What were the developments in Neo-Classicism in the 19th century?
We stand at The threshold of Modernity, with the gates thrown open before us. But hold your horses, before we cross over, a recapitulation is in order. We have crossed vast territories through the last 12 articles. However, before we delve into modernism, it would be a disservice if we did not tie together everything that we have learnt.
At the turn of the 18th century, we saw growing popularity for ‘Neoclassicism.’ In the simplest of terms, Neoclassicism was a revival of Classical Greco-Roman thought and the Renaissance style. The popularity of this movement found roots in the then-recent archaeological excavations of Greek and Roman sites. In the mid 18th century, Archeology was fast emerging as science and held the fascination of the masses. As a result, these excavations gave people unprecedented exposure to antiquity. Classical ideals of harmony, symmetry, and proportions piqued their interests. Further, the increasing ease of travel (at least for the rich upper class) allowed for an exchange of cultural ideals, a propagation through carrying away of ideas and mementoes across countries.
While Neoclassicism borrows heavily from classical thought, they differ in the essential sense. Classism emerged as a reach towards theoretical perfection. On the other hand, Neoclassicism was an aesthetic fascination with classical architecture. It focused on an idealistic process rather than embracing it as a modern way of life.
By the late 18th century, there was a great political and social upheaval spearheaded by the French Revolution. This gave Neoclassicism an impetus to don a more radical viewpoint. This was when the emerging Republican way of life and changing social structure reshaped the needs of the bourgeois. The subsequent need for new functionality introduced new building typologies. Now, the prevalent social and economic conditions greatly impacted how antiquity was reinterpreted. Added to that, the introduction of new technologies and materials allowed for a novel building structure. This changed how the mass viewed ornamentation. The definition of beauty found itself slowly evolving along with all this.
In its mature form, Neoclassicism can be traced along two parallel paths- the Romantic Classicism steered by Schinkel at its mast, and Structural Classicism taken forward by Labrouste. Finding roots in the same concepts, the divergence of these two threads stemmed from a difference in their modes of architectural expression. As the names suggest, Romantic Classicism stressed the physiognomy of classical ideals, while the latter emphasised the structural aspects of antiquity.
Subsequently, they also had differing impacts on the evolving architectural language.
The deep socio-cultural connection of Romantic Classism contributed to new building typologies. These served the newly emerging social functions of architecture. Undoubtedly, Blondel’s ideals on convenance (appropriateness) influenced Ledoux and Boullee. They pioneered the idea of creating a new architectural expression that accommodated the cultural change of the new epoch. Libraries and museums stand as the best examples of these, as we saw in the previous articles.
While Romantic Classicism still was in line with previous thoughts, structural classicism shook things up considerably. Propagated most famously by the Beaux-Arts School, it modestly manifests the start of Modernity. Structural Classism sought to break down classical ideals to the core of its structure. It then used that as a base to build on the newly invented technologies in the industrial revolution. Some of the most famous pioneers included Viollet-le-Duc and Labrouste. Le-Duc strived to symbolically dispose of historicism and worked on emulating skeletal structures to create joinery for an iron frame. Later, Labrouste followed a similar path with a different set of principles that we traced in article 11. The development of a library led him to deconstruct structural elements to an individualistic level. He then joined them together as required, significantly altering the face of architecture. This kind of structural integrity meant that ornamentation was no longer the only beautifying element of a building. The structure itself was exposed, changing the definition of what the aesthetic expression of architecture can be.
About the Writer
Garima Agarwal is an architect, writer, photographer and researcher. A graduate from the School of Planning and Architecture Bhopal, her praxis is situated at the intersection of space and experience. Gender studies, Sustainability and Art form the tangents along which her architectural thought progresses.
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).