Cenotaph of Major-General Sir William Casement (1788-1844) by Edward Manuel Lander (1814-84), showing the telamons supporting the canopy, in the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, London

The triumph of the Classical

Modernism has failed and it is time to return to diligent study of the best of traditional architecture

Artillery Row Books

The Language of Architectural Classicism: From Looking to Seeing
by Edward McParland 
(London: Lund Humphries, 2024)
ISBN: 978-1-84822-659-3 (hardback)
261 pp., many col. & b&w plates

Proclamation of Creative Artists dated 17 August 1934, published in the Nazi Party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter (18 August 1934), urging in a referendum to be held the following day that all should support Hitler’s assumption of supreme power after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg. The name of Ludwig Miës van der Rohe (1886-1969) is among them (lines 5 and 6 up from the bottom) (© collection James Stevens Curl).

After decades of censorship and bullying it is agreeable that we are once more able to discuss the wonderfully varied possibilities of the great Classical language of architecture, even if there are the ill-informed who still scream imprecations and insults, amongst accusations of  associations with the “Far-Right”, at anybody who professes an interest in the matter. 

The facts, however, painfully established by scholars brave enough to burrow deeply enough, are that, contrary to the Party Line, the deities of Modern architecture were themselves tainted by attempts to ingratiate themselves with totalitarian régimes, and the appointment of several of them to plum jobs in the United States in the late 1930s was aptly described (1968) by Sybil Moholy-Nagy (née Pietzsch, 1903-71) as “Hitler’s Revenge”. And she should have known.

Front of the wrapper of the book under review showing Highpoint II, Highgate, London (1938), by Lubetkin & Tecton, architects. In the background is Highpoint I (1933-5), by the same architects.

It is interesting that the front of the wrapper of Edward McParland’s new book should show one of the replica caryatides copied from the Athenian Erechtheion supporting the porch roof at Highpoint II, Highgate, North London (1938), designed by Berthold Romanovich Lubetkin (1901-90) & Tecton. This is an excellent example of Surrealism, in which the familiar is rendered unusual in its surprise setting, and the figures are shorn of their original meaning. Their incorporation in the design, however, was hysterically denounced by doctrinaire Modernists as a “betrayal”: such historical references were said to be “problematical”, and even “notorious”, but in October 1938 the Architectural Review, stated that the figures were only casts, so they could therefore be safely seen as impersonal, and nothing more than “standardised sculptural building units”, like bricks, presumably. Such is the sophistry required to justify what to some was heresy.

McParland asks a very sound question right at the start of this excellent book: he enquires if, in Antiquity, there were, in fact, any rules which could never be broken in architecture. I have made the same point when I have suggested that tyrannical rules (notably when Palladianism was in the ascendant) suffocated and atrophied Taste, and rigid instructions were laid down for the use of the Classical Orders of architecture (Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite). Such rigidity did not seem to apply in Antiquity at all, because in my travels I have seen such a wealth of invention and variety it would seem that the ancients had no inhibitions when it came to bending rules as well as entablatures, and departing from fixed models for the Orders. McParland, in short, urges us (as I have urged my own students) to use their eyes, and not be hidebound by adhering to the crabbed texts of architectural pedants.

Part of the Palazzo del Tè, Mantua (built 1525-32), designed by Giulio Romano, showing the triglyphs “dropping’ from the entablature”.

Moreover, he does not get bogged down in the speculations of Pevsner and others concerning the quirkiness found in the so-called Mannerist treatments of rustication, entablatures, ædicules, and the rest. Take the Palazzo del Tè at Mantua (1525-32), for example, by Giulio Romano (c.1499-1546), with its triglyphs appearing to drop from the entablature: this has been interpreted as Mannerist, intended to suggest instability, but it should also be remembered that several architects, notably Giuliano da Sangallo (1445-1516), drew Roman ruins including some where the entablatures were disintegrating, so the design may well be an allusion to Antiquity, a witty attempt to give the new building gravitas by making it appear old and therefore respectable.

Ædicule by Michelangelo in the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo, Florence, begun 1519, interpreted by some as wilful, odd, eccentric Mannerism, but is it?

Take the beautifully controlled ædicules of the New Sacristy, San Lorenzo, Florence (begun 1519), by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564): these have always seemed to me to be witty and inventive, rather than symptomatic of extreme anxiety or Freud-inspired nightmares.

