Classical Buildings in a Modern Age: An Interview with Allan Greenberg


The following is an interview with architect Allan Greenburg about the relevance of classical architecture in the modern world. This version of the interview is adapted from an essay originally published in the Fall 1996 issue of American Arts Quarterly and was published in the March/April 1997 issue of The American Enterprise. It is published here with the kind permission of the American Enterprise Institute.

TAE: You’ve been an outspoken critic of the inappropriate designs used for many of the public buildings erected in the U.S. since about the 1950s. One building you’ve focused a lot of attention on is the courthouse. What’s wrong with the way most courthouses are built these days?

Mr. Greenberg: I first became involved in courthouse projects in the 1970s, and I discovered that new courthouses are often seen by nearly every segment of the population—judges, attorneys, jurors, staff, and the public—as disappointing. A Modern courthouse’s public spaces are often unfortunately similar to those of a motor vehicle department or a second- or third-grade commercial office building. The lobbies, corridors, and foyers are often dull, unadorned, seemingly leftover spaces. The message communicated to attorneys, witnesses, jurors, litigants, and the taxpaying members of the public is that they are not important enough to warrant special attention being paid to their need for intellectual and visual stimulation, clear orientation, and physical comfort.

TAE: How does this differ from the message transmitted by a traditional courthouse?

Mr. Greenberg: Many old courthouses have grand public spaces, which still convey an aura of dignity despite what some would consider to be their obsolescence. In the great eighteenth or early nineteenth century courthouses and in other civic buildings of that time, the main public spaces were the most beautiful spaces in the building, because they were the ones where the public was. The fact that the public spaces in an old courthouse provide more than the bare minimum of both quantity of space and quality of design is a celebration of human values and a demonstration of concern for the well-being of everyone using the courthouse. Even when they are overcrowded, they usually provide a sense of order.

TAE: What about attempts to shape courtroom interiors in a more up-to-date way?

Mr. Greenberg: There have been many ideas for reconfiguring the courtroom. One of them is the courtroom in the round. The problem with this is that it violates the symbolism that a courtroom ought to have. The equality implied by a circular form fails to differentiate between the trial participants and to express their roles. The shape of the room and the placement of the furniture and participants in a traditional American courtroom are not arbitrarily arrived at; they grow out of the American view of law. In the United States, a judge is an impartial arbiter and is therefore positioned on a raised podium in the center of the front of the room. Defense and prosecution are equal adversaries assigned tables in the well of the courtroom, facing the judge. The jury box is placed on the side, purposely divorced from the axial relationship of judge, counsel, and public. This placement reflects the impartiality of the jurors who must decide guilt or innocence.

The formal arrangement and design of the courtroom reflects society’s views of the appropriate relationship between a person accused of a crime and judicial authority. Seen in this light, the traditional American courtroom layout is a unique and valuable representation of our system of justice and its orientation toward the rights of the accused. It is not a set of functional relationships that can be changed at will.

TAE: Is there a particular reason why courthouses and other important public buildings, until recent decades, were often designed in a Classical style?

Mr. Greenberg: When Thomas Jefferson designed the Virginia State Capitol and Supreme Court, he based the design on a Roman temple because he wanted to express the continuity of Classical ideas of democracy and rule of law, which were being realized anew in the American republic. Jefferson wanted to demonstrate the intellectual traditions to which Americans were heir, and to signal the greatness to which this country aspired. Classicism is a language that expresses high, democratic aspirations. The exterior character of a courthouse and its relationship to its surroundings declare our conception of the law’s role in society.

TAE: But we’re not living in the eighteenth century. Is the Classical architectural language comprehensible to Americans today?

Mr. Greenberg: Classicism is the most comprehensive architectural language that human beings have yet developed. I maintain that Classical architecture is still the most potent, the most appropriate, and the most noble language to express the relationship of the individual to the community in a republican democracy. Classical architecture’s fundamental subject is the connection between the individual human being and the community—between citizen and government. It’s no accident that Classical architecture’s birth coincided with the birth of the ideal of democratic government in Athens nearly 3,000 years ago.

