One of the more interesting aspects of neo-Classical architecture (in the very widest sense of that term) is how its decorative features have become almost ubiquitous. Gothic architecture doesn’t have this; the primary device of the gothic – the pointed arch – is at once too integral a feature, relying as it does on being part of a wall, and too particular, too distinctive. Putting in a Gothic arch is tapping into a rich seam of mystery and Catholicism, of heady light and holiness, of the artisan and the gargoyle.
Classicism, on the other hand, has no mystery. It is the architecture of rationality and reason; it pertains to perfection and therefore represents nothing at all. Instead, Classicism proliferates by being represented, for which we can mainly blame Palladio. All you need to make your regular rectangular room seem Classical is to dig out some copybook of pillars and porticos and – yes – pediments, scale up the appropriate feature to the appropriate size and stick it on. Easy!
Well, OK. Maybe it’s all a little more complicated than that (as Dr Goldacre would say) but sometimes that’s how it seems. What I guess I’m trying to say is that Classicism is cheap. And I really don’t mean that in a bad way – I’m a big fan of cheap. (I’m also a big fan of expensive, but that’s another story).
So here we have the excellent Rolyns News Building, of North Road Brighton. In many ways, it’s your common or garden variety news agent. But seriously – check out those Ionic pilasters. Technically speaking, they’re pretty dreadful. The building’s on a hill but no attempt has been made to allow for this, so the pilasters on the right float above the pavement and the left ones are flooded by it. The volutes – the scrolly bits at the top – are angled in a traditional way, which would be fine if they were capitals on top of free-standing pillars (where the angling helps the scrolls be seen from more angles) but in this building we’re only ever going to see the capitals from the front, so they should be the more traditional flat variety.
See? Dreadful, cheap, architecture. And I really like it. Someone – someone ordinary whose name won’t be recorded anywhere, someone trying to build a building and earn a living – that someone decided he or she wanted some architecture, something fancy and decorative and clean and acceptable for his or her building and decided on these fun little pilasters and stuck them on and that was that. Architecture doesn’t have to be great to have a purpose.