The Battle Over Post-Modern Buildings

Committed to Classicism: The Building of Downing College Cambridge

by Cinzia Maria Sicca, with contributions by Charles Harpum, by 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

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 …

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Letters

The National Gallery Competition January 19, 1989