A Pandemic Perspective: Are Classical Architects the Runt of the Professional Litter?
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
2020 has been an extraordinary year for reflection. The pandemic has given us pause, a moment to think about our habits and to question the ways in which our societies operate. We have seen social justice and existing inequities brought to the forefront of mainstream discussions with regards to race, gender, and sexual orientation. Consequently, many of us have seen an increased level of activism amongst our networks with the goal to see a systemic cultural shift in the not-so-distant future, one that garners greater awareness, understanding, and acceptance within our organisations. Beneath it all, of course, is the ambition to harness the full potential of our human capital through empowering an ever-diversifying body of individuals to feel fully included and engaged.
In the context of architecture, the question arises whether the momentum at this point in history can be used to address a different issue: the acceptance of classical architecture amongst the wider profession. It may be surprising to hear that there is a thriving global market for traditional buildings and a growing interest amongst a younger cohort to study classical design. However, the study, let alone the practice of classical architecture, is an incredibly difficult feat to accomplish in the UK today mostly due to prejudices shared by many professionals and academics, the same individuals who dictate the overarching structure of the professional network. It is not uncommon for tutors to dismiss students who show an interest in classical design, nor for students with a passion for classical design to submit superficial designs to obtain improved marks from tutors. The dogma passed on from tutors is then taken into the profession, where we see, yet again, traditional architects being ostracized from important awards and forums for discussion.
Since the advent of modern architecture there has historically been an ideologically driven divide between the two groups. Many architects regard modern and classical architecture as mutually exclusive, often viewing one in competition with the other over the authority to interpret the design paradigm. However, much like the rest of the profession, classicists are also interested in resolving the housing crisis, the future of our high streets, the well-being of communities, and the lifespan of our buildings. More practically speaking, classicist similarly deal with budgetary, weatherproofing, planning, and ecological constraints, relying on close collaboration with a group of consultants to ensure the successful delivery of their designs. If given the chance, perhaps we may start to realise that there are more similarities than differences between the two.
As with so many areas, the benefits of diversity and inclusivity are self-evident especially in the field of architecture where good design has a tangible impact on the quality of life of so many. Although the tools and approaches between modernists and traditionalists may differ, through the lens of humanism they share the same goal. So, the question remains: can we learn from recent lessons around greater societal diversity and inclusivity and in turn apply these to the divide between classical and modern architecture?