Quinlan Terry: The Survival of Classicism

The Survival of Classicism

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 12

Driehaus Prize Winner Quinlan Terry. Photo: Quinlan and Francis Terry Architects

Quinlan Terry is one of the most well known & longest practicing classical architects in the world today. 


The 2005 recipient of the Richard Driehaus Prize in architecture, Mr. Terry  practices architecture in England.  In 2003 Mr. Terry won the Best Modern Classical House 2003, awarded by the British Georgian Group.  He has designed numerous private homes including in the US, several campus buildings at Cambridge University and the Catholic Cathedral of Brentwood in Essex England.  Sacred Architecture Editor, Duncan Stroik, sat down with Mr. Terry to chat about the state of classical architecture and sacred architecture.

SAJ:  How are things in Great Britain in terms of church architecture? Do you see any good signs? 

QT:  The relationship between the Church and Architecture is a huge subject, but at times they may run parallel. As far as Church life in England is concerned it is a strange time. On the one hand all the official churches seem to be in terminal decline, while on the other there is considerable growth at grass roots level. If one is involved in a local church which is healthy there is much to look forward to, inspite of the general condition all around.

SAJ:   What about the idea of the Church as a building set apart with a higher use?

QT: One must first deal with the real meaning of the word “Church”. The Greek word “ecclesia” means “called out”, those who have been called out of the world. The New Testament use of “ecclesia” never described it as a building; it was always a group of people who had become Christians. However, I acknowledge it was used allegorically by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.

“You are no longer  aliens or foreign visitors; you are citizens like all the Saints, and a part of  God’s household.  You are part of a building that has the apostles and prophets for its foundation, and Christ Jesus himself for its main cornerstone. As every structure is aligned on him, all grow into one holy temple in the Lord; and you too, in him, are being built into a house where God lives by the spirit.”  The ‘ecclesia’ is parallel to the Greek word ‘synagoge’ which means a “gathering” of people; from which we get our word synagogue. So, both the ecclesia and the synagogue were first and foremost a gathering of people who were different from those around them. In the fullness of time these people erected buildings in which to meet and these buildings had the same name as the people who used them.

  It may sound strange for an architect to say this, but to me it matters far more that the people in the building are interested in the Gospel of Christ rather than the architectural quality of the building itself.

  Historically the whole process became more complicated with Constantine the Great. Before Constantine, Christians were harshly persecuted and in some cases martyred. But with the Edict of Milan in 313 Constantine granted toleration for all Christians in the Roman Empire. Christianity became the State Religion in place of Paganism. So suddenly, these same people who had been despised became respectable, which was too rapid a change for the Church to accommodate easily. As they moved rapidly from adversity to prosperity they started erecting buildings specifically for Christian use and some of the finest examples of Early Christian architecture can still be seen in Rome today.

Quinlan Terry’s sketch of Palladio’s church of San Giorgio Maggiore Photo: Quinlan and Francis Terry Architects

SAJ: Even though you are a successful architect with many buildings under your belt, you continue to take trips to Rome and Italy and do drawing tours and you find it beneficial for yourself. Why is drawing so important?

QT:    All my life I have found that the process of measurement and sketching is both enjoyable and therapeutic; I am learning all the time. This has the added advantage that these sketch books are kept in my office and become a quarry for details and ideas when working up new designs.

Only last year I was drawing the two churches in the Piazzo del Popolo, which I had always thought were both by Carlo Rainaldi. On closer examination I realised that although they were notionally a pair there was not room on the sites to have two circular churches and therefore the second one, designed by Bernini is elliptical. One can only appreciate these subtleties if you spend time looking at buildings and recording them in a sketchbook. A camera may make a useful record but you learn more if you leave your cameras behind and think as you look at the building.

 SAJ:      Would you do a Baroque Church? What are your favourite Baroque Churches?

QT: I  suppose Borromini, Michelangelo and Bernini are the great Baroque architects of the Renaissance but there are many beautiful Rococo buildings in Bavaria, and indeed the whole Baroque Movement has spread throughout Europe.

