Next post in the “Art 101” series: Neo-Classicism. I’ve concentrated on Neoclassicism in art and architecture, but know that it is also prevalent in literature and music.
What is Neoclassicism?
Neoclassicism is the name given to quite distinct movements in the decorative and visual arts, literature, theatre, music, and architecture that draw upon Western classical art and culture (usually that of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome). These movements were dominant in northern Europe during the mid-18th to the end of the 19th century.
Neoclassicism, in a cultural, artistic, and architectural sense, grew as a response against Rococo, which was seen as over-the-top and shallow. Architecturally, it was characterized by similarities to classical structures as well as the Renaissance, including order and simplicity, and artistically, it was also modelled on works from the classical world, often containing political themes including bravery and war. Although Neoclassicism encompassed painting, sculpture, and architecture and is often regarded as the most prominent manifestation of this interest, fascination with Greek and Roman culture was widespread and extended to the public culture of fashion and home decor.
The Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationality in part fueled the classical focus. The geometric harmony of classical art and architecture seemed to embody Enlightenment ideals. In addition, classical cultures represented the height of civilized society, and Greece and Rome served as models of enlightened political organization. These cultures, with their traditions of liberty, civic virtue, morality, and sacrifice, served as ideal models during a period of great political upheaval. Given such traditional associations, it is not coincidental that Neoclassicism was particularly appealing during the French and American Revolutions. The public appetite for classicism was whetted further by the excavations of Herculaneum (begun in 1738) and Pompeii (1748), which the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE had buried.
The enthusiasm for classical antiquity permeated much of the scholarship of the time. In the late 18th century; the ancient world increasingly became the focus of scholarly attention. A visit to Rome stimulated Edward Gibbon to begin his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which appeared between 1776 and 1778. Earlier, in 1755 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the first modern art historian, published Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art in Painting and Sculpture (a canonical text), uncompromisingly designating Greek art as the most perfect to come from human hands. Winckelmann characterized Greek sculpture a manifesting a “noble simplicity and silent greatness.” In his History of Ancient Art (1765), he described each monument and positioned it within a huge inventory of works organized by subject matter, style, and period. Before Winckelmann, art historians had focused on biography, as reflected in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors (first published in 1550, and a terrific read if you haven’t given it a go yet). Winckelmann thus initiated one modern art historical method thoroughly in accord with Enlightenment ideas of ordering knowledge – a system of description and classification that provided a pioneering model for the understanding of stylistic evolution. Winckelmann’s familiarity with classical art was derived predominantly (as was the norm) from Roman works and Roman copies of Greek art. Yet Winckelmann was instrumental in bringing to scholarly attention the distinctions between Greek and Roman art. Thus, he paved the way for more thorough study of the unique characteristics of the art and architecture of these two cultures. Winckelmann’s writings also laid a theoretical and historical foundation for the enormously widespread taste for Neoclassicism that lasted well into the 19th century.
What any “neo-classicism” depends on most fundamentally is a consensus about a body of work that has achieved canonic status. These are the “classics.” Ideally — and neoclassicism is essentially an art of an ideal — an artist, well schooled and comfortably familiar with the canon, does not repeat it in lifeless reproductions, but synthesizes the tradition anew in each work. This sets a high standard, clearly; but though a neoclassical artist who fails to achieve it may create works that are inane, vacuous or even mediocre, gaffes of taste and failures of craftsmanship are not commonly neoclassical failings. Novelty, improvisation, self-expression, and blinding inspiration are not neoclassical virtues. “Make it new” was the modernist credo of the poet Ezra Pound; contrarily, neoclassicism does not seek to re-create art forms from the ground up with each new project. It instead exhibits perfect control of an idiom.
