Relating Traditional to Modern Design—and Vice Versa

As an expert on classical architecture and trustee of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, BVA’s Ankie Barnes joined a panel on November 20 to discuss the relationship between traditional and modern architecture and art. His fellow panelists were Melissa Chui, director of the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Gardens, and Dani Levinas, chairman of the board of trustees of the Phillips Collection. The moderator was Heather Zumaragga.

l-r: Heather Zumaragga; Dani Levinas; Melissa Chui; Ankie Barnes


The setting was Anderson House, one of DC’s best-known Beaux Arts mansions and home to The Society of the Cincinnati. The question at hand was what is the influence of classical art and architecture on today’s contemporary arts ands culture.

The panelists discussed what defines classical and contemporary art, and what marks the difference between works that are lasting and those that are ephemeral. From an architectural standpoint,

Ankie went back to the Classical architecture, art and principals developed by the Greeks. They saw man as a central figure in their world. These were joined by heroic and capricious Gods on earth, who they depicted as largely having human form. Classical architecture was used to build temples and public buildings forming the core of their culture.

Temple of Concordia, Agrigento, Sicily 5th c. BC. This spectacular unrestored Greek Doric temple has withstood 2,500 years of weather, wars and earthquakes.


… and the Romans, who used visages of their emperors on statues that portrayed the perfect human form. In both cases, man was placed at the center of the natural order.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man c 1490, depicts man at the center of perfect geometric forms: the circle and the square.


Greek God depicted as human athlete on ancient vase.


Surviving examples of Classical forms of architecture were built of strong but heavy stone and made to last, using techniques and forms that resolve gravity’s pull, like the Egyptian pyramids (formed using the simple angle of repose), the Greek column and beamed temples and the Romans’ arched aqueducts and vaulted rooms. These enduring forms and techniques live on in countless modern buildings.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, Egypt circa 2560 BC.


The Pont du Gard, Nike’s France, circa 60 AD, part of a 50-kilometer-long aqueduct bringing water to the city of Nimes.


To the question posed to the panel: In fundamental ways, Ankie said, modern architecture is a reaction to rather than a continuation of classical principles. For example, whereas stone lintels and were required to create an opening in a wall or between columns to create covered, open space for thousands of years, during the industrial revolution, the invention of structural steel and reinforced concrete changed all this. Wide spans and big openings were now possible. Larger spans, horizontal openings and stacked floors of columns and slabs became useful and desired (not to mention that the afforded endless expanses of modern glass), allowing buildings to seemingly defy gravity. In that respect, the horizontality of modern architecture can be seen as a reaction against the verticality of traditional heavy masonry buildings, which were confined by gravity. The giddy pace of invention, starting with the Industrial Revolution, lead to an “out with the old, in with the new” attitude that still pervades much of modern culture today.

Port Authority Building Bruges, 2016, by Zaha Hadid. Some contemporary architecture is all about “Out with the old in with the new.”


East Gallery, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1978 by I.M.Pei respects the scale and materials of the buildings lining the National Mall.


The progression of art can be seen in a similar light, Melissa Chui said, with a modern reaction to classical traditions in art also occurring with the Industrial Revolution. The invention and evolution of photography relieved painters and sculptors of representational requirements, she said. “Artists were no longer burdened by needing to record and represent what they saw and what happened. They were free to explore art in more abstract ways to engage and satisfy the mind, not necessarily the eye.” She pointed to Marcel Duchamp and his “non-retinal art” and Readymade works, which illustrate his notion that art doesn’t have to be beautiful – that an ordinary object can be elevated to art if the artist deems it so.

Marcel Duchamp and his Bicycle Wheel sculpture of 1913.


The panelists discussed contemporary culture’s fascination with art and architecture being similar in ways, and needing to reflect current times. Yet art and architecture are different and have different roles, Ankie said. “Even if it’s fascinating as an idea, you have an obligation to consider what a building contributes and owes to its site, be it a city or a landscape. As architects, we have an enormous number of responsibilities to satisfy. The buildings must work well for the program; work well in its context; must not leak; meet code; be within budget; must be built well to last and be easy to maintain,” he said. “And if all goes well, they will also be beautiful—and only then can they be considered ‘art.’” The panelists talked then of famous “hero” art galleries by “Starchitects” that often compete with or limit the kind of art displayed inside them.

The Guggenheim Museum New York 1959, by Frank Lloyd Wright. The sculptural form of this public cultural building plays beautifully against the ordered buildings of Manhattan, but its spiraling floors limit art-display options.


The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao 1997, by Frank Gehry dramatically dominates this Basque city, but again, its strong architecture competes with and limits the appreciation of and types of art that can be displayed within.


Melissa and Dani Levinas then weaved art and architecture together, noting that early modern art was often displayed in neutral, white spaces. However, many modern art exhibitions are now exceptionally well displayed in older classical and industrial buildings. “It really works well if there is enough time separating the creation of the building and that of the artwork. It creates a mutually beneficial juxtaposition,” Melissa said. The mutually successful pairing, Ankie noted, shows classical buildings appreciated and at work in real time.

Modern art hung in a Renaissance-era church in France.


Modern sculpture dramatically at home in a Beaux Arts mansion.


Melissa noted that new works, movements and ideas are appearing constantly in the huge global art world. As a result, collectors and curators are looking for modern art that will endure. Which has qualities that transcend trends and fads? Which will be interesting and worthy of appreciation in the future?

To this Ankie added that whether a building—or a painting—falls into a modern or traditional category, was recently created or hundreds of years old, they can all be termed “classical” if they endure and are somehow expressed in a language that is commonly understood and has meaning to many over time.