Essay: Why is Classical Architecture Still Relevant?

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  • Why is Classical Architecture Still Relevant?
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Many Architects believe Classical Architecture is still needed today, because classical designs incorporate geometrical rules that help create harmony and a sense of greatness in a building.

Classical Architecture, whose rules documented by the Roman engineer Vitruvius, is governed by order and control, using mathematical principles to create harmony through the proportions of buildings.

Le Corbusier saw the importance of proportion. He created a system, “Modulor”, based on mathematics, the aesthetic dimensions of the Golden Section, and proportions of the human body. The purpose was to produce measurements that could “maintain the human scale everywhere”, solving many standardisation problems (Ching, 1996, pgs 302-303). However, over time, this and other new systems introduced by Architects were used less and less.

The main change from Classical Architecture to the Modern Movement was the materials and the ways they are used, the lack of ornament and modern systems to help Architects in their work. This was due to economic changes when the Modern Movement began after the first world war, causing the need in Architecture to shift to buildings that could simply fulfil a function, leading Architects to disregard aesthetics. These effects spread, until every area of the industrialized world was made up of high, glossy blocks, and the invasive concrete became familiar (Thames and Hudson, 1980, pg 106).

Although this change fulfilled the needs of the times, it also caused a lot of controversy. An extract from the Classical Language of Architecture quotes: “What has happened to the language [of architecture]? The generally accepted view is that the Modern Movement killed it, and that is not far wrong.” Although this statement seems harsh, some modern Architects do believe that Classical Architecture is no longer relevant, and no longer fulfils a function as it did centuries ago, when the grandeur of Classical buildings was in high demand.

Louis Sullivan was an American Architect who was known for his beliefs that “Form follows function”, and this doctrine has been used to justify architecture that considers only utility (Roger Scruton, 2015), leaving no room for thoughts of order and harmony.

However, there have been architects who take a less extreme approach to this belief system. They agree that function needs to be the main concern when designing, but that we should also take into account the rules and systems that have been at the forefront of architecture from the classical era till the modern movement.

The example in figures 5-8, from the Wakefield Museum, designed by David Chipperfield, show perfectly how modern architecture can inspire and draw the viewer in, even whilst fulfilling its function – in this case, of allowing visitors to take in the work showcased in the museum.

Another modern Architect, Peter Behrens, took on the challenge of using steel to meet economical needs, whilst still bringing in classical features in his design of the Turbine Hall, Berlin, producing a prestigious building.

Therefore, it is clear that Classical and Modern Architecture have been, and can be, successfully combined to produce buildings that are functional and yet still follow the principles of order and control.


Chapter: Classical into Modern. The Classical Language of Architecture, London: Thames and Hudson, 1980

Architecture: Form, Space, and Order. Second Edition, Francis D.K. Ching 1996

Roger Scruton. 2015. Why Beauty Matters. Vimeo. Accessed on: [ November 2017]

Figure 1. Nottingham Council Building (Campos, 2017)

Figure 2. Nottingham Council Building (Campos, 2017)

Figure 3. Theatre Royal, Nottingham (Campos, 2017)

Figure 4. Theatre Royal, Nottingham (Campos, 2017)

Figure 5. Wakefield Museum (Campos, 2017)

Figure 6. Wakefield Museum (Campos, 2017)

Figure 7. Wakefield Museum (Campos, 2017)

Figure 8. Wakefield Museum (Campos, 2017)

How light can transform the appearance and perception of space

Lighting is an important design feature. In his book, ‘In Praise of Shadows’, Junichiro Tanizaki gives detailed explanations about the use of lighting in Japanese Interior Design. He comments on how light can change the way we perceive space, saying that it is indirect light that gives a room charm (Tanizaki, 1977, pg 30). Shadow is often overlooked in design, but Tanizaki points it out as a key feature: “the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows heavy shadows against light shadows – it has nothing else” (Tanizaki, 1977, pg 29). Shadow is important to interior spaces as it creates depth. Tanizaki understood the importance of the lighting in a design to produce the environment that has been intended for it, which can be linked to the philosophical concept of phenomenology.

Phenomenology is how you feel in a space (KU, 2017). Light has a physiological impact on people, which may be why it affects us so deeply in our environment (Dr Alan Lewis, 2016). Acknowledging the use of light in daily life is often subconscious. Nobody would expect to walk into a brightly lit night club. Nor would you feel comfortable walking into a dark home with few windows or open spaces. Le Corbusier, a well-known Architect, went as far as to say: “A house is only habitable when it is full of light and air.”

So, light can be manipulated to achieve the desired atmosphere within a design.

The Pitcher and Piano pub, at the centre of Nottingham, is a good example of a design where lighting has been effectively incorporated into a space. Turning a church, where people would once have come to worship, into a beautiful restaurant/bar, is a breathtaking design. The central feature is a bar, with glasses polished and lined up around it, reflecting the dim, warm glow coming from various, subtle lights. Above the bar hangs a chandelier with blue glass and silver ornaments, also reflecting the light in many directions around the room. The chandelier is clearly a feature of the refurbishment, and yet it feels like a perfect fit, setting off the room’s features. The pub still has certain features from the original design of the church, such as the stained-glass windows, also blue, and in symmetry with the central chandelier. The low lighting and the glass reflecting it create an atmosphere of relaxation and comfort. It is the feeling when walking into such a building which identifies it’s atmosphere, or ‘character’ – a particularly important step in determining the structure of a space (Norberg-Schulz, 2017, pg 7).