Speaking and thinking in English, “neoclassicism” in each art implies a particular canon of “classic” models – Virgil, Raphael, Nicolas Poussin, Haydn. Other cultures have other canons of classics, however, and a recurring strain of neoclassicism appears to be a natural expression of a culture at a certain moment in its career, a culture that is highly self-aware, that is also confident of its own high mainstream tradition, but at the same time feels the need to regain something that has slipped away: Apollonius of Rhodes is a neoclassic writer; Ming ceramics pay homage to Song-era celadon Chinese porcelains; Italian 15th century humanists learn to write a “Roman” hand we call italic (based on the Carolingian); Neo-Babylonianculture is a neoclassical revival, and in Persia the “classic” religion of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism, is revived after centuries, to “re-Persianize” a culture that had fallen away from its own classic Achaemenean past. Within the direct Western tradition, the earliest movement motivated by a neoclassical inspiration is a Roman style that was first distinguished by the German art historian Friedrich Hauser (Die Neuattische Reliefs, Stuttgart 1889), who identified the style-category he called “Neo-Attic” among sculpture produced in later Hellenistic circles during the last century or so BCE and in Imperial Rome; the corpus that Hauser called “Neo-Attic” consists of bas reliefs molded on decorative vessels and plaques, employing a figural and drapery style that looked for its canon of “classic” models to late 5th and early 4th century Athens and Attica.
In the visual arts the European movement called “neoclassicism” began after 1765, as a reaction against both the surviving Baroque and Rococo styles, and as a desire to return to the perceived “purity” of the arts of Rome, the more vague perception (“ideal”) of Ancient Greek arts, and, to a lesser extent, 16th century Renaissance Classicism. As a matter of fact, Rococo and Neoclassical architecture can be seen as complete opposites, with the former emphasising grace, ornamentation and asymmetry, whilst the latter being based upon the principles of simplicity and symmetry.
Contrasting with the Baroque and the Rococo, Neoclassical paintings are devoid of pastel colors and haziness; instead, they have sharp colors with chiaroscuro. In the case of Neoclassicism in France, a prime example is Jacques Louis David whose paintings often use Roman and Greek elements to extol the French Revolution’s virtues (state before family).
Each “neo”- classicism selects some models among the range of possible classics that are available to it, and ignores others. The neoclassical writers and talkers, patrons and collectors, artists and sculptors of 1765–1830 paid homage to an idea of the generation of Pheidias, but the sculpture examples they actually embraced were more likely to be Roman copies of Hellenistic sculptures. They ignored both Archaic Greek art and the works of Late Antiquity. The Rococo art of ancient Palmyra came as a revelation, through engravings in Wood’s The Ruins of Palmyra. Even Greece was all-but-unvisited, a rough backwater of the Ottoman Empire, dangerous to explore, so neoclassicists’ appreciation of Greek architecture was mediated through drawings and engravings, which subtly smoothed and regularized, “corrected’ and “restored” the monuments of Greece, not always consciously. As for painting, Greek painting was utterly lost: neoclassicist painters imaginatively revived it, partly through bas-relief friezes, mosaics, and pottery painting and partly through the examples of painting and decoration of the High Renaissance of Raphael’s generation, frescos in Nero’s Domus Aurea, Pompeii and Herculaneum and through renewed admiration of Nicholas Poussin. Much “neoclassical” painting is more classicizing in subject matter than in anything else.
There is an anti-Rococo strain that can be detected in some European architecture of the earlier 18th century, most vividly represented in the Palladian (as in, being of or reminiscent of Palladio) architecture of Georgian Britain and Ireland, but also recognizable in a classicizing vein of architecture in Berlin. It is a robust architecture of self-restraint, academically selective now of “the best” Roman models.
Neoclassicism first gained influence in England and France, through a generation of French art students trained in Rome and influenced by the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (who’s works are discussed above), and it was quickly adopted by progressive circles in Sweden. At first, classicizing decor was grafted onto familiar European forms, as in the interiors for Catherine II’s lover Count Orlov, designed by an Italian architect with a team of Italian stuccadori: only the isolated oval medallions like cameos and the bas-relief overdoors hint of neoclassicism; the furnishings are fully Italian Rococo.