  The more I think about Baroque, the more I realise that it is a constantly repeating theme within the classical repertoire. I find as I get older – and I think most architects as they get older – tend to move towards the Baroque.  The Romans were masters of what we call the Baroque – Trajans Market in Rome used broken and segmental pediments; the Temple of Clitumnus near Assisi, the Roman gate in Verona and many other Roman buildings, (illustrated in Palladio’s Quattro Libri) have spirally fluted columns. It seems that when an architect has mastered the more basic rules of architecture he wants to move on to more difficult territory where the cornices are curved and there is more movement in the composition. 

Palladio is misunderstood by the English and the Americans who emphasise his more orthodox works, but a study of the Capitaniato in Vicenza with its giant triglyphs  supporting balconies is one of many examples of Palladio’s interest in Baroque form. Indeed, the fact that he measured and recorded the Minerva Medica in his Quatto Libri as well as his use of the profile of the column bases of the Baptistry of Constantine at S. Giorgio in Venice shows that he was always looking for a more Baroque expression to his later buildings. The Churches of San Giorgio and the Redentore in Venice are both simple classical buildings at first sight, but once you begin to analyse his use of space and modelling of different classical orders (he used no less than 10 different classical orders in San Giorgio), one realises how highly developed his skills were intellectually. 

SAJ: It’s interesting that in the Veneto for 200, 300 years, they kept learning from Palladio and his churches. Palladio became their mentor. 

QT: Yes, Masari did really basically Palladian churches.  It’s very interesting how they carried on.  And the other thing about the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice is you think, “Well, here’s a really simple church.”  I mean I brought a preacher with me, a great preacher, and he said, “This is a really lovely building, just nice.  It’s very simple,” but actually it’s not really simple.  I mean it’s got about ten different classical Corinthian columns, different sizes, one below the impost, one adjunct, one superimposed.  I mean in intellectual terms it’s highly developed. 

SAJ:  Speaking of Palladio, why today look at the past and learn from Palladio or Lord Burlington? Why do that today?

QT: The simple answer is that the traditional and classical way of building works. It is beautiful, it is sustainable, it uses natural materials in the right way and it will last hundreds of years. It is a tradition that goes back before the time of the Apostles and continues to the present day. 

To reject the classical tradition is to reject the whole process of building well. The high consumption temporary aesthetic which is so prevalent around us today is the result of turning away from that tradition, and it is totally dependent on the consumption of fossil fuels.

And by the time I’ve been sketching and practincing architecture for 40 years, there’s an awful lot of stuff in  my mind.  And what comes out is not a bit a bit of Palladio, a bit of Bramante, it’s just what you’ve learned over the years.  But it’s a mind that’s been applied to the wisdom of our forefathers, and obviously one will have to apply it in our own day with different stimuli.  Therefore, whatever comes out is going to be different, but I don’t say, “Now I’m going to express the 21st Century.”  I mean, that’s a conceit.  I’m just going to do it properly, and then probably 50 to 100 years later, people may say, “You know, that architect was the one who really expressed” – or in my case, they might say, and I think most will say about us Classicists, “These people were defying the age.”

    That’s what they were doing.  They were actually statements of defiance.  You know, everything’s going wrong, and they said, “Look, forget about this age.”  It’s gone completely out the spout, but this is where our minds come to rest and we like this sort of architecture.  Whether we’re praised or vilified is rather secondary.  You know, we just do it because we like it and we believe that it is the thing to do.

SAJ: Do you think future generations will appreciate this?

QT: We admire the great classical buildings today more than any others. I acknowledge that many intellectuals are opposed to carrying on in that tradition and it is therefore difficult for architects like me to get commissions for public buildings. But the fact that it is not popular is irrelevant. Many men in different spheres have had to swim against the tide all their lives to achieve what they did.

Interior of the renovated St. Helens Bishopsgate Anglican church. Photo: Quinlan and Francis Terry Architects

SAJ: Could you tell us about St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, the Church you worked on and re-modelled in London. 

