Classical architecture usually denotes architecture which is more or less consciously derived from the principles of Greek and Roman architecture of classical antiquity, or sometimes even more specifically, from the works of the Roman architect Vitruvius. Different styles of classical architecture have arguably existed since the Carolingian Renaissance, and prominently since the Italian Renaissance. Although classical styles of architecture can vary greatly, they can in general all be said to draw on a common “vocabulary” of decorative and constructive elements. In much of the Western world, different classical architectural styles have dominated the history of architecture from the Renaissance until the second world war, though it continues to inform many architects to this day.
The term classical architecture also applies to any mode of architecture that has evolved to a highly refined state, such as classical Chinese architecture, or classical Mayan architecture. It can also refer to any architecture that employs classical aesthetic philosophy. The term might be used differently from “traditional” or “vernacular architecture”, although it can share underlying axioms with it.
For contemporary buildings following authentic classical principles, the term New Classical architecture is sometimes used.
Classical architecture is derived from the architecture of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. With a collapse of the western part of the Roman empire, the architectural traditions of the Roman empire ceased to be practised in large parts of western Europe. In the Byzantine Empire, the ancient ways of building lived on but relatively soon developed into a distinct Byzantine style. The first conscious efforts to bring back the disused language of form of classical antiquity into Western architecture can be traced to the Carolingian Renaissance of the late 8th and 9th centuries.
The gatehouse of Lorsch Abbey (c. 800), in present-day Germany thus displays a system of alternating attached columns and arches which could be an almost direct paraphrase of e.g., that of the Colosseum in Rome. Byzantine architecture, just as Romanesque and even to some extent Gothic architecture (with which classical architecture is often posed), can also incorporate classical elements and details but do not to the same degree reflect a conscious effort to draw upon the architectural traditions of antiquity; for example, they do not observe the idea of a systematic order of proportions for columns. In general, therefore, they are not considered classical architectural styles in a strict sense