Classicism in Architecture

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Classicism is a movement that manifested in many domains such as painting, sculpture, music and philosophy, and when it comes to architecture this movement had its start point in the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. From here it was used through history until nowadays.

This essay will begin by taking a look at the meaning of the word ‘classicism’ when it is applied to architecture, in the first part the focus being placed on the origins of the movement and the differences between the Greek and Roman methods of building and decorating, the second part consisting in classicism’s progression in the history of architecture and how it influenced the architecture which can be seen today.

Many definitions can be attributed to the word ‘classicism’, especially when it refers to the vast domain of architecture. In a short sentence, it can be said that a building it is classical when its decorative elements come directly or indirectly from the architecture of the ancient world, ancient world meaning the time in antiquity when the Greek and Roman culture formed and evolved. However this definition is only on the surface. With its help it can be understood how the classical architecture looks at a first glance, but a deeper definition explaining in great detail which is the essence of it or what the ‘classical’ term really means can’t be truly given. (Summerson, 1963, p7-18)

In the classical architecture’s elements can be observed the very use of arithmetical functions and proportion which makes them to be connected perfectly with each other, not only by construction, seen in the whole structure of buildings, but also aesthetically. In this way, it can be suggested that the principal goal of the classical architecture is to create a harmony within the building’s component parts and to make it stand out because of this aspect.

The ‘classic’ term has its origins in the ancient times, in the Greek and Roman architecture, where the specific classical elements were used for the first time, elements that can be classified into three principal orders: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and after the Renaissance another two orders being reanalysed and added, the Tuscan and the Composite orders (Figure 1). But first, it should be clear the context in which this architectural style appeared.

In the end of the second millennium BCE, Greece experienced a change due to a number of waves of Aryan linguistic population. Due to this process of infiltration, the ‘Dorian’ civilisation arose. In this way were created two dialects, Doric and Ionic, the first one being found in mainland ‘Hellas’, whereas the second one went from Attica to the islands. Linked with these two languages were the two principal categories of Hellenes, separated as Dorians and Ionians. It can be understood that as a result the two strands of Classical art created in Ionia and in the mainland of Greece, began to be labelled as Ionic and Doric. (Tadgell, 2007, p337-412)

Each one of these two types of population had different beliefs, this being reflected in their architectural styles as well as other domains.

On one hand the Dorians were preoccupied by the male body, mainly because of the god of the sky, which they believed to be a man. In this way their Doric order (Figure 2) inspired strength through its simplicity and solidity. The Doric Order Column can be recognized by the frieze which alternates plain and sculpted metopes and triglyphs, whereas the capitals are very simple. The triglyphs from the entablature represent the heads of the wooden beams that were once used in the structure of the building, before the stone took its place. In this way it can be suggested that the Doric order is a reinterpretation of the old methods of construction, the timber being replaced with stone.

On the other hand, the Ionians tried to suggest the characteristics of a woman through the Ionic order, because their belief in the earth-mother-goddess, which offered them fertility and growth. Like they did in their other arts such as sculpture, the Ionians combined balance with emotion into creating their final Order of architecture. The main change of the Doric order that appeared in the Ionic order was the lightness of the column (Figure 3). To be able to express the ideal maiden with the help of the column, they needed to make it slender and lighter but in the same time the load sustained by the columns needed to be lighter too and richer in decorative mouldings. An element that took a different approach was the capital of the column. Different from the Doric order, the Ionic one’s distinctive feature is the embellishment. The source of inspiration for it isn’t really known, some people suggesting that it resembles ram horns, other ones relating it to the curled tendrils of a vine.

If these two orders evolved from the Dorians and Ionians, the third Order, the Corinthian, developed in the Greek city of Corinth, even though the architectural historian Vitruvius says that it was drawn by an Athenian who drew acanthus leaves emerging from a votive basket (Figure 4). An early example of Corinthian order is the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, located near the Acropolis in Athens.

Besides the three main orders, another characteristic of the Greek architecture was the plan. It was based on rigorous rules of proportion which were also applicable to all the other parts of the construction. The plan was composed of an outer colonnade which was surrounding the inner sanctuary, consisting of the pronaos entrance, the principal naos room, and the opisthodomos behind. In the same time the Ancient Greek Architecture is represented by the timber-post-and-beam construction in stone. (Davidson Cragoe, 2008, p25-27)

Overall, the Greek architecture consisted mainly of the stone constructions, the buildings that survived being mostly temples. As an example, the classic architectural style can be observed perfectly in the Parthenon, which was a temple dedicated to the Goddess Athena. This building represents the climax of the Doric order, even if it presents some Ionic architectural features, and because of this it has a big importance being a big part of the Classical Greece.

Meanwhile, the second ancient culture that developed being influenced by the classicism was the Roman civilisation.

The Roman architecture was influenced by the Greek architecture directly but also indirectly because of their Etruscan neighbours, the Etruscan architecture being continuously inspired by the Greeks. To this extent a new type of architecture was created by Romans, a more decorated and elaborated architecture which was specific for their opulent style of life. The order that was developed and used for most of their buildings was the Corinthian order, mainly because of all the decorations attributed to this particular style. It can also be observed the use of the Composite order in a small number of buildings, order that combined a bigger number of decorative elements, for example the capital of the columns could have both the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian order and the volutes of the Ionic order.

One of the principal differences was the use of new technologies, the arch and the vault (Figure 5), instead of the post and lintel structure, technologies that offered them many new possibilities and successes reminding of aqueducts of Rome, Baths of Diocletian and Baths of Caracalla, basilicas and of course the Colosseum and the Pantheon. These buildings were replicated in all of the other small cities as a proof that they were part of the great Roman Empire.

A memorable ancient roman structure that shows not only the use of the new technologies but also the classical style is the Colosseum (Figure 6). It is a building that was used to host a big number of events of small or big scale. Even if a part of the Colosseum was affected by different situations which resulted in half of the construction collapsing, in the exterior it can still be observed the use of all the three orders. On the ground floor there is the Doric order, on the first floor the Ionic order, on the second floor the Corinthian order and on the attic there are Corinthian pilasters. (Connolly, 2003)

Another innovation was the use of the dome in the construction. The building that best represents this new structural achievement is the Pantheon (Figure 7). The later architecture was inspired by its interior decorations and huge dome. Speaking of the exterior, it can be seen that the classical harmony resulted from the use of the Corinthian order columns is present at the entrance in the building. The Pantheon’s main purpose was to serve as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome and it remained in that place at a demonstration of the Roman Empire’s power.

Despite the fact that there were a big number of differences between the Roman and Greek cultures, both of them were attracted by the strength and harmony given by the Classical architecture with its right proportions and beautiful decorations, fact still observable nowadays in the buildings that survived through history.

After the Classicism of the Greeks and Romans, the official religion of the Roman Empire became the Christianity in 326 CE, aspect that meant a new change in the society and as well in architecture. Because of this were born the Early Christian and Byzantine style which somehow replaced the classical movement, mainly in the religious buildings. This introduced the aisled basilica, the central domed basilica and the Christian capital was inspired by the Corinthian one but it was more simple and stylised (Figure 8). (Davidson Cragoe, 2008, p28-29)

Later, the 11th and the 12th century were dominated by a new architectural style known under the name of Romanesque. The elements that characterise this style are the thick walls and the round arches, and also the use of heavy decoration, usually being used geometric motifs and grotesque animal or human forms.

Starting from the 12th century the architecture witnessed a style that had as the main innovation the use and development of the pointed arch (Figure 9). Its name was the Gothic style and for the first time it appeared in France. Specific for the Gothic, there can be observed massive structural elements such as the rib vaults and the flying buttresses from outside, as well as beautifully decorated windows, tall towers with spires and the front rose window. This style lasted until the 15th century when it ended suddenly, its place being taken by Renaissance.

The Italian architects came back to the Classical style during the 15th century in the form of a new movement, known as Renaissance, in this way refusing the further advancement of the Gothic style. Therefore in the Italian architecture were revived the Orders, the strong horizontal entablature, flat ceiling and many other classical elements.

Filippo Brunelleschi was the one who initiated this new movement, firstly in Florence, spreading very fast in other Italian cities. The Renaissance was a style focused on symmetry, proportion and geometry, the same as the Greek and Roman classicism. The orders began to be used again, especially Doric and Corinthian orders. The use of these two was well thought because each of them had unique visual properties. The Doric order gave a strength sensation whereas the Corinthian order inspires beauty through its decorations. Also there were buildings that combined these two orders, for example the Rucellai Palace in Florence where can be observed the Doric order being used on the ground floor and the Corinthian order above it (Figure 10).

The Renaissance advanced throughout Europe in the 16th century and in the beginning of the 17th century, period in which architects took classical motifs and reinvented them creating the Baroque style and in the early 18th century the Rococo style which appeared for the first time in Paris, France.

The Baroque took aspects from the Renaissance and modified them to inspire the success of the Catholic Church. Its characteristics were the new experimentation of form, light and shadow and a dramatic sensation. The church of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Figure 11), in Rome, designed by an important baroque architect named Francesco Borromini, is a perfect example of this style. On the other hand, Rococo architecture was a lighter, more beautiful and elaborate version of Baroque architecture. It can be observed in a big number of buildings from Russia, Portugal, Germany and France.

