Let’s Build Cities of Marble, Not Metal: Why our future is ripe for a revival of classical architecture

By Étienne Fortier-Dubois

Writer and programmer who is interested in the evolutionary forces underlying most things. He writes about science, history, and aesthetics, among other things.

There are many visions of what the future might look like, aesthetically, but here’s one that comes up often:

Traced back to a tweet from July 13th, 2018, according to Know Your Meme, this image circulates widely as part of the “The World If” internet joke. It is meant to be a vision of the future if some (usually silly) problem in our current world were solved.

Gleaming metal and glass buildings. Peculiar geometries. A limited color palette, with blue as a dominant note (why is the future always blue?). Well-tended lawns, aerodynamic flying vehicles, and few visible humans. Is this what the future will look like?

I don’t know, but let me argue in a totally different direction. The architecture of the future may — and perhaps should — look more like this: 

This painting is The Consummation of Empire by Thomas Cole. It was made in 1836 as part of a series called The Course of Empire, and it shows a classical city at its height. (Let us ignore that the next two paintings in the series represent the same city being overrun by barbarians, and then becoming a ruined landscape. There is no need to assume that golden ages must end with destruction.)

The Consummation of Empire depicts sprawling and awe-inspiring marble palaces in a classical style. Columns abound, as do statues, terraces, fountains, and people having a good time. The place and scene aren’t real; the painting is an idealized vision of the past. The golden age of Western civilization had to look like this, in accordance with the popular narrative that Greece and Rome were the heyday of culture until, at least, the end of the Middle Ages. Regardless of how true that story is, I’d be willing to claim that most people find this painting beautiful and much more aspirational, in fact, than the “The World If” picture above. It looks far warmer, more elegant, and more alive.

Yet today’s visions of the future almost never look like this. Why not?

There’s no reason why looking at past architecture for inspiration would be a bad idea. Revivalism has always been a strong tendency in architecture, especially when it comes to the classical styles developed in Ancient Greece and Rome. Classicism comes up time and time again in Western history. It could come back once more.

First, let’s briefly review the various instances of classical architecture throughout history, just so we have a good idea of what we’re talking about. Then we’ll discuss classicism in the present and the future.

A Timeline of Classical Revivalism

The original classical architecture, which developed in Greece and spread across the Roman Empire, ceased to be practiced after the empire collapsed in the 5th century. But it didn’t take long for Europeans to try to emulate it. During the Carolingian Renaissance, around 800, a few buildings of the Frankish Empire show Roman influences. For instance, the Lorsch monastery gatehouse in Germany (note the columns):

Lorsch monastery gatehouse, built circa 800

However, classical revivalism really took off during the Italian Renaissance, starting in the 14th century. This was a time in which people rediscovered culture from antiquity across many domains, including architecture. The 16th century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio was particularly influential. Drawing from Roman architect Vitruvius, he created a style that would endure for centuries.

Villa Foscari by Andrea Palladio, near Venice, built 1558-1560

From Renaissance architecture were born Baroque and then Rococo architecture, which exaggerated everything and are generally not seen as instances of classical revivalism — and yet they still incorporated many elements (most visibly the columns) from the Renaissance, and therefore, ultimately, from classical antiquity. 

Karlskirche, Vienna, built 1716-1737

And what came as a reaction to the excesses of the Baroque era? Neoclassicism, of course. It began in France and Italy in the 18th century and spread in a myriad of local styles until it more or less disappeared about a hundred years ago. To name a few neoclassical trends across space and time: the Louis XVI and Empire styles in France, the Federal and Jeffersonian styles in the US, the Regency style in the UK, various instances of Greek Revivalism, the Beaux-Arts style in the late 19th century, and eventually Stripped Classicism in the 20th century. 

The United States Capitol in Washington DC, built in 1800

The Église de la Madeleine in Paris was built as a church in the style of a Roman temple in 1828

Modern Greece itself took Greek Revivalism seriously. The National Library of Greece in Athens, built 1888

Croydon airport in London, built early enough (1920) that it actually looks good, unlike almost all other airports

Neoclassicism and classical revivalism mostly died off in the mid-20th century, although there does exist a movement called New Classical architecture that occasionally spawns a classical-looking building here and there, like the 2005 Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville.

Why Is Classical Architecture So Rare Today?

Why did classical revivalism almost disappear? The immediate answer is that it lost to another trend: modernism. Like neoclassicism, modern architecture is a broad term, encompassing such varied styles as Art Deco, Bauhaus, the International Style, Brutalism, and more — but they all have in common an explicit rejection of Beaux-Arts and neoclassicism. Modernism was dominant for much of the past century, ensuring very little classical architecture got built. And the reaction to modernism, postmodernism, which became mainstream in the 1980s, didn’t mark a return to classicism either.

Yeah, that doesn’t really count. This is the M2 Building, in Tokyo, built in 1991, and a prime example of crazy postmodernism. Classical elements are recognizable, but, in a fashion even more extreme than Baroque or Rococo, are exaggerated to the point of caricature.

Okay, but why did modernism win in the first place? And why hasn’t classical architecture made a comeback after modernism’s importance faded? Let’s speculate a bit.

