What is the difference between classicism and neoclassicism, between great architecture and abortive attempts to return to it? Why am I interested in figuring out the difference between classicism and neoclassicism? The contrast sheds light on those tenets of traditional architecture which are most ambiguous to me, and which are perhaps, most essential. I am not interested so much in demonstrating the benefits of a classical architecture as I am in understanding how it can be successfully invoked once again. It appears to me from a survey of contemporary traditional buildings that one of the greatest pitfalls for the architect attempting to reestablish a connection with classical architecture is the error of revivalism. It will be my goal to describe how revivalism is in fact directly antithetical to the concept of tradition, and more significantly, how the essential conflict lies in our understanding of how man progresses through history. Perhaps this too is only symptomatic of a deeper contrast; regardless I will determine that as I continue the debate.
Is revivalism really the greatest pitfall for the classical architect today? There are a number of ways of approaching the question of what differentiates the continual awareness of the past, characteristic of classical architecture, from neoclassicism, a term used to describe movements such as revivalism, or eclecticism which seek to make a specific historical period, or period motif, the basis for all modern building and which have successfully been shown to be the progenitors of modernism. That modern architecture’s nature is akin to that of neoclassicism is symptomatic of the difference between classicism and revivalism. Several thoughtful expositions of the kinship between the ideals of neoclassicism and modernism exist, but these are merely similarities in the degree to which there has been a departure from a rational understanding of how we are capable of living.
The beginning of the question lies in the difference between classicism and neoclassicism just as I have phrased it, but it will be helpful to understand how neoclassicism and modernism are similar in order to distinguish the more essential contrast. More basic than the terms classicism and neoclassicism is an understanding of how the advent of historicism, or a shift in the way we have viewed progress has changed the process of imitation, the means by which we participate in tradition. Latent in the theory driving revivalism is the concept that contemporary architecture is in a different category from that of the past. This understanding of “the modern” is derived from the supposition that humanity is progressing toward a state of perfection on earth.
To begin to understand these ideas it will be necessary to understand how both Vitruvius and Alberti regarded history and the history of historicism. I propose to continue this exploration in the coming months.