But a second neoclassic wave, more severe, more studied (through the medium of engravings) and more consciously archaeological, is associated with the height of the Napoleonic Empire. In France, the first phase of neoclassicism is expressed in the “Louis XVI style”, the second phase in the styles we call “Directoire” or Empire. Italy clung to Rococo until the Napoleonic regimes brought the new archaeological classicism, which was embraced as a political statement by young, progressive, urban Italians with republican leanings.
The high tide of neoclassicism in painting is exemplified in early paintings by Jacques-Louis David (pronounced: DAH-veed) and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ entire career. David concurred with teh Enlightenment belief that subject matter should be presented so that the “marks of heroism and civic virtue offered the eyes of the people [will] electrify its soul, and plant the seeds of glory and devotion to the fatherland.” A milestone in David’s career, Oath of the Horatii, was painted in Rome and made a splash at the Paris Salon of 1785. The canvas depicts a story from pre-Republican Rome, the heroic phase of Roman history. The topic was not an arcane one for David’s audience. This story of conflict between love and patriotism, first recounted by the ancient Roman historian Livy, had been retold in a play by Pierre Corneille performed in Paris several years earlier, making it familiar to David’s viewing public.
David’s painting shows the Horatii as they swear on their swords, held high by their father, to win or die for Rome, oblivious to the anguish and sorrow of their female relatives. In its form, Oath of the Horatii is a paragon of the neoclassical style. Not only does the subject matter deal with a narrative of patriotism and sacrifice excerpted from Roman history, but the image is also presented with admirable force and clarity. David depicted the scene in a shallow space much like a stage setting, defined by a severely simple architectural framework. The statuesque and carefully molded figures are deployed across the space, close to the foreground, in a manner reminiscent of ancient relief sculpture. The rigid, angular, and virile forms of the men on the left effectively contrast with the soft curvilinear shapes of the distraught women on the right. This visually pits virtues the Enlightenment leaders ascribed to men (such as courage, patriotism, and unwavering loyalty to a cause) against the emotions of love, sorrow, and despair that the women in the painting express. David made have painted in the academic tradition, but he made something new of it. He created a program for arousing his audience to patriotic zeal.
In sculpture, the most familiar representatives are the Italian Antonio Canova, the Englishman John Flaxman and the Dane Bertel Thorvaldsen. The European neoclassical manner also took hold in the United States, where its prominence peaked somewhat later and is exemplified in the sculptures of William Henry Rinehart (1825–1874).
In the decorative arts, neoclassicism is exemplified in Empire furniture made in Paris, London, New York, Berlin; in Biedermeier furniture made in Austria; in Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s museums in Berlin, Sir John Soane’s Bank of England in London and the newly built “capitol” in Washington, DC; and in Wedgwood’s bas reliefs and “black basaltes” vases. The Scots architect Charles Cameron created palatial Italianate interiors for the German-born Catherine II the Great in Russian St. Petersburg: the style was international.
Indoors, neoclassicism made a discovery of the genuine classic interior, inspired by the rediscoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had started in the late 1740s, but only achieved a wide audience in the 1760s, with the first luxurious volumes of tightly controlled distribution of Le Antichità di Ercolano. The antiquities of Herculaneum showed that even the most classicizing interiors of the Baroque, or the most “Roman” rooms of William Kent were based on basilica and temple exterior architecture, turned outside in: pedimented window frames turned into gilded mirrors, fireplaces topped with temple fronts, now all looking quite bombastic and absurd. The new interiors sought to recreate an authentically Roman and genuinely interior vocabulary, employing flatter, lighter motifs, sculpted in low frieze-like relief or painted in monotones en camaïeu (“like cameos”), isolated medallions or vases or busts or bucrania or other motifs, suspended on swags of laurel or ribbon, with slender arabesques against backgrounds, perhaps, of “Pompeiian red” or pale tints, or stone colors. The style in France was initially a Parisian style, the Goût grec, not a court style. Only when the plump, young king acceded to the throne in 1774 did his fashion-loving Queen bring the “Louis XVI” style to court.