One possibility is that, in this era of fast scientific and technical progress, looking at the past for inspiration has come to sound reactionary, backwards. New architecture has to be innovative and different. In the past decades, that might have meant impressive raw concrete walls, or buildings entirely clad in glass, or exposed piping. Today, if you google “future architecture,” you’ll mostly see large, irregular, vaguely organic-shaped buildings with lots of vegetation, like this one

This looks nothing like architecture that exists, except maybe other very recent instances. It’s fine, it looks pretty cool, although I’m not sure I would be enthusiastic about living in or near it. Mostly, it looks futuristic. We expect the future to care about the environment, and so nature is integrated in the building. We expect the future to experiment with new shapes, and so this building looks like a blob. We expect the future to develop new materials with nice properties like lightness, and so this building looks airy. 

Strong belief in progress is a relatively recent idea. Maybe, then, it is not surprising that architects of the past looked up to ancient designs, while we prefer pure innovation. 

But that doesn’t sound like a very compelling argument. It’s pretty clear that architects can innovate even when they draw inspiration from classicism. And neoclassicism was still going strong in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, times in which belief in scientific progress was as strong as it gets.

Another possible explanation — and a more prosaic one — is that we became suspicious of classical architecture due to a specific event in recent history: the rise of totalitarian ideologies. Mussolini sought to bring Italy back to Roman grandeur, for instance. Both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany built a number of structures in a Stripped Classical style, combining both neoclassicism and the modernist trends of reduced ornamentation.

Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome, built 1938-1940
New Reich Chancellery in Berlin, built 1939

While Communist architecture is perhaps more readily associated with dreary-looking Brutalism, there was also a neoclassical tradition, seen especially in what is known as the Stalinist style, during the most totalitarian era of the Soviet Union: 

Red Army Theatre in Moscow, built 1934-1940

I don’t know if the existence of those past trends is enough to explain the paucity of contemporary classical architecture, but it seems plausible that they have had some effect. No one wants to be accused of Nazi sympathies because they drew inspiration from Imperial Rome. Indeed the effect might be more general than that — it seems plausible that building in new, innovative styles is a safe way to avoid any unsavory associations with the past.

And this brings us to our third hypothesis: in the last hundred years or so, our relationship with architecture changed. Before, beautiful buildings served an explicit purpose: Kings and governments would ensure that civic buildings displayed their might and legitimity. Religions would glorify their deities through majestic places of worship. Wealthy people would show off their power and influence by constructing beautiful homes and by funding public buildings. 

There’s still some of that, but the general attitude has shifted. Governments, mindful of public spending, want to save on costs. Religions have weakened and very few places of worship get built in the West. Rich people still show off their wealth, but prefer more subtle means. 

And so while a Canadian post office in the 1850s might have looked like this: ​​

Old Toronto Post Office, built 1853

… Most now look like this: 

Source

What’s Next?

Paradoxically, when artists try to imagine the future, they usually get the aesthetics completely wrong.

Consider these images from two illustrated novels from the 1880s and 1890s, Le vingtième siècle (left) and La vie électrique (right), both by Albert Robida. They are supposed to show Paris in the 1950s. The predictions around technology — flying vehicles and ubiquitous electrical wires — aren’t too far from reality; but the architecture and the fashion are distinctively from the 19th century. The artist failed (maybe deliberately) to foresee the aesthetic changes that would run through French and Western society. 

Likewise, our current depictions for the future beyond the next few decades probably get the aesthetics wrong. We tend to extrapolate current trends, which right now means minimalism, glass and synthetic materials, absent or subtle ornamentation, and clean geometric shapes. In doing so, we forget that art and architecture always react to what came before, often in stark opposition.

Classicism, or a derivative of it, may well be the next reaction to the current state of architecture.

After all, as we saw, elements of classical architecture have been used throughout most of Western history after the Middle Ages, sometimes explicitly, as in Neoclassicism, sometimes not, as in Baroque. The current dearth of classicism may well be a historical anomaly.

Add to this the relative unpopularity of most contemporary architecture, and the possibility that the architectural principles discovered by Greece and Rome are in fact superior in some sense to more recent innovations — perhaps because they are more attuned to what we need for good living, although this is only speculation on my part — and a comeback may even be desirable. 

Of course, there are obstacles on this path, as on most things. Professional architects may reject certain aesthetics according to whatever is fashionable in their field and society at large. Politics can also muddle the waters: there was some recent debate in the United States around a government mandate to build new federal buildings according to a number of predefined styles, including neoclassicism and Greek Revival. And the specter of totalitarian ideologies may still rule out some projects that would be too reminiscent of them. 

To get around fashion and political obstacles, we must first recognize that we will never get a perfect return to ancient architecture — nor is that what we should aim for. Every past instance of classical revivalism developed its own idiosyncrasies, depending on the moods and technologies of their times. Classical futurism, applied to aesthetics, does not mean a perfect copy of Ancient Greece or Rome with no innovation. It means remixing the best practices of antiquity to create something new.

It also means paying close attention to our expectations of the future.

The future in images like the “The World If” internet meme is cold, blueish and metallic, sanitized, atomized. Is that a realistic expectation? Maybe, in the sense of predicting what’s going to happen. I don’t know. But what I do know is that expectations can be self-fulfilling. When the future gets created, it has to come from somewhere in our collective consciousness — and the collective consciousness is usually seeded by the thinkers and artists who made a special effort to imagine tomorrow.

I would like us to expect something better from our future. More warmth. More elegance. More aliveness. Thinkers and artists have the power to craft those visions, but they have to start somewhere. Architecture may be our best bet. Let’s revive classical architecture in pictures, stories, movies, and memes; let’s start embodying it in real buildings again. If nothing else, it’ll lead us to a more beautiful future, and to the feeling that our civilization has done something right.