Seven Misunderstandings about Classical Architecture

I try to practice as a classical architect today, and I enjoy it.

I have come to this position not by listening to lectures or intellectual arguments (because it is not primarily an academic subject), but by working for eleven years side by side with a great architect, Raymond Erith RA, who died in 1973.

In the past, architectural students started as apprentices working in offices and coming together in the evenings to discuss their ideas – ideas that they had picked up from their masters and the practical world around them. Today, the modern system of architectural education requires that students spend five years full-time in academic theory before being allowed out to start forming a theory based on practical experience. It is possibly because of this process of indoctrination that students often ask questions of a theoretical kind which do not relate to the practical world and the art of building. It is this relationship between theory and practice that causes frequent misunderstandings about the relevance of classical architecture today.

There are many ways in which classical architecture is misunderstood, and the theme of this paper is based on seven of the more frequent misunderstandings. These concern the following subjects:

  1. Pastiche
  2. Functionalism
  3. New building types
  4. Materials
  5. Cost
  6. Tradesmen
  7. Politics

Let us start with misunderstanding 1. A popular misconception is that classical architecture is pastiche; it is often said that it is a simple matter of cribbing from the pattern books. I notice that many art historians are full of this and – like all people who are protected from reality – they will never learn until they start to practise. I believe there is something in the Gospels: ‘If you know these things, happy are ye if ye do them’. It is only in the doing that we learn.

Say, for instance, you are asked to design a door in the Palladian manner. You turn to Palladio’s Quattro Libri and you find that you are only given the profile of the moulding (1). No guidance is given on size, scale, materials or construction. Even if you can decide on a door 3ft 6in wide by 7ft high with architraves one-sixth of the opening and an entablature above (2-3), how do you relate it to the wall? How do you convert these lines of an engraving into building materials?

You are now faced with decisions about the lining, frame, door and its panelling, not to mention the treatment of the surround on the other side of the wall. To do this you have to draw on your knowledge and experience, and the result will express a number of architectural subtleties. If you are not careful you may also express your own shortcomings and lack of skill! If you feel that a door of this sort is not sufficiently important for its position you can add an Order either side and even a pediment (4).

This leads to misunderstanding 2, which concerns functionalism. It is said that in a democratic age, the greater or lesser importance of such a simple thing as a door is no longer relevant. Quite apart from the democracy question, every large municipal building has to serve different groups of people, and it is helpful if the main public entrance is easily distinguished from the office staff entrance or the door to the refuse collection. Even in the sitting room of a small house the door to the hall or kitchen should be more important than the door to a cupboard. The old rules relating to relative importance (the hierarchy) of doors and their architraves still apply and fulfil an important function. If they are well understood they help the client use the building and if they are ignored as in most modern buildings, you have to resort to signs and symbols to guide the public in the right direction.

We therefore see just one of the functions of mouldings in stressing the relative importance of different doors. It amazes me that mouldings, which are so simple, can lead to such infinite variations. After all there is really only one curve and one straight. A cavetto is a concave curve whilst an ovolo is the opposite. A cyma recta is a cavetto followed by an ovolo, whereas a cyma reversa is the opposite (5). The fillets merely come between. If you stack them together, they say something – maybe an Ionic modillion cornice (6).

You may ask, ‘What is the reason for the sequence of these moulding?’ The answer is that they have come about as the result of many causes like weathering, building construction over thousands of years, historical precedent and other influences. But probably most important is sciagraphy, or the science of casting shadows.

If we draw the lines of perspective we can see how the profile of the mouldings are picked out by the shadows (7). The front of the corona and the modillions are in direct sunlight, whereas the curves of the cymas and ovolos come into and go out of shadow gently. You might think that the soffite and the coffers are lost because they are in complete shadow. But strangely enough the abacus on top of the capital acts as a reflector and sends a soft light up into the coffers by reflection. Similarly, on a Tuscan capital the square abacus casts a shadow on the circular shaft below. It also causes a flash of light on the top of the echinus and expresses the shape. A combination of soft and hard shadows is brought about by the simple geometrical solids of square abacus supported by circular echinus (8).

We have been thinking of the play of light, the light of the sun, on the simplest geometrical solids. It gives pleasure to the eye and makes us feel good – simple pleasures caused by natural things and in no way dependent on artificial light and the consumption of energy or the world’s resources. Classical architecture comes from a natural world which valued light and air more highly than we do today because there was then no artificial light or ventilation to help one out of difficulties.

So, in planning a small house, it is common sense to put the front door in the middle with the hall and stairs behind it. Thus there would be a sitting room on one side and a kitchen on the other. The windows would come in the middle of the rooms, with the area of glazing a little over one-tenth of the floor area, making the building neither too cold in winter nor too hot in summer. One might also splay the reveals to soften the light as it came into the room. The chimneys could be at the ends, under the gable; and the roof would, of course, be pitched. The first floor would be much the same, with two bedrooms and a cupboard in the landing. The elevation would be a functional and natural reflection of the plan (9).

This is a simple example of a well proved plan, used for centuries and still hard to beat on functional grounds alone. It is capable of infinite variations and additions, so that it can in modern times easily accommodate a bathroom on the first floor to be extended to accommodate additional rooms on the ground floor. Thus it is a method of building that can adapt itself to change without sacrificing its principle.

This brings us to misunderstanding 3, which concerns new types of buildings. How can you, some ask, expect airports, multi-storey car parks, factories and office blocks to be part of the classical tradition?

