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by Archaeology Newsroom

How Greece affected the European architecture of our century

From the early Renaissance to late Neoclassicism, i.e., for more than four centuries, Europen architecture did not cease to use, in various ways and meanings, the order established by ancient Greeks and adopted later by the Romans. This age-long classicist tradition was broken off at the end of the 19th century by the Art Nouveau architects who claimed their freedom from all stylistic conventions. However, as they were imbued with the precepts of romantic and rationalist Neoclassicism, some of them retreated to a more conservative position, while some others tried to arrive at a more abstract conception of the classical, compatible with modernity. The latter usually felt that their quest for new architectural forms should be guided by the “logic”, the “principles”, and the “spirit” of the Greeks.

The transition from Art Nouveau to the Modern Movement is also marked by more concrete stylistic references to the Greek architectural heritage. R. Banham has appropriately remarked that “in the German-speaking countries of Europe the new architecture of the 20th century was born under the sign of the Doric Column”, referring of course to its use by Adolf Loos, Peter Behrens and young Mies van der Rohe. Even during the “iconoclastic” period of the Modern Movement, it seems that most pioneers of the movement aspired to an “unhistorical classicism” — J J.P. Oud’s expression — and that in their minds the machine paradigm was as a rule connected to the old aesthetics of harmonic proportions. Especially Le Corbusier, the most acknowledged hero of architectural modernism, who as a young student had felt obliged to bow, “although in anger”, before the supremacy of the Parthenon, remained throughout his life fascinated by the “moralite dorique” and proved eager to discover it even in Byzantine churches or on Greek islands . References to the classical tradition have also been part of the rhetoric used by Italian fascism, German nazism and Soviet Stalinism in promoting a monumental architecture that could eloquently express such regimes’ power and magnificence. It is perhaps due to their association with totalitarianism that overtly classicizing trends were discredited in postwar Europe. But they were soon to reappear in the USA. Classical tradition has been once more revitalized by the various current architectural trends usually qualified as post-modern. Two main trends can be easily discerned. Radical eclecticism, mainly developed in the USA, indulges in a free-style classicism and uses the classical orders in a rather fragmented and distorted way, as popular stereotypes that are made welcome in a “garden party of styles”. Neorationalist fundamentalism, more congenial to Europe, adheres to an elementary kind of classicism out of a profound nostalgia for archetypal forms. In both cases, history, expelled by modernism, seems to reimbue current architectural practice. Ancient Greece always stands out in the background of this histoncal experience either as a deceitful idol or as an unreachable yet compelling ideal.