How did Neo-Classicism contribute towards Modernism?
Updated: Jul 4
Back in the 1490s, the City hall of Vicenza partially collapsed. It was half a century later that the commission for the reconstruction was floated. It was given to Andrea Palladio. Palladio studied Roman architecture for a decade and had extensive knowledge about the subject. He was greatly inspired by the works and teachings of Vitruvian. As a practitioner, he had several Classic-Roman-themed villas in his portfolio. Despite being young, he managed to win over the city with his magnificent city hall designs.
Vicenza was thrilled to see the Gothic City Hall reimagined in the style of a Roman Basilica. The rebuilt structure was clad in white marble. It featured beautiful roman style arches with a statuary balcony. The façade was colonnaded, ascending in the classical order of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Topped by a traditional frieze, this building was in a Classical Roman aesthetic.
Palladio gained fame and went on to design prominent civic and religious structures. These were located in and around the Vicenza region. The impact of his work and ideology inspired architects even until two centuries later to the extent that some of them changed the face of architecture and created history, like architects Ingio Jones and Colen Campbell in the early 18th century. Their designs had strong references from classical Roman and Greek architecture, like Palladio. Little did they realise that this would turn out to be the foundation for a new style altogether.
The nomenclature is quite straightforward. Neo means new, and Classicism typically refers to the classic Greco-Roman styles. However, the architectural style of Neo-Classicism differed from earlier movements of classical revival. The former was rather a contemporary interpretation of the classical style and forms. As a defining characteristic, Neo-classicism brought simplicity back into design in varied scales. Cities were planned out in grids. Buildings were designed as scaled-up volumes of simple, geometric forms. In all of this, we cannot help but wonder- what caused this change?
In the early 18th century, the discovery of the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii fascinated the world. Their simplicity and aesthetics left people spellbound. On the other side, Baroque and Rococo had started to feel 'excessive.' Their expressions, the ornamented language was heavy, unnecessary, and irrelevant at times. Besides, the consequences of the first industrial revolution were already bringing about revolutionary changes. The new technology and means of production changed the pace of everything. As usual, these changes are reflected in and on the fields of art and architecture.
Machinery brought a better scope for infrastructure. It also reduced the labour needs, which lead to the exploitation of people and material resources. Both these aspects facilitated the rapid production of an industrially manufactured world. Such groundbreaking changes had their effects on the other parts of society.
A new model of the economy, which still prevails, called Capitalism, came up. In addition to that, social change led to the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie, i.e., the working class. This new socio-political-economic setup created new fields of knowledge and a newer society. In the larger picture, significant developments in the arts and society were no longer guided by the patronage of religious institutions and the likes. Instead, the intellectuals, artists, and scholars spearheaded them.
How did all of these affect the built environment's relation to Nature? Baroque had introduced a divide between Nature and man. Man was no longer a part of Nature but separate from it. Nature was a designed expression of man. Nature was pristine; it was divine.
With the advancements in technology and society during Neo-Classicism, this relationship escalated. The new tools and knowledge systems gave Man unprecedented power over Nature. Faster means of production required a larger quantity of resources. Nature was no longer magical or fascinating. Due to the changing capitalising attitude, nature was reduced to a resource. What was once flourishing was now reduced to a lifeless entity, stripped bare and transformed to suit the man's will.
The world was rapidly changing. Society was now represented by its people; democracy over royalty. Every single citizen became a part of the artistic expression of the world and also of its development. When architecture was integrated with technology, factories shaped the layout of cities. Mechanical Combustion was developed, which later gave way to automobiles. The first elevator was installed into a building. Industrial qualities of steel and concrete came about. Machine-made things were supervised by man. We were no longer on the ground- we could now reach higher and design skylines.
Neo-classicism was born out of these advancements in technology, materials, and new ways of thinking. All these new specialised materials, trades, and machines are integrated with architecture. The era witnessed new social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental entities. Architecture now reflected on existing paradigms, contemplating on the ways of development.
Consequently, the built environment gained more stakeholders, hence, more critics. A technician was now an equal stakeholder and had a say in the building and construction. The construction itself became faster and cheaper. But it did so at the expense of Nature. The role of Nature was to be of service to mankind.
These conditions sound familiar, don’t they? Conditions of a capitalist society- liberal laws, more stakeholders in the building industry, and the repercussions to nature. Modernism borrowed these notions from Neo-Classicism. Well, in retrospect, Neo-Classicism was inspired by ruins—first the town hall of Vicenza and then Pompeii.
About the Writer
Pranjal Maheshwari is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. He has interned at Rethinking The Future (RTF), India Lost and Found (ILF) by Amit Pasricha, and Sandal Kapoor Associates.
About the Editor
Falak Vora is an architect, architectural historian, writer and essayist. She is a graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL), UK and Sarvajanik College of Engineering and Technology (VNSGU), Surat. She has experience working at Aangan Architects, Eternity Architects, Wall Space Architects, Studio i!, Guallart Architects and The Universidad Politécnica de Cartagena (UPCT).
About the Illustrator
Itika Atri is an undergraduate architecture student at the Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology (DCRUST), Murthal (Sonepat). She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working as an Architectural Journalism Intern at Rethinking The Future (RTF).