Greek and Roman classical form and ornament evolved as manifestations of how buildings were constructed, a reflection of limited structural options, building materials and standardized decoration. This design language endured because, until the 19th-century Industrial Revolution, construction technology remained relatively unchanged.
In the 20th century, architecture underwent dramatic transformation. Innovative materials, machines and construction methods appeared. Unprecedented functional needs and building types emerged. New technologies and building systems were devised, enabling architects and engineers to address new physical, environmental, social and economic challenges unknown in past centuries. This is why so-called modernism encompasses so many styles, and why formulaic, one-size-fits-all classicism makes little sense and has less meaning today.
Most Americans, including architects, appreciate historic architecture and are committed to its preservation. But I doubt that many want or expect 21st-century architecture to look like it was transplanted from the past.
AIA convention-goers probably won’t be aware of any strident discourse about traditional versus modern design. What they will be aware of is Washington’s increasingly diverse styles of architecture, including very modern works, perhaps unexpected in a city known for its conservative aesthetic tendencies.
And they will see courtyards, colonnades and layered facades; buildings with columns, beams, arches, domes and vaults; and architecture visually exploiting symmetry, asymmetry, axiality, transparency, rhythm and repetition. This will remind them that timeless elements of geometric composition are classic, not classical. Independent of style, these elements never go out of fashion.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.