Neoclassical Architecture | Architects and Characteristics

What is neoclassical architecture?

Neoclassical architecture is an architectural style developed from the neoclassical movement of the mid-18th century. The emergence of neoclassical architecture is therefore a style derived mainly from the architecture of classical antiquity, the Vitruvian principles and the work of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio.


Neoclassical architecture is the heir of classical architecture, theorized by the ancient architect Vitruvius (1st century BC) in his treatise defining the theory of the three orders (Ionic, Doric and Corinthian). Vitruvius will be the great reference for architects to describe the renewal of the use of ancient forms, from the second half of the 18th century until around 1850.


The neoclassical architecture pretends to use Greek forms, instead of Italian, as it is called the Greek taste in its early days in France, around 1760, an international movement with different manifestations from North America to Russia. It is divided into several currents and can be distinguished:


  • The phase of Palladianism, the earliest, which developed in rural Britain under the leadership of Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren. Rather, it is applied to isolated, rural, compact buildings. Its influence is more Italianate than antique.
  • The neo-Greek style, the leading craftsman in France being Ange-Jacques Gabriel, the first king's architect under the reigns of Louis XIV and XV.
  • The neoclassical style, strictly speaking, of architecture, which had lasting success throughout the first half of the 19th century, in both public and private buildings in the West. It also translated to the decorative arts between 1770 and 1830.
  • The Beaux-Arts style an extension of the neoclassical canons.


The art and architecture of neoclassicism originated in Italy, especially in Naples, where, in the 1730s, court architects such as Luigi Vanvitelli and Ferdinando Fuga rescued the classical, Palladian and mannerist forms of Baroque architecture. Following their example, Giovanni Antonio Medrano began to build the first neoclassical structures in Italy during the same decade. By the mid-18th century, neoclassical architecture expanded to integrate a wider variety of influences, including those of ancient Greece.


The ideas and foundations of Palladio's neoclassical architecture penetrated especially in the British Isles, where his theory advanced directly into Neoclassicism, transforming the Baroque into a practically nonexistent movement; but in spite of this, with the passing of the centuries, it is most common that such Palladian ideas are appreciated in different buildings in places as diverse as the United States of America, China, or Australia.


Neoclassicism in architecture signaled a return of how rationalism relates to neoclassical architecture after the extravagant baroque, and the decorative frivolity of the rococo. As a style composed of many diverse architectural elements and based to a greater or lesser extent on the ancient forms of Greek and Roman architecture, neoclassical architecture can be imitated to a greater or lesser extent. This is why, from the mid-17th century, builders continued to borrow from Greek and Roman models, making neoclassicism the most popular building style in the world.


For her part, Russia's Catherine II transformed St. Petersburg into an unparalleled ensemble of neoclassical buildings with the same technology as any contemporary French and English work. By 1800 almost all new British architecture reflected the neoclassical spirit Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, France's boldest innovator, played a central role in the evolution of neoclassical architecture.


Neoclassical architecture continued to flourish in the United States throughout the 19th century, as many architects sought to draw the analogy between the young country and imperial Rome when designing large government buildings. The style also spread to colonial Latin America at the time.


Roman architecture is probably the earliest example of Neoclassicism architecture, being an attempt to recreate some of the forms and characteristics of the buildings of ancient Rome.


Characteristics of neoclassical architecture

While neoclassical architecture employed the same classical vocabulary as late baroque architecture, it generally emphasized its flat qualities, rather than sculptural volumes.


Neoclassical architecture was more orderly and less grandiose than Baroque, although the dividing line between the two may be blurred. It closely resembled Greek architectural orders, with one obvious exception: there were no domes in ancient Greece. Most roofs were flat.


Projections and recessions and their effects of light and shadow were flatter; sculptural bas-reliefs were flatter and tended to be framed in friezes, tablets or panels. Their characteristic features, clearly articulated, were isolated and non-interpenetrating, autonomous and complete in themselves.


Neoclassical architecture also influenced urban planning; in antiquity, the Romans had used a consolidated scheme of urban planning for both defense and civilian life; however, the roots of this scheme go back to even older civilizations.


At its most basic, the street grid system, a central forum with city services, two slightly wider main boulevards, and the occasional diagonal street were features of the very logical and orderly Roman layout. The ancient building facades and layouts were oriented to these city design patterns and tended to function in proportion to the importance of the public buildings.


Neoclassical Architects

Among the known representatives of neoclassical architecture are the following:


Jacques Germain Soufflot

A renowned French architect, member of the academies of painting and architecture, he was born in 1714 and died in 1781. His best known work is the church of St. Genevieve in Paris, commissioned by the Marquis de Marigny, and later remodeled to be the Pantheon, from 1791.


Claude Nicolas Ledoux

French architect, engineer and town planner. During the reign of Louis XV reached its peak, during which he designed and built some of the most important public works of the time, such as the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans, declared a World Heritage Site in 1982, and the "Barrières" in Paris. He is considered one of the forerunners of neoclassicism.


Jean Chalgrin

Neoclassicism is established from his early studies with the prophet of neoclassicism Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni and the radical classicist Étienne-Louis Boullée in Paris and through his stay thanks to the Prix de Rome (November 1759 - May 1763) as a boarder at the Académie française in Rome. His stay in Rome coincided with a new interest in classicism among young French boarders, under the influence of the works of Piranesi and Winckelmann.


John Nash (architect)

He was an English architect. Among his most important architectural works is the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, recreated with the languages of architecture from the neoclassical to the past romanticism of Europe and other cultures, which fits very well with the romanticism of the time.


Sir John Sloane

He was a British architect of neoclassical style. He was appointed curatorial architect to the Bank of England in 1788. He abandoned the active practice of architecture in 1833 and devoted himself to his activity as a collector of neoclassical art, especially antiquities, turning his own house into the Soane Museum.


Sir Robert Smirke

He was a leading English architect of neoclassical architecture and one of the main leaders of neo-Greek architecture, although he also used other architectural styles. As an architect of the Office of Works, he designed several of the most important public buildings of his time, including the main body and façade of the British Museum, his finest work and the one for which he is remembered. He pioneered the use of concrete foundations.


Carl Gotthard Langhans

German architect. He made numerous trips to Italy, France, Holland and England. He was trained in the Baroque style and oriented his work towards neoclassicism. His main monument is the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.


Karl Friedrich Schinkel

German painter. Disciple of F. Gilly, he first devoted himself to romantic painting and scenography. From 1810 he realized his masterpieces: the Neue Wache of Berlin, the Schauspielhaus and the Altes Museum of Berlin, with elements of Greek and Roman architecture, and the Werderkirche (Berlin), of neo-Gothic character.


In 1826 he worked for the future Frederick William IV in Potsdam, where he built the Charlottenhof residence, which shows the influence of picturesque aesthetics in the freedom and asymmetry of the architectural composition, as well as a tendency to relate the building to the landscape, which would be reflected in the works and projects he executed in the following years.