TAE: What is it about Classicism that expresses a relationship to human beings?

Mr. Greenberg: A Classical building uses the human figure as the crucial measure of all things. The ancient Greeks used columns and statues of people interchangeably. Columns typically have capitals, like human heads, forming their tops, and they have bases corresponding to feet. The function of the ankle—to transmit the body’s weight through the feet to the ground—is performed architecturally by plinths and base moldings. To strengthen the anthropomorphic quality, the upper two thirds of the column shafts have a slight taper, which creates a widened base, like a person with his feet spread solidly apart for balance and stability. This taper—the term for it is entasis—infuses the column with vitality. Similarly, the three-part division of the human body into legs, torso, and head is paralleled by a Classical building’s plinth, walls and columns, and roofs—in other words, base, middle, and top.

One of the jobs that influenced me in the 1960s was a new courthouse I worked on designing in Alexandria, Virginia. The job eventually fell through, but I approached it as a Classical architect trying to solve problems in the mid-twentieth century, and the building seemed so much more significant than it would otherwise have been. I seemed able, through the mechanism of this architecture, to talk about ideas that the judges found very important. When the judges talked about a dignified building, and they showed me old courthouses in Virginia, and then I showed them a brick, Georgian-inspired courthouse I was designing, we seemed able to communicate in a way that my associate architect, who was developing more modernistic solutions for the judges at the same time, was not able to do. I sensed that if one wanted to seriously discuss ideas about architecture with a client, one had to work in a language of architecture with which the client was familiar, one for which they could cite examples.

TAE: Were there other reasons for your movement toward Classical architecture?

Mr. Greenberg: Beyond the fact that I found it much easier to talk to the public in public hearings and to my clients through the medium of Classical architecture, I was also able to answer one of my earlier challenges: how to build in cities, because the vast majority of successful buildings in cities, past and present, are Classical buildings. Let me give you some examples. The City Beautiful movement in the United States initiated and helped articulate the transformation of American cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in an extraordinarily successful way. The great parks and public buildings of New Haven, the expansion of the Yale campus where I taught in the 1960s and ’70s, were built under this set of ideas. The great bridges of New York and other cities were a product of this great movement. This happened all over the country.

Tradition is a source book. For a classical architect, the past is a series of case studies, which can teach you different lessons about formal manipulation, about construction, about social, political, and other urbanistic questions—about how these challenges were resolved in the past. The past is not dead. It is active and there for you to study. It is relevant.

TAE: One of the obstacles to traditional design is that relatively few architects today possess enough knowledge to practice it well. Did you have someone who brought you along in this?

Mr. Greenberg: No. But before I went to Europe and then to the United States, I studied at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, a school whose leading light was Rex Martienson, who had been one of the first disciples of [the powerful Modernist] Le Corbusier. Along with two and a half years or three years of a Bauhaus approach to architecture, we also had two and a half years of rigorous Classical education. We studied the history of architecture by the comparative method, where you do measured drawings, to scale, of great buildings. So at the end of five and a half years of schooling, you had a vocabulary of 100 buildings which you knew by heart, by dimension. The great buildings of architectural history were mixed into one’s architectural brain cells. We were exposed not only to the history of style but to the history of construction. We learned how Romans built their bridges, how medieval masons built their vaults, how lime and mortar were used in English buildings, and so on.

I kept asking myself, Why is it that the work of the past is so much richer and more urbane than our work today? The buildings of Le Corbusier are fabulous architecture. His buildings moved me in a very deep way, but I sensed there was something about his approach that was destructive.

TAE: Did this have to do with the Modernist tendency to make each building stand out from its surroundings rather than create coherent groupings and unified streetscapes?

Mr. Greenberg: As an architect, I was awed that for over a thousand years, architects and builders in London had added to the beauty of the city, whereas some of the new buildings I saw seemed to divorce themselves from their context and not play a part in this process of accretion. Contrast is a singularly limiting way to relate buildings to a city.

