Why are people so fascinated with classical architecture?


I like classical architecture, but it seems overused, even though it has been modified over the centuries. Ever since the ancient Greeks, everyone seemed to be fascinated with classical architecture. The Romans adopted it as their own and modified it, and then it was modified into Byzantine or late Roman architecture and then was modified into Romanesque architecture. Then during the Renaissance it was again looked at like a model, then led to Mannerism, and then Baroque. Then came beaux arts and neoclassicism, all based on a version of classical architecture. It was not until Modernism that classicism was no longer the norm. Even today almost all residential homes are modeled off of classicism or the Roman villa. Why did people get so fascinated with classical architecture that they kept it alive to today? Why did no other architecture style get this popular?

Jun 24, 15 12:03 pm

The proportions are exquisite - and used in all 'styles'.  There has been a long standing tradition in the European culture the value of the ancient greece and roman republic as the bedrock of western civilization - philosophy and democracy.  As such, there is an inherent association of the style to the values it represents - see early US government buildings and their early adoption of the style to cement legitimacy of the new republic.  Ditto for banks.

It's best to see it in context of the historical pursuit of a continual history than as a style.

Jun 24, 15 12:22 pm

history of architecture 101, who, what, when and most important, why.

Jun 24, 15 12:24 pm

pfft.  it's just more architect snobbery.

Jun 24, 15 1:02 pm

I think that it provides a certain kind of satisfaction when a space is figured out so mathematically. I think that kind of mathematical structure to guide architectural decisions can create the feeling that a design is somehow righteous or in sync with some kind of universal truth. But we now know (or we now acknowledge) that the universe and humanity is much more complicated and far less rational than classical architecture suggests.  

Jun 24, 15 2:09 pm

your summary of architecture history glosses over the pretty large part of European architecture history that is not actually classical or based on it at all, ie Gothic, or Moorish, or Tudor... not to mention the bigger part of the world where classicism isn't and never was the norm, except in the colonial cities built by Europeans.

What I think you mean to ask is why classicism was the predominant paradigm for academic studies in architecture up until Modernism emerged. That's a question which makes more reasonable assumptions, and interesting to consider because it shows the potential weakness of relying on academic instruction to train architects.

There's no magic to classicism. It's proportions aren't inherently more pleasing than any other traditional architecture, and it is no more or less susceptible to aging and wear. I think the appeal to Europeans was very much tied to a nostalgia for the (perceived and maybe illusory) order and unity of the Roman Empire - which in turn admired the prosperous democracies of classical Greece. It was the art-historical context which educated people admired about classical architecture, and not really something inherent in the architecture. This admiration wasn't limited to architecture obviously, and was actually even more evidient in other fields including painting, sculpture, medicine and law.

Why do you suppose law and medicine insist on using Latin terms? Is it really the case that habeas corpus or myocardial infarction can't be suitably expressed with modern language? It's a manifestation of the same general admiration for a history European elites once imagined was somehow superior.

Jun 24, 15 10:05 pm
Erik Evens (EKE)


Do you think that the 300 or so English words you just wrote are some how representative of "modern language", in a way that the legal and medical terms you mentioned aren't?  Most of the words you, or any of us, use have their roots in Latin, or other ancestral languages that go back millennia.  So your language is "classical", whether you know it or not.

Why use those same old, moldy English words or phrases?  It's 2015!  Why not invent a completely new language, one not mired in nostalgia for a falsely imagined European past?  

Jun 25, 15 2:21 am

We have a language for 2015.


How's that for communication?

Jun 25, 15 3:03 am

That's gibberish.  Try

01000011 01101100 01100001 01110011 01110011 01101001 01100011 01101001 01110011 01101101 00100000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01100100 01100101 01100001 01100100 



Jun 25, 15 7:37 am
Erik Evens (EKE)

Binary code is so 1948.  

Jun 25, 15 9:02 am

that's why i included a hexadecimal translation!

Jun 25, 15 9:16 am


My point was to illustrate the extent of expropriation from the culture of Classical Rome/Greece which goes well beyond architecture. That's not to say there should be no continuity with tradition. But it's important to distinguish between organic tradition and academically-informed borrowing.

