St Mark’s Square drawn by Quinlan Terry. Picture Credit: Stolpe Publishing

Manifesto for traditional elegance

Classicism’s enduring relevance and timeless appeal


This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Trained in the bleakly grey era of the late 1950’s, the classical architect Quinlan Terry has achieved a remarkable legacy. At the time he embarked on his architectural career, the profession was locked firmly in the postwar austerity of flat-roofed perfunctory modernism, with planar walls of exposed aggregate concrete or unadorned “stretcher bond” brickwork.

This was the “machine age” of mass production of buildings, and it is sometimes hard to remember how restrictive this period must once have been, as so much has happened since. To the more hard-line practitioners of those times, any suggestion of creating buildings with ornament was considered at best eccentric but more often offensive and worthy of censure.

The Layman’s Guide to Classical Architecture by Quinlan Terry, edited by Clive Aslet and with an introduction by HRH the Prince of Wales (Stolpe, £30)

This beautifully produced red-cloth-covered hardback book is therefore a fitting record of a lifetime’s work of studying, drawing and creating new classical buildings. Such buildings are generally defined by the application of the five classical orders of columns handed down to us by the ancient Greeks and Romans. They are beautifully illustrated and explained in this book. There have been centuries of creative re-use of these Classical orders. Italian Renaissance, Palladians, Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians across the world have all offered ever inventive, fresh, new and distinctive reinterpretations of the Classical architectural language.

But, with the arrival of the International Modern Movement, the literal application of classical architecture was dramatically reduced and it was no longer taught in mainstream schools of architecture. For almost a century, Classicism has been seen as largely irrelevant in new building design. This book sets out to explain, in layman’s terms, what each part of the classical assembly is called and how the components can be developed and composed into a harmonious building.

The classical assembly explained in layman’s terms

Quinlan Terry’s classical buildings, which are illustrated in elegantly drawn elevations and crisp black and white photographs, illustrate that the selection and interpretation of the language of classicism is a highly personalised choice. Quinlan’s first employer, from 1962, had been Raymond Erith, to whom this book is dedicated. Erith was a gentle practitioner based in rural Essex who weathered the worst of the postwar austerity until his death in 1973.

After that time, and in part due to Erith and Terry’s joint achievement, the climate for making traditionalist buildings steadily improved, and the occasional country house commissions multiplied and expanded into full scale classical country houses on a substantial scale both here and in the United States.

Even classical buildings can be controversial in their own terms

Similarly, commercial building developments, such as those of London’s Richmond Riverside (1987), Baker Street (1998) and even an office block on Tottenham Court Road (2006), were adorned with fully expressed classical orders and columns. The latter sits rather ironically in the shadow of Richard Seifert’s notorious Centre Point Tower, started not long after Terry began working with Erith.

Even classical buildings can be controversial in their own terms. The Howard Building at Downing College, Cambridge (1986) took on an exuberant and Baroque character in contrast to the rather austere Greek revival college buildings that had been created by William Wilkins in the early nineteenth century.

Quinlan Terry at work

Even the not altogether sensitive Sir Herbert Baker had respected the Wilkins cue when his restrained additions were made during the following century. Terry explains that his selection of the Composite order had provided an opportunity for “a number of Baroque games”, and was the development of a summer house which he had previously designed for Michael Heseltine in 1982.

Another example of architectural amusement is expressed by the two doors of the city church at St Helen’s Bishopsgate, which Terry reordered after the building sustained damage by an IRA bomb in 1992. The existing South Door, dated 1633, was a delightfully artisan Tuscan arrangement with prominent key stones and somewhat irregular rustication. It was charming, but not sophisticated, as classical-revival architecture in England was still in its infancy when it was built.

Terry added a new door adjacent to it, which is of an entirely different character and level of detail. He explains: “at the time I was particularly inspired by the work of Sanmicheli, an architect a generation before Palladio who built many outstanding buildings in Verona … My design therefore followed all of Sanmicheli’s details and proportions”. Certainly, this is a handsome door, but one cannot help but feel slightly sorry for the anonymous creator of the rather naive one of 1633, which has been somewhat upstaged by Terry’s highly sophisticated import from Verona next to it.

Perhaps these matters of classical courtesy and “neighbourliness” don’t matter and have never mattered in the free expression of different classical buildings and building types adjacent to one another. One only has to look at Terry’s beautiful sketches of Venice, included in this book, to see that.

But the interpretation of classical rules does offer scope for overall composition; a point made in the pictures that illustrate the “Afterword” on the final page of the book. A skyline view of London painted in 1774 shows Wren’s St Paul’s surrounded by a forest of his parish church spires, which together made a composition that went far further than the sum of its individual parts.

The skyline of London was a classical masterpiece whose loss remains deeply felt. Below the 1774 painting is a black and white photograph of the same view today, as ever taller and blander corporate blocks reach for the sky. It is a dismal comparison. Terry concludes: “Travellers by public transport constantly hear the message, ‘If you see anything that doesn’t look right, speak to a member of staff … See it, say it, sorted’. Is it not high time for all laymen to speak out about what does not look right? … We could then revert again to traditional ways of building and make our cities as beautiful as they were in previous centuries”. If only.

But it is hard to imagine that salvation is likely to come any time soon, when looking at travellers on trains coming in and out of London, gazing deeply into their mobile telephonic devices. Successive governments have also shown indifference to the quality of both mass housing and corporate developments, preferring to leave this to the “market place”.

This book, with encouragement for people to look and sketch, and to see and think about the buildings that surround them, comes at a welcome time when the architecture and the setting of our towns and cities feels badly neglected and ignored. People need to care more about the buildings they create and develop, which this book might hopefully inspire them to do.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover