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The Battle Over Post-Modern Buildings

Committed to Classicism: The Building of Downing College Cambridge

by Cinzia Maria Sicca, with contributions by Charles Harpum and Edward Powell, photography, design, and production by Tim Rawle
Downing College, 226 pp., £20.00

Quinlan Terry: The Revival of Architecture

by Clive Aslet
Viking, 223 pp., $45.00

Classical Architecture: The Poetics of Order

by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre
MIT Press, 306 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Dilemma of Style: Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern

by J. Mordaunt Crook
University of Chicago Press, 348 pp., $45.00

Post-Modernism: The New Classicism in Art and Architecture

by Charles Jencks
Rizzoli, 360 pp., $65.00


“Do you seriously imagine, reader, that any living soul in London likes triglyphs? or gets any hearty enjoyment out of pediments?” When John Ruskin asked this question in 1851 the answer was far less obvious than he wished to suggest. For most people, then as now, it was capitals, columns, and the other components of the classical orders—Doric, Tuscan, Ionic, Corinthian, or Composite—that signified Architecture with a capital A. Unornamented structures ranging from low-cost and lower-class housing to large warehouses and factories, not to mention the recently completed Crystal Palace, were excluded. Buildings in medieval styles were few and, apart from churches, remained exceptional throughout the century—rather more so than modern historians of architecture tend to suggest when they write of the Gothic revival. In 1859, when the notorious battle of styles was being waged around a project for new government offices in London, the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, described Gilbert Scott’s eclectic Gothic design as “frightful and disagreeable looking.” He wanted something “gay and cheerful,” something specifically Italianate; and the architect was deeply hurt when he found himself obliged to comply with a neo-Renaissance–style palazzo adorned with pilasters and pedimented windows for what is now the Foreign Office.

Memories of that battle were recently revived by the heated controversy over the extension to the National Gallery in London. The design by Robert Venturi and partners that was finally accepted, after the intervention of the Prince of Wales against a Modernist design, is an example of Post-Modern classicism. And it has been attacked by two parties no less hostile to one another. Most members of the architectural profession, especially those who competed unsuccessfully for the commission, would have preferred an unornamented Modern-style building. The others, mainly journalists, wanted a classicism that was frankly revivalist—not Post-Modern—and complained that Venturi had not gone the whole hog. They would, no doubt, have favored a design in the manner of the British architect Quinlan Terry—a dyed-in-the-wool revivalist who uses traditional materials and techniques as well as the whole repertory of classical ornament—for a building that would unequivocally recall the time when Britain was still the land of hope and glory. What worried them about Venturi’s designs were such deviations from tradition as the uncanonical treatment of the Corinthian order of pilasters continued from the façade of the old National Gallery building designed by William Wilkins in the 1830s: they detected a note of irony, perhaps reflecting on the plight of post-imperial Britain.

The various current revivals of classical architecture cannot be dissociated from attempts in other fields to assert the preeminence of Eurocentric Western culture. Its orders evolved in Greece in a period of astonishing brevity—fifth to fourth century BC—became an essential part of a system that was to distinguish the buildings of Europe from those of any other part of the world, and conditioned all Western notions of architectural structure and proportions—usually unconsciously. To many Westerners, Hindu temples appear badly rather than just differently proportioned. Similarly, the Western notion of the beauty of the human figure, when alive or represented in art, can be traced back to an ideal formulated in classical sculpture and, again, related proportionally to classical architecture.

The classical language of architecture, as finally formulated in ancient Rome, had the same power as Latin to survive. There are reminiscences of its proportional relationships as well as its embellishments in Gothic buildings. But the period in which Gothic prevailed throughout Europe was relatively brief in the longue durée—little more than two centuries. Since the Renaissance the whole classical system of column, capital, and entablature has been in constant use. Indeed, it might be difficult to find during the past half-millennium a decade or even a single year in which the classical orders were not being applied to some building, somewhere. Architectural historians have, nevertheless, paid scant attention to those erected since the midnineteenth century, partly because they fall outside the supposed mainstream flowing ineluctably toward the International Modern Style, also because of their limited aesthetic appeal. Selfridge’s department store on Oxford Street, London, with its gigantic order of Ionic columns, begun in 1907 (two years before Peter Behrens’s AEG factory in Berlin) and completed in 1928 (two years after Gropius’s Bauhaus at Dessau), is regarded as no more than a meretricious commercial building, even though the distinguished Chicago architect D.H. Burnham was involved in its design.