In the middle of the 18th century Europe began to witness a neoclassical movement which brought with it the neoclassical architectural style still used nowadays. In this period of time the people were more interested in the study of the past beginning to analyse more closely the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome as well as the original rules and proportions given by the ancient architecture, together with the original five orders.

The Greek revival was very famous in the United States and France, in these two areas being called the Federal style. It was seen as a republican solution for the decay of the Roman architecture and its follower styles like the Baroque and Rococo styles.

In the same time in other buildings can be seen the unification of the Greek, Roman and Renaissance elements into creating a beautiful and visual balanced building. A good example is the Comédie-Française theatre in Paris (1787-1790) (Figure 12).

Like any other architectural style, even if it was so popular in the United States and France, the neoclassical style spread in many countries. A big number of buildings in which can be noticed the usage of this style exist right now in Italy, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia, Russia and more. Some examples can be the entrance to the Palazzo Serbelloni (1775-1794) by Cantoni in Milan, Italy, Knobelsdorff: German State Opera (1741-1743) and St. Hedwig’s church (1747-1773) in the Opernplatz, Berlin, Germany (Figure 13), and the exterior of the Sheremetev Palace, Ostankino (1790s), near Moscow, Russia, by Quarenghi. (Watkin, 1986, p391-438)

The Palladian architecture is another architectural style formed by the influence of Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), a well-known Venetian architect. He was influenced by the classical movement of Greece and Rome. In this way, the new architectural style kept characteristics from the ancient period and used them. Two good examples are the Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House, London, which is a representative building for the Palladian style, and Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia rotunda in Charlottesville (Figure 14).

In many constructions that we see today elements inspired by classical architecture still exist. Even if these don’t represent a big part of the whole building, classical aspects like those specific proportions and decorations give the building a balanced and harmonious feeling. In a way it can be considered that the main reason of the usage and popularity of the architectural classicism is given by the unity and conformity created in the final constructions. A good example is the Chrysler Building in New York (Figure 15), whose arched forms are influenced by Classical models and reinterpreted, in spite the fact that the other geometrical shapes from this building are characteristic of the Art Deco style. (Davidson Cragoe, 2008, p47)

In conclusion it can be said that the harmony and order discovered in the ancient Greece and Rome as a result of the usage of the classical style, stand at the base of many of the architectural styles that followed this particular one. Even if the classicism went through approximately two millenniums, it is still considered one of the most influential styles which inspired and still inspires a big number of architects worldwide.

List of figures

Figure 1 - The Five Orders of Architecture with Pedestals. Creator: Smith, G. L. – Engraver (

Figure 2 - Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, Greece, 449-415 BC, photo- © Sharon Mollerus / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (

Figure 3 - The Ionic Order. From Priene, Asia Minor ([email protected]@29759-h@[email protected])

Figure 4 - Corinthian Columns, the basilica in Esztergom. Picture ©Christopher Walker (

Figure 5 - Arch at the Aquincum Amphitheatre ( Aquincum_Amphitheatre_04.jpg)

Figure 6 - The Colosseum ©2003 (

Figure 7 - The Pantheon in Rome, © (

Figure 8 - Fifth Century Byzantine capital & Shadyside capital showing Corinthian influence (

Figure 9 - Gothic pointed arch (

Figure 10 - Palazzo Rucellai in Florence © Daniele Boggiani (

Figure 11 - The church of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, © Aaron R. (

Figure 12 - Comédie-Française theatre in Paris, © OTCP – Amélie Dupont (

Figure 13 - Knobelsdorff: German State Opera and St. Hedwig’s church in the Opernplatz, Berlin, Germany, Engraving by Johann David Schleuen – 1742 (

Figure 14 - Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia rotunda in Charlottesville

© Arthur Griffin (

Figure 15 - Chrysler Building, Manhattan, ©Art Deco World ( York City 129 - medium - 29042000.GIF)

List of references

Connolly P. (2003).Colosseum Rome's Arena of Death. London: BBC Books. p10-66.

Davidson Cragoe C. (2008). A grammar of style. In: Caroline Earle How to read Buildings A crash course in architecture. London: Herbert Press. p25-29, p47.

Summerson J. (1963). The Essentials of Classicism. In: Sir John Summerson and the British Broadcasting CorporationThe Classical Language of Architecture. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. p7-18.

Tadgell C. (2007). The Classical World. In: Christopher Tadgell Antiquity Origins, Classicism and the New Rome. Oxon: Routledge. p367-412.

Watkin D. (2011). The rise of neo-classicism in France. In: Barbara MercerA History of Western Architecture. 5th ed. London: Laurence King. p391-438.