Classicism and Language in Architecture
Sir John Summerson, in The Classical Language of Architecture, called the classical forms a “‘uniform’ worn by a certain category of buildings” that are composed of formal elements developed from those that were first used in the “classical” (his word, and his inverted commas) world of ancient Greece and Rome.1 In his second chapter, he presents the “grammar” that guides the disposition of the formal elements. In his last chapter, “Classical into Modern,” he explains that the principles are based on rationality, not tradition, and adds that Le Corbusier, “the most inventive mind in the architecture of our time . . . , in a curious way, [is] one of the most classical minds.” Principles based on rationality, not traditional forms, make the classical. Summerson sought nothing more than pleasure from a building. For Rudolf Wittkower, classical architecture also offered meaning. The Italian Renaissance architects used “the classical apparatus of forms” to carry “symbolical value or, at least, . . . a particular meaning which the pure forms as such do not contain.” 2 In the eighteenth century, critics found themselves catching up with John Donne’s prescient observation from 1611: “And new Philosophy calls all in doubt . . . / ‘Tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone.” 3
A later generation—Demetri Porphyrios,4 Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre,5 and George Hersey,6 among others—has made important contributions. But none of them has managed to bridge the abyss of the late eighteenth century, when architecture ceased to be a language conveying meaning and took up liaisons with other, isolated entities. J.N.L. Durand suggested that “the elements are to architecture what words are to speech, what notes are to music,” 7 but he said nothing about the content of their utterances. Others, such as A.N.W. Pugin, John Ruskin and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, saw architecture in guises that Geoffrey Scott identified as fallacious.8 The only powerful speaking voice buildings now have is the one the nineteenth century gave them, to reveal the work of the Zeitgeist. The Zeitgeist theory places each building in its time. Uninterested in traditional meanings, it rejects beauty as the content of things made, connected with the good of things done and the truth of things known. Nor is it interested in considering how a combination of principles and forms might give speech to buildings.
The principles of architecture control a building’s composition. These principles may include: symmetry, whether bilateral or dynamic; tripartition; proportionate ordering of material parts and the whole; coherent and orderly relationships between plans, sections and elevations; tectonic solidity and its legibility through decoration; a suitable placement in the larger urban or landscape ensemble; and ornament that enhances the representation of its hieratic place in the civil order. These principles were first sketched out by the ancient Greeks, in conjunction with their quest for the principles that could organize their political and religious lives.9 The Romans modified them, they were enriched in Byzantium and the Muslim East, and they received a great variety of formal evocations in Western Europe, including those of the middle ages and the various restorations and expansions of ancient precedents in Europe and America running down to the present.
Not that they are in play only in that tradition. Similar principles appear in all traditions that want their buildings to represent the authority of those who build, in the West as in the East. Greek temples, with the short end being the main one and the columns almost always evenly spaced, dominate in the West. In the East, the broad side is the front, and the column spacing increases with each intercolumniation moving toward the center. These are minor differences, compared to the great differences in the forms that give the principles body, which reveal the contingent circumstances of their construction. Consider trabeation using a columnar “order”: aside from their formal tripartition and tectonic role, there is almost nothing in common between a Western and a Chinese building. The formal tradition, more than the principles, would instantly mark a classical building inserted into dynastic China as an alien.
The principles and the forms interact to convey meaning. The principles raise utterance from babble to reasoned “speech,” and the forms identify the tradition within which the meaning resides and make it intelligible. To produce a building devoid of architecture’s compositional principles is to abandon architecture; to change the forms is to change its language.
Traditional forms allowed buildings to convey their meaning easily until traditional meanings were discharged and replaced by new ones. This transition occurred haphazardly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when control of architecture’s past passed from architects to historians. The past was no longer continuous but a sequence of discrete moments, each with its distinctive style. Antiquity was in the past, the modern age in the present, and the middle ages in between. Each had its distinctive style, with the modern age using a revived ancient architecture. The success of the all’antica revival throughout Europe led to national designations—Italian, French, English, etc.—and then finer slices into Renaissance, Baroque, neoclassical, etc. Architects chose among the styles that bore the desired meaning. An all’antica, classical revival building wore its uniform in a way that designated its place relative to others within a hierarchical, class-based political and social system seeking an association with some particular past. A medieval, Gothic building evoked exoticism, religious sentimentality or a Romantic notion about the medieval origins of a national institution or an ethical life.10 These buildings were no longer evaluated as architecture but for their success in forming associations or for their fidelity to stylistic categories.
