Skip to main content

Traditional, Classical, and Other Words

The classical is the indispensable contributor to the common good.
Serlio 5 orders, 1537

Sebastiano Serlio, 1537

We dress up when we go to an important event in public: a court hearing, a marriage, baptism, or funeral, an opera or a classical music concert. Tradition suggests that we dress up, and it suggests what we should wear when we do.

In these activities we are occupying the classical part of tradition, the part that assigns different levels of importance to different public activities. Not everything we do is of equal importance in private and public life, and neither are the buildings serving and expressing the various roles in the public life that knit people into communities as small as families and as large as the nation.

Agrigento Temple of Concordia 430

Temple of Concordia, Agrigento, 440-430BC

We too often consider the classical to be just another style among the many traditional styles. Connecting buildings with styles is fine for realtors, but for our jobs we need to use words in ways that acknowledge the roles that only the traditional and the classical can play, so let’s look more closely at words.

Some words refer to categories of similar things, while other words designate the qualities of a category’s individual examples. For example, a word is not a grunt, and neither is a building a mountain, or a painting a tableau vivant, and within these categories, we can easily discern a wide variety of words, grunts, buildings, mountains, paintings, and tableaux vivant.

Houghton Hall

Garden pavilion, Houghton Hall, Norfolk, UK, 1722-29

The readers of Traditional Building can easily distinguish between a traditional building and a Modernist one that lacks a recognizable pedigree within tradition. A few Modernists have tried to make connections, citing similar proportions, or abstract similarities in the compositions of Palladio and LeCorbusier, or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s likening his minimalism to the composition of ancient Greek temples. But these attempts fall flat because Modernist architects seek the innovative, novel, creative, and anything else far from anything traditional or, if they have a high enough budget, even in Modernism.

Modernism’s prohibition of using anything used before is used to validate Modernism’s place within the sequence of styles that the history of architecture presents. The role of the concept of style within the history of architecture dominates the present understanding of architecture. It is taught to pupils in grammar school and to students in professional programs in architecture. It commands the thoughts of critics in the popular press and publishers of books on architecture. It is invoked by corporate boards and college presidents when they build a new building. It is noted when bankers and public officials review proposals. And it controls decisions concerning historic preservation.

Russell Taylor Aileen Shackell 9-11 memorial

Russell Taylor and Aileen Schackell, 9-11 Memorial, London, 2005

This doctrine teaches that each era has a distinctive style, and using the style of an earlier era corrupts the style of any later era. Broadly speaking, the three historic eras were antiquity with the classical style, the Middle Ages with the Gothic style, and the Renaissance style that expanded the classical style. Each had its substyles (Greek, Roman, Romanesque, Early, High, Baroque, Rococo, etc.). The nineteenth century exposed the folly of drawing from the past as it grappled with absorbing new materials and technology and finding designs for buildings serving new functions. But eventually, in the first few decades of the last century, the Modern era found its style in Modernism, which continues to expand its catalog of new substyles.

Wittenburgplatz Platx U Bahn 1911-13

Wittenburg Platz U Bahn Station, Berlin, 1911-13

The inventors of these new substyles are hailed as “Starchitects.” One of them, Elizabeth Diller, explained in a trade magazine what she teaches at Princeton: “’I like to teach not what I know, but what I don’t know . . . . What I want to impart to the students is that possibility that you’re not there to receive someone else’s hand-me-down programs: You can make them up yourself.’ She pauses for effect, then laughs: ‘I just basically like to destabilize students and screw with their minds and make them doubt everything that they thought they knew about architecture.’ And will more multidisciplinary thinkers come out of it? ‘I hope,’ she affirms.” (It is perhaps worth noting that the list price for this instruction in Princeton’s four-year undergraduate non-professional degree program is $49,450 per year.)

Ms. Diller’s position belongs to the concept of style that puts a building in the same category as a painting, that is, as a private expression that offers novel stylistic interpretations of the present. This doctrine that is based on this concept forbids a later era from using an earlier era’s style. More, it anathematizes the classical, which deprives architecture of serving its three indispensable roles in a civil society’s public common good.