From about 1800 a fresh influx of Greek architectural examples, seen through the medium of etchings and engravings, gave a new impetus to neoclassicism that is called the Greek Revival.
Neoclassicism continued to be a major force in academic art through the 19th century and beyond — a constant antithesis to Romanticism or Gothic revivals — although from the late 19th century on it had often been considered anti-modern, or even reactionary, in influential critical circles. By the mid-19th century, several European cities — notably St. Petersburg and Munich — were transformed into veritable museums of Neoclassical architecture.
Gothic revival architecture (often linked with the Romantic cultural movement), a style originating in the 18th century which grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, contrasted Neoclassicism. Whilst Neoclassicism was characterized by Greek and Roman-influenced styles, geometric lines and order, Gothic revival architecture placed an emphasis on medieval-looking buildings, often made to have a rustic, “romantic,” appearance. As a matter of fact, Romanticism grew as a response against Neoclassicism.
In American architecture, neoclassicism was one expression of the American Renaissance movement, ca 1890–1917; its last manifestation was in Beaux-Arts architecture (such as MIT’s Bosworth designed campus, among many others), and its very last, large public projects were the Lincoln Memorial (highly criticized at the time), The National Gallery in Washington, DC (also heavily criticized by the architectural community as being backward thinking and old fashioned in its design), and the American Museum of Natural History’s Roosevelt Memorial. These were white elephants when they were built. In the British Raj, Sir Edwin Lutyens’ monumental city planning for New Delhi marks the glorious sunset of neoclassicism. World War II was to shatter most longing for – and imitation of – mythical, heroic times.
Conservative modernist architects such as Charles Perret in France kept the rhythms and spacing of columnar architecture even in factory buildings. Where a colonnade would have been decried as “reactionary,” a building’s pilaster-like fluted panels under a repeating frieze looked “progressive.” Pablo Picasso experimented with classicizing motifs in the years immediately following World War I, and the Art Deco style that peaked in the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs often drew on neoclassical motifs without expressing them overtly: severe, blocky commodes by E. J. Ruhlmann or Sue et Mare; crisp, extremely low-relief friezes of damsels and gazelles in every medium; fashionable dresses that were draped or cut on the bias to recreate Grecian lines; the art dance of Isadora Duncan; the Streamline Moderne styling of US post offices and county court buildings built as late as 1950; and the Roosevelt dime.
Neoclassicism in Russia and the Soviet Union
In 1905–1914 Russian architecture passed through a brief but influential period of neoclassical revival; the trend began with recreation of Empire style of Alexandrine period and quickly expanded into a variety of neo-Renaissance, Palladian and modernized, yet recognizably classical schools. They were led by architects born in 1870s, who reached creative peak before World War I like Ivan Fomin, Vladimir Shchuko, Ivan Zholtovsky. When economy recovered in 1920s, these architects and their followers continued working in primarily modernist environment; some (Zholtovsky) strictly followed the classical canon, others (Fomin, Schuko, Ilya Golosov) developed their own modernized styles.
With the crackdown on architects’ independence and official denial of modernism (1932), demonstrated by the international contest for the Palace of Soviets, Neoclassicism was instantly promoted as one of the choices in Stalinist architecture, although not the only one. It coexisted with moderately modernist architecture of Boris Iofan, bordering with contemporary Art Deco (Schuko); again, the purest examples of the style were produced by Zholtovsky school that remained an isolated phenomena. The political intervention was a disaster for constructivist leaders yet was sincerely welcomed by architects of the classical schools.
Neoclassicism was an easy choice for the USSR since it did not rely on modern construction technologies (steel frame or reinforced concrete) and could be reproduced in traditional masonry. Thus the designs of Zholtovsky, Fomin and other old masters were easily replicated in remote towns under strict material rationing. Improvement of construction technology after World War II permitted Stalinist architects to venture into skyscraper construction, although stylistically these skyscrapers (including “exported” architecture of Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw and the Shanghai International Convention Center) share little with the classical models. Neoclassicism and neo-Renaissance persisted in less demanding residential and office projects until 1955, when Nikita Khrushchev put an end to expensive Stalinist architecture.
