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Stripped Classical 1900-1945

Neoclassical architecture    
Sydney University Tennis Pavilion
Old Parliament House, Canberra; opened 1927 AMP building in Albury, New South Wales
To the architect committed to modernism in the early twentieth century, radical art movements such as Cubism and de Stiji provided powerful aesthetic stimuli, exploding traditional preoccupations with static symmetry. Any ‘style’ was considered abhorrent, none more so than a classical style (modernism was naïvely thought to be style- free). ‘Sterile symmetry’, ‘meaningless, nonfunctional ornament’ and other such derogatory phrases were used to denigrate buildings that made reference to any aspect of the classical past. The fact that some significant modern architects (for example, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Peter Behrens and Gunnar Asplund) had drawn strength from the classical tradition was ignored or explained away as an aberration which had somehow been corrected or eliminated.

Architects not at the centre of the new movement but vaguely sympathetic to some of its apparent aims sometimes responded by embracing ‘simplicity’, which usually meant starting with a basically classical carcass and omitting or reducing the ornament. An Inter-War Stripped Classical building therefore tends to look like an INTER-WAR ACADEMIC CLASSICAL building from which the columns, entablatures and pediments have been peeled off or (which really amounts to the same thing) a starkly functional, symmetrical building to which the classical orders could easily be added. Rarely, however, was ornament completely eschewed, and a few touches of Art Deco were not uncommon.

The Stripped Classical style was often used in America and Britain for public and institutional buildings which in earlier times would have worn the full panoply of classical detail. While there is no evidence that practitioners of the style were more attracted to extreme right-wing politics than were architects who favoured other styles, it may be noted that both Hitler and Mussolini found the idiom very palatable for public buildings glorifying their regimes.

Well before the rise to power of the two European dictators just mentioned, Australia had already committed itself to an Inter-War Stripped Classical ‘temporary’ Parliament House in Canberra. The clarity of shape, the regular composition, the dazzling whiteness and the pleasantly human scale of this building make it a success story in Australian public architecture which deserves greater acknowledgement than it has received.