QT: St Helen’s, Bishopsgate is one of only two churches in the City of London which survived the fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz. It was started by the Blackfriars in the 12th century and was added to in the Middle Ages. After the Reformation it was simplified internally and some high quality joinery was added, particularly the pulpit, gallery and organ case. In the Victorian period it was heavily restored as the result of the Tractarian Movement by a famous architect called Edward Loughborough Pearson. He reduced the floor level by 3ft so that once the worshipper had come into the building and got down to this lower level he would then slowly approach the sacramental area which was cut off from the congregation by Victorian screens inspired by Mediaeval examples. In 1992 and 1993 two IRA bombs exploded nearby which destroyed some adjacent modern buildings, but St Helen’s remained intact because of its traditional construction, although all the windows and the Victorian stained glass was destroyed. 


The congregation had been established as a result of the preaching ministry of Rev. R.C. Lucas who led successful lunchtime services for several hundred City businessmen. This destruction by the IRA enabled the Church to consider a more radical restoration, and I was invited to suggest how this might be achieved. In practice, it was very simple because I could see that the original layout and floor level should be reinstated. However, this restoration required removing all the Victorian work, raising the floor to its original level, restoring a gallery at the west end and replacing the organ in the gallery. This layout increased the seating from 500 to 1000 which was a fundamental requirement of the Church committee as the congregations were very large. 

You would have thought that something which was so soundly based in history would have been welcomed by the authorities, but no. It was strongly opposed by the City Corporation of London, English Heritage, The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Victorian Society, the Ancient Monument Society and other interested amenity groups. It was only supported by the Council for the Care of Churches and the Georgian Group. This opposition meant that a Public Enquiry had to be held in the Church which lasted ten days while Proofs of Evidence were read and subjected to cross examination from both sides before the Chancellor. Six months later judgement was given in our favour and the work was carried out.

The interior of Brentwood Cathedral was inspired by Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital in Florence. Photo: Quinlan and Francis Terry Architects

SAJ:    Tell us about the Catholic Church you designed.  What were you thinking about in the design of the Catholic Cathedral in Brentwood? Some people have said that the exterior of Brentwood reminds them of a country house, whereas the interiors are like an Italian courtyard. 

QT:  The need at Brentwood was different from St Helen’s. The original Gothic style Victorian Church had been considerably enlarged when it became a Cathedral in 1973. The enlarged building was in the modern style with huge concrete girders and flat roofs which were causing structural problems when I was approached in 1990. The Bishop of Brentwood was not happy with the style of the building nor with its low ceiling height. Our design removed all the modern work in its entirety but kept the original Victorian Church as a side aisle. The row of Victorian columns which were removed in the modern scheme were replaced, the only difference being that the columns were classical in detail rather than Gothic. The main influence architecturally was Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital in Florence with his use of a Tuscan arcade on four sides and Christopher Wren’s treatment of windows with clear glass leaded lights. The unifying element was a giant Doric Order complete with triglyphs and metopes in the frieze which unites both the inside and the outside.

SAJ: What does one do with all the redundant churches in England? What do you do with all these great churches, beautiful grand cathedrals, parish churches, county churches? Should they just be turned into museums? I know a number of them are essentually becoming museums, charging you to go in, having cappuccino in the back and that kind of thing.

QT: I feel that this is too great a problem for one person to solve. All we can do is pray for revival and try to serve our generation faithfully.

SAJ: Europe in general is in decline. Benedict XVI said that before he was elected, and he also talked about the faithful becoming smaller, but being more vibrant. He said a smaller and stronger Church was better than big and weak Church.

QT:  I agree. I can think of many examples. My son-in-law is an Anglican Clergyman. He does not worry about the fabric of the Mediaeval building where he takes services beyond keeping it in good repair. His calling is to preach the Gospel of Christ, bring people to Christian Faith, administer the sacraments and build up the congregation. If the building is helpful for that purpose, that is fine, but the building must serve that end, and in his case it does, although the congregation is now outgrowing it.

SAJ: How can the Church building be helpful?

QT: I can think of many ways that buildings can be unhelpful. Too often the architecture is restless and the detail is meaningless. If only the architecture can be simple and harmonious with good lighting, good acoustics, comfortable seating, in fact the less distractions, the better.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mary and Saint Helen at Brentwood in Essex. Photo: Quinlan and Francis Terry Architects

SAJ: But can the beautiful Church be a means of grace? Can it also uplift?

QT: Yes and no. I cannot accept that a building made of dead stones can be a means of grace. However, it can be comforting and a pleasant place to be in.

SAJ: In the US when people talk about a church building, people think that church equals Gothic and stained glass. In the majority of your work you have promoted the classical. Can you talk about the classical and the Gothic and your views on these two traditions or two languages?

QT: It is a big subject. The first thing to say is that Gothic and Classical are not opposed to each other like modern and traditional construction. Both Gothic and Classic are of masonry construction, predominantly stone, both use columns with capitals and bases and arches, and pitched roofs. Both use ornament extensively. 

Historically, the Classical was there long before the Middle Ages, and even Romanesque, by its very name, was trying to be Roman at the end of the Dark Ages. The development of Gothic in the Middle Ages into the outstanding examples of Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular is now regarded as a separate style but in many ways it is one of the many interesting digressions within the classical tradition. 

The arrival on the scene of Ruskin and Pugin in the 19C has affected people’s thinking. Pugin, as you know,  maintained that Classic was pagan and Gothic is Christian which is absurd. Ruskin had an abhorrence of classical detail particularly Palladio and a great love of the early Middle Ages. Both Ruskin and Pugin wrote well and influenced a whole generation, but they were, in my view, totally misguided and they both ended their lives in a lunatic asylum. Perhaps this should teach us to be careful when we identify our preferred style in architecture with our theological opinions.

The Origin of the Corinthian Order as proposed Quinlan Terry. Photo: Quinlan and Francis Terry Architects

SAJ: Speaking about classical architecture, what do you think is the significance of the origin of the Orders, like the Doric or Ionic to a practitioner of classical architecture today.

QT: There have been many suggestions about the origin of the classical orders. You must be familiar with Vitruvius’s account of Callimachus drawing an acanthus leaf under a basket covered with a large tile, where the leaves curl up under the tile forming volutes. Clearly Vitruvius thought the orders were Greek in origin. Fischer von Erlach went further back in time and John Wood the Elder of Bath maintained that the orders originated  in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. I wrote an essay in the 80’s on the Origin of the Orders taking that position. My late partner Raymond Erith maintained that they were so beautiful that they could not have been invented by man, and therefore must have had a divine origin.

I think the principle is still there that God gave us the classical orders, in some form, for man to use and ornament His buildings whether it’s a sacred building or a public building.  

SAJ: But you don’t think that God giving the directions for the design of the Tabernacle and the Temple and then these different columns, that that doesn’t also give an account of hierarchy to the sacred building type, to the temples, synagogue, the church.

QT:  It is a difficult question to answer. Obviously, there is some sort of hierarchy between the orders from Tuscan, through Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite in that the lower orders are always more solid and nearer the ground and the more refined orders are at the higher levels as can be seen in all classical buildings that used the superimposed orders  from the Colosseum onwards. But I don’t think that we can read any more into them than that. As I design a building one particular order seems to be more appropriate than another  for a number of reasons; the character of the client, the scale of the façade or room, its spatial relationship to the other parts of the building, the structural demands etc. It is how an architect used these elements that matter.

Now, you might say, “Well, we’ve still got columns and the capitals, and how do we use them?”  And I would say that is an architect’s job, if your calling is to do architecture rather than the priesthood.  And I think everybody has a different calling.  The architect has to make beautiful buildings the same way that God has actually ordained that we should live by eating wheat and oats He created the wheat, the oats and the whole business of farming as well as, crop rotation and fallowness.  

But everything worthwhile has been ordained by God for our use.  That doesn’t mean to say that it’s going to have a sort of “sacred use.”  It’s for our pleasure.  Paul said, you know, “God’s given us everything richly to enjoy,” and therefore, we enjoy architecture.  

Part of that is a fulfilled life of thanks giving and praise, that the building should make one feel happy and joyous and actually, also at the same time, just point back to the wisdom of our forefathers, and in our particular age, defy the awful rubbish that’s going on all around us.