Antigua, Guatemala

Convent cloister, Antigua, Guatemala, restoration after 1773 earthquakes

First, it deprives architects of tradition’s useful guidance. Instead, architecture is to be made up by destabilized eighteen-year-olds. Traditional architects have always drawn from admirable precedents, which is what the word tradition means: handing over or handing on. The traditional architect or builder works with a “Yes, but” process: yes, those examples show the right way to do it, but here are innovations that lead to formal and technical solutions for this project. Perhaps resulting in an innovative precedent that is then absorbed into tradition and handed on for successors.

Second, within tradition, we proudly acknowledge the classical in our speech when we use “classic” to separate the best from the rest within a category: classic automobile, classic Gothic cathedral, classic put-down, classic novel, and even the newest fashions within the classical that guide us when we dress up. But rather than being novel, each building within a tradition is the same (it is not a mountain or a painting) and also different, with the differences lying within the properties of the art of architecture, not of geology or painting or mere novelty. Within a tradition of the classical, it is possible to assess and judge a building’s beauty and the architect’s achievement.

Public toilet, Torun Poland

Public toilet, Torun, Poland, date unknown

Third, and most important, treating a building as an architect’s private, creative, novel stylistic expression gives second place to its more important role and primary obligation, which is to serve a common, public good. A building, after all, is primarily and principally a public object. It occupies public land or land ceded to a private entity. The land’s occupant will always have a visible presence, and unlike a painting, it cannot be removed from public view. And unlike a completely private object held in private, public authorities assure that it poses no threat to individuals and even protect it from damage.

This third aspect acknowledges traditional architecture’s role in urbanism. Urbanism is the habitat of the civil order that seeks security and justice as a common good and facilitates each individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We proudly acknowledge the presence classical antiquity’s legacy in our civil order and culture. Innovations within that classical legacy constantly adapt it to bind people into our civil order serving the common good. Architecture lying in the very heart of the classical within tradition provides both the service and the expression of this essential connection between our actions as citizens and the buildings we build to serve them.

Fry Spirngs filling station, 1931

Fry's Spring filling station, now piazza parlor, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1931, 1939

We need not fear the word classical. In antiquity it referred to the relative status of individuals within the civil order. We reject such classifications for individuals, but like every civil order, we classify our institutions and entities according to their importance in serving our ideals, and we use buildings to serve and express those differences. Buildings, from the most important (temples; halls of justice, universities) down to merely useful ones (transit stations; public toilets) have used architecture’s five classical orders in two important ways, as easily decipherable expressions of the relative importance of different classes of buildings, and as guidance in using the conventional compositions, proportionality, and detailing of designs. Within each of the five orders there is endless variety, as hinted here in a catalog of images that begin with a classic of the classical and move to lower class examples.

Decimus Burton, Kew Gardens greenhouse, 1844-48

Decimus Burton, Kew Gardens greenhouse installation, London, 1844-48

Classical architecture, then, plants buildings in a common tradition while an individual classical building’s unique variations reveal the status of its service, the architect’s talent, and where and when it was built. Its service to the public, common good remains its principal formal content and also provides the principal reason for building it, with us the thankful beneficiaries of that service. We can see this in the urbanism of any city or district in the western tradition that has not been ravaged by anti-traditional practices. Surely one of the major tasks of traditional architects today is to protect what we have and enrich this traditional urbanism with new classical buildings.

Buying Guide Spotlight


Zepsa Industries, Inc.

Supplier of architectural woodwork: stairs, mantels, paneling, wine cellars, doors & more.

Related Articles

Bramante, Canonico, S Ambrogio, Milan

Tradition in the Vernacular and the Classical

Tradition has always guided both vernacular and classical buildings, but now, with architects avoiding drawing on tradition, the present-day vernacular of the builders no longer benefits from innovations within the classical and architects ignore the vernacular’s innovations, with both suffering.

Ancient capital

Using Words With Care

Words can help us appreciate and understand buildings. Some of the most useful and common words come in pairs, but they are often used carelessly.


Traditional Classical Architecture is the Right Architecture for America

Opinion On Executive Order for the Classical Style in Federal Buildings