As its name suggests, Neo-Classical architecture derives heavily from the Classical style familiar from Greek and Roman temples of antiquity. It began in the middle of the 18th century, partially as a reaction against the florid style of Rococo and Baroque. Perhaps because of our endless fascination with the ancient world, its modern day manifestation can be seen almost everywhere and the central and eastern parts of Europe are no exception.
As we have noted before, Bucharest was stripped of many buildings during the Ceaușescu regime and in one of those ironies that pervade life, the gross ego-trip that now serves as the Palace of the Parliament is built in a latter-day version of the Neo-Classical.
Few, however, would claim this monstrosity to be of great aesthetic value. For something more pleasing to the eye, the Ateneul Român (Romanian Athaeneum) is a much better bet. The building, designed by a French architect named Albert Galleron, was opened in 1888 and serves as the city’s main concert hall. It is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, named after Romania’s most famous composer.
For a full-on Neo-Classical experience, a wander up to the top of Andrássy (or a trip on one of the dinky little trains on the M1 metro line) will bring you to Heroes’ Park. A vast monument stands at its centre, depicting Hungarian leaders and politicians. On the northern and southern sides, two grand Neo-Classical buildings face one another. To the north is the Museum of Fine Arts, bearing eight Corinthian columns topped by a portico depicting the legendary punch-up between Lapiths and Centaurs. Looking across at the museum is the Palace of Art, though it is not a mirror image of its neighbour. It has a mere six columns, but is no less imposing for that.
Back towards the centre, on the very same street, is the splendid Opera House. Completed in 1884, it was built to rival that of Vienna. The façade is elegant and symmetrical, with sculptures portraying Hungary’s two finest composers, Erkel and Liszt.
The interior is, if anything, even more glorious, with its murals, chandeliers, vaulted ceilings and magnificent sweeping staircase, perfectly designed to let ladies of 19th-century Hungarian society to show off their (doubtless equally magnificent gowns.
The Hungarian National Museum deserves a visit for the impressive collections, but it also worth spending a while looking at the building itself. Located in the central part of the Pest side of the city, it was built in 1802 and the whole museum complex is a striking Neo-Classical vision of style.
One building that demonstrates that a mixture of style can work, if properly conceived, is the Vigadó concert hall, situated on the square of the same name, close to the Pest bank of the Danube. The present building is, in fact, a rebuilding, as the original was burned down. The new building, dating from 1864, is essentially Neo-Classical, but with a few added twists. Outside, look out for the Little Princess, a sculpture of a girl with a dog. Street sculptures are a Budapest speciality.
Berlin is absolutely teeming with Neo-Classical buildings. Museum Island is not only a great place to enjoy the art and artefacts displayed within the museums, but to admire the buildings themselves. The Altes Museum was built in the 1820s to house the royal art collection. Its younger sibling, the Alte Nationalgalerie, was completed some 50 years later, also in Neo-Classical style.
Not far away is the beautiful Bode Museum, built in 1904. Today, it houses a fine collection of Byzantine art and visitors familiar with the city of Oxford may notice the similarities between the Bode and Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera.
The Neue Kirche (New Church) has been through several reconstructions. It was original built at the beginning of the 18th century, underwent considerable rebuilding in the 1880s and was almost completely destroyed in the Second World War, though subsequent reconstruction did not begin until 1977. For all its many travails, the church is another of Berlin’s great Neo-Classical buildings.
For all St Petersburg’s love of the Baroque, one of its stand-out buildings is the huge Kazan Cathedral, midway along the city’s most famous street, Nevksy Prospekt. The cathedral was built between 1801 and 1811, a relatively quick affair by cathedral standards.
The cathedral is built on the lines of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Shortly after its completion, Napoleon invaded Russia and it became essentially a shrine to the Russian victory. The leader of the Russian army, Mikhail Kutuzov, was buried in the cathedral after his death in 1813 and a large statue of the general stands outside, along with one of Barclay de Tolly, the War Minister during the conflict.
Not far away is St Isaac’s Cathedral, completed in 1858 and based on the great Byzantine churches. It is, though, essentially a Neo-Classical take on the style. The huge main dome is, in typically understated Orthodox fashion, plated with gold. So conspicuous is the dome that it was painted black during the Second World War in an attempt to conceal it from enemy bombers. St Isaac’s is the world’s third-largest domed cathedral and took some 40 years to build.
Built in a considerably shorter period of time (1819 to 1825, but no less majestic, is the State Museum of Russian Art, otherwise known as the Mikhailovsky Palace. To prove that nothing falls easily into a pigeon-hole, the palace has a touch of the Baroque to it and is enclosed by railings that are distinctly Art Nouveau. The palace became an art museum in 1898, when Nicholas II decided that St Petersburg should have an art gallery to match Moscow’s famous Tretyakov. The St Petersburg gallery grew to such an extent that its collection is around four times that of its Moscow counterpart.
Though not an imposing building in terms of size, the National Theatre is one of Sofia’s most charming. A relatively recent structure completed in the early 20th century, it has great style and is perfectly located. Standing in the City Park at the heart of the Bulgarian capital, it provides a lovely backdrop to the surroundings and provides a pleasing view for those relaxing in the many cafés and bars in the gardens.
Of a more recent vintage is the National Library. Building began in 1939, but war intervened and the library was not completed until 1953. The official name is the St Cyril and St Methodius National Library, named after the brothers who introduced the Cyrillic alphabet. A statue of the brothers stands in the grounds.
Even more recent is the building that was the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Built in the 1950s, it is constructed in the style known as Socialist Classicism. Many of the edifices constructed in this style are, quite frankly, ugly, but Party House has a certain elegance to it. There are, in fact, three linked buildings at the site, now occupied by government offices, the vast TZUM department store and an upmarket hotel.
The large Sofia Court House is of a similar style, though built a little earlier. It is another building that could defy categorisation, but with its 12 huge columns, comes closer to the Neo-Classical than anything else.
Of a more traditional style is the main building, or Rectorate, of Sofia University, though the university itself dates back to the late 19th century. The two statues outside the main entrance depict the Georgiev brothers, Hristo and Evlogi, who financed the building.