A lot has been made, in the last few posts, of the difference between vernacular and classical architecture. Interestingly, at least according to Wikipedia, the counterpoint of vernacular is not “classical,” but “the polite,” which I find to be an intriguing concept.
“Polite” seems, in contemporary usage, to be fraught with connotations of affectedness and the importation of non-local or anachronistic (and hence inauthentic?) details. This, however, is conditioned by our present society’s near-total abandonment of etiquette and decorum as artificial impositions upon individual expression, rather than a necessary means of civil interaction. I am not an expert in etymology, but I think the polite is rooted in polity – a means of social discourse befitting the inhabitants of a POLIS – in short, a city. So what my preceding colleagues have debated in terms of speaking to and reinforcing the identity of a community is essentially a vision of the polite.
We are thus left to consider the right relation of classical architecture to this polite. Unless you are the Palladian Pugin, I think it is possible to accept that a non-classical building could be polite – possessing, in its own language, scale, and detail, the requisite articulation to participate in the polite, or for you Latinists out there, the urbane. Indeed, the Miesian box is nothing if not conspicuously, scrupulously polite. Even in its most monstrous, dystopian form, it embodies a sort of Agent Smith-style propriety. It is mechanical, inoffensive “honesty” carried ad nauseam.
All the same, could there ever be an impolite, classical building? I could certainly imagine a building that uses the scale, elements, ornaments, and proportions of classical architecture yet fails to address adequately its place in the broader culture or make a compelling case for why it should be – is such a building still classical? I would probably hold that it is not. A good example of this, in my opinion, would be the Federal Triangle in D.C., which never fails to induce in me an acute case of “column fatigue” – the abuse of classical elements to a grandiose and gratuitous degree in which they become mere placeholders, devoid of meaning. Nevertheless, if such misrepresentation is not sufficiently classical in an academic sense, what are we to call such buildings? (My own less-than-flattering term for them is “Third Empire,” but I am open to suggestions.)
To reframe this, there are several parallel strands, each of which is a necessary constituent of classical architecture:
Language: A canon of architectural elements with specific meanings. Note: While “Classical” is not itself a style, various styles have used parts of the canonical language for their own purposes. To wit, baroque uses only the verbs, neoclassical only the nouns, postmoderism only the adjectives, and modernism only the articles.
Grammar/syntax: Those elements, deployed according to, or in intentional contravention of, a set of pre-established rules that are universally applicable. These rules give the language hierarchy, directionality, and intelligibility.
Etiquette: These are the “unspoken” principles that inform the character of expression, what Notre Dame Professor Thomas Gordon Smith, writing in Vitruvius on Architecture, refers to as decor of nature, canon, and custom.
Eloquence: The rhetoric of a building is perhaps the most elusive trait of all. Even if the other three constituents are present, it may not actually be saying very much beyond, “I’m here, I’m educated, and I’m appropriate.” The really great classical buildings move beyond that, as orations that inspire, that ennoble, that demand more of us.
Since rhetoric is, in essence, political speech, each of these verbal metaphors in some way reflects how architecture manifests “the polite.” Since I wrote the original post, some questions have been raised as to whether non-Western architectural traditions can be considered classical. I think that they can, provided they address the criteria above. Ultimately, such a definition renders the attainment of classical architecture a matter of degree rather than of kind, as indeed it must be if classical is a communicating principle rather than a style.
Matthew Balkey is a fifth-year architecture student. Don’t miss your chance to contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org before it goes inactive 60 days after graduation!
This article is adapted from a post he wrote on the Students for Classical Architecture blog (blogs.nd.edu/classicalarch).