Classical Architecture; Lecturer: Jonathan Glancey

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"We no longer understand architecture," thundered Nietzche in his essay "Human, All-too-human". The Prussian philosopher went on to explain: "An atmosphere of inexhaustible meaningfulness hung about an ancient building [he is thinking of a Greek temple] like a magic veil. Beauty entered the system only secondarily, without impairing the basic feeling of uncanny sublimity, of sanctification by magic or the gods' nearness. At most, beauty tempered the dread - but this dread was the prerequisite."

Hitler was fond of quoting Nietzche. Philosopher and Fuhrer both believed in the elemental power of classical architecture. Neither responded to classicism's cardinal virtues when chastely described as "form, proportion and symmetry", yet they thrilled to what Schopenhauer - correcting Italian Renaissance theorists - had re-labelled "gravity, rigidity and cohesion". For Germans, the classical language of architecture was indeed composed of grave and rigid orders, designed to be obeyed at all times, no matter how dreadful the message they conveyed.

Although it is easy to associate the revival of archaeologically correct architecture this century with Hitler and his pet architect Albert Speer, similar designs, based on Greek and Roman archetypes, were popular in the United States at the same time, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was no National Socialist. The fact is that classical architecture has echoed down the centuries, with different generations and cultures finding it an appropriate way of representing their political, civic and cultural ambitions. Today, however, architects in Europe and the US struggle unconvincingly to build in classical styles; unconvincing because there is little meaning in their monuments beyond nostalgia and a desire to curry favour with princes.

The first Greek temple in the Doric style, one of the three principal classical orders (the others are Ionic and Corinthian - or so the first- century architect Vitruvius tells us), was built by Dorus, son of King Hellen and the nymph Phthia, at Argo in honour of Juno. It was a representation in stone on one of the laurel groves that, until then, were used for bloody sacrifices and to display the decapitated heads of vanquished enemies along with skulls of bulls and other horrors.

Over time, these grisly souvenirs were incorporated into stone buildings and their likenesses carved by masons. Thus the dreadfulness of the Greek temple and classical architecture as understood by Nietzche, Schopenhauer and Hitler. Today's limpid neo-classicism is, in contrast, a thing of chocolate box prettiness, lacking gods, dread and sex appeal.

But why bring sex into the equation? Well, the Greeks did. Where the Doric order (as in the Parthenon) was considered masculine, the Ionic was feminine, and the Corinthian evocative of young women.

By tradition, the Corinthian column was invented by the architect Callimachus, who saw the prickly leaves of an acanthus plant (found in the Peloponese) sprouting from the tomb of a young virgin. Perhaps. What we know for certain is that the ravishing young women of Corinth were considered to be of decidedly easy virtue: the Greek verb which translates roughly as "I Corinthise" meant to have sex with a prostitute.

Just think what the Roman inventions of domes and arches might have signified. Their bravura civic and military architecture was "rediscovered" by Italian architects from the late 14th century. Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) identified the Tuscan and Composite orders, adding them to the original three, and began a discourse on the principles and theory of classical architecture that continues. Many of the theories, including those of Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554), Giacomo Barozzzi da Vignola (1507- 73) and the great Andrea Palladio (1508-80), were works of the creative imagination rather than pure scholarship. Renaissance architects did not slavishly copy Roman prototypes but used the orders to shape a new classicism that evolved through what we like to call the High Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque.

It was only in the 18th century that architects became obsessed with archaeological correctness as they rediscovered ancient Greece. In his treatise Essai sur l'Architecture (1753), the Jesuit Abbe Laugier argued that to be true to the spirit of the temples of the grove from which architecture sprang, buildings should be composed of nothing but columns. Even walls were suspect.

Such thinking led to the purism of the Greek Revival, and ultimately to the work of Albert Speer, if not to today's classical revival, which is only dreadful in the modern sense of the word. For better or worse, the classical language of architecture was re-interpreted this century by Modernists, who understood Nietzchean dread, even if they refused to obey the orders.

Tomorrow: Modern Architecture