Even as this style- and history-dominated understanding of buildings was being developed, Antoine Chrysostôme Quatremère de Quincy broached an alternative. He suggested an analogy between language and architecture, based in an enduring, cross-cultural grammar, or body of principles. This grammar combines with a particular syntax to make the words or architectural forms intelligible.11 Style is only one of three syntactical components of grammar, the others being type and character. In both verbal language and architecture, the elements of language (words or architectural elements) and the syntax derive from conventions transmitted by tradition. In French speech and buildings, in which the syntactical forms are the columns, lintels, arches, cornices, walls and roofs, they run back to the Greeks. Elsewhere, say, in China, they produce equally “grammatical” buildings; different traditions for forms and syntax produce different buildings.
Tradition refers to the practice of handing on from the past something useful in the present to make it available to the future. Gothic buildings have their tradition, and so do all’antica ones. Both are traditional, but the differences between a Classical-style and a Gothic-style building reside in the formal allegiance each shows to ancient precedents and the contingent conditions prevailing in their production. In this scheme, style is an adjective that slots a building into an era. But the adjectives also carry important additional baggage. The word classical, with origins in its ancient role of setting the best apart from the rest, can refer to that tradition or to something that is considered the best. Historians using stylistic categories can say, “Chartres is a classic Gothic building,” but not “Chartres is a classical Gothic building.” A classic possesses timeless superiority, when compared with other things of the same type. Classicism refers to a higher achievement than the routine, common and vernacular. Porphyrios identifies it with a vivid representation of tectonics that, by imitating the art of vernacular building, elevates that art to architecture. Summerson finds it in principled buildings that give greater aesthetic pleasure than routine ones offer. And Tzonis and Lafaivre ask that the building’s forms provoke the pleasure of catharsis, as tragedy does.
The ancient Greeks founded this tradition of searching for distinctions between the best and the rest, between the classical and the vernacular, the pleasurable and the routine, the tragic and the ordinary. The most important distinctions are based on the best available knowledge of the enduring order of things, discovered within ever-changing contingencies. Reason is both the tool for discovering the distinctions and the vehicle within language for making them known. Reason discovers knowledge within opinions, raises utterance to language and elevates buildings to architecture. Architects misuse reason when they merely nourish self-referential solipsism. But, when working within the classical tradition, they find reason a powerful means of connecting a building to the larger world of human concerns and activities. A building has content that carries meaning: it makes visible the ineffable content of a metaphysical reality that is also accessible through verbal language, music and figurative images.
Ever since the eighteenth century, architects have been gun-shy in engaging that larger world, except for the coterie of early twentieth-century avant-gardists. These anarchists and revolutionaries vehemently rejected the classical tradition and invented a new architecture. But traditional classicism survived, both because it provides greater pleasure for more people and because it retains its ability to carry its traditional meaning. In the 1930s, when Cass Gilbert produced the United States Supreme Court Building, he followed Thomas Jefferson by clothing the principles in classicism’s best dress-uniform.
“Something traditional,” or even “anything traditional,” remains the preference of the great mass of people who find modernist architecture distasteful or are unconvinced by the current, arcane justifications offered in its defense. They call to mind a comment by Jefferson: “State a moral case to a ploughman & a professor: The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” 12 They see buildings as examples of architecture that is congruent with the order of a political regime, which is an order of institutions. The buildings that serve these institutions represent their relative importance within the regime. Buildings, in other words, have political meaning, not in the sense of partisanship or of advocating a particular political program but in the sense of representing the organization of power in the relationships between people in a community.
Buildings represent authority, whether it be that of revolutionaries seeking a new order, a regime seeking to assure the right of all of its members to pursue their happiness or tyrants seeking malicious ends. The formal means do not tell us the ends the building is serving. Only knowing the connection that the regime seeks with the larger world can do that. Only reason and the moral sense can make that judgment. This connection resides in the urban leg that joins the tectonic and the formal to complete the tripod supporting architecture. The urban place is where (along with its rural counterpart) the life of the regime is lived, and it is composed of buildings. The tectonic and the formal legs have recovered robust strength in the classical architecture of the last few decades, but the urban leg remains withered. The relationship between architecture and urbanism is not a liaison of convenience, in which urban places provide sites for self-referential modernism or for exercises in classical formmaking. Without this leg, the building cannot become architecture and represent the intersection between man and the cosmos.
