Essay: Why is Classical Architecture Still Relevant?

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  • Subject area(s): Architecture essays
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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

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