Ancient Greek and Roman Architecture

Timeless Forever:  Ancient Greek and Roman Architecture that inspires today

As Karl Friedrich Schinkel was designing the Altes Museum in Berlin in 1825, he had an ambition to redefine the typology of museum architecture from thereafter. In doing so, he sought to construct a building that married elements of the past with components of the present and future – in essence, to build something timeless. Schinkel turned to the Greek Stoa in Athens as a model for the Altes Museum. Subscribers to neoclassicism recognized that the Greek revival movement was established to create an importance to their individual structures, just as classical Greeks did with their prized designs, and thus the function of buildings were an important qualification for whether neoclassical design was appropriate. Classical Roman architecture was similar to that of the ancient Greeks, particularly when one views a structure such as the Pantheon in Rome as a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome. The columns and pediment mirror similar temples of classical Greek architecture. However, standing on the shoulders of the Greeks to improve, classical Roman architecture demonstrated more collectivity than those of the Greeks.

Altes Museum

Altes Museum designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel

As Karl Friedrich Schinkel was designing the Altes Museum in Berlin in 1825, he had an ambition to redefine the typology of museum architecture from that point onwards. In doing so, he sought to construct a building that married elements of the past with components of the present and future – in essence, to build something timeless. To find the proper balance, Schinkel looked to the past to identify what had stood the test of time. As neoclassicism was gaining increased popularity around the world in the 18th century, it was appropriate that he found that classical Greek and Roman architecture as an appropriate model. These are societies, popular lore tells us, that nurtured and elevated human knowledge and their affirmation of life. Much like others before and after him, Schinkel turned to classical civilizations to determine what could be prescribed to the contemporary one.

Schinkel turned to the Greek Stoa in Athens as a model for the Altes Museum. The Stoa in Ancient Greek architecture consisted of covered walkway with columns lining the side of the building. Many of the common houses of ancient Greek architecture were made of wood, clay, or mud and thus no signs of their existence remain. However, limestone and marble were the popular choice of material for public buildings and temples which made them more durable. Subscribers to neoclassicism recognized that the Greek revival movement was established to create an importance to their individual structures, just as classical Greeks did with their prized designs, and thus the function of buildings were an important qualification for whether neoclassical design was appropriate. Just as neoclassicism rose from a disenchantment from the rococo’s style of excessive ‘art for art’s sake’, Greek architecture was never designed for that either. The Greek Stoa served as a Mecca for merchants and artists; similarly, that is what Schinkel sought of the Altes Museum.

Another reflection of the importance of architecture was to the ancient Greeks is the still-impressive Parthenon, the temple built in the 5th century to honor the Greek goddess Athena whom served to protect the people of ancient Greece. Religious institutions borrowed many elements from this style during the Renaissance and neoclassical architectural movements, namely the use of columns and its exterior design. In that way, the parallels in function between then and now continue to exist.

The subsequent Roman architects absorbed Greek architectural influence, particularly when one views a structure such as the Pantheon in Rome as a symbol of their religion iconography. The columns and pediment mirror similar temples that served a similar function of classical Greece. However, standing on the shoulders of the ancient Greeks to improve, classical Roman architecture demonstrated more collectivity than those of the Greeks. The Colosseum, the elliptical amphitheatre in the center of Rome, reflects the Roman popularity of demonstrating their strength. On the other hand, Roman architecture was plenty pragmatic too. An important element of classical Roman architecture – and something neoclassical architecture heavily borrows from – is the use of arches. The construction of massive aqueducts, such as the Pont du Gard in the South of France, reflects the combination of architecture with its use of arches with impressive engineering.  In this respect, architecture from that point forward was afforded to serve an ecological function too because of the ingenuity of the Romans.

Neoclassical architecture was not merely an attempt to revive the classical Greek and Roman architecture. It was an attempt to recapture their ingenuity, their timelessness, and their attempts to create a new world from the old.