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Hooked on classics: Why do we still study classical architecture?

Classical architecture isn’t a style but a language developed over time

Sketch of Old Westbury Gardens in Westbury, NY.

By Marie Kruse, Designer (Chicago, IL)

Why do we still study classical architecture? Touring around New York City and sketching some of the city’s prime examples of classical design, the better question might be, “Why don’t we study classical architecture more than we do?”

Last summer, I spent four weeks in New York immersed in classical architecture. I applied for and won a scholarship for a studio intensive in the language of classical architecture at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art (ICAA). The ICAA was not my first introduction to classical design; I studied architecture at the University of Notre Dame, where the emphasis is on classical and vernacular architecture.

As an early career designer and aspiring architect working on a classically-inspired higher education project at Stantec, I thought the summer studio was a perfect opportunity to study techniques that are directly applicable to the work I am doing now. I also was curious to see how my undergraduate education compared to courses taught by professional members of the Institute. Ultimately, the chance to learn from professionals in a place that is undeniably one of the greatest architecture cities in America was invaluable.

Related item: Higher Education: Flexible space for learning

Edgewater Estate in the Hudson River Valley: sketch in progress and finished sketch.

Based near the New York Public Library, we studied the late 19th and turn-of-the-century buildings of McKim, Mead & White and John Russell Pope up close. We also examined the detailing and planning of nearby Bryant Park. The attendees ranged from undergrad architecture students to artists and furniture designers to other design professionals.

We were immersed in classical architecture in daytime classes and evening lectures from practicing architects and professors. We discussed urban design, proper techniques of analyzing a space, building tectonics, and practiced making on-site measured drawings. The course also included field trips to the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick Collection, Columbia University, and Yale University—where classical architecture is very much alive. In the Morgan Library, we viewed original architectural treatises by Alberti, Palladio, and Vitruvius. 

On-site measured drawing of a balustrade in Bryant Park. 

With these treatises in mind, the true question of the buildings we are designing today is: Can they withstand the test of time? The beauty of studying classical architecture is that we have a wealth of examples to analyze and better understand what makes a design successful. Once we break down a design into the basic architectural elements, we can then apply the same thinking to our designs. Bryant Park is a great example of classical design principles, which is very appropriate given its adjacency to the New York Public Library. The park is formal in design; however, the way it is organized creates a series of spaces that are versatile and fluid. People use Bryant Park day and night, whether they are enjoying lunch on the terrace or reading a book on the lawn. Our communities need spaces that bring people together, and Bryant Park sets a great precedent.

The course reaffirmed classical architecture’s continuing relevance. We have much to learn from understanding how these grand structures were designed and built. Creativity is always about continuing ideas, drawing back to precedents, and synthesizing concepts from different eras in new ways. Architects often get caught up in striving for new ideas and innovation. As a society, we want to be moving forward. But we should not forget to learn from the past. Often, ideas that seem new are not.

Classical architecture is not a style; it is a language that has been developed over time. There is a reason people pause and admire the iconic Grand Central Station. It is as functional and beautiful today as the day it was built.

Façade of the Branch Bank of the U.S. in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Creativity is always about continuing ideas, drawing back to precedents, and synthesizing concepts from different eras in new ways. 

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