The Classical Building: A Wearer's Guide

Down at Bob’s Country Bunker (the bar where the Blues Brothers performed behind chicken wire), they got both kinds of music: country and western. Well, in colonial Australia, we had both styles of buildings. We had Gothic Revival for churches and schools, and Neo Classical for just about everything else.

Steel and glass buildings were coming, as well as arts and crafts, art nouveau and lots of art deco. However, if you want to understand why anyone in Australia spent extra on buildings, between the gold rush and roughly the twenties, an understanding of Classical architecture will most often give you your answer. That’s why the first in my series of posts, intended to help Australians understand buildings as their outer most layer of clothes, is starting with the big-C.

Newcastle Post Office Palladian


Why Understand Architectural Styles?

A brief word, for clarity’s sake, on the scope of these notes. We’re looking at stand-out buildings on which patrons spent extra, for the sake of a statement. In most cases that’s going to mean commercial and public buildings, rather than your free-standing brick-veneer home. I’m working on the premise that when choosing places to take guests, or take selfies, or when taking stock of our decisions to call particular places our homes, the architecture of our cities acts like a layer of clothes. 

Think of the person who tells you they live in Paris, and how quickly, in your mind, you cloak them in second empire style architecture. Well, this is being done to you too. If you tell someone you're from the Gold Coast, their image of you will be crossed by visions of 1960s tower blocks in their mind's eye. If you say you're from Bondi, they might see art-deco. If you tell them Fremantle: Victorian Filigree verandahs will do as much to form their image of you as the clothes you are wearing. Since these styles shape perceptions about us, it makes sense that we take an interest in our cities' buildings, in the same way we take an interest in our clothes. 


The Origins of the Classical Style

Classical architecture begins with the Greeks, who made stone versions of their timber, post-and-beam buildings. Without going into the differences between the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian styles, that is the essence of Greek Classical Architecture. Alexander the Great did a little to spread it, but the Romans did more. Rome was the style’s super-spreader.

The best way I know of explaining Roman style classical architecture (which is different to Greek style), is to start by explaining Roman infrastructure. Think of an aqueduct. It’s a thick brick wall, backfilled with concrete and rubble, with arches punched through to reduce volume.

 Colosseum Rome Italy

Roman architecture is an aqueduct with Greek columns and lintels drawn over the top in relief. The Romans saw Greece the way many Australians see France, as somewhere more cultured. So in the same way any of us might decorate our language with some flowery French words, for that certain je ne sais quoi, the Romans smeared Greece on their walls and voila: the Colosseum. Peel away the post and beam decoration, applied in relief, and it’s a boring aqueduct with some seating. Draw on lintels and columns, and wow: it looks posh!


The Renaissance 

After the fall of the Roman empire, a dark age ensued. The Gothic style evolved from its ruins. As for any ruins big enough to remain standing, they were dismissed by the church as mere pagan.

But then people lost faith in the church, because, like Donald Trump in 2020, the church did nothing to save people during the plague. Starting with Brunelleschi in 1420, architects began ignoring the priests by copying Roman/pagan style buildings, specifically, the Colosseum in Rome.   


English Grand Tourists

For the purpose of understanding Classical architecture in Australia, we can ignore how, in Italy, the style evolved into the Baroque. Australian architects were influenced by English grand tourists who went to Italy to see sixteenth-century buildings, not later ones in the Baroque style. When they got back to England they liked:

  1. copying Palladio’s work in Vicenza;
  2. building gardens with follies so their estates looked like Tivoli, and;
  3. copying original Greek buildings for things such as libraries and museums.

How depressing, to think that classical architecture in Australia came about because English aristocrats liked showing off their intrepidness as travellers and their contact with cultures abroad! What a bunch of pretenders! Our ancestors in Australia, who the English evicted or starved out of Ireland, travelled further than any posh English grand tourist! And when they got to Australia, they met and mostly got along with, the most exotic indigenous culture on earth! Immigrant Australians were the most intrepid grand tourists to have ever existed.

What an insult it is, to have the British aristocracy’s style used in Australia for our town halls, post offices and our banks! If we thought too much about nineteenth-century history, we would cross the street rather than being seen near an Australian classical building. 


How to Love Australian Classical Buildings!

That is why I don’t think about nineteenth-century history. When I think of Classical buildings in Australia, I think of the Italian architects in the fifteenth and sixteenth century who formulated the style. Palladio, Michelangelo, Alberti and Brunelleschi didn’t use Classicism to entrench power. They were flipping the bird at the church. Even more fascinating, and relevant to our times, is the way they saw buildings as bodies.

 francesco di giorgio drawingsOnce you start reading Renaissance architects’ treatises, you see they were obsessed with the body. They liked the idea that the cosmos, itself, has a geometrical order (circles within squares, golden-sections, harmonic ratios, etc.) and that all the little things within the cosmos, like our bodies, have those proportions as well.

As long as you don’t judge them by today’s "politically correct" standards, for just thinking of the proportions of “perfect” bodies, you can have a lot of fun thinking in this groove. You start seeing cornices as faces, columns as people, entries as chests and rows of rooms as legs or as arms.


Whitewashed or Bare Stone?

I mentioned earlier that we don’t need to understand later Italian styles, like the Baroque, to understand the particular brand of classical architecture that proliferated in Australia. The English grand tourists brought the sixteenth-century mannerist and Palladian styles. These weren't richly coloured. They were whitewashed or plain stone.   

Laurentian Library travel sketch


What Michelangelo did with common grey stone in the Laurentian library in Florence, boggles the mind. Above is one of the drawings I've made on one of six separate visits to see it. It is simply remarkable to think that the cheapest available material should be worthy of so much of an architect’s consideration and time.

It is also the easiest material to appraise with your eyes, when examining the intricacy of the design and stone masonry. This is why my swimsuit offerings to go along with this essay are grey. Even more than white, which can bedazzle, grey lets you appreciate form.

 Venus grey swimsuit

My classic swimsuit, with the practical leg and neckline, is modelled by Kiani Cooper beside the old Newcastle Post Office, a building with a portico inspired by Palladio’s basilica in Vicenza.

While that cut is classic in the sense that nothing can be changed without compromising practicality for swimming, there is something about garments that drape from one shoulder. They’re like the togas on ancient Greek korai. Thus I am offering not one, but two expressions through swimwear, of this particular style. The second mono-shoulder design is modelled by Laura Ausling, in front of Newcastle’s Post Office as well.

 classical swimsuit

 Classic Swimsuit Newcastle Post Office

It may not always be the case with these essays, but in this instance the accompanying swimsuits are for sale. Just click through to the Classic Swimsuit or Mono-shoulder swimsuit, and select sea mist (my name for light grey) and you will be on your way to looking as statuesque as these ladies!


Classicism and Freedom of Thought

This is not the first time I have riffed on this theme. Some years ago I had the idea of a giant female colossus as a replacement for the World Trade Centre in New York. To make the scale model, I painted my wife silver and made her a costume that was covered with scale-model windows. Each tiny triangle would be one floor. 


female colossus

One of the best research articles I ever published as an academic, asked why people would think that was a joke when, technically, we have the means to scan actual people and make office towers in their literal shapes.I should add, there is a female colossus in New York already, the Statue of Liberty, who no-one dismisses as corny.

 female colossus

That work followed a period as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, working with Arthur C. Danto, a philsopher who was famous for saying that art, as it was understood by the art world, ended with Andy Warhol. Danto thought directions and movements in art had come to an end and that art after Warhol would become a tool for raising philosophical questions. When I knew him, in 2006, I could tell he was miffed that conceptual art was being pushed out of galleries to make way for the art of identity politics. 

While I am on side with its various causes, identity politics is like the church telling us we have to build Gothic, when a knowledge of history tells us there are other ways of thinking about architecture. Classical architecture invites us to imagine a celestial order, echoed in the proportions of an “ideal” human body, to which the proportions of buildings are welded. It’s an escape from the politically correct views of our day.

We can’t put ourselves in the shoes of Francesco di Giorgio, Andrea Palladio or Leonardo da Vinci or any of those great Humanist thinkers, but with buildings around us in the style they developed, we can wear these architects' robes. I would like to think that what their robes say about us, is that we will not be told by the church, or any moralising types assuming that role, what we can and can’t think, because in their minds certain thoughts are pagan or wrong. I like the idea, too, that Classical architecture gives us permission to adore human bodies, not least when those bodies are “perfect”.


How to Wear Your Classical City

Next time you take an out-of-town guest for dinner in a Classical style post office converted into a posh restaurant, or set up a Zoom link with Roman style arches behind you, give a thought to the Vitruvian figure. Imagine a celestial order of spheres within cubes is inscribed in your body, as surely as it is in the building you're showing off to the world. Position your face so it is viewed with a cornice behind it, with proportions equal to those of your forehead and nose. Gesture as though your arms are elements either side of the entry, and as though the entry itself is your chest. As odd as these suggestions all sound, they are in total accord with High Renaissance and Mannerist style architecture.