Eclecticism in Architecture: Definition & Meaning

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Architecture is very often governed by strict rules of style. However, there are exceptions. In this lesson, we'll explore the use of eclecticism in architecture, and see how this has influenced architectural styles through history.


Imagine that you are getting dressed. You've got a full closet and could put together an outfit that perfectly fits into a single style. But, maybe you don't want to fit into a single style of fashion. What if you want to match those emo socks with the nerdy-chic shirt, a jacket from your country phase, and of course, a few hipster accessories? If you can pull that off -- power to you. The point is, not all styles are defined by strictly articulated rules. Sometimes you want to mix and match. There's an academic term for this. It's called eclecticism, from the Greek word eklektikos, which means selectiveness or choosing the best. That's actually not a bad foundation upon which to build your own style. It's true in fashion, it works in art, and as it turns out, this was a major trend in architecture as well.

Eclectic Architecture

Throughout 19th century, Europe and the United States went through some major industrial revolutions, which introduced new materials into architecture. Cast iron, wrought iron, steel, and plate glass all emerged as practical building materials in this time. However, without much precedent to dictate how these materials were used, architects often looked back to the deep past for architectural guidance. The 19th century is characterized by a series of revival movements, in which styles of the past re-emerged as symbols of modern power. Many Europeans, and Americans, dedicated themselves to the styles of ancient Rome and Greece, which we call Neoclassicism. The English also revitalized Gothic styles, a nod to their powerful medieval heritage, called the Neo-Gothic.

Revival styles were common across the Western world, and architects were faced with a serious academic question: are we creating original works or just copying other masters? The consensus was that revivalism was not plagiarism. Why? Because only certain elements of ancient styles were actually used. Architects weren't truly copying the ancient styles, they were selecting the best traits and incorporating them into new structures, with new purposes. Think of it this way: A Roman temple was made of solid stone and used to worship the gods. The neoclassical U.S. Capitol Building is directly modeled on Greek and Roman temples, but only the façade is stone. The interior includes modern plumbing and wiring, carpets, and other amenities. Plus, no one uses it to worship Jupiter. The architects chose the best parts of classical architecture, but gave it new purpose.

The U.S. Capitol Building
US Capitol

Thus, eclecticism was introduced to architecture. As architects became more comfortable with the concept of selecting certain elements over others and the concept of breaking from strict rules of tradition, eclecticism became more common. In fact, there was an entire movement of eclectic architecture that wasn't directly connected to revivalism. It was an aesthetic of experimentation.



How about some examples of eclecticism in architecture? Let's start in France, at the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in Paris, designed by Jean-Baptiste Lepère in the early 19th century. Okay, so what do we see here? Well, the bottom half of this structure looks very Classical. We see Ionic columns capped by a triangular pediment, just like a Greek temple. Even the inclusion of statues in the pediment was very Classical. Of course, Greek statues would have been of Greek gods, while these are of Saint Vincent, a Catholic figure. However, if we move up the structure, we notice two large towers over the pediment. This is straight out of the Gothic architecture of medieval Europe (think the Notre Dame in Paris). So, we've two very different styles (Classical and Gothic) combined together into something completely new.


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