Until well after World War II in Britain study of the classical orders was an essential part of an architect’s training. Ability to draw them was required for entry into all the main architectural schools, as was a knowledge of Latin for admission to Oxford or Cambridge. (My incompetence as a freehand draftsman prevented me from applying in 1945.) In the interwar period buildings incorporating classical elements greatly outnumbered those in the International Modern Style, which had few supporters even within the small intellectual elite that admired modern painting, sculpture, music, and literature. The general view is accurately reflected in Evelyn Waugh’s account in Decline and Fall (1928) of the architect Otto Friedrich Silenus:

“The problem of architecture as I see it,” he told a journalist who had come to report on his surprising creation of ferro-concrete and aluminum, “is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from all consideration of form.”

After the war, Modernists obtained commissions for some public buildings and large residential complexes, but their work was hampered by lack of funds and the results were usually drab. Those that were not—such as Alison and Peter Smithson’s fine Economist Building of 1964 in St. James’s Street in London—aroused a public outcry.

Meantime, large classical-style buildings went on being built in England, though by the 1950s the lovers of triglyphs and pediments had begun to concentrate on conservation and restoration—especially of country houses. Many were members of the Georgian Group, an association that lobbied for the protection of eighteenth-century buildings (too indiscriminately to be always successful). Dressed in tweed skirts and twin-sets (cardigan and pullover), sports jackets and cavalry twill trousers, they inspected stately homes, and their chatter reverberates in the memory. “What an adorable swan-neck pediment, my dear,” “Such delicate dentils,” “Crippled by death duty, dontyeknow,” might be heard from beneath the elms across the widely sloping lawns, as well as more arcane observations—“They say that only the east facade was by Kent,” or “No, it was the fifth earl’s younger son who….” From this upstairs-downstairs world the current revival of classical architecture in Britain emerged and this differentiates it sharply from Post-Modern classicism in continental Europe and the United States. In England it is intimately connected with the so-called Heritage Industry.

The recently completed neo-Georgian–style Howard Building by Quinlan Terry at Downing College, Cambridge, is symptomatic and it is given prominence—as the happy ending to a troubled story!—in the architectural history of Downing College, Committed to Classicism by Cinzia Maria Sicca. It is extolled in Clive Aslet’s biography of Terry, subtitled The Revival of Architecture, tout court. And it has been praised as well as sometimes deplored in the architectural press. That so small and undistinguished a structure should attract such attention may well astonish anyone outside the British Isles.

Until recently, Downing College was known mainly as the lair of F.R. Leavis, whose stern evaluations of literature enraged the old guard of Cambridge belletrist dons and heads of houses as much as they inspired undergraduates. Otherwise Downing was outside, and kept outside, the social and intellectual mainstream of the university: it did not produce a single spy. Nor was it on the tourist beat, though stray visitors who penetrated the gates could hardly fail to be impressed by its buildings of warm yellow stone spaced out around well-kept lawns with tall trees—a true grove of Academe conducive to the pursuit of pure scholarship and contemplation of the Absolute.

The general conception and basic design, which were to have far-reaching influence especially in the US as the first “campus” plan—it preceded Jefferson’s University of Virginia by more than a decade though Jefferson seems to have been unaware of it—were the result of the first of those public disputes that mark the history of nineteenth-century architecture in England. During a protracted legal wrangle over the endowment, before the foundation of the college in 1800, James Wyatt had his eye on the commission. He was one of the most successful and versatile English architects of the day and, with a royal appointment, head of the profession. But the designs he submitted were somewhat surprisingly referred to Thomas Hope, a rich, still fairly young (thirty-five years old) dilettante who had traveled in Greece, assembled a notable collection of classical antiquities, and designed the interior of his London house to display them.

Still more surprisingly, Hope replied not in a personal letter but in a pamphlet in which Wyatt’s designs were referred to as “trite, commonplace, nay, often vulgar.” Their main fault was that, like most classical buildings of the time, they derived from “the degraded architecture of the Romans” rather than “the purest style of the Greeks.” Hope’s words ensured their rejection and gave encouragement to then nascent Greek Revival. Although there was to be no formal competition, several architects came forward with proposals and the commission went to the twenty-six-year-old William Wilkins, who had no theoretical training or practical experience but had spent two years traveling around the Mediterranean studying ancient Greek buildings before being elected a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Wilkins’s knowledge of the Greek Doric and Ionic orders is displayed in his meticulous drawings for Downing (well cataloged in Sicca’s book). But it was his plan that was so remarkable and wholly original, being quite unlike that of any of the earlier Oxbridge colleges: eleven detached buildings linked by low screens, ranged around a large turfed quadrangle, and set within a belt of trees. It was, as already mentioned, the first “campus” plan. Work began in 1807, but only two ranges of buildings had been erected by 1821, when money ran out. No more was done until 1873, when the architect Edward Middleton Barry (son of the more distinguished Sir Charles) tidied up the finished parts with due respect for Wilkins’s designs, though he unfortunately filled in the gaps to provide additional accommodation. More substantial additions—four blocks of rooms—were begun in 1930 to the design of Sir Herbert Baker (collaborator with Lutyens at New Delhi), who also designed a long range with a Greek Ionic portico in the center, closing the third side of the quadrangle (built with some modifications in 1950–1953). In 1964 a new senior combination room was needed and William Howell and partners, who favored a kind of tamed Brutalism, were chosen as architects.

