Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Neo-classicist Architecture. Traditionalism. Historicism

In theory at least modernism negated all forms of the historical styles, while at the same time cultivating the idea of the building as a machine. It was this line of thought that later led to the idea of hightech architecture, an early example of which is the Pompidou Centre in Paris, designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. By contrast, post-modernism took another route, by returning to the use of ornamentation and decoration, although usually not by simply copying historical details, but rather by applying the spirit and essence of historical styles.

Neo-classicist architecture used classical themes, principles and forms in loose associations, reminiscent of but not identical to historical patterns. Consequently, the style is quite diversified and its variants have been labelled as freestyle, canonic, metaphysical, narrative, allegoric, nostalgic, realist, revivalist, urbanist, eclectic, etc. (Jencks, 1987). The buildings of Ricardo Bofill in Montpellier, Marne-la-Vallée and Saint Quentin en Yvelines, seem nearest to classicism in detail and composition (d’Huart, 1989). Although his designs reflect historical architecture, he prescribed construction by using prefabricated concrete components. The oeuvre of several other architects also belongs to this trend, even if the respective approaches may differ greatly. Robert A.M. Stern, Allan Greenberg, Demetri Porphyrios, James Stirling and Leon Krier and Robert Krier may be mentioned as outstanding representatives of the style. A questionable application of historical models, in the form of ‘gated communities’, appears in some countries, imitating the castle concept with a fence, moat and controlled entrance but applying the concept for the purpose of elitist dwellings.

Les Espaces d’Abraxas, Marne-la-Vallée, France, 1979–83, architect: Ricardo Bofill.
Neohistoric architecture designed with pre-cast concrete components.

Paradoxically, a nostalgic form of architectural historicism happened to emerge in some of the most advanced industrialized countries, sometimes appealing to popular taste. In the United Kingdom, the style found an influential and high-profile advocate in the person of the Prince of Wales, whose intervention led to the annulment of a competition for the extension of the National Gallery, London, in which the jury’s preference for the modernist design by the firm Ahrends Burton and Koralek was set aside.

The Prince, reflecting a popular mood of the time, led his attack against modernism in defence of historicizing architecture at his 1984 Gala Address at the Royal Institute of British Architects with his question: ‘Why has everything got to be vertical, straight, unbending, only at right angles and functional?’ Under his influence, which found considerable public support in the UK, many buildings of contemporary function, such as supermarkets and shopping centres, which until then were designed to resemble barns, acquired a direct, even occasionally out of context, visual association with historical, vernacular architecture. In 1989 Prince Charles formulated the ten principles upon which we can build as follows:
  • the place: respect for the land
  • hierarchy: the size of buildings in relation to their public importance and the relative significance of the different elements which make up a building
  • scale: relation to human proportions and respect for the scale of the buildings aroundthem
  • harmony: the playing together of the parts
  • enclosure: the feeling of well-designed enclosure
  • materials: the revival and nurturing of local materials
  • decoration: reinstatement of the arts and crafts
  • art: study of nature and humans
  • signs and lights: effective street lighting, advertising and lettering
  • community: participation of people in their own surroundings.

The ideas of Prince Charles certainly encouraged traditionalists but they never became the sole inspiring force in architecture (Hutchinson, 1989). Charles’s attack on the modernist projects submitted for the expansion of the London National Gallery resulted in a new project prepared by architects Venturi, Scott and Brown. The new design contains classicist but non-functional columns and it is only the architects’ high-quality work that has saved the building from becoming pure kitsch.

In skilful hands, however, historicizing architecture could be quite subtle. For example, the new building of the Stuttgart New State Gallery, designed by James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Partners (1977–84), alludes to Schinkel’s museum designs from over a century before with considerable flair, showing that old motifs can be brought back and meaningfully transformed in harmony with modern application. In another example, the façade of the administrative building in Portland, Oregon, by Michael Graves (1980–82) makes a neo-classicist impression, without using any authentic historical detailing (Graves, 1982). Neo-classicism, therefore, may appear with different features. Some further outstanding examples in this category are the buildings designed by the American Robert A.M. Stern, the Californian Getty Museum designed by Richard Meier, the New York AT&T building designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. Papadakis treats in one of his books (Papadakis, 1997) the designs of twenty architectural practices and five projects of urbanism, all inspired by ‘modern classicism’.

Sebestyen, Gyula. 2003. New Architecture and Technology.

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