The ancient Greeks identified this intersection in the reciprocity between the unchanging and the changing that takes form in the beautiful, the good and the true. Ever since, everyone—now even quite beyond the confines of the West—who has sought to fulfill his nature as a whole person has done as they did: extracting, clarifying and developing the best that we know, to serve what is most important as we conduct our affairs in congruence with the order of the cosmos. This involves keeping one’s attention fixed on principles while giving them body within current contingent conditions. The architectural models of this conjunction have been vastly expanded and enriched in a tradition that remains vital today. To use any of them whole to produce a building would be to copy. The result would be a neoclassical building that would evoke the classical tradition but not be a classical building. Instead, those models offer insight into the types of composition and classical forms that are to be imitated. Imitating, not copying, produces a classical building that elucidates the enduring principles and the contingent formal tradition.
Such a building satisfies both the criteria of architecture’s tripod and the demands of symmetry, eurhythmy and decor. I use Vitruvius’ terms for architecture, as opposed to the lesser criteria for building, which are commodity, firmness and delight. Later theorists provide a similar distinction and criteria.13 Symmetry and eurhythmy discipline the tectonics of one leg and the formal composition of another, playing as important a role in a self-referential building as they do in a classical one. But architecture also requires the proper decor. Without it, there is no classicism, because the building cannot fulfill its obligation to represent its purpose in the regime and thereby make the tripod’s third leg sound and solid. With three solid legs, a building will have the beauty of architecture, no matter its place within the hierarchy of purposes, be it a cathedral or a bicycle shed.
Symmetry, eurhythmy and decor do not enter the picture at the end. They are there from the beginning, guiding the choices made about formal composition and elements, their subjection to syntax and their disciplining by principles. In this sense, there is an analogy between architecture and verbal language, which requires coherent choices, from typeface or phonetics for the letters in the alphabet, through to the apt rhetorical level or genre for the speech’s purpose. Decor requires that a building reach outside itself, beyond the demands of the art of building, to find meaning relative to metaphysical standards beyond the factually knowable. Those who assault traditional architecture as unsuitable for the modern age reject meanings that are imbedded in a larger, hierarchically ordered structure within a great chain of being, in which man is mediator between heaven and earth, a proposition that stands in the very center of the Western tradition.
That tradition finds certainty only in numbers. The celestial sphere contains an untold number of stars and encloses a realm within which the seven planets move. The single terrestrial realm is composed of four elements. Pi is a ratio between a circle’s radius and its circumference. The ratio of one to one is also the ratio of an octave that is divisible into 1:2, 1:3, and so on. It makes no difference that what were facts for the ancients are not facts for us. The truth resides not in the facts but in what we make of the ones we know. The factual, numerical content of the cosmos becomes meaningful only through words that reason orders to produce speech. The knowledge is always incomplete and open to revision, whenever, through reading or hearing, we encounter better knowledge of the certain things and a better understanding of the reasons of things. Speech is the medium of theory, or reasoning about things, which Vitruvius presented as the complement to practice. Practice makes buildings, but theory connects them to the larger order of the world; a building is to architectural theory as the visible, numerological order of the cosmos is to metaphysics.
These two kinds of knowledge about the order of things—one in numbers, the other in words—are complementary. The conjunction is not exclusively pagan. The Apocrypha tells us that God made all things with number, measure and weight. Saint Paul said that “things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 14 John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the word,” which the Latin vulgate rendered as verbum and the original Greek as logos. This ultimately unknowable logos stands in a dynamic relationship with the concrete, measurable quantities of number, measure and weight, with man in the middle of that dynamic.
People accepted this as the way of the world until it came under increasing assault in the seventeenth century.15 Descartes sought certainty on the basis of the completely knowable, and Leibnitz and Newton developed an unambiguous mathematical language that could follow up on Galileo’s insights and explain the movements observable in the heavens and on earth. Newton retained his belief in what Saints Paul and John had written, that what mathematics revealed was congruent with the unseen order of the cosmos. Newton earned a place with Bacon and Locke in the pantheon of Jefferson. But Newton’s successors abandoned that belief as they made from mathematics a precise, unambiguous, logical and universally applicable language, describing all that empiricism can discover on the earth and in the heavens. They dismissed metaphysical propositions because only reason supported them. A language of mathematics eventually displaced verbal language as the favored epistemological mediator between man and the world, and a newly contrived idea of progress gradually replaced a stable world’s great chain of being.