The result is a building related to Wilkins’s designs in its proportions, with precast concrete piers that suggest columns and a roof that suggests broken pediments but no classical details—a compromise between Modernism and classicism just hovering above two stools. It was well received, though one critic commented that the skillful design neatly avoided the struggle “to find canons that can be more meaningful for our own times.” No such problem perplexed Quinlan Terry when he set about designing the Howard Building in 1983. (See illustration on opposite page.)

Terry made a more decisive break than Howell with Wilkins’s original designs. He believes that the principles of classical architecture were divinely inspired, and also that his own expanding practice is providentially promoted by “the One who gives success” (as Clive Aslet records). Antirationalist as well as anti-Modernist, he seems to have recognized the design by Wilkins as a product of the Enlightenment, embodying ideas similar to those of the Functionalists, and therefore to be eschewed, on two counts, as the work of the devil. For this reason Terry reverted to pre-Neoclassical classicism and his building evokes an early eighteenth-century country house by some amateur architect who had made the Grand Tour—though one that only the most ardent of Georgian Groupers would have thought to “mérite le détour.” It is an assemblage of classical elements on four façades.

One curious feature is indicative of his attitude: whereas Barry, Baker, and even Howell had all set columns and pilasters on stylobates of the height determined by Wilkins, Terry on one side of the building perversely raised his Corinthian order on a high pedestal and on the other based a Tuscan colonnade on the ground. This curious lack of grace accompanies a strange insensitivity to scale and proportion that can be felt in all of Terry’s work and accounts for the toy-like air his buildings have. They look smaller than they really are—an effect very noticeable at Downing, where the Howard Building seems almost to cower beside its neighbors, though they are in fact no higher. The best that can be said of it is that the craftsmanship of stone cutting is excellent and the traditional materials are of superior quality to those commonly used, ensuring survival into the third millennium—either as one of the first manifestations of a new direction in British architecture (which is what its critics fear) or merely as some kind of Thatcherite folly.

While the Howard Building was going up a competition was launched for designs for a new wing of the National Gallery in London, another building by Wilkins with, coincidentally, additions at the back by E.M. Barry. Whereas Downing was the first and by far the most interesting of Wilkins’s works, the National Gallery of 1833–1838 was virtually the last and has never had many admirers. The façade of thirteen bays is bitty, with a pedimented Corinthian portico in the center, two subsidiary porticos, two pavilions with pilasters, and, to make the design “still more ‘interesting,’ ” as Sir John Summerson cruelly remarked, a dome and two turrets “like the clock and vases on a mantlepiece, only less useful.”

Wilkins did not have as free a hand as he had had at Downing. Funds had to be squeezed out of the government and he won the commission by putting in an unrealistically low estimate. As an economy measure he was obliged to use some columns from the portico of the recently demolished Carlton House. (Even so an opposition M.P. declared at the time that the country “should not be called upon to erect palaces for the exhibition of works of the Fine Arts, when a famishing population was crying for bread.”) These extenuating circumstances should perhaps be borne in mind.

The designer of any addition to the National Gallery must, of course, take into account all the peculiarities of the building and its site and of its neighbors. Indeed the trustees of the gallery, in their original brief, specifically recommended that the height, scale, massing, and finish of its neighbors be respected. Trafalgar Square is no masterpiece of urbanism. The southern side is a muddle. On the north, reading from west to east, there is Canada House (1822–1827, remodeled 1925), with chaste Greek Ionic porticos by Sir Robert Smirke (a lifelong rival of Wilkins); the multicolumned and pilastered National Gallery (1833–1838); St. Martin-in-the-Fields (1722–1726) by Gibbs, with its spire-topped portico; and South Africa House (1935), with an engaged portico by the ubiquitous Sir Herbert Baker. The site for the extension thus has columns to the right of it (including those on the next building in the street leading to Pall Mall), columns to the left of it, and the biggest column of all in the center of the square. Much the same might, in fact, be said of practically any other site in London’s West End, where buildings using the classical elements are astonishingly thick on the ground.