Indeed, Michelangelo’s treatments of expressive walls, with their elaborate recesses and protrusions, and their ingenious involvement with the Orders, seem to suggest Power, or rather the containment of it. His details are  highly sophisticated and beautifully refined and executed elements, possibly also based on sketches of parts of the Antique Baptistery at the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome, by Giuliano da Sangallo, so again sought to acquire authority by reference to revered earlier architecture.  

Disappearing Roman Doric pilaster on a pier of the façade of the Midland Bank, Poultry, London (1924-39), by Lutyens, showing the very sophisticated rustication and layering of the wall.

Pevsner, in his An Outline of European Architecture (1943 and many later editions), airily dismissed English architects as of no consequence for some 40 years from 1900, and therefore in that book ignored great masters such as Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944). He had considerable difficulty when he encountered work by Lutyens when writing The Buildings of England. From the time he designed “Heathcote”, a country house in Ilkley, Yorkshire (1906), Lutyens was fired with enthusiasm for what he called the “big game, the high game” of Classical architecture, abandoning the Arts-and-Crafts Old-English manner he had employed hitherto. Heathcote is a symmetrical palazzo in which elements of the layered treatment of the Porta del Palio, Verona (1548-59), by Michele Sanmicheli (c.1487-1559), are clearly quoted, but the antæ of the Order employed disappear into the walls, re-emerging only as base and capital. At the former Midland Bank, Poultry, City of London (1924-39), for example, Pevsner could not cope with the disappearing pilaster, a motif Lutyens often employed when carrying out inventive variations on Italian Cinquecento themes. When considering Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral, meanwhile, where the only part of Lutyens’s magnificent design of 1932 (begun on site 1933) to be realised was the crypt, Pevsner was shocked by the “exasperating whimsy” of the detail, but never explained why he should have taken such exception to obvious Mannerist witticisms of the 20th century when they were perfectly acceptable in the 16th. Something to do with that dreary old Zeitgeist Pevsner was always banging on about, I suppose, something that should be decently interred and forgotten about, I would suggest, as it would help to cleanse our thinking. Lutyens’s bent transoms, oversized keystones, and engaged downward tapering part-obelisks are in the tradition of Michelangelo and Giulio Romano, and none the worse for that

Detail from the crypt of Liverpool R.C. cathedral, showing a massing keystone bearing down on a transome, which appears to bend under the weight, and the tapering elements on either side, all of which shocked Pevsner (© James Stevens Curl).
Caryatides at the church of St Pancras, London (1819-22), by William (c.1771-1843) and Henry William (1794-1843) Inwood: they stand, with inverted torches, over the entrance to the vaults below, emphasising the funerary associations.

McParland rightly emphasises the treatment of angles in Classical architecture, especially showing how things can go spectacularly wrong when elaborate entablatures turn corners, be they inward or outward, and the most frightful bodges occur. He also treats of scale, and the relationship of the human body to architecture, with asides on caryatides; straight, unbowed male figures acting as columns, called telamons (see featured image); well-developed male figures, carved to suggest they strain to sustain great burdens, their arms and shoulders carrying the superstructure, known as atlantes; humanoid heads and necks, or heads and shoulders, joined to a quadrangular shaft proportioned to be the same height as a human body, and slightly tapered downwards, called herms; and heads and busts, often with torsos, merging with downward tapering pedestals resembling inverted obelisks, sometimes with feet appearing under the base of the pedestal (proportioned like the lower part of a human figure), known as terms

Delightful Rococo terms at Sans Souci palace, Potsdam (1745-7), carved by Friedrich Christian Glume (1714-52). The architect of the palace was Georg Wenzeslaus, Freiherr von Knobelsdorff (1699-1753).

His chapter on The Wall is very good: he celebrates the wonderfully expressive and complex treatment of the walls of St Mary Woolnoth, London (1716-24), by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), as well as the massive voussoirs and keystone of an otherwise unremarkable doorway at the Villa dei Vescovi, Luvigliano (1535-42), by Giovanni Maria Falconetto (1468-1535).

Massive voussoirs and keystone at the Villa dei Vescovi, Luvugliano, near Padua, by Falconetto.

