Back to Basics: The Neoclassical & Beaux-Arts Movements

Learn about 2 of the most influential movements in European and American architecture and trace their roots to ancient Rome and Greece.

Definition of Neoclassical Architecture

Neoclassical architecture marked a rejection of the excesses of Rococo style and embraced a return to classical architectural elements – and Greek Doric forms in particular. The movement is dated from the 1750s to 1840, and it began in Italy and France before spreading to the rest of the Western world. Although classical Greek and Roman styles continued to be used after 1840, buildings after this date are not considered ‘Neoclassical.’ Instead, they may be ‘revival,’ if built in the 20th century, or ‘New Classical’ if built today.

Neoclassical architecture is commonly identified by a few key features, including a grandness of scale, simplicity of geometric forms, Greek or Roman details, dramatic columns, and a preference for blank walls.

History of Neoclassical

Although classical styles were also prevalent as part of Renaissance and Baroque architecture, Neoclassical differs from these in part because of its prioritizing of Greek orders and also because of its embrace of simplicity.

Additionally, the growing popularity of archeology and the uncovering of classical Greek and Roman ruins, along with accurate publications of the findings, served to revive an interest in classical forms. The Neoclassical architectural style is closely associated with predominant schools of thought in the 18th century including the Enlightenment and empiricism. 

The simplicity of Neoclassicism was also influenced by the European revolutions and their rejection of late Baroque and Rococo opulence.

Features: Simplicity & Geometry

Neoclassical architecture emphasized the ‘planar qualities’ of classical architecture and rejected elaborate sculptural ornamentation. Likewise, where Baroque styles emphasized the importance of ‘chiaroscuro,’ or light and shadow, Neoclassical designs lean toward flatter, more consistent lighting. 

Although Neoclassical structures may still have some decorative elements, they tend to be bas-relief sculptures, not freestanding, and are usually framed by friezes, tablets, or panels. 

In terms of shape, Neoclassical architects embraced simple geometric forms inspired by the Greeks and Romans. 

Where Baroque architecture highlighted the oval and played with optical illusion, Neoclassical presents symmetrical, simple shapes such as a rounded dome, triangular pediment, or rectangular colonnade. For the neoclassicist, power and importance were not communicated through gilding or ornamentation but by sheer scale. The drama of Neoclassical architecture comes from its size, not its decor or a trick of the light.

Beaux-Arts

Beaux-Arts, pronounced bohz-AR, architectural style originated in France and was a style from the 1830s to the end of the century. It was an academic architectural style originally taught at the École des Beaux-Arts, or School of Fine Arts, in Paris. As an architectural style, Beaux-Arts incorporates both French Neoclassical elements as well as characteristics from the Renaissance and Baroque movements. These various architectural schools are brought together using modern materials such as iron and glass. 

Although the Beaux-Art style originated in France, it became an important architectural movement across the West, and particularly in the United States, through to the end of the 1800s. 

Important characteristics of Beaux-Arts architecture include a careful balance of sculptural decoration with conservative lines, classical details with a tendency toward eclecticism, arched windows and doors, and symmetry.

Feature: Synthesis 

The Beaux-Arts architectural style represents the culmination of 2 and a half centuries of architectural instruction at the École des Beaux-Arts. Because of this, it brings together a wide variety of styles as an expression of the architect’s well-rounded education and fluency in a number of architectural schools. For the Beaux-Arts architect, it is a matter of pride to be able to synthesize various historical styles into a single, cohesively designed structure, utilizing multiple styles at once while attempting to do so in a way that is balanced. Beaux-Arts style is defined not by invention but by its architects’ ability to bring elements of previous styles together to look like a single style instead of a patchwork.

Beaux-Arts buildings may contain any combination of columns, pediments, arches, domes, cupolas and balustrades. They may also feature a number of different sculptural decorative elements, including garlands, cartouche scrolling frameworks, acroteria ornamental pedestals, bas-relief sculptures, and statues.

In the best examples of Beaux-Arts architecture, these varying elements from different times and cultures are brought together into a singular and well-balanced design, which often relies on symmetry, reservation, and classical structural forms.

American Neoclassical & Beaux-Arts

Neoclassicism and Beaux-Arts had an oversized impact on American architecture. No other architectural movements have had such a lasting influence on the design of American institutions. According to the United States’ current official Architect of the Capitol, Neoclassical architecture is the “definitive architectural style on Capitol Hill.”[1]

Inspired by the public buildings of Ancient Greece and Rome, the United States’ founders wanted federal buildings that evoked the democratic ideals that guided their new republic. They understood the impact architecture could play in defining the new government in the minds of the people and chose styles with specific connotations: solidity, history, and democracy.

Neoclassical subgenres Federal (1780-1840) and U.S. Greek Revival (1800-1860) heavily influenced the foundational buildings of the United States government, which were constructed during this period.

Beaux-Arts also played an important role in American architecture, finding a foothold in the United States at a time when many other countries were beginning to focus on their own unique styles. Many prominent American architects, such as Henry Hobson Richardson, John Galen Howard, Daniel Burnham, and Louis Sullivan, studied at the French École des Beaux-Arts.

Key Location, Neoclassical: US Capitol

The United States Capitol is at the heart of the U.S. government and is the location where top policy makers meet to determine the direction of the nation. The Capitol’s design is highly Neoclassical, derived from Ancient Greek and Roman designs. Thomas Jefferson envisioned the Capitol Building as a replica of a ‘spherical’ ancient Roman temple. 

Construction of the Capitol began in 1793, though the dome was not completed until 1866, after the American Civil War. The original design was developed around the ideals of ‘grandeur, simplicity, and beauty.’ Although many changes have been made since the original design, these tenets still remain at the heart of the overall architecture of the building. 

It is a 5-story rectangular building, 751 ft in length, with a rotunda at the center and topped with a massive 100 ft dome.

Key Location, Greek Revival: Brandenburg Gate

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, is a quintessential example of Neoclassical Greek Revival architecture. Built in the 18th century, it is one of the best-known landmarks in Germany. It is built on the site of a former city gate that marked the beginning of the road to the town of Brandenburg an der Havel, which is how the gate received its name. Since its construction, the Brandenburg Gate has been the site of many major historical events, particularly triumphal processions after military success: Napoleon was the first to use it in this way. 

The gate is made of 12 Doric columns in the style of the Propylaea, the gateway to the Acropolis of Athens. It was designed to be the first element of a Berlin that would become a ‘new Athens on the River Spree.’ The gate is topped with a sculpture of a chariot being drawn by 4 horses, or a ‘quadriga;’ the chariot is being driven by the Roman goddess of victory.  It was commissioned by the Prussian King Frederick William II after suppressing popular unrest. Its use of Greek style reflects the King’s desire to become a ‘new Athens,’ and the goddess of victory reinforces his success at restoring the Orangist power, as does its original name: the Peace Gate.

Key Architect, Beaux-Arts: Richard Morris Hunt

Richard Morris Hunt was an influential American architect who built the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the Met’s 5th Ave faćade, and many renowned homes for the new millionaires of America’s Gilded Age, including the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private house. 

New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, otherwise known as ‘The Met,’ is a collection of styles. Its original structure, built in 1880, is in the Ruskinian Gothic, or High Victorian Gothic, style; however, later additions to the building have completely surrounded the original structure. The Museum’s Fifth-Avenue façade, Grand Stairway and Great Hall are all constructed in the Beaux-Arts style and were designed by  Hunt. The façade is a balance of Greek columns and Roman arches, topped by a frieze and decorative free-standing acroteria.

Sources

[1] https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/buildings-grounds/capitol-building

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