Timothy Smith and Jonathan Taylor explain why they lead the only classical design studio at a UK school of architecture


The MArch design studio that we lead at Kingston University is the only one in the UK – and possibly in Europe – to teach the application of the classical language of architecture. This seems as extraordinary to us as to learn that fine art students no longer draw from life, but reflects an ongoing and widespread suspicion that the study of traditional building is somehow antithetical to the practice of modern architecture.

Teaching at an INTBAU summer school in Sweden last year we were shocked to learn that some of the students had been refused teaching at their architecture schools for designing classical buildings. But the pedagogic value of our approach has been recognised by the external examiners of our courses who are unequivocally contemporary architects (such as Jamie Fobert, who suggested that the school should require all first-year students to engage in classical design studies as a fundamental grounding in their discipline), as well as by the generous engagement shown to us by prominent classical practitioners such as Craig Hamilton, George Saumarez Smith and Francis Terry.


Recent exhibition of work by the studio of Timothy Smith and Jonathan Taylor at Kingston School of Art

Those architects who have seen what we do over the last seven years recognise that teaching classical architecture makes explicit issues of scale, proportion, order and relief, and to us it feels urgent and necessary.

Classical buildings belong to a broad family ranging from the small to the very large, from the modest to the opulent, and from the serious to the light-hearted. They are noted for their balance, symmetry, focus and hierarchy. As Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre noted in ‘Classical Architecture, The Poetics of Order’, what are thought of cynically as the ‘rules’ of classicism are proscriptive, not prescriptive. They do not direct action but constrain it. Instead of telling us what to do they tell us what not to. This explains why so many new classical formal arrangements have been, and will continue to be, created.

Elevation of Gainsborough Gallery by student Peter Folland

Classical architecture offers some useful certainties such as the five orders, which can be learnt along with a glossary of terms and compositional and tectonic principles, giving students enormous confidence. This learning becomes an armature within which to make decisions in the design of buildings and, critically, the application of the classical language of architecture requires judgement; a response which is informed and framed, but which nonetheless may be intuitive.

In this teaching, we have learnt two important lessons that have informed our own practice – and neither directly involves the orders. One is an approach to composition, primarily of space and volume. This concerns the building in its entirety: its context, massing and interior arrangements, but also its facades, which occupy space and volume too.

Facade study of City of London Liver Hall project by Joseph Manuel

The other is a liberation from the crude conceptual and tectonic principle of ‘honesty’ which – as architects and students after modernism – we had felt obliged to observe. A facade really doesn’t have to reflect the functions of the rooms it shelters, as a stroll through London’s Fitzrovia, for example, makes clear.

This freedom also applies to rooms: each room at John Soane’s Bank of England is a perfectly composed world within an imperfect site, laid out according to its own terms and relating to adjacent rooms only in as much as a direct opening to them is accommodated. A classical building is not meekly contextual but a statement of ideals; when these ideals face inevitable constraints, surprising and delightful spaces can result.

Study of Thorvaldsens Museum by Will Creech

While we hope to share with students what we have learned from classical architecture, we do not assume that they will go on to practice in that idiom. Indeed, part of the ethos of our studio is to break away from that ‘us and them’ approach; all good architecture deals positively with users and communities, budgets, site contexts and materials, at all scales. Some of our students are initially concerned that they will be pigeonholed in their later pursuit of work, but in fact our graduates are successful in finding jobs in all sorts of offices, and report to us that employers of all stripes appreciate the rigour and purpose of their thesis projects.