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What Is Neoclassical Architecture?

How Architects and Builders Borrowed From the Past


Neoclassical US Supreme Court building, Washington, DC

Ancient Greece? No, it's the US Supreme Court Building built in the early 20th century. See a larger view.

Photo by Hisham Ibrahim/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images
Seinajoki, Finland

Early in his career, Alvar Aalto was classically inspired. This neoclassical building was headquarters for the White Guards in Seinajoki. Photo © 2007 harryfn/iStockPhoto

Home with Queen Anne tower and Neoclassical pillars and pediment details

This unusual home has both Queen Anne and Neoclassical details

Photo © Forum Member "Hollibugg"

Neoclassical, or "new" classical, architecture describes buildings that are inspired by the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. If you look closely at a Neoclassical building you may see echoes of the Parthenon in Athens or the Pantheon in Rome.

Neoclassical buildings have many (although not necessarily all) of these features:

  • Symmetrical shape
  • Tall columns that rise the full height of the building
  • Triangular pediment
  • Domed roof

The Beginnings of Neoclassical Architecture:

Neoclassicism was a European movement that dominated during the 18th century. Expressing the order and rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, Neoclassical ideas influenced music, theater, literature, and visual arts.

During this time, writings by 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 Classical Greece and Rome.

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 romanticization of simple forms and the Classical Orders of Architecture spread to the American colonies. Symmetrical Neoclassical buildings modeled after classical Greek temples were thought to symbolize principles of justice and democracy. One of the most influential Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, drew upon Palladian (ideas of Andrea Palladio) and Classical ideals when he drew architectural plans for the new nation, the United states. Jefferson's Neoclassical design for the Virginia State Capitol (1788) in Richmond, Virginia has been called one of the Ten Buildings That Changed America.

Famous Neoclassical Buildings:

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. Although you may associate Neoclassicism with grand public buildings, the Neoclassical approach has also shaped the way we build private homes. You'll find Neoclassical ideas in these historic house styles:

  • Greek Revival
    These stately, pillared homes became popular in the United States during the 1800s.
  • Federalist
    A Federalist building does not always have imposing pillars, but its symmetry and decorative details are classically inspired
  • Antebellum Architecture
    Stately plantation homes built before America's Civil War were often inspired by classical architecture.
  • Beaux Arts Architecture
    In the late 1800s and early 1900s, ancient Greek and Roman ideas were combined with balustrades, balconies, and lavish decoration.

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