Cambridge University

Ax:son Johnson Centre for the Study of Classical Architecture

Mission Statement

Classical architecture is the world’s most widespread form of architecture, seen from the combined chronological and geographical points of view.  Historic classical buildings are among the most recognizable in existence, and classically planned cities among those most admired for their beauty and the sense of community they embody.  In the third decade of the twenty-first century, however, classical architecture stands in a paradoxical position.  It remains popular with the public and with people wanting to buy or build property, but the understanding of its character within cultural contexts is diminishing since the teaching of classics and of the history of the Renaissance and its legacies has been marginalised in many educational systems.  A further critical problem is the loss of understanding of the practical aspects of classical design, which used to be part of every architecture course but is now only taught at a handful of architecture schools worldwide. Yet without this practical understanding, many of the issues and subtleties inherent in classical design are in danger of being ignored or misunderstood.  Making thus underpins historical understanding.

Without understanding, what John Summerson famously described in lectures given on BBC Radio in 1963 as the ‘classical language of architecture’ is at risk of becoming a lost language, ironically just at a time when there are calls for more of it.  The UK Government’s recently proposed changes to planning legislation included the suggestion that the Georgian architecture of the City of Bath represents one model it would like to see emulated in future and much needed housing developments.  This policy implies recognition, against the background of a pandemic that has led to increased local community interaction, of the public’s wish to see domestic architecture that encapsulates longstanding ideas of beauty alongside twenty-first-century environmental standards.     

This Centre has been founded to address these issues, pursuing them through a combination of research at the postgraduate and postdoctoral levels, public engagement, and architectural courses. The last will teach those interested in architectural design how the classical language works, both by researching it and by teaching through practice.  There is much in classical architecture that is derived from the way it is set out, and it is because this is no longer taught in most architectural schools that both the understanding and the skills are fading.  This Centre will offer historical understanding combined with an understanding of the principles underlying the designs that can only be acquired through drawing, modelling, making and building.   By being placed within the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Architecture and History of Art the Centre harnesses cross-disciplinary research – in Architecture, History of Art and also in Classics – whilst its base at Downing College provides its activities with an exemplary physical environment, unique in the University for its neo-classical architecture dating from the early nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries.

The historic success of classical architecture has depended above all on its adaptability across time and place: to different types and scales of building; to religious beliefs from paganism to Christianity; to political ideologies from autocracy to democracy; and to new building technologies and materials.  On the one hand, the details of classical buildings are derived from practical responses of shedding of water and protecting from the elements, refined by centuries of evolution and adaptations to local climates and conditions; on the other they embody abstract systems of number and proportion that have provided an intellectual underpinning and led to the development of a tradition of treatise-writing extending from Vitruvius to the present day.  Far from limiting creative endeavour, the classical language of architecture has provided a platform for some of the greatest individual expressions of creative genius in architecture, sculpture, mosaic and painting.  Virtually none of this is taught today in schools and universities, leading to loss of knowledge of the ways in which classical buildings and cities have so successfully embodied human values and ideas about the built environment.  The primary purpose of the Centre is thus to pursue a greater understanding of the history of classical architecture as a world-wide phenomenon through an ambitious agenda of scholarly research and public education, achieving this last goal by running conferences, public lectures, online lecture courses, and taught summer programmes.