When, after years of indecision, the trustees of the National Gallery solicited designs for an extension, they proposed that it should cost the taxpayer nothing. It was to be financed by a real-estate development company which would have the right to lease the lower floors as shops and offices, and no fewer than seventy-nine such companies submitted designs. Short-lists were made and, eventually, the public was invited to vote on seven, all in conspicuously modern styles. There was no winner, but one development company and its architects, led by Steffen Ahrends (a Bauhaustrained German long resident in South Africa), was asked to submit yet another design. They obliged with one for a Bauhauslich block and tall tower, which received the trustees’ approval, where-upon the Prince of Wales spoke out. He denounced it as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a well-loved friend” and the planning authorities refused permission for its erection.

The situation was saved by the millionaire Sainsbury brothers, generous and also very discerning patrons of the arts (they had already sponsored Norman Foster’s High-Tech Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at Norwich) who offered to finance a building exclusively for the use of the Gallery. Six architects or groups of architects were invited to provide designs and the commission went to the Philadelphia-based firm of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown. Work on the site began early this year, the Prince of Wales laying the foundation stone. Not since the Prince Consort gave his approval to the Crystal Palace, ironically enough, has royalty and royal taste been so concerned with the design of a public building in England.

The designs for the Sainsbury Wing—as it is now called—have inevitably been much criticized in the press. Robert Venturi was previously known in England, if at all, as the author of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), that remarkable manifesto which did so much to modify our ways of looking at buildings. Practically every journalist referred to it and most of them misunderstood it, assuming that every element in Venturi’s design would be complex and contradictory. What Venturi had, in fact, done in his book was to call attention to qualities in the architecture of the past that had previously been ignored or regarded as defects—for instance the hidden tensions and even distortions in the Doric order through which, as Venturi points out, its vitality and apparent simplicity are achieved.

The main purpose of the Sainsbury Wing is, of course, to provide exhibition space for paintings—a lecture room, conference rooms, restaurant, book and postcard shop, etc. are secondary. It is one of the many recent buildings intended to house ever increasing public collections of works of art as demonstrations of a nation’s or a city’s respect for culture, a respect not always apparent in other ways. (How long this process can continue, and how desirable it is that it should, are other questions, too seldom asked.) During the past few years many of the world’s leading architects have been engaged in museum design: Richard Meier at Frankfurt, Hans Hollein at Mönchengladbach, Norman Foster at Norwich and Nîmes, Moshe Safdie at Ottawa, Renzo Piano at Houston, Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown at Seattle, Austin, and La Jolla as well as London, and there are several others. And new museums seem to have an irresistible attraction for the public. Crowds flocked to see James Stirling’s addition to the previously little-visited Staatsgalerie at Stuttgart while people stood in line for hours to see how the Gare d’Orsay in Paris had been transformed by Gae Aulenti rather than to look at the works of art, most of which had been on public exhibition in Paris for half a century.

No architect is more sensitive than Venturi to the needs of curators who look after, and the public that looks at, works of art. A lecture he gave in London at the Royal Society of Arts last year—just before the designs for the Sainsbury Wing were put on show—was devoted mainly to the problems of illumination (how to show pictures in daylight without damaging sunlight), the desirability of having windows that “make a gallery a room for art rather than a tomb for art,” and the need for rooms of different sizes, including some small enough for small pictures yet large enough to accommodate more than a few visitors. Not until the end of his lecture did he turn to the exterior and refer to the “inherent flexibility” of the classical orders “and their potential for achieving lively art.” Yet there cannot be much doubt that his partnership was awarded the commission mainly on account of their ingenious solution to the problem of the Trafalgar Square façade. A rejected project by James Stirling for a building of Egyptian monumentality might have sought too much to dominate its surroundings—like a star performer given a minor role in an amateur production. Venturi’s is, above all, an example of architectural tact.

The Wilkins façade of the National Gallery poses a problem for anyone aware, as Robert Venturi so keenly is, of the nuances of the classical language of architecture. It has none of the rigor displayed at Downing College. The indifference with which Wilkins seems to have accepted the Corinthian columns left over from the demolition of Carlton House (copied from an Athenian building then thought, wrongly, to have been of the fifth century BC) and the nonchalance with which he strung them out along a façade which in other respects bears little resemblance to anything Greek indicates the superficiality into which his early Hellenism had fallen. His façade can hardly be called neoclassical even, and Venturi and partners designed for it an extension in which the classicism is appropriately skin-deep.

