2. Classicism

Classical architecture, sometimes known as ‘The Beautiful’, evolved over thousands of years, becoming the standard form of building in the ancient Roman and Greek civilisations. Following Gothic and other styles, it reappeared in a pure form in the 1600s and 1700s, but also remained a strong influence throughout the nineteenth century and beyond.

Classicism relies on proportion, which, being related to nature by the Golden Section, often evokes a powerful emotional response. In this realm it’s also connected with artistic works by Claude Lorraine, Salvator Rosa and the Poissins.

Classical Construction

The oldest structures made by man were created using timbers, consisting of two upright columns and a horizontal beam. One can imagine ancient peoples cutting off the tops of two trees to create verticals and then hauling up another timber for the beam. As technology progressed, wood was replaced by stone, although the method of jointing remained much the same. The impressive effect of structures built in this way probably relates to our primeval relationship with trees.

Together, the horizontal and vertical stones formed a trilithon, meaning ‘three stones’. This construction was used for the later parts of Stonehenge, erected in around 1800 BC.

By 500 BC, the Greeks were using columns made of ‘drums’ of stone, which were joined without mortar by means of bronze dowels set in molten lead. The size of each element was measured in parts and modules, as shown.

In some instances, columns were built into a wall, forming what are now known as pilasters.

As you can see, the height and spacing of the columns was set by Golden Rectangles. The triangular gable, known as a pediment when placed above columns, was used to hide an angled roof, also known as a pitched roof.

Early roofs were of rushes or reeds, as in British thatch, although the Romans and Greeks used pantiles, U-shaped clay tiles, with alternate rows inverted to drain away the water.

The top edge of the pediment, often decorated, was known as the guttae, since it originally functioned as a gutter, whilst the triangular area beneath was called the tympanum.

The rectangular area above the columns and below the pediment was the entablature. From top to bottom, this consisted of a cornice, which was the bottom edge of the pediment, a frieze and a architrave, the latter often in a plain or moulded form.

The frieze frequently contained decoration, including triglyphs, groups of three vertical bands, separated by panels known as metopes, whilst a flat element known as a mutule was often carved above each triglyph and metope.

Finally, there were the guttae, small peg-like projections carved beneath each triglyph and mutule, which seem to reveal the original form of construction used by carpenters prior to the introduction of stone.

The Ancient Orders

Various styles of columns, each known as an order, were used for different buildings and periods. William Chambers defined the six orders after his visit to Rome between 1750 and 1755, during which he measured the height of each kind of column and entablature. The following table gives the column height C and entablature height E, as measured in modules:-

OrderCE *Features (see below)
Greek Doric (500 BC)124No base, has fluting, annulet, echinus and abacus
Roman Tuscan (AD 70)14312Heavy base, not fluted, necking in capital
Roman Doric164Torus for base, has fluting, echinus and abacus
Greek Ionic (550 BC) •18412Moulded base, has fluting, volutes and abacus
Greek Corinthian (420 BC) •205Moulded base, has fluting, acanthus capital and helix
Roman Composite (AD 81)205Spiral on top half of capital, acanthus on lower half

* not including capital of column

also used later by the Romans

Many of the terms that are used today in architecture refer back to the elements found in these ancient orders.

The Parts of the Orders

The shaft of a typical column stood on a thin base and was topped by a capital. The base was often on a stone platform known as a stylobate, which usually had steps. The Corinthian order sometimes placed each column on a pedestal or plinth, which consisted of, from top to bottom, a cap moulding, an inset die or dado section and a projecting base or skirting. The Roman Doric order didn’t have a base, whilst other orders either used a simple torus or a more decorative moulded base.

The shaft was almost always circular in section, tapered inwards towards the top, so as to increase the illusion of height, and sometimes grooved or fluted. Some were also slightly fatter at the middle, a feature known as entasis, which made them appear straight when viewed at a distance.

The capital, above the shaft, also came in various forms. In the Doric order it could consist of a short section in a modified form of the column itself, known as an annulet, above which there was an echinus, a chamfered disc that expanded the column so as to marry up with a short drum known as an abacus, which actually supported the structure above. The Ionic orders were topped by a scroll form of decoration known as a volute, above which there was a plain abacus. The Corinthian orders however, used stylised acanthus leaves for decoration, topped by a further decorative element known as a helix.

