On Classicism’s Timelessness

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A recent Forum by Paul Ranogajec urged traditional and classical architects to give more attention to “the challenges and opportunities afforded in contemporary thought.” Instead we hide behind “our own shibboleth, the doctrine of the “‘timeless classical’.”

By Carroll William Westfall

Ranogajec names several offenders including Dr. Demetri Porphyrios who wrote, “‘Modernism’ … encourages a radical permissiveness [that is] necessarily opposed to classical restraint and decorum.” Porphyrios again: in modern thought “history nurtures no moral paradigms; it simply points to a value-free relativism….” In contrast, “the classical ‘is certainly the enduring and timeless’.” Untrue? Hardly.

Ranogajec also names several “conservative philosophers” with “classicist theories” propounding “eternal truths vouchsafed to a unitary Western Tradition.” This results in “bad history and … a defensive unwillingness to acknowledge the constructive value in contemporary thought.”
At least Dr. Ranogajec, historian of architecture, rejects “the dogma that ‘architecture must be of our time’.” And he notes that “Each time it appeared classicism” adapted “to serve the present.” But let me say, what he proposes classicist adapt from it would be harmful.

He notes that “‘timeless classical’” is harmless in its “weak form.” It just means long-lasting – classic cars, three-pointers, bon mots. But its “strong form, which pervades current classicist rhetoric, it means that which truly transcends time … [which] impedes deeper considerations of time and history in relation to classicism.”
This serious gravamen has two parts.

First, classicism’s timelessness. Classicism simply separates the best from the rest. In the eighteenth century when historians started using formal elements to identify period styles and ancient formal elements kept recurring, they set the classical style apart as an enduring formal style in ever different classical styles.

To his credit Ranogajec avoids the word style. His formulation says, “The formal elements of classicism may exist beyond time-bound limits, but the ways in which architects use those forms occur within history” as “historically specific traditions of classicism.” (Italics added.) To conflate the two as Modernists do makes them skunks in the present’s garden party.

The unbound formal elements invest a building with timeless beauty in its many timely forms. So why the doubt expressed by “may exist”? And no mention of beauty? It is the formal content of buildings and a central topic in theories of architecture. Vitruvius explained it under ratiocinatio, the complement to fabrica, with its symmetria (i.e., proportionality), eurhythmy (i.e., proper finish and adjustment), and decorum (i.e., fitness to its civil purpose), and later authors added concepts such as concinnitas, imitatio, convenance, variety within unity, and type, character, and style.

While all modernism is modern, not all that is modern is enveloped in modernism’s ideology, which makes only the present and the not-yet-arrived future instrumental.

Ranogajec also dismisses “immutable principles” as one of classicists’ “reactionary guises.” But beauty lets architecture’s “immutable principles” shine forth. Without beauty a building is simply a designer’s art object. In classical doctrine it is an element in a city and the complement to the justice that a political order seeks by using the “immutable principles” that facilitate human flourishing.

Classicism’s golden thread running from ancient Greece and through the manifold adaptations of the Western Tradition and into modern America is the quest for justice and beauty found in the political order’s ever active reciprocity between the power of top-down monocratic and bottom-up democratic authority. The architects’ buildings facilitate justice by expressing the character of the instrumentalities the political order uses to achieve justice while, quite independently, striving for beauty guided by architecture’s principles. The Pantheon in Rome illustrates the independence of serving justice’s transient means and embodying architecture’s enduring beauty.

And so his second complaint, that “timeless classicism” invariably and indiscriminately labels contemporary thought as modernist. His clearer online text reads, “By seceding from the contemporary intellectual culture and by justifying classicism as that which lies beyond time, we have missed what is timely and urgent.” The “‘timeless classical’ can only propose a form of return to past views” because current classical theory rejects what it “invariably and indiscriminately labeled modernist.”

Well, no. While all modernism is modern, not all that is modern is enveloped in modernism’s ideology, which makes only the present and the not-yet-arrived future instrumental.
The modern is simply the present form of the enduring and timeless justice and beauty that are necessary for human flourishing. The word modernism when applied to architecture seeks to nullify the classical, the enduring, and anything else that is not modern. Consider the past views that he mentioned: they are timely and are in the past; modernism treats them as styles. What, then, of principles? They are enduring and are given new form in each succeeding modern present, including today’s. Principles guide the arts to beauty, and, mutatis mutandis, they promote justice in the political life of cities.

So of course classicists quite reasonably reject what modernism produces, whether in theories or buildings, and especially the modernism in contemporary thought that would use the timely to “sustain civic life against the degrading aspects of modernity.” The antidote is not more modernism but the classical principles that take modern form in justice and beauty.
“The city must be a new creation because the old city, like the present and future city, was and is a product of imagination, desire, and power, and the particular combination of relations which made it cannot be restored.… [This] genuinely revanchist program … should be opposed.”

Sorry: not revanchist, but certainly unprincipled and classical with citizens seeking justice in the just proportionality between a people’s past traditions and customs that bind them into a community and the inventions and innovations that put principles into service in the present as they pursue their happiness in beautiful cities that justice lights.

How can an advocate of classicism join others in getting it so wrong? Clearly, we need to redouble our participation in the civic forum where the greatest art, the art of governing well, is practiced, the forum that ultimately controls what is built, a forum where only classicism can help build the eternally sought and never fully achieved beautiful and just city that promotes human flourishing.

Carroll William Westfall is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and author most recently of
Architecture, Liberty, and Civic Order: Theories of Architecture from Vitruvius to Jefferson and Beyond (Ashgate, 2015).