They claim that they “started off by loving” the old building, the Prince’s “well-loved friend.” (Love is proverbially blind.) In the façade they noticed “subtle rhythms” previously unheard. They even found the portico inviting, though its limited accessibility up two flights of steps has, in fact, protected the gallery from turbulent crowds during the political demonstrations and New Year’s Eve rumpuses for which the square is notorious. But it is almost too easy to make fun of these and other remarks printed in the National Gallery’s handout on the design. What Venturi and partners have done is much more important. They have provided a most ingenious and well-judged complement to Wilkins’s building, hinting, almost, that he had also played sophisticated games with classical elements. For instance, their clustering of pilasters of the same order on the edge of the wing inflected toward the old building—with which it could not be on axis—to provide a crescendo, followed by a pause, a final strong note with the last pilaster, then a blind window and fadeout. The Venturi pilasters are, of course, decoratively symbolic and not even fictionally structural like those on the old building.

Quinlan Terry’s attitude would have been very different, for he believes the orders to be literally sacrosanct, derived by way of Solomon’s temple from instructions given by God to Moses for the construction of the Tabernacle. (A connection with Solomon’s temple had, of course, been proposed by Isaac Newton.) But his explanation of what classicism means—as quoted by Clive Aslet—is quite simpliste. “It means columns and capitals and cornices; it means pediments and pilasters and pinnacles; it means architraves and arches and archivolts.” This anthologizing of elements from the classical thesaurus, so evident in the Howard Building at Cambridge, has now been given fuller scope in his latest and largest work at Richmond, the riverside London suburb: fifteen attached buildings for offices and apartments in a variety of mock-eighteenth-century styles. It is presumably intended to recreate or at any rate look like a section of some well-preserved English provincial town with houses of different dates, building materials, systems of fenestration, heights, and types of roof. Such towns have undeniable charm for anyone with historical imagination, evoking the works of Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, and Jane Austen. But Richmond Riverside, as it is called, brings to mind rather the prettifying illustrations in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century editions of these writers, especially those by Hugh Thomson, of whom the literary pasticheur Austin Dobson remarked that his “hand is never so happy as when it works in the half-light of a bygone time.” The same might be said of Quinlan Terry. In a climate of industrial decline he presents a romanticized and falsifying view of the past.

Richmond Riverside is disturbing for its implications, its association with that creeping, chintzy monster the Heritage Industry, which seems to aspire to the transformation of England into one vast open-air museum. (The entire phenomenon is very well, if provocatively, discussed by Robert Hewison in The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline [London: Methuen, 1987].) Terry’s involvement is not direct, but as the leading neo-Georgian architect he has the heritage movement’s enthusiastic support and some of his smaller buildings—notably one intended as a landmark—have had explicit political significance. When a Labour government was threatening to introduce a (fairly modest) wealth tax the Honorable Alistair McAlpine, a director of one of the largest construction firms (it is now building the Sainsbury Wing) and treasurer of the Conservative party, commissioned from Terry a forty-foot-high Portland stone column erected near a road for all to see and bearing a Latin inscription stating that “this monument was built with a large sum of money, which would otherwise have fallen, sooner or later, into the hands of the tax-gatherers.” The charms of prewar Britain in the eyes of the upper-middle classes were, mainly, that taxes and school fees were low, travel on the continent absurdly inexpensive, and “everyone” had servants. Since Mrs. Thatcher came to power—McAlpine planned to erect a triumphal arch to celebrate the event but has not yet done so—many more such follies have been built. An enterprising firm prefabricates them, dry-cast and coated with a brushon aging compound, advertising a semiruined Tuscan Doric portico that is said to assist the “recreation of a pleasanter age.”


Classical architecture does not, of course, appeal only or primarily to nostalgia, nor can it be created simply by the ornamental use of antique motifs. In their important and very timely book, Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre discuss how “classical buildings are put together as formal structures.” They remark that “a disproportionately large amount of attention” has previously been given to the orders, which they somewhat tiresomely insist on calling “genera”; but much of what they say about them and their embellishments is original, interesting, and very much to the point today. For Tzonis and Lefaivre the triglyph despised by Ruskin is more than a conventional element in the sublimated carpentry of a Doric temple. Its vertical shafts are an instance of the Greek obsession with tripartite divisions—the beginning, middle, and end of a tragedy; the crepidoma—or stepped base—and the columns and entablature of a temple. As they remind us, the crepidoma usually has three steps, the column a base, shaft, and capital, the entablature an architrave, frieze, and cornice. Usually; but there are exceptions, notably the baseless Doric columns of the Parthenon.