On the Pitcher and Piano floor plan (Fig 6) we can see that light has been used well, both natural light from the windows, and artificial light from lights set out around the whole building. This has the effect of keeping the lighting low, while preventing the room from being dark and gloomy. Both the natural light and artificial light bounce off the chandelier, as previously mentioned.

It is clear tha
t, if lighting is used effectively, it can create or transform the atmosphere of a space. With this in mind, many architects have used this technique to great effect.


Christian Norberg-Schulz.1980. Genius Loci: Towards a phenomenology of Architecture. New York: Rizzoli

Dr Alan Lewis. 2016. How Architecture uses Space, Light and Material to Affect your Mood. Kashmira Gander. Accessed on: [Nov 2017]

Junichiro Tanizaki. 1977. London. London: Vintage Books

KU. 2017. The theory of Phenomenology. Kansas. Accessed on: [Nov 2017]

Le Corbusier. 1931. Towards a New Architecture. London: John Rodker. Accessed on [Nov 2017)

Figure 1. Pitcher and Piano pub, Nottingham (Campos, 2017)

Figure 2. Pitcher and Piano pub, Nottingham (Campos, 2017)

Figure 3. Pitcher and Piano pub, Nottingham (Campos, 2017)

Figure 4. Pitcher and Piano pub, Nottingham (Campos, 2017)

Figure 5. Pitcher and Piano pub, Nottingham (Campos, 2017)

Figure 6. National Design Academy. 2014. Plan of Pitcher and Piano pub. Accessed on: [Nov, 2017]

Scale and Proportion in Architecture

Vitruvius believed that symmetry and proportion are necessary in creating principles in the design of a temple. This means there is a precise relation between each part, which he likens to the idea of a “well-shaped man” [Vitruvius M., De Architectura]. In Architecture, you cannot really understand a structure unless you know how its components interact, this means that knowledge of the principles used in a building are required (Muscato, 2017), but does that mean you need to know about the symmetry and proportion?

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) also agreed with Vitruvius’ beliefs on symmetry, and his architecture became significant in developing the idea of symmetry( . His famous drawing “The Vitruvian man”, was clearly taken directly from the words in Vitruvius’ book, De Architectura (Craven, 2017). Vitruvius says in his book: “in the human body the central point is naturally the navel. For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centred at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle.” Vitruvius begins with the navel, which is a central focal point, then all other elements are measured from that point. He found that the distance from a person’s feet to their head (height) is the same as the distance from one hand to the other (breadth), forming a perfect square (Vitruvius, 1874), showing the formation of the geometry – a method architects still use today.

Vitruvius also appeared to be obsessed with proportion, and he discovered a lot about this subject by sketching and studying human body proportions. He saw that the relationships between elements were also the mathematical relationships found in other parts of nature. Da Vinci believed these proportions found in nature are divine and therefore, are indeed, necessary.

Vitruvius believed that the central themes of Architecture are: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty). It is within the theory of venustas that Vitruvius introduces the idea that beauty may be learnt from nature’s designs, which are based on the laws of proportion and symmetry. He used the example of well- shaped men, showing that the ‘ideal’ human body fitted precisely into both a circle and a square (see fig. 1), linking perfect geometric forms and the perfect body, making the body a perfect base for all designs (British Library, 2017).

Another Architect, Le Corbusier, created a system known as ‘Modulor’, based on mathematics and the aesthetic dimensions of the Golden Section, as well as human body proportions, which work as functional dimensions. Le Corbusier felt that his system could maintain the human scale in any design, and was not just a series of numbers producing harmony. He claimed it could solve standardisation problems. However, as time passed, his system attracted less and less interest.

The fact that interest in these systems changes over time, suggests that these systems, although helpful to individual Architects in their personal journey and creative designs, are not necessarily the §only way to introduce scale and proportion in Architecture.


British Library, 2017, Vitruvius’s Theories of Beauty [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 06 November 2017]

Klaus Mainzer. 1996. Symmetries of Nature: A Handbook for Philosophy of Nature and Science [Ebook]. New York: Walter de Gruyter. Available via: [Accessed November 2017], 2017, Symmetry in Architecture [Online]. Christopher Muscato. Available at: [Accessed 06 November 2017], 2017, Symmetry and Proportion in Design [Online]. Jackie Craven. Available at: [Accessed 06 November 2017]

Viruvius M., 1874, The Architecture, Book III [Online]. The Warburg institute. Translated by Gwilt J., Available at: [Accessed November 2017]

Figure 1. De Vinci, 1487. The Vitruvian Man. Accessed on: [Nov 2017]

Figure 2. Le Corbusier, 1943, Modulor Man. Accessed on: [Nov 2017]

Figure 3. Home design, 2017. The Golden Section Architecture. Accessed on: [Nov 2017]

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