What Is Neoclassical Architecture?

The US Supreme Court; a neoclassical building

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When you think of the grand columned buildings of our nation’s capital, or the formidable stone structures that house some of our oldest institutions, you’re thinking about Neoclassical architecture. Emerging in the mid 18th century, the Neoclassical movement was a full-scale revival of the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, meant to evoke the origins of democracy, and the early age of empires. 

What Is Neoclassical Architecture?

Neoclassical architecture describes buildings that are inspired by the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. 

What is Neoclassical Architecture?

The builders and architects of ancient Greece developed sets of rules, known as the Three Orders, to govern the proportion and design of buildings. Buildings constructed in the neoclassical style follow these orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The most obvious way to differentiate between these orders is by the distinctive style of their columns, which consist of three separate sections: the capital (top), the shaft (middle), and the pedestal (bottom). 

Doric was the first of these orders to be developed; its rules mostly applied to the exteriors of large structures and public buildings. Doric columns are known for their simplicity, and may not have a capital or a pedestal; if they do, both the capital and pedestal will be a simple square stone slab with no ornamentation. The shaft of a doric column will be wider at its base, with a surface that’s either flat or fluted. 

The Ionic order followed the Doric, adding ornamental flourishes to the basic design. The capital of an Ionic column is scroll-shaped, with a fluted shaft that can be straight, or flared at both the top and bottom. The base of an ionic column resembles a stack of round disks. Corinthian is the most ornate of the classical orders, and was extensively used by the Romans. The bell-shaped capital of Corinthian columns is highly decorative, featuring scrollwork, leaves, and elaborate carvings. Like Ionic columns, the base of a Corinthian column resembles a stack of round disks. 

Neoclassical buildings use columns extensively, with the section between the top of the columns and the roof known as the entablature, and were designed to complement different types of columns. Doors and windows in Neoclassical architecture are crowned with a triangular embellishment known as a pediment. Windows are evenly spaced around the building, with most having double-hung sashes and flanked by shutters. Neoclassical buildings will often compliment basic windows with decorative ones, such as arched, Palladian, and Norman Wheel. 

The classic elements of Neoclassical architecture are:

  • 1-2 ½ stories
  • Symmetry
  • Porticos
  • Columns
  • Pediments
  • Evenly spaced windows
  • Double-hung sashes
  • Shutters
  • Elaborate doorways 
  • Variety of different window styles

History of Neoclassical Architecture

In the mid-1700s, the ruins of the ancient Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii were discovered, inspiring artists to turn their eyes to the ancient world. The aesthetic ideals of classical Greece and Rome can be found in the sculpture, painting, and decorative arts of the era, but the most significant impact of these discoveries can be found in architecture. 

The architects of the 18th century were drawn to the ideals of classical architecture not only for aesthetic reasons, but for political ones as well. After the United States won its independence from the British, its founders based the constitution on the governments of ancient Greece and Rome, and adopted the Neoclassical style for government buildings, to symbolize the classical roots of democracy. This is the same rationale that European architects used in the wake of the French Revolution, and why Neoclassical buildings can be found all over Paris. 

Types of Neoclassical Architecture

There are three main variations of Neoclassical architecture: Classic block, Temple, and Palladian. 

Classic block buildings have either a square or rectangular footprint, a flat roof, and classically decorative exteriors that are rich with detail. The exterior of a classic block building is divided into multiple levels, each displaying a repeating pattern of arches and columns to create a block-like appearance. 

Temple-style neoclassical buildings take their inspiration from — you guessed it — the temples of ancient Greece and Rome. Many of these buildings feature a continuous line of columns around their perimeter. 

Palladian buildings are inspired by the designs of Andrea Palladio, a prominent 16th-century Italian architect who was influenced by the great public buildings of the Roman empire, and applied the style to villas. One of the most famous details of Palladian buildings is a large window with a central arched section, with two narrow rectangular sections on either side.