Neoclassicism in the 21st Century
After a lull during the period of modern architectural dominance (roughly post-WWII until the mid 1980s), neoclassicism has seen somewhat of a resurgence. In the United States some public buildings are built in the neoclassical style as of at least 2006, with the completion of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
In Britain a number of architects are active in the neoclassical style. Examples of their work include two university Libraries: Quinlan Terry’s Maitland Robinson Library at Downing College and Robert Adam Architects’ Sackler Library. The majority of new neoclassical buildings in Britain are private houses.
As of the first decade of the 21st century, neoclassical architecture is usually classed under the umbrella term of “traditional architecture.” Also, a number of pieces of postmodern architecture draw inspiration from and include explicit references to Neoclassicism, the National Theatre of Catalonia in Barcelona among them.
Though I have touched on architecture frequently in the above discussions, the monumental impact and lasting legacy of Neoclassicism in architecture needs to be discussed on its own.
Neoclassical architecture was an architectural style produced by the neoclassical movement that began in the mid-18th century, manifested both in its details as a reaction against the Rococo style of naturalistic ornament, and in its architectural formulas as an outgrowth of some classicizing features of Late Baroque. In its purest form it is a style principally derived from the architecture of Classical Greece and the architecture of Italian architect Andrea Palladio. In form, Neoclassical architecture emphasizes the wall rather than chiaroscuro and maintains separate identities to each of its parts.
Siegfried Giedion, whose first book (1922) had the suggestive title Late Baroque and Romantic Classicism, asserted later, “The Louis XVI style formed in shape and structure the end of late baroque tendencies, with classicism serving as its framework.” In the sense that Neoclassicism in architecture is evocative and picturesque, a recreation of a distant, lost world, it is, as Giedion suggests, framed within the Romantic sensibility.
Intellectually Neoclassicism was symptomatic of a desire to return to the perceived “purity” of the arts of Rome, to the more vague perception (“ideal”) of Ancient Greek arts and, to a lesser extent, 16th-century Renaissance Classicism, which was also a source for academic Late Baroque architecture.
Many early 19th-century neoclassical architects were influenced by the drawings and projects of Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude Nicolas Ledoux. The many graphite drawings of Boullée and his students depict spare geometrical architecture that emulates the eternality of the universe. There are links between Boullée’s ideas and Edmund Burke’s conception of the sublime. Ledoux addressed the concept of architectural character, maintaining that a building should immediately communicate its function to the viewer: taken literally such ideas give rise to “architecture parlante.”
There is an anti-Rococo strain that can be detected in some European architecture of the earlier 18th century, most vividly represented in the Palladian architecture of Georgian Britain and Ireland, but also recognizable in a classicizing vein of Late Baroque architecture in Paris (Perrault’s east range of the Louvre), in Berlin, and even in Rome, in Alessandro Galilei’s facade for S. Giovanni in Laterano. It is a robust architecture of self-restraint, academically selective now of “the best” Roman models, which were increasingly available for close study through the medium of architectural engravings of measured drawings of surviving Roman architecture.
High neoclassicism was an international movement. Though neoclassical architecture employs the same classical vocabulary as Late Baroque architecture, it tends to emphasize its planar qualities, rather than sculptural volumes. Projections and recessions and their effects of light and shade are flatter; sculptural bas-reliefs are flatter and tend to be enframed in friezes, tablets or panels. Its clearly articulated individual features are isolated rather than interpenetrating, autonomous and complete in themselves.
International neoclassical architecture was exemplified in Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s buildings, especially the Old Museum in Berlin, Sir John Soane’s Bank of England in London and the newly built White House and Capitol in Washington, DC in the United States. The Scots architect Charles Cameron created palatial Italianate interiors for the German-born Catherine II the Great in St. Petersburg.
Italy clung to Rococo until the Napoleonic regimes brought the new archaeological classicism, which was embraced as a political statement by young, progressive, urban Italians with republican leanings.