All this has had profound consequences in the general culture. Truth has become lodged in facts, with the words truth and fact now commonly used interchangeably. Rationality, which is a logical process, has taken the place of reason, which is a method of inquiry into what is only incompletely knowable.16 A politics based on knowledge of history and a philosophical understanding of the nature of man has steadily been eroded by one based on statistical data feeding formulae, intended to predict behavior and assess public opinion. When numbers reign, the world is as the numbers say it is. In architecture, numbers are used to avoid attending to traditional criteria. Numbers allow experts to sidestep the role a building plays in an urban or rural setting, as they count up the points needed to adjudge something as historically significant.
The language of numbers is mathematics, and its finest material product is the machine. Treating buildings as if they were machines can yield elegant and well-crafted forms for architectural elements. A similar exercise can extract whole forms of buildings from structural engineering that only numbers can validate. These can also achieve elegance as they defy logic with great height, long spans or well-crafted joints. But buildings grounded in the language of numbers cannot become beautiful, because they remain trapped in the web of numbers. Their future, like that of machines, is obsolescence. When that architecture was introduced to Americans in 1932 at the Museum of Modern Art’s International Style exhibition, its revolutionary content was elided, and it was presented as a new style offering aesthetic pleasure to a new age. That style now flourishes as a self-referential, aesthetic preference justified by its putative efficiencies and modernity.
The machine analogy of the new architecture not only rejected tradition but also sought to quash the anthropomorphic analogy, a central element of the classical tradition.17 This analogy makes the human form a central source of classical architecture’s principles, forms and content. Redolent with all the ambiguity and richness of meaning which the language of mathematics cannot tolerate, it establishes a rapport with the world it presents, a world in which knowledge of metaphysics is more valuable than knowledge of physics. Numbers are, of course, essential to classical architecture. As ratios and geometry, they invest traditional compositions with order and are the very stuff of symmetria and eurhythmia. After that, when the composition needs to be clothed with forms, numbers hit a wall if they try to do their work within the machine analogy. A building based on the machine analogy can contribute to an efficiently operating city, but it offers nothing more to the city whose members pursue happiness by seeking to fulfill their nature.
A building using the machine analogy is as instantly recognizable as the sound of a language one does not know. It may make the vivid representation of structure that classicism requires, but lacks the capacity to reach outside its numerical entrapment. It cannot become architecture by fulfilling the criterion of decor, which uses visual coherence and traditional meanings to connect individuals to the aspirations of their regime to promote well being. But neither can buildings that use the columnar orders—traditionally the most evident and obvious representation of the anthropomorphic analogy (even if they are astylar or with greatly diluted forms of the orders, both of which are capable of embodying anthropomorphism’s ordering principles)—as a mere formal exercise. Decoration is not the same as decor.
Consider buildings from two different eras standing near one another at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. All four make excellent use of the classical principles of composition, and they subject themselves to the urban order of the university, rather than to representing the functions occurring inside. But after that, they fall into different groups, the older pair speaking with the language of traditional classicism and anthropomorphism, the newer ones drawing on aesthetic predilection and the machine. The older pair instantly connects us with a language of myth, of ambiguity, of the dynamic reciprocity between the precise mathematics of natural laws and the nature of man. The newer ones take us into a world of mathematical, machine-like precision, pointing more at efficiency than at beauty, the good and the true. The one is architecture. The other remains mere building, in which our hopes of finding meanings that expand our humanity are no higher than they are when we hear the purring of a well-tuned straight-eight internal combustion engine or the movement of a bicycle chain running through a Campagnolo derailer.
