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How did the French Revolution affect Neo-Classicism?


Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Pranjal Maheshwari, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!

(Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!)


By the late 18th Century, France was a complete mess. Too many mouths to feed but not enough money nor enough food. Despite having multiple political systems, all of them failed even to acknowledge the issues being faced by the people. One of the primary reasons was an inadequate representation of the mass in the overall political system. With no choice left, the will to survive took over and brought people down to the streets.

To establish new authority, the old had to fall. A large mob attacked the Bastille, a royal fortress with the extensive provision of arms and ammunition. The governor lost to the mob and had a public execution; the Bastille was torn down. The fortress was a potent symbol of the Ancien Regime, and its destruction was a triumph of the upcoming Republican.


It was a revolution like no other, and it paved the way for unseen and unprecedented developments. The French Revolution purported ideas that became the fundamental principles and founding ideologies of Western Liberal democracy. Feudalism was abolished; the monarch was executed in public. The Estates-General was converted into a National Assembly, with adequate representation and power given to the majority population- peasants and workers.

Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Pranjal Maheshwari, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Much like how it began, the new French nation was glorified in its Architecture. As the forces brought down the constitutional monarchy, they raised a Bourgeois Imperialist Style. The ideals of the newly developed Republican State were proclaimed to everyone. The neo-classical style was seen as an ideal style for the representation of the new political system.


Neo-Classicism, as a style, played an instrumental role in serving new social conditions and institutions of the bourgeois society. Blondel had turned the course of Neo-Classical Architecture beyond being a mere civic amenity into an expression of the domestic (previous article). But it was only after the French Revolution that Neo-Classical architecture became the architecture of the people.


Moving into the nineteenth century, the French Empire was ruled by Napoleon I, who dictated European and global affairs for a decade. During his time, he led France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. Under him, France found its republican essence in the Etruscans and Roman empires. It was then that French architects- Charles Percier and Pierre Fontane developed a style to fit the contemporary developments, transforming society and upgraded politics. Named after the Emperor, this style was called the “Empire Style” (of course!).


The Empire Style used Greco-Roman motifs to employ the historicity of antiquity to an eclectic use. It derived its sense of symmetry from its predecessor, Louis XVI’s style. All elements were either composed in pairs or perfectly symmetrical in themselves. However, Napoleon had a different set of symbols attributed to him- the eagle, the bee, the stars, figures of Victory, Greek Dancers; the list is elaborate. Additionally, the spaces had richly ornamented Corinthian pilasters and vertical panels with decorative friezes.

Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Pranjal Maheshwari, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Under Napoleon’s rule, the Empire Style became the trend. It was everywhere- from the interiors of his campaign tents to the embellishments of the capital city. Some of the noteworthy examples from that era are the Rue de Rivoli and Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, both illustrating the glory of the Napoleonic Empire. The style became so popular that it held heritage value for the new Republican Dynasty.


Despite its name, the French Revolution was not bound to the political boundaries of France. After all, it was based on the ideals of Liberty and Freedom. The news of the people’s revolt and their ideologies travelled on the Neo-Classical route and spread across Europe. The revolution had created the paths for future advances in broadly defined individual freedoms. The influence was so strong that it made a home in influential European nations of Britain and Germany.

Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Pranjal Maheshwari, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Needless to say, every city and nation influenced by the revolution expressed it differently. In fact, a few developments were actually a reaction against the Republican ideas of the revolution. Many others were reinterpretations of those ideals, adapted to suit the context.

In Germany, ‘Kulturnation’ developed as a means to support and promote the Republican State. The style was a view of the world where nations were formed of communities connected through culture. It was, in a way, complementary to Napolean’s Style Empire. And this connection, by no means, is far-fetched.


In 1788, the Brandenburg gate was designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans. His design was inspired by the Propylaea, the gateway to Acropolis. This is in line with the location and context of the gate to the city of Berlin. Twelve Doric columns, six on each side, were flanked around five passageways. On top of the gate was the quadriga- a sculpture of Victoria, riding her chariot driven by four horses.


In 1806, Napoleon’s army defeated Prussia at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. The Emperor commemorated the victory through a triumphal procession, starting from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. As a memento, he took the gate’s quadriga back with him to Paris. Eight years later, Napoleon was defeated, and the quadriga was restored. The piece was later redesigned by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (Interesting man! Will tell you more about him later!) to befit its role as the quadriga from the Prussian version of Arc de Triomphe.

Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Pranjal Maheshwari, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Neo-classicism was not only about politics but about people. It did not spread through political wars and nation’s ideologies but through a philosophical discourse over the ideas of certain intellectuals. Claude Nicolas Ledoux was one such individual. He was a scholar in architectural theory and design who used his knowledge to create numerous domestic structures and town plans. All the way across in Germany, architect Friedrich Gilly laid hands on the works of Ledoux and was inspired. He created monuments, forms, and designs inspired by Ledoux’s primary forms, which imagined and celebrated the myth of the ideal Prussian State and advance the cause of its triumphant nationalism.


French Revolution was an aggressive reaction that brought France to an equilibrium. The ideals of freedom, adequacy, community, and people percolated throughout the nation and across the continent. Consequently, it was reflected in its architecture. After the revolution, Neo-Classicism was not merely a quest for the ideal ‘truth’ but a symbol of equality, freedom, and the Republic.

Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!


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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).

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