Spanish Neoclassicism counted with the figure of Juan de Villanueva, who adapted Burke’s achievements about the sublime and the beauty to the requirements of Spanish clime and history. He built the Prado Museum, that combined three programs – an academy, an auditorium and a museum – in one building with three separated entrances. This was part of the ambitious program of Charles III, who intended to make Madrid the Capital of Art and Science. Very close to the museum, Villanueva built the Astronomical Observatory. He also designed several summer houses for the kings in El Escorial and Aranjuez and reconstructed the Major Square of Madrid, among other important works. Villanuevas´ pupils expanded the Neoclassical style in Spain.
The center of Polish classicism was Warsaw under the rule of the last Polish king Stanisław August Poniatowski. Vilnius University was another important center of the Neoclassical architecture in the Eastern Europe, led by notable professors of architecture Marcin Knackfus,Laurynas Gucevičius and Karol Podczaszyński. The style was expressed in the main public buildings, such as the University’s Observatory,Vilnius Cathedral and it town hall. The best known architects and artists, who worked in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were Dominik Merlini, Jan Chrystian Kamsetzer, Szymon Bogumił Zug, Jakub Kubicki, Antonio Corazzi, Efraim Szreger, Christian Piotr Aigner and Bertel Thorvaldsen.
Indoors, neoclassicism made a discovery of the genuine Roman interior, inspired by the rediscoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had started in the late 1740s, but only achieved a wide audience in the 1760s, with the first luxurious volumes of tightly-controlled distribution of Le Antichità di Ercolan. The antiquities of Herculaneum showed that even the most classicizing interiors of the Baroque, or the most “Roman” rooms of William Kent were based on basilica and temple exterior architecture, turned outside in: pedimented window frames turned into gilded mirrors, fireplaces topped with temple fronts, now all looking quite bombastic and absurd. The new interiors sought to recreate an authentically Roman and genuinely interior vocabulary, employing flatter, lighter motifs, sculpted in low frieze-like relief or painted in monotones en camaïeu (“like cameos”), isolated medallions or vases or busts or bucrania or other motifs, suspended on swags of laurel or ribbon, with slender arabesques against backgrounds, perhaps, of “Pompeiian red” or pale tints, or stone colors. The style in France was initially a Parisian style, the “Goût grec” (“Greek taste”) not a court style. Only when the young king acceded to the throne in 1774 did Marie Antoinette, his fashion-loving Queen, bring the “Louis XVI” style to court.
From about 1800 a fresh influx of Greek architectural examples, seen through the medium of etchings and engravings, gave a new impetus to neoclassicism that is called the Greek Revival. Neoclassicism continued to be a major force in academic art through the 19th century and beyond — a constant antithesis to Romanticism or Gothic revivals — although from the late 19th century on it had often been considered anti-modern, or even reactionary, in influential critical circles. By the mid-19th century, several European cities – notably St. Petersburg, Athens, Berlin and Munich – were transformed into veritable museums of Neoclassical architecture.
In the United States
In the new republic, Robert Adam’s neoclassical manner was adapted for the local late 18th and early 19th-century style, called “Federal architecture.” One of the pioneers of this style was English-born Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who is often noted as America’s first professional architect and the father of American architecture. The Baltimore Basilica, the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States, is considered by many experts to be Latrobe’s masterpiece.
The widespread use of neoclassicism in American architecture, as well as by French revolutionary regimes, and the general tenor of rationalism associated with the movement, all created a link between neoclassicism and republicanism and radicalism in much of Europe. The Gothic Revival can be seen as an attempt to present a monarchist and conservative alternative to neoclassicism.
In later 19th-century American architecture, Neoclassicism was one expression of the American Renaissance movement, ca 1880-1917. Its last manifestation was in Beaux-Arts architecture (1885–1920), and its very last, large public projects in the United States were the Lincoln Memorial (1922), the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (1937), and the American Museum of Natural History’s Roosevelt Memorial (1936).
