved Venice: St Peter’s, the house of the Vicar of Christ, he found pagan, while the oddities and quirks of Venetian Gothic represented the best of the human spirit.

And then there is the question of survival bias. Classical buildings that remain have been sun-blasted and wind-blown for centuries, leaving them gloriously austere in aspect. But as the archaeologist and architect Jakob Ignaz Hittorff discovered in his travels around Sicily, classical buildings were originally painted with gaudy colours. This might well appeal to the vulgarian in Trump, but would the Prince of Wales—teleported back to Bassae in the 5th century BCE—be exalted by the reality of a Greek temple that was blue, scarlet and gold, populated by drugged-up shrieking maenads and lascivious hetaerae?

And let’s not forget dictators. From Hitler to Stalin via Ceaușescu to Trump, there is something in formulaic classicism that appeals to the authoritarian mentality. Stalin enjoyed bogus monumentality while Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, specialised in a terrifyingly chilly Nordic neo-classicism. At Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, you will find someone dressed as a Roman centurion in the lift. That seems to me unhealthy.

Ruskin’s was an extreme view. Classical proportions will be with us forever because the Golden Section satisfies a human appetite that has now been confirmed by neuro-aestheticians with their MRI scanners: the 8:13 ratio pleases because it approximates to the human field of vision.

But the argument against classicism is this: we do not speak Latin any more. Great architecture arises out of particular circumstances of site, purpose, client, public. A pediment and volute are really besides the point. So too are stylobates, abacus, guttae and dentils.

So. Classicism overrated? I can think of no precedents in a democracy where the executive has imposed an architectural style. But this is an executive that believes injecting disinfectants is a sound anti-viral procedure and that all Mexicans are rapists. You can tell the quality of an idea by the company it keeps.


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

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