Thoughts on: The Classical Language of Architecture

Summerson is one of my favourite architectural writers. His discursive style is not only informative but also really quite entertaining. The Classical Language of Architecture has emerged as one of the staples of architectural reading and provides a comprehensive and extensively illustrated introduction to Classicism.

The book was originally devised as a series of six scripts for BBC Radio in 1963, before being further illustrated and published. Beginning from ‘the essentials of Classicism’ and ‘the grammar of antiquity’, in which we find the roots of Classical expression, Summerson builds up a picture of what classical architecture is and its impact on architectural design throughout history and today. In doing so The Classical Language of Architecture reveals a set of rules, a so called ‘grammar’ for the use of various elements that make up a classical building. One could suggest that it would be better to read Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture to gain this insight; however I find the Vitruvius rather dry and his writings lack of the benefit of the retrospective context. Personally, I wouldn’t suggest that anybody reads the Ten Books on Architecture, unless specifically researching the buildings of antiquity in some depth.

Having established the foundations of classical architecture, in the next two chapters Summerson leads us through a richly illustrated 16th century of classical style and the emergence of Baroque architecture. In doing so he places the Renaissance architects who we know so well – Alberti, Brunelleschi, Bramante, and Palladio, to name a few – in the context of this classical grammar, and demonstrates how they evolved it. If you are looking to understand, for example, the extraordinary Renaissance churches of Rome, this is an invaluable guide that explains both how this highly ornamented architecture came to be and what the key features of it are. Indeed, when I first visited Rome, I brought The Classical Language of Architecture with me.

Summerson finishes his book by looking briefly at the classical influence in architecture as it transitioned through the Enlightenment and towards Modernism and contemporary architecture. While interesting, this is not what I would consider a stronger part of the book – it is a little too brief to provide a significant overview of what was happening in architecture at the time. I do enjoy, however, the way that Summerson demonstrates the progression of classical ideas within this new age of architecture. There are the beginnings of some interesting thoughts about the proportion, rhythm, and fenestration of the façade, with a brief comment on Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, but the ideas remain largely undeveloped.

In the opening chapter of The Classical Language of Architecture, Summerson wrote that ‘the aim of classical architecture has always been to achieve a demonstrable harmony of parts’. His writing here, the relationship of ancient, Renaissance, and Modern, very much reflects this harmonic philosophy of his core subject. When I was at university an architecture tutor once commented that a note about ‘classical architecture’ in my dissertation was rather vague, to which I replied that the real problems was not the vagueness of my writing, but the vagueness of my knowledge. He pointed me towards this book, for which I am eternally grateful. You can read it in an evening and I think you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

The Classical Language of Architecture: buy online

The Classical Language of Architecture is available on Amazon in paperback for about £17 (used) or about $12 (used).

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