Today there is a growing movement toward a revival of Classical Architecture as evidenced by the groups such as The Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America. The School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, currently teaches a fully Classical curriculum.
In the USSR
In the Soviet Union (1917–1991), Neoclassical architecture (Stalinist Architecture) was very popular among the political elite, as it effectively expressed state power, and a vast array of neoclassical building was erected all over the country. Soviet architects sometimes tended to over-use the elements of classical architecture, resulting in gaudy-looking buildings, which rendered Soviet Neoclassical architecture the derogatory epithet “wedding cake-architecture.” The Soviet neoclassical architecture was also exported to other members of the Soviet bloc and other socialist countries. Examples of this include the Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, Poland and the Shanghai International Convention Centre in Shanghai, the People’s Republic of China.
In Great Britain
In Britain, the writings of Albert Richardson were responsible for reawakening an interest in pure Neoclassical design in the early 20th century.Vincent Harris, Bradshaw Gass & Hope and Percy Thomas were among those who designed public buildings in the Neoclassical style in the interwar period. In the British Raj in India, Sir Edwin Lutyens’ monumental city planning for New Delhi marked the sunset of Neoclassicism. In Scotland and the north of England, where the Gothic Revival was less strong, architects continued to develop the Neoclassical style of William Henry Playfair. The works of Cuthbert Brodrick and Alexander Thomson show that by the end of the 19th century the results could be powerful and eccentric.
During the Third Reich
Neoclassical architecture was the preferred style by the leaders of the National Socialist movement in the Third Reich, especially admired by Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler commissioned his favourite architect, Albert Speer, to plan a re-design of Berlin as a city comprising imposing neoclassical structures, which would be renamed as Welthauptstadt Germania, the centrepiece of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich. These plans never came to fruition due to the eventual downfall of Nazi Germany and the suicide of its leader.
An instance of this Neoclassic revival style is reflected by the Lillian Massey Building in Toronto, Canada. The building resides in the Bay Street Corridor neighborhood and has stood the test of time since 1913, when it first opened as the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Household Science. The faculty housed some of the university’s first female professors. Today it houses the Canadian head office and flagship store of the retail brand Club Monaco. According to Leland M. Roth and his text Understanding Architecture Its Elements, History and Meaning Neoclassicism is defined as a reproduction of Classical Greek and Roman building whether in the entirety of buildings or selected details which begun in the later 18th century. The Club Monaco building in particular seems to belong more to the Classical Roman style than to the Classical Greek style. The Roman Ionic order there is no swelling pulvinus between the columns. Furthermore the antae are for ornamentation rather than structural support. The heavily decorated entrance is reminiscent of Baroque Classic Roman architecture. The classical elements adapted and reused within the style of Neoclassicism contribute to the coherence of the building.
After a lull during the period of modern architectural dominance (roughly post-WWII until the mid 1980s), Neoclassicism has seen somewhat of a resurgence. In the United States, an increasing number of architectural firms such as Robertson Partners, Fairfax and Sammons, Michael Imber and others adhere to classical principles. Buildings, such as the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, are again being built in Neoclassical style today.
In Britain a number of architects are active in the Neoclassical style. Two new university Libraries, Quinlan Terry’s Maitland Robinson Library at Downing College and ADAM Architecture’s Sackler Library illustrate that the approach taken can range from the traditional, in the former case, to the unconventional, in the latter case. The majority of new neoclassical buildings in Britain are private houses. Firms like Francis Johnson & Partners specialise in new country houses.
Recently, Prince Charles came under controversy for promoting a classically designed development on the land of the former Chelsea Barracks in London. Writing to the Qatari Royal family (who were funding the development through the property development company Qatari Diar) he condemned the accepted modernist plans, instead advocating a classical approach. His appeal was met with success and the plans were withdrawn. A new design by architecture house Dixon Jones is currently being drafted.
Neoclassical architecture is usually now classed under the umbrella term of “traditional architecture” and is practised by a number of members of the Traditional Architecture Group.