Just to belabor this and be picky: The core of English etymology is not Classical in origin; its Germanic. Outside the specific borrowings in medecine/law/theology a large portion of Latinate roots came naturally through the Norman conquest and the use of Latin as a common language. They evolved into modern language to such an extent they'd be unrecognizable to someone like Vitruvius. Many Latin terms in the professions were actually invented neologisms for things no native speaker of Latin ever needed to say; their use is just a silly pretension to give the impression of having classical origins.

My view of high-modern architecture (the kind you study in arch history) is that it indeed is an evolution from Classicism, and you could easily find strong examples from Fascist Europe or art deco that make that bridge. The things many people today admire about Classical architecture weren't necessarily seen as important aspects of that style. Things like walkability, scale, and craft were just how things were done at that time and due to the constraints of pre-industrial construction. Nor was the classicism of the Beaux Arts something a citizen of ancient Athens would necessarily recognize as good architecture; it actually introduces a large amount of variation that probably would appear totally foreign to them.

Jun 25, 15 11:20 am


English words would definitely have the origin linking to Old English and back through the same etymological past as Irish, Scots and Scandinavia as it would trace back to ancient Germanic language. However, a larger superset of words were adopted into the language from Roman Latin origins and it makes up a siginficant portion of the words we use.

I don't think fascination of classical architecture is necessarily the thing. It is familiar to those whom the context is prevalent. In fact, a large number of classical buildings are NEOCLASSICAL and was part of Neoclassical period which I believe began BEFORE Beaux-Arts and had several cycles where it was in style in America and probably elsewhere. However, as time went on, these ideas derived from Greek and Roman roots were often being in some ways being mixed with other ideas to create something new and that is an "Architect" exploring ideas otherwise everything will look the same.

Aside from the influence of native american architecture, european vernacular and American modification of those vernacular all being brought together creatively to form new designs for homes, commercial buildings, etc. Of course, this is far too simplified. There is a complex and deep story behind all that.

Jun 25, 15 12:14 pm

midlander - good points.  Civil engineers often discuss how to elevate their profession in the public's eye.  one of the paths they consider is using language that is more obscure to mimic law and medicine (the old joke of lawyers and doctors only socializing among themselves st parties); using Latin has been thrown around... 

Jun 25, 15 5:39 pm


Try this:

>0C000 2F 73 0F B0 00 00 00 00:

>0C008 00 F9 00 00 00 FA 00 00:

>0C010 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00:

>0C018 1B 00 00 00 00 00 00 00:


Have fun with ML Monitor

Whether that does anything is besides the point. It's gibberish unless you the code lines up to instruction opcodes and operands for a given cpu. 

Jun 25, 15 10:40 pm

humbly speaking, I agree with midlander. 

The classics are more than just architecture, inclusive of a range of texts and practices such law, medicine, letters and theatre. I think one of key things about all this is that there are artifacts in the form of treatises and plays from these periods, providing the foundation for the ontology of architecture.

In many respects it's an origin story for (western) architcture. We may have moved on to different versions of interpreting origin stories (eg, Spider-Man's third reboot on film or the force in Star Wars), but everyone (especially the patron) loves to know where it all came from, because that's good or "proper." Not to mention, classicism has been around so long it's a great foil to anything "new."

Think of it in the context of art and architectural history. It's only been 30-40 years since people asking about the context for the production of architecture versus memorizing slides to know just what is good. 

Is it snobbery? Sorta, but remember that this game of being a good designer was started by a snob named Vasari as he wrote stories about why his friends were the ones you should hire for the big commissions. it's a good thing that practice wasn't passed on all these generations.

Jun 26, 15 8:17 pm

Marc, I like your suggestion that the role of architecture theory is basically to provide a narrative to clients. I think that's long been true though rarely recognized as so by practitioners. Architects would do well to keep this in mind as they work, as many of the worst products come from 'true believers' who fail to appreciate the limits of theory when applied to real practice.

Theory isn't bad - it's important as a background. But it shouldn't take precedence over common sense design strategies.

Jun 26, 15 11:54 pm

^ Heresy! 

The narrative isn't for clients, it's for architects. Clients don't know the difference.

Jun 27, 15 12:07 am
People like classical architecture because they get it.

After ornament became a crime everyone but architects checked out.
Jun 27, 15 12:44 am

Adolf Loos said that "Ornament is a crime". Did he mean that "Art is a crime"? In any event the proportions of classical architecture are pretty much perfect and are worthy of study by anyone.

Jun 29, 15 6:37 am

Golden Means.... hmmm...

Jun 29, 15 11:25 am

Quondam, if you are that uneducated I can't help you.

Jun 29, 15 11:34 am

Why are (some) people so fascinated with...

the pursuit of the ideal?

of happiness?

the truth?


transcending beyond petty earthly concerns towards the infinite and the divine?

Classical Architecture, properly done, is an artifact of such pursuits, frozen in space and time.

There are, of course, a plethora of examples of the pursuit of the ideal, happiness, truth, and virtue in other realms besides the experience of architecture such as painting/ sculpture (e.g. Michelangelo), music (e.g. Vivaldi), religion (e.g. Buddhism and Nirvana) and philosophy (e.g. Socrates).  In giving the preceding examples, the intention is not to minimize the contributions to Classical Thought which have been consistently produced throughout human history, including the present day.  Oh yes, there are still many souls actively pursuing Classical Thought at present, in all realms including Architecture (though the opponents of the divine and proponents of man as beast in such places as on the editorial board of Architectural Record as well as in pretty much all of contemporary academia would lead one to believe all such pursuit is dead).  The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art is one organization which is composed of such individuals and groups.

One might argue that Socrates' philosophy is the bonafide template for all recorded artifacts attributable to 'Classicism' per se.

In a nutshell, (some) people are so fascinated with classical architecture because it teases the soul with the prospect of there being, in fact, an eternal ideal worth striving for.  This eternal ideal, according to Classical Thought, exists independent of ephemeral social or individual fallacies of thought or beliefs.  It affirms the purpose of an infinite, eternal existence as being the limitless pursuit of truth, happiness, virtue, and the divine destiny of those who propose to be more than the sum of their ephemeral motivations and propose to be more than just another unconscious beast laboring in the field.

Jun 29, 15 12:28 pm
An eternal idea worth striving for? I can't say that is why people like classical architecture. I'd say it's more attributable to an under education in design coupled with bougerios ideas of beauty being all the old stuff in Europe. But your wake and bake metaphysical rant Good_knight was entertaining.
Jun 29, 15 1:39 pm
Erik Evens (EKE)

I'll bite.  Il Gesu:

Jun 29, 15 2:30 pm
Erik Evens (EKE)

"Is that what Nero said upon entering his new Golden House (which he had built after the notorious fire made room for it), or is that what Hitler said upon entering Die Neue Reichskanzlei?"

Probably not. :)

What do you think was going through the Soviet master planners when they were laying out the neo-Corbusian International Style housing for East Berlin?  Or what was going through Mies' mind when he was trying to sell Hitler on modernism for the Third Reich?

This ongoing campaign to try to tie architecture to oppressive politics is so tedious.

Jun 29, 15 2:46 pm

that's not really 'classical' - not in the greek sense anyway.  the columns are paired together instead of being spaced more or less equally apart the way the greeks would have done it.  also, the columns aren't load bearing.  they're mostly applied to a structural facade.  you'll notice the pilasters on the second floor aren't even round.  what are those scroll things on the side?  the greek would have had proper pediments and triglyphs and crap.  the scale and the language is all over the place.

apparently the church had pretty much given up on vitruvius...

the perfect proportions of greek architecture were long since abandoned for the perfect proportions of the renaissance by the time your example was built.  what with the fact that another few hundred years has passed, maybe it's time to let the renaissance fade into history too.

Jun 29, 15 3:02 pm

Please provide an explanation rob_c


Can you summarize the Classical Ideal in your own words?  Not that you have to subscribe to it.  But in order to maintain a defensible position in which you explicitly do not to subscribe to it, it seems logical you'd need to be able to articulate what it is that you disclaim.

What evidence or life experiences have led you to the conclusion that an affinity for Classical Architecture is necessarily attributable to an under education in design?

What evidence or life experiences have led you to the conclusion that an affinity for Classical Architecture is necessarily related to social class, i.e. "bourgeoisie [middle class] ideas of beauty being all the old stuff in Europe"? 

Please define 'wake and bake'?

Please define rant and explain how my comment qualifies as a rant?

Jun 29, 15 4:15 pm

Il Gesu isn't classical, it is late Renaissance or early Baroque. 

Jun 29, 15 4:36 pm

EKE said, "This ongoing campaign to try to tie architecture to oppressive politics is so tedious."

Indeed.  I guess the self styled 'opposition' has run out of novel, thought provoking commentary to dissuade interest in the infinitely novel and interesting topic of Classical Architecture?

On the other hand, I can't think of anything more tedious, oppressive and dumbfounding than one more iteration of Gehry's titanium tissue landscape turds.

Jun 29, 15 4:38 pm

well said quondam

Jun 29, 15 5:07 pm
Good_Knight said, "What's never discussed (at least here) is the actual merits present-day 'classical' designs."

I don't understand how this can be described as "well said".  Quondam would you please explain again/ differently/ and/or elaborate.  I do not understand what you are trying to say here.

Additionally, Quondam please explain:

What evidence or personal experience do you have which would explain your position that "current-day" [sic] advocates of Classical Architecture espouse a "better-then-thou" [sic] rhetoric?

What evidence or personal experience do you have which would explain your position that "current-day" [sic] advocates of Classical Architecture espouse a "we're-the-victim-of-academia" [sic] rhetoric?

What evidence or personal experience do you have which would explain your position that "current-day" [sic] advocates of Classical Architecture espouse a "people-love-classical-and-hate-modern" [sic] rhetoric?

Jun 29, 15 5:19 pm

even more tedious is refuting supremacist arguments for Greek and Roman architecture, which was either religious or militaristic in nature.  take for instance any other part of the world, say classical South Asia.  There was a whole cosmological order (a religious one), that was of course believed to be perfect in proportion, truth, yada yada.  maybe within western classical architecture il gesu is perfect in proportion?  sure why not.  that's basically an aesthetic argument.  but someone like good knight is implying that classical architecture is *the* answer and is more truthful, spiritually fulfilling, etc than any other architecture.  that's nonsense.  okay, so what's the point?  i'm doing a low rise strip mall with a Verizon store.  how about I chose to work the doric order because of the scale of the building required.  somehow using this system will impart a bigger sense of beauty about the nature of communication between souls searching for truth?  or that maybe when people walk up to the building the righteousness of the doric order reveals the sliminess of a communications monopoly that is ripping off customers and so instead they cancel their contracts and return to pen and paper for corresponding with people not within ear shot?  why do people like classical architecture now?  because they think it's fancy and pretty and it's beautiful because it's all over Europe and Europe is so amazing.  

Jun 29, 15 5:25 pm

So rob_c let me see if I understand your line of reasoning.

The average low rise strip mall with a Verizon store is amazing because Classical Architecture in Europe is not amazing.  Classical Architecture in Europe is not amazing because too many people think it is fancy and pretty?  What is actually more truthful, spiritually fulfilling than any other architecture is the average low rise strip mall with a Verizon store because it is non-supremacist, non-Greek, non-Roman, non-religious, and non militaristic in nature yet at the same time is reflective of the slimy corporate business transactions that take place within.

Huh...sounds legit...

Jun 29, 15 5:32 pm

if classical architecture is so great and people are so fascinated with it and it embodies all these great traits you've described, why wouldn't i use the doric order to design a strip mall?  you're just saying that because people find it fascinating it in turn must be amazing.  classical architecture is a great choice for empires to use to assert their own myths and will to dominate.  the white house, the capital, etc.  

Jun 29, 15 5:51 pm

here is a colonnade with superior proportions for you.  glad i could help.

Jun 29, 15 6:15 pm

Classical architecture, circa 1941..

Jun 29, 15 6:24 pm

proportions must have been on sale when they did this one, tee hee.

Jun 29, 15 6:31 pm

fypon for the win!

Jun 29, 15 6:47 pm
Erik Evens (EKE)

Thanks for posting that, Curt.  I really love classical Chinese architecture.  There are amazing proportional systems embedded in that language.  

Too bad the Chinese have abandoned their cultural and aesthetic heritage for this:

Jun 30, 15 1:20 am
Erik Evens (EKE)

Rob_c said:

"People like classical architecture because they get it.  

After ornament became a crime everyone but architects checked out."


Ironically, this is perhaps the most honest statement written in this entire post.  I completely agree. 

Jun 30, 15 1:28 am

^EKE, the fushimi inari-taisha is Japanese, and quite distinctly so.

Classicism has no monopoly on proportion. For example, Le Corbusier was quite obsessed with proportion and systemic ways of controlling it. I think he succeeded - his best works are elegantly sculpted, regardless of any other concerns about their use or polemic implications.

Jun 30, 15 2:32 am
Erik Evens (EKE)

Of course, you are correct. :)

Jun 30, 15 3:47 am
boy in a well

i've always found the gesu to be a bit thick, but i know some people lik 'em that way.


santa susanna, follows  -  but i think more smartly proportioned.

Jun 30, 15 1:31 pm
Erik Evens (EKE)

I think that Santa Susanna is very beautiful as well.  That's another good example of the type.  Here's another example, also by Carlo Maderno, Santa Maria della Vittoria:

Jun 30, 15 6:46 pm

So while we look at "really old buildings" (I'm saying that not as a pejorative term- but as a provocative one given that many references are given the attribution of classical, but historically aren't), identify another western style with a pedigree that has been constructed to the same degree. 

Sure, there's modernism- but it's nowhere near as old and still relied upon proportions, axes and scale to determine to determine the quality of the project. There's arts and crafts, but it's arts and crafts...

Now, recall art history. Don't think about all the other architects in the room, nodding off slide after slide while the instructor drones on about proportions (you learned about axes and scale in arch history, and as part of diagramming). Think about all the other foke taking the class as a gen Ed course or to fulfill a part of their major in antiquities. It's not just you that gets it, it's them too. It's shared across the canons. 

Then of course there are those who are savvy enough to lift from other periods to make a statement. The Georgianeque McMansion (but I'm still one of you all- on my block) suggesting new money. Or the arts and craftish country estate, suggesting that money is not the matter but where one chooses to live in a (privatize) landscape and nature.

Now "classical" architecture. I (not personally) went to Italy for a semester, or post undergrad. I saw some old ass building that looked like the slides. I get that stuff.  Never mind that I was there to shop at at a luxury goods store that was crammed in the space. It's old Italian and therefore classical- because I was to,d that my freshman year.

It's hard to beat that zeitgeist.

Jun 30, 15 9:30 pm

Quondam said, "Good Knight, can you show us some present-day designs that manifest the Classical Ideal?"

sure.  Here are just a few: go to and click on Thomas Gordon Smith's link to 'Portfolio' in upper right hand corner.

Jul 1, 15 6:15 pm
boy in a well

hmmmmmm, yes *puffs pipe* quite excellent use of the triglyph and the metope.

hmmmmmmmmm, yes

*googles metope with augmented reality touch screen monocle*


Jul 1, 15 10:38 pm

You don't need to be big to be classical and you don't need to build in stone. The Rotunda at the University of Virginia comes to mind - it is made of brick. As far as contemporary classical buildings any of the buildings designed by John Russell Pope in the first part of the twentieth century in Washington DC would qualify, especially the Jefferson Memorial. The Jeferson Memorial was completed in 1943 in the middle of World War II.

Jul 2, 15 10:06 am

Further to the Jeffersonian reference but looking beyond the Rotunda to the lawn, the Range and Pavillions are filled with classical perversions. These were intentional experiments with the "style" if not a commentary on European versus American values. We won't go into the successive classical tack-ons on the opposite end of the lawn.

Can someone remind me if the lawn and range residences units abide by classical proportions? Where else would you start to teach a gentleman about what is righ, good and proportional?

Jul 2, 15 10:16 am

Block this user

Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?

  • ×Search in: