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What marked the quest for ‘true style’ in Neo-Classical architecture?

Updated: Jul 4


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Did I say that the nomenclature of Neo-classicism was quite straightforward? Okay, I was modest.


Neo means ‘new,’ but classicism has its roots in the Latin word classicus, which means ‘best’ or ‘highest.’ So, by its very name, Neo-Classicism was the quest to be the best. Everything was supposed to be in order, everything in symmetry. Everything was supposed to make sense.

Suppose you squint your eyes and look at architectural styles in history. In that case, Neo-classicism might look the same as Renaissance. The devil, however, is in the details. While Renaissance was ideally the ‘rebirth’ of classics, Neo-classicism was a reaction to a completely different set of developments.

The scientific advancements in the 17th and 18th centuries changed the socio-economic dynamics across Europe. The First Industrial Revolution brought about new means of income and production. The old ornamented architectural styles were viewed as excessive and unnecessary now.

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Scientific discoveries started to question the authority of the monarchies and the religious institutions. It was the time Descartes proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am,” and then Newton published the Principia Mathematica. With the three laws of motion, he completely changed the human perception of the world.

This was the Age of Enlightenment. Society and Politics were filled with ideas of liberty and progress. Enlightenment purported secular thoughts, removing orthodox religious motifs and rituals from arts and architecture.

As if on cue, the new science of archaeology revealed the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The discovery astonished all of Europe. They realised that they underestimated the glory of the Roman civilisation. The technology of these rediscovered towns was simple and more sophisticated; their art was more beautiful than what was believed. The devotees of antiquity went on a Grand Tour, a pilgrimage of sorts, across Europe to see the ancient sites for themselves.

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With the spotlight suddenly on the human mind and technology, nature and religion had to take a backseat. The idea of beauty was redefined. It was now found in simplicity, symmetry, proportion, and harmony, all of which were not found within nature. Hence, nature ceased to inspire. All these attributes could only be created by man.

In 1755, Johann Joackim Winckelmann published Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks. He formulated an aesthetic philosophy that favoured those of ancient Greece. He wrote, “Perfection and beauty originated not in the natural world but in the human mind.

With new voices, stakeholders, and new definitions of beauty, architects of Neo-Classical Europe turned to the restudying of antiquity. The styles and ideologies were to be understood in principle and not merely replicated. Even the foundational Vitruvian order was being scrutinised with great intensity. Ironically, this endeavour extended the meaning and philosophy of the Vitruvian triad beyond the confines of Rome.

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Neo-classicism was a creative craft at the time for experimentations and discoveries. It was a quest for truth- an idealistic approach to find perfect solutions.

But it was not easy or direct, for that matter. The archaeological research during that time pointed to four contenders: the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Etruscans, and the Romans. The artists, architects, and philosophers across Western Europe were divided between these contenders. The question then was, what is the source of inspiration for the Neo-classical style?

The foundations of the Neo-classical idea of beauty had already been established with the Greek routes. Julein David Le Roy, a French architect and archaeologist, sported arguments in support of the Greek architecture’s contributions to Neo-classicism. The Greeks had a certain depth and diversity of cultural artefacts. He opposed the unthoughtful replication of the Greek models. Architecture to him was like ‘a reflection of the evolution of society. One should not merely cut elements out of history to paste them into the present. One cannot. Architecture should always be practical and relevant.

Meanwhile, another set of scholars believed that the Romans, who were famous for their engineering prowess, had built upon the Etruscan principles. Many disagreed. Giovanni Battista Piranesi hailed the Etruscans as the primary contributor towards architecture, especially if compared to the Greeks. In line with his ideologies, Piranesi’s work produced images of grandeur, nostalgia, and romanticism. With only some fragments, deformed symbols, and a few excavation sites, Piranesi was able to raise the myth of the Etruscans. His work captivated the imagination of his contemporaries and steered them to the Greco-Roman styles.

Recreating a ‘classicism’ befitting of the new world was quite a journey. New sciences discovered new sites, and the Grand Tour drove more people towards them. People were inspired and ambitious. Works of critics like Winckelmann guided this ambition to create the ‘ideal world,’ a world as it was supposed to be. The only world that should exist, according to the scholars, was the ‘true’ world. However, this new world was essentially a simplified tenet of architecture that the Greeks and Romans built.

Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Pranjal Maheshwari, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India, Architecture, Interior Design, Home Renovation, Construction, Tech, Design, Project Management Consulting, Architect, Architects, Interior, Interiors, Interior Designer, Interior Designers, Modular Wardrobe, Modular Bathroom, Modular Kitchen, Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, Kid's Room, Pooja Room, Garden Design, Landscape Design, False Ceiling, Balcony, New Delhi, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad


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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