The Case of Classical v. Modern Comes to Federal Court

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, September 15, 2007

What architectural design issues most concern you?

Perhaps carbon emissions, universal accessibility or the challenge of preserving at-risk historic properties? Maybe you think less about buildings and architectural design, and more about the shape of your community and the broader public realm.

However, you probably rarely worry about which architectural style is appropriate for which kind of building, about whether columns should be Doric, Ionic or Corinthian.

Many architects, however, feel passionately about competing design philosophies, and one competition in particular persists: classicism versus modernism.

Much of Washington's architecture, typified by use of classical motifs derived from Greek and Roman antecedents, is emblematic of this ongoing debate. For most of the past 200 years in the nation's capital, classicism has dominated at the expense of modernism, more so than in any other major U.S. city.

Architects advocating classicism today enunciate a rationale that originated with the Roman architect-engineer Vitruvius, who during the first century B.C. wrote what is considered civilization's first design treatise. Rediscovered during the Renaissance, the Vitruvian stylistic rationale has been reinterpreted every century since.

The arguments for classicism are clear: a well-studied, venerable kit of repeatable parts -- pediments, entablatures, cornices, columns, arches, vaults -- for making buildings; a quasi-mathematical system of rules for proportioning and assembling those parts to yield structurally durable, unified compositions; and compositional imagery instantly familiar to the Western world, which is presumably most at ease with traditional architecture.

Architectural classicism, its advocates insist, is deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche and therefore should be the style of choice, especially for culturally or politically significant buildings.

Many architects appreciate the classical and neoclassical architecture of yesteryear but reject the notion that classicism is the most appropriate style for buildings now. In their view, orthodox classicism is dogmatic and formulaic. They note that modernism is not a specific style but rather a generalized label applied to diverse genres and philosophies of design whose only common characteristic is lack of classical styling.

Modernists assert that adhering to the grammar and vocabulary of classicism limits creativity and invention. New materials and technologies; new understanding of human needs, perception and behavior; and new building types demand that architects think and design innovatively.

This struggle between tradition and innovation is endless. The "battle of the styles" in architecture, which heated up during the late 19th century and much of the 20th, carries on.

For example, a skirmish occurred early this summer when the General Services Administration invited scores of architects, federal judges and government officials from across the country to participate in "a national conversation on federal courthouse design."

The stated intent of the day-long forum was to engage in open discussion about "function, form, and meaning" and about how the GSA's Design Excellence Program "can best meet the needs of the federal judiciary and the American people to create appropriate and inspiring federal courthouses in the 21st century."

Held in the amphitheater of the Ronald Reagan Building, the forum seemed to have a non-controversial agenda: review the GSA's impressive, aesthetically diverse portfolio of award-winning federal courthouses; consider the results of a GSA courthouse design quality survey; hear the views and voices of younger architects; talk about practical issues of functionality, budgets and costs; and listen to lunchtime speeches by Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer and U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock.

But to the surprise of many modernist architects in the audience, there seemed to be a hidden agenda. A couple of architects on the program unexpectedly suggested that abstractly composed federal courthouses built by the GSA in recent years lack gravitas, order and authority. The speakers stated that such design attributes can be achieved only through classicism, the style of hundreds of traditional American courthouses.

And here I was thinking that the battle of the styles pitting "trads" against "rads" was long over.

By the end of the conference, after other speakers had their say, I felt reassured that the classicism-modernism debate was ultimately of little import. The federal government and its constituents face many truly critical issues, and the GSA officials know that this debate isn't one of them.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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