Classicists, Modernists, and Synthesists

By Paul Knight on February 5, 2013 — 3 mins read

The main inference of Andrés Duany’s Heterodoxia Architectonica is that Classicists and Modernists equally contribute to one, continually evolving strain of Classicism. While I do see the benefits of this claim, at this point my experience and understanding of the subject forces me to disagree. Classicists and Modernists are diametrically opposed to one another and represent two independent processes of architectural design. There is a fundamental difference between the design tools utilized by Modernists and those utilized by Classicists.

To what type of design tools am I referring? Classicists predominantly use axes, proportional systems, rooms shaped by poché, compositional systems, etc. Modernists, at least as they are taught in school today, typically use intersecting planes, esoteric theories and interpretations, and hyperbolizations of site conditions (e.g., orienting a house to the flight path of an airline traveling back-and-forth to the owner’s country of origin). The tools of design one chooses to use will ultimately determine whether the design leans toward the Classical or the Modern. This is analagous to issues found in city planning: if the tools are Euclidean zoning, buffers, and car-centric subdivision regs, you will get suburbia. There is no other option. The tool dictates the outcome. (Perhaps I should be less deterministic: the tool at the very least limits the outcome.)

I have not tried it, but I’m pretty sure it is impossible to get this building using the beaux-arts system of design.

All of that said, there is likely no architect who can be classified as a pure Modernist or pure Classicist. All architects are influenced by these two poles in some way; thus, architecture exists on a continuum between these two systems. This continuum has pure Modernists on the left, pure Classicists on the right, and Synthesists in the middle.


At this point I would like to put the wisdom of crowds to work to distinguish relative levels of Modernism and Classicism. Contained herein is a brief survey highlighting 10 architects. If you would like to cast your vote, simply rate each architect below on the continuum provided then click DONE. The survey will close Monday, February 4. The results will be posted shortly thereafter.

[Polls Closed]

The Results

The survey had a total of 26 respondents who were asked to rank ten different architects on a scale from 1 (Modernist) to 7 (Classicist) with the middle of the scale, 4, denoting Synthesist. The infographic below consolidates the mean, standard deviation, and range for each architect from the survey.

Classicists and Modernists

In the interest of full disclosure, I know that scientists are not supposed to run experiments looking for specific results, but I must say that these results were exactly what I was looking for. My gut was telling me that Gehry was a super-Modernist, Wright was a Synthesist, and Palladio was a super-Classicist. Et voilà.

The means roughly group Gehry, Breuer, and Mies as Modernists; Wright, Stern, Mackintosh, and Duany as Synthesists; and Gilly, Krier, and Palladio as Classicists.

Interestingly, the standard deviations for Gehry and Palladio were the smallest of the group (0.52 each). This shows that the respondents hovered very closely around similar rankings.

The highest standard deviations belong to Duany, Gilly, and Krier (1.19, 1.19, and 1.21, respectively) with the largest range being shared by Wright and Krier. This serves as a testament to the breadth of their collective work.

At this point, due to the results of this survey, I am going to hold out against the underlying claim of Heterodoxia Architectonica. Gehry is no Classicist. The goal for H.A., I believe, should not be in uniting all architects under one umbrella term of Classicism. Instead, it should try and bring both Modernists and Classicists together as Synthesists just as Wright and his contemporaries (Sullivan, the Greene brothers, et al) all managed to do. It is no accident that much of the architecture from the early 20th century visibly spans the fall of Classicism and rise of Modernism. It should be our job to rebuild that bridge. Duany and Stern today are attempting just that.

What Istanbul does for Asia and Europe, we should do for Modernism and Classicism.

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  • “Tool” brought this to mind: Last week or so Jennifer Bonner began her lecture suggesting that the hostile divide between analog and digital design was narrowing. That sounds good. I asked her if that meant folks were drawing again. I didn’t quite get an answer. It made wonder if there were digital tools that facilitate classical design.

  • Terry, in my opinion, a digital tool implies that a beautiful result can be fabricated as part of a system of parts or formula which certainly more applicable to modernism. Classical architecture is about understanding proportion, scale, and assemblies, but it is an art form that the architect renders a beautiful building. It is his expression of the joinery where beams and posts come together, where walls meet roofs, and floors meet the ground in a proportional relationship to nature and human.

  • There are the obvious tools that many classicists use like AutoCAD and Sketchup, but these do not directly assist in the design process per se. I may use them to check on my work or communicate construction details, but not as a first-order design tool. That still belongs to the pencil.

  • Not to presume to speak for Duany, as he is quite capable of doing that for himself, I believe that Heterodoxia Architectonica was intended to elicit reaction from Modernists more so than from Classicists. While I agree with your assessment of Modernists are not Classicists and that Synthesis is a preferred outcome to architectural professional war between the two camps, I think that Duany was in his subversive way attempting to bring self-professed Modernists back to their roots.
    By this I mean that Modernism was built on an intimate understanding of Classicism by its initial practitioners. These initial Modernist are not the Modernist practitioners of today, however. The second, third, or fourth generation of Modernists that are actively practicing today do not have the benefit of a full understanding of Classicism and its fundamental underpinnings in scale and proportion. Duany was attempting to illustrate to the Modernist of toady that their forefathers were bringing their learned knowledge from Classicism to bear in crafting the new Modernist world.
    Modernism in lionizing the pioneering Modernists created a system in which the wisdom encompassed thousands of years of architectural practice was thrown out the window. The result is an architectural education establishment that by and large relegates any conversation of scale, proportion, and compositional systems to the history classroom not the design studio. The architectural education system conflates abandoning adornment with rejecting the fundamentals of scale, proportion, and composition which underlie it. It is precisely these concepts that the “modern” Modernist needs to re-establish an understanding of toady. If Modernists persist down the path of ego and sculpturalism, then architecture-which is already seen as a one trick pony-will become increasingly irrelevant to the society to which it is intended act as servant and guardian.

    • Mitchell,
      Thank you for the clarity in your response. I have tried to keep up with the conversation on the TradArch listserv, but it is easy to get overwhelmed by all the back-and-forth. Your two paragraphs are an excellent summary of what I have apparently been missing.
      One of my favorite quotes (which I heard from someone or read in some book) is: “You know what Mies did, but you don’t know what Mies knew.” It was spoken to a Mies-loving modernist who was trying to emulate the work of the master but without the benefit of a classical education. I feel that the source of the whole Modernist-Classicist disconnect is captured within that one quote. Whether you are a Modernist or a Classicist, you would behoove yourself by starting with a classical education. In piano, learning Bach before Cage.
      I very much look forward to reading Duany’s book.