Classical Compositions

Over the years, different orders have been used for various buildings. The old Greek Doric order, is often considered ‘severe’, making it ideal for buildings that represent authority, such as town halls. In the Parthenon for example, completed in 438 BC, the columns had bases of two to three modules, heights of 10 or 12 and were five to six modules apart. The later Ionic style is sometimes thought to be ‘gracious’, which often makes it suitable for domestic accommodation.

The elements of a classical building were based on strict symmetry and axis lines. For example, windows were always located in a wall set back from the line of columns, also known as a colonnade, with each window positioned exactly in the middle of two columns. The surface of the walls was also rusticated, meaning that the stone blocks were separated by deeply-cut joints, which gave a greater impression of strength.

The Greeks created internal arches using flat beams across the top of each opening. The Romans, however, developed the half-circle arch, also known as a semicircular arch. Roofs created in this curved form were known as a barrel vaults due to their similarity to a barrel. Unfortunately, the weight of such a roof exerted an extra outward thrust on the side walls, which restricted the width to around five metres and demanded walls of a thick construction. In addition, such roofs couldn’t contain windows, as this would compromise their strength. As a result, the intersection of two barrel vaults, as found at the centre of cross-shaped building, required the construction of a weak groyne over a square central space

Classical Revivals

There have been numerous attempts to restore classicism as the leading form of architecture. The pioneer of the first revival, following Gothic, Tudor and other British styles, was Inigo Jones, who, having visited Italy to study the works of Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), returned to London to create the Queen’s House at Greenwich (1635), the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall (1622) and numerous country houses. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren also applied English classicism to the city’s many new churches, including his masterpiece of Saint Paul’s Cathedral (1632-1723).

English Baroque

The English baroque style was adopted during the period from 1695 to 1725. This looser and more vigorous form of classicism, which broke many of its usual rules, was pursued by both Nicholas Hawksmoor, who bequeathed London with some amazing churches, including Christ Church, Spitalfields (1731), and John Vanbrugh, who designed a number of huge houses, including Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (1720), Castle Howard, Yorkshire (1712) and Seaton Delaval (1728).


Early Georgian (1715-1760)

The years from 1715 to the 1790s, which included the ‘early Georgian’ period, were dominated by Palladian architecture, once again based on the works of Palladio, which became known through publications such as Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus (1715) and Giacomo Leone’s The Architecture of A Palladio (1716). Other influential books included James Gibbs’ Rules for Drawing Several Parts of Architecture and Piranesi’s first architectural book (1743). This new style was closer to true classical architecture than baroque, although interpreted in an English manner.

Palladian examples include Chiswick House, London, begun in 1725 by Lord Burlington as a small version of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda at Vicenza of 1553, and Campbell’s Mereworth Castle, Kent (1725).

Country houses of this type were typically in three blocks, the central section featuring a pediment with a giant order in front of the principal floors. Single-storey structures, often featuring colonnades, connected the main block to the two wings. Although solid and austere on the outside, the interiors were richly decorated, with a central hall and bedrooms on the first floor. Most houses built in this style had a basement, which was used for ancillary accommodation, whilst the servant’s quarters were consigned to the attic.

Town houses, based on the urban forms of ancient Rome, were also built in this style. A typical small house would be rectangular in plan, have two storeys, possibly with an attic as well, and would have a central entrance hall. Terrace houses were built similarly, with a narrow front and a deep plan, comprising of two to three storeys and a basement.

Mid Georgian (1750-1780)

From 1750 onwards there was a search for ‘original’ styles, with experimentation in both Roman and Greek forms. Influential books during this period included Robert Wood’s Ruins of Palmyra (1753) and his Ruins of Balbec (1757), as well as Antiquities of Athens (1762), by Nicholas Revert and James Stuart.

Buildings of this period had plainer facades, which included string courses and well-positioned doors and windows. The window openings on the principal floor were usually larger than those on the ground floor, whilst the actual windows had thinner glazing bars, often with six panes of glass per sash, giving a total of 12 panes. Early rooms were panelled throughout, although later designs only had this below the dado and even later rooms dispensed with the panelling entirely, retaining only the dado. Wall surfaces were often covered using textiles over frames, wallpaper or a colour wash, often in blue.

Late Georgian (1770-1800)

During this period there was a large growth in population. An understanding of Greek, Roman and Renaissance works led to increasing popularity in the Etruscan style, demonstrated by pottery with daring and colourful ornament, often incorporating mass-produced ‘stick on’ mouldings.

Influential books of this period included Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (1773 and 1779). Indeed, Robert, brother of John and James, and son of William, created some of the greatest architecture of the time. Typically, rooms were circular or rectangular in form, often with apsidal ends. Ceilings were pastel with white stucco decoration and gilt touches. Other characteristics included fluting and pendants, with wheat-ear and anthemion (Greek honeysuckle) decoration, colour washed walls and painted dados. Examples include Ickworth House of 1792 by Francis Sandys, complete with its domed rotunda, and Lowther Village, built by the Adam brothers from the 1760s onwards.

The Greek Revival

The Greek Revival, spanning the 1790s to the 1830s, saw a movement away from Roman styles to those of ancient Greece. The appropriate orders were accompanied by matching decoration, including echinus moulding, key and disc string courses, palmettes and anthemion. John Nash used a loose form of this style for his development at Park Crescent, London, which was started in 1812 and featured a curve of coupled Greek Ionic columns. Although it went out of fashion, Greek architecture reappeared in Glasgow at the end of the nineteenth century with the work of Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson.

The Works of Sir John Soane

In the early nineteenth century several architects experimented with new forms that were loosely based on classicism. The greatest of these was Sir John Soane. His finest work was at the Bank of England, London (1788-1823), where he used shallow arches and vaulting for the ceiling along with top-lighting, so as to create an ideal working environment. Tragically, this masterpiece was destroyed in 1927, although the screen walls that face the surrounding streets survived.

Soane’s Pitshanger Place, Ealing, London, was built in 1803 as his house but is now a library. The exterior has a triumphal arch motif topped by statues, whilst inside you can see some of Soane’s clever interior design. He later moved to what is now the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London (1812-1834), where Soane used complex spatial relationships, mirrors and false perspectives to ‘explode the strict dimensions of the site’.

The church of St John, in Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, also demonstrates Soane’s subversive approach to classicism. In this structure, the brickwork is carefully enclosed within pilasters and a cornice, whilst the piers on either side of the central bay continue upwards as if to form part of the tower, but in reality these are detached from the actual tower, ‘revealing a tense sense of space between’.

The Dulwich Mausoleum and Picture Gallery of 1814 shows his most abstract interpretation of the classical style, where he uses numerous illusionist devices to detach the elements of the structure, the exterior containing ‘hovering planes of brickwork’ and ‘slits of space’. The interior of the gallery is top-lit, as is the tiny but incredibly impressive mausoleum.

His own mausoleum of 1816 is located in Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, London, sadly in the process of being desecrated for the purposes of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL). Although it has Soane’s characteristic shallow-domed canopy, along with pierced pediments and columns, the minimal decoration has no historical precedence.


The 1840s and 1850s saw the arrival of neo-classicism, also known as Romantic or Italian, which was built ‘not with strict regard to the rules’ and ‘undermining the hierarchy of decorum’. In fact, both Roman and Grecian elements were commonly used within the same building. Examples of the style include the magnificent Saint George’s Hall, Liverpool (1854) by H Lonsdale Elmes and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (1847) by George Basevi.

One of the leaders of the neo-classical movement was Sir Charles Barry, who built the Travellers Club (1831) and the Reform Club (1847), both in London and in an Italian Renaissance ‘palazzo’ style. The other proponent was C R Cockerell, who built the Bristol and Liverpool branches of the Bank of England, as well as many other buildings.

Beyond the Revivals

Strangely enough, classicism survived through the Edwardian period and beyond, sometimes appearing in a ‘stripped’ form that was actually very close to modernism. Today, in the post-modern age, it’s still very popular and is advocated by architects such as Quinlan Terry. Unlike some other styles, it can be easily adapted for various purposes and, with its strong horizontal and vertical elements, can happily co-exist with modernist structures.

©Ray White 2004.