An awkward problem is also presented by the alternation of triglyphs and square metopes in a Doric frieze. For while a colonnade begins and ends with a stressed member, the placing of a triglyph above the axis of each column and the center of each intercolumniation leaves the ends of the frieze unstressed. The architects of the Parthenon enlarged the last metope to an oblong and displaced the triglyph to the corner (see illustration), violating one rule in order to follow another of greater importance, thereby making one of the many subtle deviations that give the building its life. Other solutions were tried elsewhere, but four hundred years later Vitruvius was so troubled by what he regarded as an anomaly that he advised architects to steer clear of Doric altogether.

This may seem nowadays a minor point of no more than antiquarian interest, and it has usually been treated as such. As Tzonis and Lefaivre point out, however, it is an instance of the scope for experiment within the system that classical architecture offers. The system is proscriptive, not prescriptive. The great merit of their book is that it consistently presents the classical orders not as controlling factors but as expressions of an attitude toward architecture determined by an overriding demand for order and rationality in the organization of mass and space, and in the articulation of surfaces and of planning.

The book’s scope goes far beyond Greek and Roman buildings, and indeed in their preface the authors remark that it is partly the “outcome of a critical response to some current uses of classical architecture”—in other words to Post-Modern classicism. But they distinguish between what they call “citationism,” the application of classical motifs to unclassical structures, and “syncretism and metastatement,” in which “fragments of the classical canon are used as a means of questioning a dogmatic or quasiautomatic, routine application of the classical order,” as in, for example, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building.

Tzonis and Lefaivre’s book is in fact a distinctly Post-Modern appreciation of classicism seen in the light of De Stijl, Russian constructivism, and other Modernist movements and reflecting their preoccupations with, especially, planning and the articulation (rather than merely the ornamentation) of mass. It expands notably a system of formal analysis invented by Heinrich Wölfflin in connection with Renaissance and Baroque art and developed with regard to architecture by Paul Frankl, who took account of modernist trends. Frankl’s history of European architecture, published in 1914, focused attention on the ordering of space (Wölfflin’s “space composition”), the embodiment of structural forces in mass, the painterly effects buildings can make, and the social functions they can have. Such terminology, which Thomas Hope or John Ruskin would have found quite alien, was essential for the discussion of buildings stripped of ornament or any other reference to period styles.

The preoccupations of nineteenth-century architects and, especially, architectural writers are amply documented in Joseph Mordaunt Crook’s The Dilemma of Style. The subtitle, Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern, is somewhat misleading for the book is concerned with attitudes rather than ideas and almost exclusively with those of the British. Viollet-le-Duc is given brief attention, but there is no mention of the key work of the period, a booklet of 1828 by the architect Heinrich Hübsch, which posed the question to be reiterated throughout the rest of the century: In welchem Style sollen wir bauen? (In what style should we build?) Nor is there any mention of the book with the same title by Klaus Döhmer (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1976), which discusses the British “battle of styles” in its European context.

When Hübsch wrote, the concept of period styles shaped by the Zeitgeist had only recently begun to be widely accepted. Its diffusion encouraged the idea that every historical style had its own merits and none could be regarded as approaching that absolute ideal of beauty sought by Neoclassical architects. The choice open to architects and their patrons became ever wider and more perplexing with the expansion and fragmentation of the history of Western architecture into innumerable chronological and local styles. Hübsch answered his own question by choosing the German Romanesque or Rundbogenstil because he believed that it could best be developed to fulfill contemporary needs—the second horn of the architectural dilemma.

The nineteenth-century obsession with history had led not only to the imitation of past styles but also to the demand for one expressing a contemporary spirit and answering contemporary needs. One response, made mainly in Britain, was eclecticism. Alexander James Beresford Hope (son of Thomas Hope) opined in 1856 that the only “common-sense architecture for the future of England” was Gothic “cultivated in the spirit of progression founded upon eclecticism.” But he went on to ask: “What are we to eclect?”

Crook, who quotes the remark, is at his best on this topic, unraveling with great erudition and often with wit the origins of elements in Victorian buildings whether in medieval or classical styles—for eclecticism stopped at this barrier. The church of St. Augustine at Kilburn, London, for instance, is “outside, St. Etienne at Caen; inside, Albi with touches of Salisbury and Fountains.” Sir Aston Webb’s Birmingham University “mingles Byzantine and François Premier with an idiosyncratic version of the Palazzo Vecchio tower.” With this in mind, one can only hope that Crook is no prophet when he writes: “The twentieth century has had to rediscover what the nineteenth learned so painfully; eclecticism is the vernacular of sophisticated societies; architecture begins where function ends.”

