Reason and invention: The cult of the Classical in British architecture 1500-2000

Dr David Oldfield

British ArchitectureThe seductive qualities of Classical architecture are difficult to resist. The great buildings of Ancient Greece, Rome and Renaissance Italy have long had a powerful hold on the British imagination, partly because of their associations with learned and dynamic civilisations. But the Classical style of architecture also appeals to the rational side of the mind through its emphasis on rule, order and proportion. Within these rational parameters, British architects from Sir Christopher Wren onwards have shown a remarkable ability to create inventive and highly decorative structures which appeal as much to the eye as they do to the mind.

From its ornate beginnings c.1500 to post-modern pastiches, our course will chart the development of the Classical style in Britain.  Emphasis will be placed on site visits to the many outstanding Classical buildings in Cambridge. Sir Christopher Wren, one of the greatest of all classical-style architects, designed three buildings in Cambridge, including his earliest known project, Pembroke College Chapel, and his sublime Library at Trinity College.  A highlight of the course will be an excursion to London to explore its astonishing variety of 18th and early 19th century buildings. Individual investigations and group discussions will be combined to further the understanding and enjoyment of the buildings we visit. These visits will be supplemented by classroom sessions which will explore the historic context and comparative material.

This course is aimed at: Students from any discipline with an interest in Classical Architecture. If you’re interested in this course, you might also like to consider taking The Development of the City from 1890 to 1990, or From the Battle of the Styles to High Modernism: The Making of the Modern Movement in Architecture 1890-1941.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: None.

Transferable skills: Academic writing, visual and critical analysis.


Strongly recommended, but not mandatory

  • J. Summerson, The Classical Language of Architecture (London, 1993)
  • J. Summerson, Architecture in Britain 1530-1830 (Pelican History of Art, 1993)
  • J. Stevens Curl, Classical Architecture – an introduction to its vocabulary and essentials (London, 1992)
  • R. Wittkower, Palladio and English Palladianism (London, 1977)
  • T. Rawle, Cambridge Architecture (London, 1985)


1 Final Essay (2,500-3,000 words): 50%

1 Final Exam: 50%

Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)