Reproduction and Invention

Hear Robert Adam's thought on the constant tension in classical architecture between reproduction and invention.
By Robert Adam,

There’s always a tension in classical architecture between reproduction and invention. Some people just want a copy of something they like and some designers want to invent new ways of being classical. But one of these points of view doesn’t exclude the other. To understand why, we need to look more closely at classical architecture.

More than anything else, classical architecture is a tradition and traditions look to the past. The easiest way to show that you’re part of that tradition is to reproduce something that’s gone before. And the easiest way to defend what you’re doing is to say it was successful before—so why not now?

And yet, to produce something today that looks just like something from the past is to produce something that isn’t the same, but is different. The first time round it will have been an invention and an invention is not the same as a reproduction. It may look the same, but people don’t feel the same about an invention as they do about a reproduction and what matters is what people feel about things. That’s why we make architecture.

This isn’t the way that most classical architects think when they reproduce, nor is it the way that most opponents think about classical architecture. On the one hand, there’s something comforting about seeming to make the much-treasured past come alive again. On the other hand, there’s something suspect about trying to live in an age that no longer exists. But neither is right.

Each reproduction is something modern. It was made because modern people wanted it, it was designed (and even a reproduction has to be designed) by a modern designer, it was made with modern technology (all technology available now is modern), and it was made by modern people.

When we look at the past, we can see this in action. In the 15th century in Italy people wanted to re-live ancient Rome. They tried to make literature like the ancients and buildings like the Romans. This is what they thought they were doing, but today we can see this just as typical of the 15th century.

Reproduction in practice is hardly ever quite the same. If we carve a wooden column capital today, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll use identical tools to those of the 15th century, the same sharpening technique or the same workshop conditions. Add to this that back then workmen and architects weren’t too concerned with precision like we are today and, in the end, an apparently identical column capital won’t be made.

We can take this one step further. Few of us would do without electric lights or rely on wood fires. We will most likely cook on modern appliances and do so ourselves, even in a house of a size where traditionally there would have been servants. And we all have to design to modern regulations, pay workmen modern wages and get about with modern transport.

To critics, all this is proof that classical architecture is no longer relevant. The past cannot be re-created so to attempt to do so is, at best, folly and, at worst, dishonest. But this is to ignore the fact that everything we do today is modern, including the wish to reproduce.

The conventional architectural response is to make something that’s so unique that it could only have been produced today. This is a futile activity. All architects are influenced by other architects, human dimensions don’t change and only a fool would use completely untested construction techniques or materials. The less extreme response is to try and extract some hypothetical essence from classical architecture, such as proportion, and invent something new.

As we have seen, however, all reproduction involves some invention, even if only to make sure that the insulation is better than it was in the 18th century. But invention exists and has always existed in classical architecture. If not, what the ancient Greeks produced would be identical to what we design today.

Whilst many dedicated traditional architects don’t like to speak of originality and invention in classical architecture, anyone with any historical perspective (and surely this must include all classical architects) know that this has been a constant feature in its history. Disowning invention is a reaction to the fashionable professional view that modernity is defined by novelty and invention and to be of our time we must create something never seen before. What’s different, however, is how inventions have always been integrated into the classical tradition.

To understand this, we have to go back to the fact that, more than anything, classical architecture is a tradition. We know about traditions in our everyday lives: we have family traditions, national traditions and religious traditions. We know that, while they often change, what’s important is that they keep something of their history. Thanksgiving and Christmas are in part ancient and in part made up, but we recognise their past. So it is with classical architecture.

The ancient classical Orders—Doric, Ionic, Corinthian—go back more than 2,000 years; the arch and the dome 2,000 years; the balustrade and rustication 500 years; the glazed arcade and taller buildings 150 years. There’s no reason why this should stop. It just has to be a recognisable part of the tradition. It’s like writing a novel: each time you write a new chapter, it won’t be the same as the last chapter but it won’t make any sense unless it carries on the story from the previous chapters.

In classical architecture reproduction and invention are happy bedfellows. If you want to be the same as the 18th century, you won’t be. If you want to be modern, you have no choice; you don’t need to try to be different, you will be. You can invent, but what matters is that you know you are continuing the tradition and that others can see it too. And what matters above all is that you do it well.

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