There is a fundamental difference between the eclecticism of nineteenth-century and postmodern architects. The nineteenth-century architects resorted to it in a climate of historicism. Faith in a single ideal had faltered. “Doubt begat eclecticism,” as Baudelaire remarked in 1848. “Eclecticism has at all periods and places held itself superior to past doctrines, because, coming last on the scene, it finds the remotest horizons already open to it: but this impartiality only goes to prove the impotence of the eclectics.” Some of the styles taken up by later nineteenth-century architects were symbolically appropriate for different types of building; but they more often provided only a repertory of ornamental motifs—icing for the cake. In postmodern architecture—as it has been conceived by Venturi and Charles Jencks, for example—the elements drawn from diverse sources are absorbed, recast, and often transformed before being used. “Classical motifs are mixed with present-day elements and filtered through a sensibility which is responsive to the realities of our time,” Charles Jencks writes in his latest, longest, but, one hopes, not his last publication on the subject.

Crook is a pre-, or perhaps we should say extra-, Modernist: that is the strength of his book, which enables us to see Victorian buildings as the Victorians saw them. It follows his succinct study of the Greek Revival in Britain and a monumental biography of the most exuberant Gothic Revivalist, William Burges. Jencks is an internationally aware Post-Modernist, the inventor of the term so far as architecture is concerned and its first theorist. The London house that he has remodeled for himself in collaboration with Terry Farrell, also designing the furniture, might suggest that he is the Thomas Hope of the movement. Like the architects he writes about, he reached Post-Modernism through the International Modern movement and his previous books include a brilliant study of Le Corbusier. For him Post-Modern classicism is not simply a negation of functional minimalism and the machine aesthetic, still less the result of a swing in the pendulum of taste, but “a wider social protest against modernisation, against the destruction of local culture by the combined forces of rationalisation, bureaucracy, large-scale development and, it is true, the Modern International Style.” It is the product of overlapping sets of preoccupations, including “a commitment to anamnesis (i.e., the memory of past forms),” which Jencks detects in the work of many contemporary painters and sculptors as well as architects.

Several of the architects called Post-Modern would reject the label—in much the same way that Byron and Delacroix denied that they were Romantics. Indeed their relationship to the modern movement often recalls that of Romantic artists to the Neoclassicism in which they were trained and away from which they subsequently verged in different directions. Similarly diverse responses are possible to International Modernism, especially in its commercialized devaluations, with High Tech and the Crafts Revival at either end of the spectrum, the former suitable mainly for large-scale constructions, the latter for small and, inevitably, rather expensive work.

The Post-Modern classicism for which Jencks is a propagandist has the advantage of great flexibility. He gives prominence to the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill and his “workshop,” the Taller de Arquitectura, which are often and too facilely denigrated by British and American critics. Bofill’s monumental complexes at Montpellier and at St. Quentin-en-Yvelines near Versailles and Marne-la-Vallée outside Paris combine, with extraordinary dramatic panache, grandeur of form and pungency of detail, while organizing mass and space on a heroic, Piranesian scale. Perhaps Bofill’s most successful work to date is the smaller, though still by normal standards very large, urban development “Les Colonnes” in Montparnasse, Paris, where he has arranged an oval, a circular, and a semicircular “place” concentrically with connecting colonnades, all articulated with half-columns or pilasters. The Zac Guilleminot-Vercingétorix development through which it is approached is one of the deadliest sections of Parisian submodern office blocks and the contrast with Bofill’s pedimented windows and half-columns (sometimes of glass and steel) with Doric capitals and triglyphs above them could hardly define the meaning and merits of Post-Modern classicism more effectively.

The new classicism takes from its surroundings different meanings on either side of the Atlantic. Bofill’s pilasters in Paris and Venturi’s on the Sainsbury Wing in London defer to their settings in cities where past versions of classicism are prevalent. In Louisville, Kentucky, on the other hand, it is the skyscraper form of Michael Graves’s Humana Building that relates to its urban setting: the classical elements of its shaped masonry and setbacks give a human scale to its modernism, and do so with a gesture almost of defiance. But in whatever setting it is found the present-day revival of classicism may be felt to reflect wider and deeper, sometimes unconscious, sometimes suppressed, pressures and needs—the need to be given some sense of stability and order in a climate of decline and, above all, the need for some reassurance of the validity and preeminence of Western humanistic values.

From a British viewpoint classical architecture has never lost the association with power and dominion that it had from the very beginning, when, on the shores of the Mediterranean in the fifth century BC, Doric temples marked the Greek presence among the barbarians. Later, on the frontiers of the Roman Empire in North Africa, the Near East, and northern Europe, buildings with the classical orders indicated the imposition of the Pax Romana. Later still, and more notoriously, columns and entablatures and pediments symbolized European rule in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia—even in China, where the bund at Shanghai boasted a display of Edwardian classicism as imposing as anything in London.