I will admit that the architect has no ready-made answer and will have to do a lot of thinking. But had Bramante not thought hard about the juxtaposition of the circular pagan temple with an early Christian basilica, we might not have known the Renaissance church typified by St Peter’s. Bramante approached a new problem along the well travelled lines of classical principles and he produced an entirely new and highly successful type of building. Is there not an opportunity and a challenge today to approach each new problem from old principles rather than from a childish desire to produce an elevation hitherto unknown?

In fact, every problem – even a conservatory on the side of a house – is a new problem. The architectural result depends entirely upon what is in the mind of the designer. I will say more about what is in the mind of the designer later on.

Misunderstanding 4 is about materials. I am often asked why I don’t use modern materials. To answer this, let us first make a short list of old and new building materials:


  • Limestone
  • Marble
  • Lime Concrete
  • Clay bricks and tiles
  • Slates
  • Sandstone
  • Portland cement concrete
  • Steel
  • Reinforced concrete
  • Reconstructed stone
  • Pre-cast concrete
  • Sandlime bricks
  • Stainless steel
  • Aluminium
  • Laminated plastics


Now I am no obscurantist and I admit that I have specified at various times all the materials on the bottom list, but I have nearly always done so because they are cheaper in the short-term. There is little doubt that, quite apart from their appearance and cheapness, the materials at the bottom of the list have a shorter life than those at the top.

This means that if you use them you will have higher maintenance costs than with the traditional materials. There are the notorious examples like roofing felt which now has a shorter guarantee than most refrigerators, but leaving that aside it is worth noting that Hope Bagenal, who was for many years head of the Building Research Station, pointed out that the best building materials are practically inert, whereas the great defect of all modern materials is their high coefficient of expansion, as shown in the chart (10).

This means that their seasonal and diurnal expansion and contraction is such that expansion joints are essential. Even a modern brick wall has to have expansion joints every 30ft. This in turn breaks up the monolithic nature of any structure into little isolated blocks with expansion joints. The weathering and attrition at these joints is an obvious long-term weakness, whereas a traditionally built structure has none of these problems because the matrix is lime instead of cement. Think of the Pantheon in Rome, built in brick and lime mortar. It has a diameter of 142ft and has stood for nearly two thousand years. No reinforced concrete structure could last anything like so long because once air and moisture have penetrated to the reinforcement there is nothing which can permanently inhibit its breakdown. It does not even make a good ruin!

Of course modern materials (materials with high coefficients of expansion) have their uses for temporary buildings like exhibition halls and factories, but all too often their cheapness has been their main attraction.

This is really the point about misunderstanding 5, which concerns cost, for any equation which involves cost must also be related to maintenance and permanence. If cheapness has been properly equated in relation to the life of a building, the client would normally prefer the permanent solution. A caravan may be cheaper than a well built house, but in twenty years time (when the mortgage is paid off), the house has appreciated whereas the caravan has only scrap value. It is this form of short-term economics which has too often been accepted as the reason against more traditional solutions.

We have built a large office building in London in traditional materials and construction. It had to be traditional for conservation reasons, and the client was prepared to pay more for it, but in fact it cost slightly less per square foot than comparable office buildings at the time. Furthermore, because it had a Georgian proportion of window to wall, it did not require air-conditioning and thereby reduced the running cost considerably.

The modern client not only needs a deep pocket and a short memory but he also needs an inordinate supply of combustible fuel to keep the building properly serviced. In the past the resources of the earth were scarce, and the buildings reflected a sense of moderation which is altogether lacking in the overglazed facades with which we are so familiar today. The real question is whether or not the designed article is good value for money.

Value for money – this brings us to misunderstanding 6, which is about tradesmen. People ask, ‘How can you find men to do your class of work these days?’ as if men no longer can or want to produce skilled work. The truth is that whenever there is good work to be done there are men to do it. We have never had difficulty in obtaining first class joinery; we prepare full size details and specify the quality, and provided a reputable builder is doing the work it normally needs no further explanation. The same goes for plasterers, bricklayers, slaters, stonemasons and even woodcarvers and coppersmiths. Generally, I find that the more intricate the detail, the more willing the tradesmen are to take on the work.

I think the working man is misunderstood by everyone, not least himself. There is, after all, no fundamental difference between the tradesman, the architect or his employers. They are all men made in the image of God with needs and aspirations. But I have noticed that we are all far less covetous when we are working on a job we enjoy; at the end of the day we can go home and think about it and return the next day to take the work a little further. I have heard this from so many tradesmen, that it must be true; it is the boredom of repetitive work, work which requires nothing from you, that makes for an empty mind. The empty mind is a dangerous thing because it soon gets filled with a host of other thoughts which no industrial expert can control; and this brings me to the last misunderstanding.

Misunderstanding 7 is about political implications. It is often said that there are political implications in the classical style. That because Mussolini used it in one form it is an expression of fascism; or because it was adopted in Moscow for a time after the Revolution it is an expression of socialism. The truth is that it does express the society that uses it, just as man’s or woman’s face expresses what is in their heart, but this does not mean that it takes sides. Historically, it has been the expression of such diverse political and religious systems as Republican and Imperial Rome, the capitalist Medicis in Florence, the corrupt Borgia popes, the Baroque spiritualism of Michelangelo, the Protestant Reformation in Palladian England, the Counter-Reformation in Rococo Bavaria and Spain, the God-fearing simplicity of the Nonconformists in England and America, and the overbearing conceit of the Victorians. Although the spiritual, political, material and temporal influences are crystallised in wood and stone, and expressed in classical forms, the classical grammar remains neutral; like the paint on the artist’s palette.

Quinlan Terry

Quinlan Terry Architects LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales.