Neoclassicism combines the following tenets: a regard for tradition and reverence for the classics, a concern for social reality, and the communal commonplaces of thought which hold it together and a concern for “nature” – or the way things are, an inherent conservatism.
According to De La Croix and Tansey (1980; 704) neoclassicism “embraced the idea of a changeless generality that supposedly transcends the accidents of time”.
The 18th Century was seen as the ‘Age of Reason’. Trachtenberg and Hyman (1986; 388) state that “reason was worshipped, and simultaneously the subjective – and – secular emotional experience was cultivated to an unprecedented degree – also been called the ‘Age of Sensibility’”.
Neoclassicism was founded partly on a reaction to the excesses of Baroque, and partly on the new scholarships of history. It replaced “Baroque” decadence socially and culturally. Both Roman and Greek art was to be admired, “the glory that was Greece/and the grandeur that was Rome” De La Croix and Tansey (1980; 705). This summarized the conception of a noble classical world. According to De La Croix and Tansey (1980; 726) “neoclassicism could be romantically associated with revolutionary aspirations to primitive democratic purity, or with imperial ambitions for unshakeable authority” whilst Trachtenberg and Hyman (1986; 389) state that “neoclassicism exploited not for its rationalism but for poetic reverie and associations”.
Johann Winckellmann (1755), the first modern historian of art had a wide influence and his writings laid a theoretical and historical foundation for Neo-Classicism. He saw Greek art as the most perfect from the hands of man and the only model to be followed, the Greek sculpture as manifesting a “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”. (Article; Neoclassical Architecture and the Influence of Antiquity) Neoclassicism had an aura of clarity and simplicity with a more sensuous manner. Trachtenberg and Hyman (1986; 392)
The English neoclassical movement had ideals of order, logic, restraint, and decorum, which enabled the practitioners to imitate or reproduce the structures and themes of Greek or Roman originals. Emphasis placed on accuracy of drawing, and hence on the notion of correct/incorrect.
To a certain extent neoclassicism represented a reaction against the optimistic, exuberant, and enthusiastic Renaissance view of man as being fundamentally good and possessed of an infinite potential for spiritual and intellectual growth. Neoclassical theorists, by contract saw man as an imperfect being, inherently sinful, whose potential was limited. They emphasised order and reason, restraint, common-sense and on religious, political, economic and philosophical conservatism. They maintained that man himself was the most appropriate subject of art, and saw art itself as essentially pragmatic- intellectual rather than emotional. Hence their emphasis on proper subject matter and to employ in their work concepts like symmetry, proportion, units, harmony and grace which would facilitate the process of delighting, instructing, educating and correcting the social animal which they believe man to be.
Greenhalgh M (190; 10) summarizes the philosophy of classicism in the following quote “Classicism qua state of mind is an approach to the arts that emphasizes the ideal on form and in content ever the everyday, the power of reason over the often misleading emotions – and hence restraint, moderation and self-control; clarity and simplicity and… a respect for tradition.”
The effects of the Industrial Revolution on technology, economy and society continue to be felt today and it has been said that the changes in architecture during this period were significant in shaping the direction of modern design, a number of modern buildings in this century still have classical overtones.
Greenhalgh M (1990:38) quotes Jameson “A building by Mies van der Rohe may look modern enough but underneath the flashy exterior is the same classical temple, sometimes standing up and sometimes lying down, but always keeping to the same classical symmetries, the same classical concern with simple rhythmic repetitions”. This raises the question must a building with neoclassical leanings look like ancient building with columns, pediments etc or are the general classical ideals of balance and symmetry sufficient. I believe the latter is true. The Charles Moore, Piazza D’Italia, New Orleans, Louisiana 1975-80 although not strictly neoclassical in design still portrays a classical message with the arches and colonnades.
The AT&T building NY City 1978-1982 is less neoclassical in a theoretical sense but still portrays a sense of symmetry, balance and a lack of frivolous decoration. The top has a sloping, broken pediment reminiscent of a Chippendale bookcase. Both these buildings though very different in design have a definite historical influence from the 1800s.
Today’s buildings are more minimalist with an elegant simplification, but many still display a “presence of the past”
Neoclassicism as a style is flexible enough to adapt to modern times – its regional diversity an important element. Buildings cannot be considered separate from the environment in which it stands. New materials and methods of industrial production new technical services and changes in craftmanship lends itself easily to the philosophy of the neoclassical movement; a concern for social reality, a concern for nature and the ideas of a changeless generality.
The ‘Age of Sensibility” which I feel is true today as a reaction to the opulence and overstatement of the 1980s. Demand for new buildings is greater than ever; designed to satisfy the needs and demands of a changing society. More emphasis is placed on environmentally friendly solutions to buildings and homes. Components of buildings are now pre-fabricated, and the rationality of today is to reduce costs and erect buildings as quickly as possible which lends itself readily to a classical feel and is apparent in the new suburban homes of Sydney with porticos and colonnades at the front of homes. Today there is a more neoclassical façade decoration than internal that still tends to be very minimalist. Today’s homes are not truly neoclassical because of the changing needs of society and technology for example: dual car ownership has meant a need for garages which can be accessed easily from the street resulting in house designs that are not symmetrical.
The use of decoration in present times tends not to include marble and gilt due to cost, though decoration in the form of figurines, statues has a neoclassical feel. Current homes in Sydney attempt to portray neoclassical architecture through grandeur of scale. According to Greenhalgh m (1990; 65) “there is a world-wide classical revival”
Some experts have referred to post modernism as the New Classicism. The Ricardo Bofill apartment complex 1980-84 at Marne-a Vallee in France and the Allan Greenberg, Offices for Brent Publications NY 1985 have a distant neoclassical feel with colonnades, symmetry, balance and grandeur, arches and columns.
Ong Ards post-modernist high-rise apartment block in Bangkok is too topped with a neoclassical temple and decorated with pediment windows and a Tower-of-the-Winds like gazebo. Greenhalgh (1990;65) cites Taylor “the rampant use of neoclassical fragments in reinforced concrete to decorate buildings, is the result of a combination of factors; the architects’ desire to be part of a “global” trend characterized by western classical decoration and a certain strata of Thai society that wishes to advertise their worldly success”.
Neoclassical architecture expresses authority – hence its use in public buildings. It radiates confidence. A perfect example of this is the buildings that are found in Macquarie St Sydney and St James Church, although these buildings would have been highly influenced by English trends in the 1800s, they still impart the impression of authority, of being in control.
“Architecture is the reflections of the society that produces it’ one must live with one’s time, using new technologies while retaining a sense of harmony; without innovation, the masterpieces of the past would not exist.” Greenhalgh (11990;65). Though neoclassicism is not reproduced in a true theoretical sense today its influence is felt throughout society I feel we will always see a ‘classical’ influence in design because of its timeless qualities which can adapt to many societies and environments.
Article: neoclassical architecture and the influence of antiquity
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GreenHalgh M 1990 What is Classicism? Academy Ed Gt Britain
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