After the departure of “the captains and the kings” the multinational corporations moved in with their high-rise blocks and this has now set off a Post-Modern reaction, though with reference to local traditions, to indigenous “classicisms.” In Sri Lanka, for instance, the government declared its independence by moving the parliament from a British classical building in Colombo to a new one outside the city designed by Geoffrey Bawa, whose sensitivity to traditional building types of the island, epecially their spreading, open plans and sailing roofs, he recreated brilliantly without denying himself the advantages of modern materials and technology. The new airport of Jakarta in Indonesia is likewise composed of local architectural elements: open Javanese pavilions known as pendopos, with tubular steel replacing wood. But such successful essays in Post-Modern traditionalism (what might be called the classicism of their respective countries) are exceptional outside Japan.

For anyone concerned with contemporary architecture a tour of Japan is, of course, essential. But a visit to Bangkok can also be instructive. On arrival from Europe one has to put one’s watch forward six hours and one’s calendar to the Buddhist year 2531, without necessarily any expectation of seeing the shape of things to come. However, the road from the airport soon passes a Toshiba factory’s façade with columns of concrete simulating red brick. There are large, colorful signboards advertising new middle-class suburban housing estates, some uncannily reminiscent of Quinlan Terry. Then the high-rise buildings of the city come into view, mainly faceless glass and concrete slabs. One, as it ascends, breaks out into all the colors of the rainbow from red to blue. Another is crowned by a Palladian style church-cum-villa with, for good measure, an attached open pavilion that combines the Athenian Tower of the Winds and the Choragic Monument of Lysikrates. (See illustration on this page.)

The twenty-one-story headquarters of the Bank of Asia—by the well-known Thai architect Sumet Jumsai who denies that he is Post-Modern—has been given the appearance of a robot with menacing eyes and, up its flanks, gigantic hexagonal nuts framing windows. And a tour of the city-center reveals a fantastic range of Western styles—a bank, for instance, amid the clamoring gongs and bells and noodle stalls of down-town Surawongse, disports huge Corinthian half-columns framing a Gothic rose window. To penetrate the new and heavily guarded residential areas of this extraordinary metropolis is difficult; but advertisements offer houses described as “Roman Imperial, White House, Tudor Traditional, and Post-Modern Paradise.”

What makes recent architecture in Bangkok so stimulating is, however, its rationale. Since Thailand was never colonized, classical architecture arouses no unhappy memories of a subjugated past. Nor does it, to a Thai (i.e., a Buddhist), have the slightest glimmering of the meaning that it has for Westerners educated in the traditions of Christianity and classicism.

The classical approach was first introduced in the late nineteenth century by King Rama V Chulalongkorn (travestied in The King and I). Until then all secular and most religious buildings had been built in wood in traditional styles. The form of the beautiful Thai temple with its high-pitched roof, evolved at least as early as the fifteenth century, has been followed to the present day without a break. (Only the building materials have changed with the use of reinforced concrete for the piers.) But as domestic buildings of wood were either burned down or rotted away they were replaced by street upon street of drab utilitarian structures. New large-scale commercial buildings began to spring up in the 1950s and from the early 1980s their faceless anonymity had begun to be replaced by something that, to Thai eyes, is exotically Western.

Classical temples have no deeper meaning or emotional resonance for them than do pagodas for us, so they can use them heedlessly, quite simply for their decorative effect and for their exotic air of Western wealth and consumer abundance. In other words, their Post-Modern buildings are reverse images of ours. So far from being expressions of Western cultural dominance, they illustrate how in architecture, as in other ways, the East now exploits the West for its own ends, taking and adopting what it can use, and discarding what seems immaterial. And there is money in Post-Modern classicism in Bangkok. The Palladian fantasy topping the apartment block by Ong Ard is said to be rented for $10,000 per month.

Is the situation so very different in the West? Can Post-Modern classicism any more than Modernism itself or the several styles “eclected” in the nineteenth century, as Jencks remarks, “survive every persecution, cope with any situation, except the loving embrace of a commercial society”? Jencks is confident that it is rich and flexible enough to deal with the complexities of urban life in an industrial and postindustrial society. Its survival will, nevertheless, depend on its dissociation from what Tzonis and Lefaivre call “citationism in the service of the fading Elysium of nostalgia” and its architects’ ability to concentrate on the essential problems of building for human use and human needs.


The National Gallery Competition January 19, 1989