TAE: Do you see widespread use being made of Classicism or tradition today, particularly in civic buildings?

Mr. Greenberg: No. The federal government, the state public works departments, and cities’ public works departments are peopled by architects who graduated from schools in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s and who know little, if anything, about Classical architecture or the larger role that architecture can play in embodying the fundamental ideals of a society and reminding people what those ideals are.

TAE: Are schools and magazines and journals becoming more receptive?

Mr. Greenberg: Yes, but not much. The curriculum at most architecture schools is unique for being so biased, for ignoring so many fundamental factors of nineteenth and twentieth century architecture—a level of bias that would be laughed out of any department of history or political science or English literature. On the positive side, there is a school in New York that teaches Classical architecture part-time, at night. At the University of Notre Dame, you can study Classical architecture and emerge as a competent Classical designer. Architectural magazines are a little more open to publishing Classical buildings than they were in the past. The most significant development, I think, is that there are probably 50 or 60 offices across the U.S. doing this kind of work, whereas 20 years ago there were one or two or three.

TAE: What’s needed for Classicism to really flower again?

Mr. Greenberg: What it needs is a President of the United States who knows about and is interested in architecture. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but the welfare of architecture in the U.S. has, to a large extent, reflected the interest of a great President. Washington designed Mount Vernon and was very interested in architecture. Jefferson was maybe our greatest architect ever. Madison was interested in architecture. For these people, the architecture of Washington, D.C., and the Capitol, and the public buildings was very important. Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt were very interested. So were Coolidge, and Hoover, which is how the Federal Triangle came into being.

I think a President who is interested in architecture could make a big difference.

Before classicism can again occupy a central place in our lives, a monstrous libel must first be undone. Throughout much of the twentieth century, influential segments of the art world have accused classicism of opposing freedom—an allegation that continues to unjustly undermine classicism’s influence.

A commonplace in the aesthetic education of my generation was the easy dismissal of contemporary classicist architecture as “fascist.” Monumentality, symmetry, mass; the Classical vocabulary of column, arch, dome, and architrave; the use of dressed stone; the sculpted figure—these were, especially in combination, the signals for scoffing. If the offending architecture were safely old, it would be forgiven, but if built in our century it would be linked to Hitler and Mussolini.

The association of classicism with fascism and Nazism extended beyond architecture to Classical painting, music, verse, sculpture, theater, and dance. Even today poets who write in strict metrical form, painters who honor the ideals of harmony, firmness, and utility, actors and directors who tell a coherent story and provoke an audience’s identification with sympathetic characters can be accused of crypto-fascist tendencies by avant-garde critics.

Hitler and Mussolini are claimed to be artistic conservatives who used the vocabulary of classicism, especially in architecture, to express their political ideology. Since the fascists rejected modernist art and persecuted those who practiced it, the logical conclusion was that artistic modernism stood for freedom of human expression, while traditional art meant the suppression of creative impulses and the destruction of personal liberty. Or so went the accusation.

This argument, despite some surface plausibility, is riddled with false assumptions. It is simply not true that the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini were conservative. Their policies were radical reversals of traditional relations in their societies. Hitler’s party was called the National Socialist Workers’ Party, and it is disingenuous to pretend that it did not mean what its name implies. Mussolini’s early career and mental formation were those of a socialist, and his program of public works, central control over the means of production, and a national bureaucracy for the general welfare was not profoundly different from the policies of Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, and Kim Il Sung. After five decades of leftist obfuscation and apologetics, it is at last becoming clear that fascism, socialism, and communism were but three competing branches of left-wing ideology. All three shared a suspicion of international banking, hereditary inequality, inherited family wealth, laissez-faire capitalism, individualism, ethnic otherness, and Jews. All three saw the collective social organism as the true unit of humanity. All three, claiming to be creating genuine equality, sought compulsory measures to encourage a sense of mass communion.

