What Is Neo-Classical Architecture?

How Architects and Builders Borrow From the Past

North Portico at Kenwood House in London, Neoclassical Remodel by Robert Adam c. 1770
North Portico at Kenwood House in London, Neoclassical Remodel by Robert Adam c. 1770. Photo by English Heritage Paul Highnam/Heritage Images Hulton Archive/Getty Images (cropped)

Neoclassical architecture describes buildings that are inspired by the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. The prefix neo- means "new" and classical refers to ancient Greece and Rome (neoclassic, without a hyphen, is the preferred spelling). If you look closely at anything called neoclassical, you'll see art, music, theater, literature, governments, and visual arts that are derived from these ancient Western European civilizations.

 

The Western world has always returned to the first great civilizations of mankind. The Roman arch was a repeated characteristic of the medieval Romanesque period from approximately 800 to 1200 AD. The Renaissance c. 1400-1600 AD was a "rebirth" of classicism. Neoclassicism was a European movement that dominated the 1700s. Expressing the logic, order, and rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, people again returned to neoclassical ideas.  For the United States after the American Revolution in 1783, these concepts profoundly shaped the new government not only in the writing of the US Constitution, but also in the architecture built to express the ideals of the new nation. Even today in much of the public architecture in Washington, DC, the nation's capital, you may see echoes of the Parthenon in Athens or the Pantheon in Rome.

Neoclassical Characteristics:

During the 18th century, the written works of the Renaissance architects Giacomo da Vignola and Andrea Palladio were widely translated and read.

These writings inspired appreciation for the Classical Orders of architecture and the beautifully proportioned architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Neoclassical buildings have many (although not necessarily all) of these features:

  • Symmetrical floor plan shape and fenestration (i.e., placement of windows)
  • Tall columns, generally Doric but sometimes Ionic, that rise the full height of the building. In residential architecture, a double portico.
  • Triangular pediment
  • Centered domed roof

The Beginnings of Neoclassical Architecture:

One important 18th century thinker, the French Jesuit priest Marc-Antoine Laugier, theorized that all architecture derives from three basic elements: the column, the entablature, and the pediment. In 1753, Laugier published a book-length essay that outlined his theory that all architecture grows from this shape, which he called the Primitive Hut. The general idea was that society was best when it was more primitive, that a purity is native in simplicity and symmetry.

The romanticization of simple forms and the Classical Orders spread to the American colonies. Symmetrical neoclassical buildings modeled after classical Greek and Roman temples were thought to symbolize principles of justice and democracy. One of the most influential Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, drew upon the ideas of Andrea Palladio when he drew architectural plans for the new nation, the United states. Jefferson's neoclassical design for the Virginia State Capitol in 1788 started the ball rolling for the building of the nation's capital in Washington, DC.

The State House in Richmond has been called one of the Ten Buildings That Changed America.

Famous Neoclassical Buildings:

After the Treaty of Paris in 1783 when the colonies were forming a more perfect Union and developing a constitution, the Founding Fathers turned to the ideals of ancient civilizations. Greek architecture and Roman government were nondenominational temples to democratic ideals. Jefferson's Monticello, the US Capitol, the White House, and the US Supreme Court building are all variations of the neoclassical—some being more influenced by Palladian ideals and some more like Greek Revival temples. Architectural historian Leland M. Roth writes that "all of the architecture of the period from 1785 to 1890 (and even much of it up to 1930) adapted historic styles to create associations in the mind of the user or observer which would strengthen and enhance the functional purpose of the building."

About Neoclassical Houses:

The word neoclassical is often used to describe an architectural style, but neoclassicism is not actually any one distinct style. Neoclassicism is a trend, or approach to design, that can incorporate a variety of styles. As architects and designers became known for their work, their names became associated with a particular type of building—Palladian for Andrea Palladio, Jeffersonian for Thomas Jefferson, Adamesque for Robert Adams. Basically, it's all neoclassical—Classical Revival, Roman Revival, and Greek Revival.

Although you may associate neoclassicism with grand public buildings, the neoclassical approach has also shaped the way we build private homes. A gallery of neoclassical private homes proves the point. Some residential architects break the neoclassic architectural style into distinct time periods—no doubt to assist the realtors who market these American home styles.

One Architect Breaks It All Down For You:

Time periods of when architectural styles flourished are often inexact, if not arbitrary. Architect John Milnes Baker has given us his own concise guide to what he believes neoclassical-related periods to be:

  • Federal Style, 1780-1820, is named after the new US government, although ideas come from the British Isles, including a continued interest in the Palladian window and the work of Robert Adams. A Federalist building does not always have imposing pillars, but its symmetry and decorative details are classically inspired.
  • Neoclassical, 1780-1825, is the period of America's breaking away from European modifications of Classical ideas and ideals, adhering instead to strict classical orders of proportion. Baker says the Neoclassicists "rarely presumed to distort the proportions of the classical orders except in the subtlest way."
  • Greek Revival, 1820-1850, de-emphasized Roman architectural details, such as the dome and arch, and focused more on the Greek way. This was a favorite of Antebellum architecture, the stately plantation homes built before America's Civil War.
  • Neoclassical Revival, 1895-1950, became a modernist's interpretation of ancient Rome and Greece. "When well done," writes Baker, "these houses had a certain dignity, but the line between dignity and pomposity was tenuous at best....Some of the most grotesque, tasteless, and nouveau-riche buildings offered by speculative builders today are pale shadows of the Neoclassical Revival. One can often see the pretense carried to absurdity when a makeshift portico is slapped on the facade of a raised ranch or pseudo-colonial. Unfortunately it is not an uncommon sight."

About Kenwood House and Robert Adam:

As architect John Milnes Baker points out, transforming a built house into a neoclassical style can go very badly. This is not always the case, however, as Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) has shown us with Kenwood House in Hampstead, England. Adam renovated what was called a "double-pile" manor house into the neoclassical style shown here. He remodeled the north entrance in 1764, as explained in History of Kenwood on the English Heritage website.

Learn More:

Sources: A Concise History of American Architecture by Leland M. Roth, Harper & Row, 1979, p. 54; American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, Norton, 1994, pp. 54, 56, 64, 104