Le Corbusier said that a house is a machine for living in. Nikolaus Pevsner, finding that inadequate, wrote: “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. . . . the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.” 18 Both reject traditional forms and the traditional purposes of buildings, and neither asks a building to say anything meaningful. But buildings are too important to be mute or unintelligible, and the buildings of classical architecture are neither mute nor unintelligible. Think of their architectural elements as words, the principles as grammar and the buildings as sentences. Yoked by reason, these elements produce architecture that is like speech itself. If their compositions honor classical principles but wear some other uniform, or if they wear the uniform on faulty compositions, or if they get the principles and the forms right but fail to honor decor, which allows them to represent and thereby serve the purposes of a regime that exercises authority in the best interest of all its members, they produce mere babble.
The best speech is neither unintelligible nor babble. Whether rendered in verbal or architectural language, it is about how we are to live our lives, honorably and well. Only beautiful buildings, buildings linked to the good and the true, can do that, and only the profoundest knowledge and skill while building within the classical tradition can produce beautiful buildings of the highest order.
1. The Classical Language of Architecture (London: Methuen, 1964), p. 7.
2. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, 3rd ed. (London: Tiranti, 1962), p. 1. Wittkower’s principles are aimed at historians interested in connecting Renaissance treatises with buildings, not to architects interested in using principles to produce buildings using the “classical apparatus of forms.” For a study that demonstrates the modernism embedded within Wittkower’s observations, see Alina A. Payne, “Rudolf Wittkower and Architectural Principles in the Age of Modernism,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (1994: vol. 53), pp. 322–42.
3. Wittkower, op. cit., p. 162.
4. In Classical Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1991) and “Classicism Is Not a Style,” in a collection with that title (London: Architectural Design, 1982).
5. Classical Architecture: The Poetics of Order (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1986). See also Tzonis and Phoebe Giannisi, Classical Greek Architecture: The Construction of the Modern (Paris: Flammarion, 2004).
6. Pythagorean Palaces: Magic and Architecture in the Italian Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976). See also Architecture, Poetry, and Number in the Royal Palace at Caserta (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1983), and Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); also The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1988).
7. Précis des Leçons d’Architecture (Paris: Didot, 1819; republished Nördlingen: Uhl, 1981), vol. 1, p. 29; discussed without citation in Peter Collins, Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture 1750–1950, 2nd edition (Montreal & Kingston, etc.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998), p. 179. This passage is not found in the first edition, 1802–05, translated by David Britt as Précis of the Lectures of Architecture (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2000), or in the 1840 edition (Brussels: Meline, Cans), although this one does have two references to language. One states that both architecture and language use many elements to make “rich and varied” combinations, p. 33, and the other, “Drawing is the natural language of architecture,” being “perfectly in harmony with the ideas to be expressed,” p. 35.
8. The Architecture of Humanism, first published in 1914 and still in print.
9. See Indra Kagis McEwen, Socrates’ Ancestor: An Essay on Architectural Beginnings (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993).
10. Note the parallel columns of “The Classic School” and “The Gothic School,” presenting nineteenth-century English buildings, or “Modern Architecture in England/(The Age of Revivals),” running from 1830 into the twentieth century, in A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, by Sir Bannister Fletcher, produced between 1901 and 1954.
11. See Samir Younés, The True, the Fictive, and the Real: The Historical Dictionary of Architecture of Quatremère de Quincy (London: Andreas Papadakis, 1999), ch. II.
12. “To Peter Carr,” from Paris, August 10, 1787.
13. Compare de architettura, “Architectura autem constat,” bk. I, ch. 2, with “aedificatio,” a “partes ipsius architecturae,” bk. I, ch. 3, with its conditions of commodity, firmness and delight.
14. Wisdom of Solomon 11: 20; 2 Corinthians 4:18. One of the best disquisitions on John’s passage is in Thomas Jefferson’s letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.
15. A seminal discussion is in Alberto Pérez-Gómez, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1983).
16. See Peter Eisenman, “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End,” first published in 1984, in Michael Hays, ed., Architectural Theory since 1968 (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1998), pp. 525–38.
17. Historians of architecture, who see their task as legitimizing modernism, have treated the anthropomorphic analogy as an historical artifact. A still-standing desideratum is monographic study of the analogy. The only exception seeks to subject the analogy to the same distortions that Cubism imposed on the human figure: Marco Frascari, Monsters of Architecture: Anthropomorphism in Architectural Theory (Savage, Maryland: Roman & Littlefield, 1991).
18. An Outline of European Architecture, published by Penguin Books, first edition in 1943, and repeated in subsequent editions down to the present.