Certainly Hitler encouraged Albert Speer to create a new Classical architecture for the Third Reich. Mussolini, too, favored classicizing art and architecture. But as Leon Krier argues in his essay “An Architecture of Desire,” Hitler’s choice of style may have contradicted his revolution’s spirit. The appropriate expression for an efficient totalitarian order, presided over by a planning bureaucracy, and predicated on reducing the individual to a cog in the machine, would surely have been Bauhaus or International Style. The fact that Hitler and his lieutenants preferred Classical art and architecture for themselves is no more significant than the fact that they preferred Cuban cigars and French wine: Classical art was the best quality art available. The corresponding fact that Hitler chose Classical art and architecture as an instrument of his propaganda proves only that as a P.R. man, he knew what he was doing: the Classical art vocabulary is the most expressive and persuasive yet created, and its beauty and grandeur would be the most effective disguise for the regime’s crushing regimentation and savage horrors.

The closer one looks at the classicism = fascism equation, the more fantastic it becomes. Mussolini took a while before he abandoned his modernist razionalismo Italiano (which nicely expressed the spirit of the machine-gun by which his armies subdued Ethiopia) and adopted a more classical look, using it to appeal to the humanity and self-sacrifice of the Italian people. Communist art and architecture in the Soviet Union went through exactly the same correction, from the modernist constructivism that truly expressed the spirit of the Gulag, to the triumph of classical idiom, putting a humane facade on an inhuman regime.

If classicism were the ideology of history’s villains, we would not find a modern classicism blossoming in the first half of the century in the world’s most enlightened, free, and democratic nations. A splendid renaissance of Classical architecture took place in the Scandinavian countries, in Austria, and in France. There was a flowering of Classical forms in architecture, music, literature, and other arts in the U.S., especially in the 1930s.

Rather than accept the fallacy that classicism is inherently illiberal and reactionary, a historian could argue that the perennial association of Classical style with Greek democracy, Roman republicanism, Renaissance humanism, and Enlightenment intellectual liberation makes it the appropriate vehicle for the political ideals of liberty and the consent of the governed. The marvelous organic rhythm by which Classical forms integrate fine detail and large intermediate forms into the grand compositional lines of the whole—an art with an infinity of possible variations—is an apt way of representing democracy’s talent for reconciling individuality, intermediate institutions of civil society, and the general public interest.

By contrast, the frequently harsh innovations of modernist art, which reject the mysterious practices of tradition, suggest that modernism is in fact the appropriate expression of the totalitarian state. Political conservatism is not the enemy of freedom—revolutions that overturn tradition tend to result in states that are more, not less, oppressive than their predecessors. The more radically a revolution seeks to change the existing order, the more tyrannical and coercive the regime that follows. The English Civil War of 1640 that overthrew Charles Stuart created the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. The English then sensibly carried out a conservative counter-revolution, restoring the monarchy and ushering in three centuries of gradual and prosperous transition to democratic liberty.

At the level of individual artists, the “classicism = fascism” equation falls even further into disrepute. There is evidence that many modernist artists enthusiastically courted Nazi, fascist, and communist regimes. The modern free-verse poet Ezra Pound toadied to Mussolini. Bauhaus artists sought commissions in Nazi Germany until they got discouraged by the cold reception. In 1932, Italian modernists staged a triumphant “Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution.”

Meanwhile, Toscanini, the giant of Classical music, defied Mussolini and fled to America. Thomas Mann, perhaps the most artistically conservative novelist of his time, did likewise. The only English-speaking poet who foresaw the “rough beast” of totalitarian terror and gave it its true name was the conservative classicist William Butler Yeats.

Of course there were heroic modernist artists and writers who opposed twentieth-century totalitarianism, and classicists and traditionalists who supported totalitarianism. I do not intend to simply exchange one set of libel victims for another. But I do wish to dissolve the subtle moral and political righteousness that still attends modernist and now postmodernist art. The new emerging classicism of our era should not be burdened by the malicious notion that it is connected to the forces of evil.