Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On Classicism and the Purpose of Architecture

Classicism and Tradition
The classical is a term used to denote works of architecture of the past which are prized by later generations as the most perfect examples for the guidance of current practice and for the assurance of future success. The classical is the embodiment of the best in a continuous tradition of architecture stretching from the origins of building to our own time. As such, the form that the classical takes is necessarily contingent on the requirements and propriety of both time and place. The classical of one era will not take shape in the same way as that of another, nor will the classical of one place necessarily resemble that of a different place even at the same time. Conventions such as habits, fashion, language and ways of building change over time and in different places, gaining their correctness through general acceptance and tradition. To understand this is to realize that tradition is the way things change, the means by which universal truths are translated to the particular and conventional, or more importantly, the means by which we have access to the universal. Tradition is not an impediment to change, but a proven system through which innovation and adaptation are given the possibility of realization. Within a tradition knowledge, skills and customs are guarded and handed on to succeeding generations, and it is through the tradition that they are necessarily altered.

American Tradition
As citizens of America our tradition is that of the West. This is not to say that the tradition of Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian architecture is the only one in our country, or the first, but that it is the embodiment of our “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The need to separate our new republic from the colonialism of England and justify our classical system of government prepared America for the embodiment of its constitution in an architecture of western classicism. Little wonder that the author of the Declaration of Independence should also design the new capitol of Virginia using the classicism of the Roman temple. Fiske Kimball in his American Architecture (1928) asserts that “the classical ideal thus embodied was ultimately to rule in America to a degree unknown in Europe." Indeed, it was to precede it by more than a decade.

The Purpose of Architecture
To the contemporary architect wishing to participate in the tradition of classical architecture the question of what is unchanging in a tradition is of singular importance. In a tradition so full of seemingly different forms it has been difficult to determine what it is that should guide contemporary practice. The embodiment of the political order in the architecture of America is significant in that it points to the most essential truth of the classical tradition: the understanding that the highest good in life is the perfection of our nature, a good held since the Greeks to be accomplished through the moral life led in community. This is the self-evident truth behind all of the greatest political systems of the past and the guiding principle in the formation of our American system of government, and the one still at work in our constitution. What this means for architecture is that our ability to pursue our highest end as individuals is dependent on the freedom insured by our government, and that architecture serves this good as the embodiment of the state. In other words, architecture is the visible part of the more important politics.