I also enjoyed his exposition of the layering of elements in a wall, and he gives those superb examples of superimposed layers at Santi Maria e Donato, Murano (12th century), and the stables at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London (1814), by John Soane (1753-1837 — he was not knighted until 1832), each of which is exquisitely realised through the finest of craftsmanship.

Very sophisticated layering of brick walls at the stables of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea (1809-17), by John Soane (he was knighted in 1832)
Design for a prison at Aix-en-Provence (1804) by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. The massive caps to the four corner towers are in the form of hugely enlarged sarcophagi-lids, and the segmental elements over the unfluted, stumpy, Greek Doric hexastyle porticoes are also based on a different types of sarcophagus-lid, so the overall effect is of crushing weight, emphasised by the tiny window-openings.

He mentions the power of architecture in the right hands to suggest, for example, punishment, in the massive prison designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), with its blank walls punctured by the tiniest of windows, and huge blocky sarcophagus-lids capping the corner-towers and stumpy Doric hexastyle porticoes. And there is a strange prison in Würzburg (1811, 1826-7), by Peter Speeth (1772-1831), with its powerful rusticated base punctuated by three semicircular arches, and a decastyle in-antis primitive unfluted Greek-Doric portico set within a Græco-Egyptianising battered element surmounted by a plain pediment set in a blank wall immediately above the rustications. The unsettling changes of scale mark this as a formidable example of architecture parlante, or architecture expressive of its purpose. Local lore holds that the columns within the powerful frame suggest the Ten Commandments. Perhaps both the Ledoux and Speeth buildings might also be regarded as architecture ensevelie associated with entombment and crushing weights: the Enlightenment did not entertain the absurd notion of prisons as comfy rest-homes, but as places of retribution, their appearance designed to put the Fear of God into those who saw them.

Women’s Penitentiary of St Burkhardt, Würzburg (1811, 1826-7), by Peter Speeth, with its powerfully rusticated base and overwhelming mass above. Over the central arch is a Græco-Egyptian element with 10 Doric columns supporting a primivist pediment over a cornice, and high above the pediment is a lion’s mask in the form of a door-knocker (© collection James Stevens Curl).

Generally speaking, this book is very well illustrated with a wealth of exemplars, although some shots are badly marred by having those horrible converging verticals, which should never be reproduced in any book on architecture. However, McParland concentrates on buildings, and that is all to the good, although sometimes his comments about the images are a bit thin in content: I would have preferred more informative captions, as architecture is a closed book to most people, so clear explanations can be valuable.

McParland ends his book by stating he has avoided “propaganda for classicism in contemporary practice” and although he rather prissily has “been happy to do without the poisoned pen of anti-Modernism held by some classical apologists”, he admits that he hopes Henry-Russell Hitchcock (1903-87) was wrong when he proclaimed Edwin Lutyens “to be the last of the traditionalists”. He should reflect that Modernist commentators have used insult, ridicule, vulgar abuse, misrepresentations, downright lies, sneers, and just about every trick in the book to denigrate, discredit, and even destroy Classicist practitioners and apologists for Classicism. They have also used the technique of completely ignoring every traditionalist and Classicist of whom they disapprove, reminding one of those doctored photographs of members of the Politburo from which “liquidated” individuals had been erased. Those commentators deserve to be criticised and corrected, and it is certainly not poisonous to do so: besides, most of the venom involved actually spurted from Modernists and their servile apologists.

And I can assure him that Hitchcock was wrong: the Architectural Uprising, which began in Scandinavia and has now spread to over 30 countries, has demonstrated again and again how Modernism has failed in every respect to produce humane and æsthetically agreeable habitats for human beings, and indeed has destroyed an enormous amount of urban fabric throughout the world, as well as being criminally wasteful of resources. Many architectural students who have resisted indoctrination are realising they are being conned and brainwashed, and have demanded change. Diligent study of the best that traditional architecture can offer, no matter what “style” it assumes, offers some hope for the future, and the enormous ranges of adaptability and expression present in the cornucopia of themes and allusions within Classicism are gifts to designers still capable of using their eyes to see and their brains to learn from the very best there is in architecture, a best that has been ignored for far too long. 

Our surroundings, as McParland observes, are still permeated through and through by the Classical tradition, and he is absolutely right to point out that those surroundings are in fact a vast source for design freely available for us to use, if only we can be bothered to look and see, and cease regurgitating ridiculous non-existent links swallowed whole by those who can only look with their ears.             

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