What Is Neoclassical Architecture?

U.S. Supreme Court building

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Neoclassical architecture refers to a style of buildings constructed during the revival of Classical Greek and Roman architecture that began around 1750 and flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whereas Greek Revival architecture utilizes various classical elements, such as columns with Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian details, neoclassicism is characterized by a more whole-scale revival of entire and often grand-scale classical volumes. Some of the most famous and easily recognizable institutional and government buildings in Europe and the United States are neoclassical in style.

The White House
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The History of Neoclassical Architecture

When neoclassical architecture began to emerge in Europe in the 1750s, its celebration of classical restraint was seen as a reaction to the baroque excesses and ornamentation of the Rococo style that was popular in Europe starting around 1730. Furthermore, the discovery of archeological ruins in Pompeii and Herculaneum both fascinated the world and inspired builders and architects to study, appreciate and ultimately resurrect the building styles of ancient Greece and Rome, adapted for the present.

The neoclassical building style flourished throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, notably in continental Europe, Britain, and the United States as well as Latin America. In Russia, Catherine the Great (1762-96) transformed St. Petersburg into a great European capital in large part by her ambitious embrace of building in the neoclassical style. By 1800, Britain had fully embraced neoclassical architecture, led by prominent architects such as Robert Adam and John Soane.

As a young country still full of ideals, the United States of America emulated the building styles of ancient Greece—the birthplace of democracy—when conceiving many of its foundational government buildings, such as the White House and U.S. Capitol Building.

The trend toward neoclassical design eventually gave way to modernism in the early to mid-20th century. But even today, when contemporary architecture is the dominant building style, neoclassical buildings continue to be designed and constructed to a lesser degree, often rebranded as “new classical” buildings.

Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, USA.
Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, USA. SeanPavonePhoto / Getty Images

Key Elements of Neoclassical Architecture

Neoclassical buildings are characterized by the use of:

  • Grand scale volumes
  • Simple geometric forms
  • Dramatic columns
  • Doric Greek or Roman detailing
  • Domed or flat roofs, depending on style
Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. SeanPavonePhoto / Getty Images

Types of Neoclassical Architecture

Neoclassical architecture has three main variations

Temple-style buildings emulate the style of ancient temples, such as Paris’ Panthéon, based on the Pantheon in Rome, and the Greek-inspired British Museum in London. 

Palladian buildings are inspired by the villas of 16th-century Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who was himself inspired by the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome. In Britain, architect Robert Adam became famous for his Palladian country houses. In the United States, the White House and the U.S. Capitol are the most famous Palladian examples of neoclassical style.

Classical block buildings are rectangular or square in shape, often with flat roofs and exteriors that display repeating columns or arches to form a classically decorative blocklike appearance. The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, built between 1843 and 1850 by French architect Henri Labrouste, is considered a masterpiece of the form. And the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris, designed by Charles Garnier, is one of the world's most famous examples of the classical block style.

U.S. Capitol building, Washington, DC
U.S. Capitol building, Washington, DC. mbell / Getty Images

Notable Neoclassical Buildings in Washington, D.C.

The White House is a neoclassical building. It is also classified as Federal-style architecture, which is the name for buildings that were constructed between 1780 and 1830 in what was then the newly founded United States of America. 

Considered one of the greatest examples of neoclassical architecture in the United States, the U.S. Capitol Building, which began construction in 1793, is the realization of Thomas Jefferson’s desire that it resemble an ancient Roman temple. 

Completed in 1935, the U.S. Supreme Court Building is inspired by the great temples of ancient Rome, with its sweeping staircase and monumental entrance portico comprised of tall Corinthian columns.

Built between 1914-22 by architect Henry Bacon, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. took inspiration from ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, to honor an American president recognized for his devotion to its principles. The monument was inspired by the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, which was completed in 438 B.C. and is still considered one of the greatest works of architecture in the world.