For much of the 20th century, architects have felt the need to “Make it new!” The idea of imitating models from the past, even written models like Vitruvius, was anathema. Recently, however, a group of architects who call themselves New Classicists have begun to look to ancient buildings as sources of inspiration.

In the late 1980s, Allan Greenberg designed a printing plant and office building for The Athens Banner-Herald in Athens, Georgia, following the proportions of Doric buildings from fifth-century B.C. Athens, Greece. Greenberg did not choose the the slender, elongated Doric columns preferred by Vitruvius; instead, he looked to the Greek classical period, to buildings like the Parthenon. Associating a city newspaper with the ideal of Athenian democracy, the building suggests the connections between free speech and open political institutions.

In 1997 Michael Dwyer and Ungkun Sae-Eng designed a Doric guest pavilion overlooking the Hudson River. Located in Barrytown, New York, on the grounds of Edgewater, an early 19th-century mansion, the pavilion’s Doric elements are even more stretched out than the slender ratios presented by Vitruvius.

Duncan Stroik followed Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio’s proportions for Doric buildings in designing the Villa Indiana (below) in 1994. Since Palladio relied heavily on his “mentor and guide,” Vitruvius, Stroik’s building comes closest to the ideals of the ancient master.

Vitruvius never suggested that architects slavishly apply specific rules. To keep architecture from becoming mechanical, he encouraged his readers to use their “lively mental energy” (eurythmia), that is, to perform variations on the principal theme (note Stroik’s suggestion of a pediment below the Villa Indiana’s gable). For modern architects, eurythmia is a necessity and a source of beauty. They have no choice but to rearrange, add and subtract elements when designing structures as different as a large newspaper building and a delicate waterfront pavilion—in environments as different as city and country. They are creating a new kind of architecture by expanding on classical tradition.

In 1989 I designed the Vitruvian House (above) in South Bend, Indiana, with the same intention. The format is a eustylos temple flanked by wings. In designing the main facade, I followed Vitruvius’s proportions for a six-columned temple front.

The symmetrical wings of Vitruvian House have Doric piers built from concrete masonry blocks. These posts support a Doric architrave and frieze made from bricks. Painted on the metope panels are scenes from the labors of Hercules, in which the demigod is sent out to kill or capture various mythical beasts. Adjacent to each of these scenes is a relief of the skull of the beast Hercules kills or captures. I deliberately meant to suggest the ancient Greek practice of using the skulls of sacrificed animals as architectural ornaments.

When Greenberg, Dwyer, Sae-Eng, Stroik and I decided to devote ourselves to the classical tradition, we gave up the illusion of absolute freedom—in order to accept classical rules of decor. Ultimately, however, we gained another kind of freedom: We now have at our disposal an immensely rich repertoire of architectural elements from classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Renaissance times. And there is another advantage: Because we are using familiar, traditional elements, our buildings have a clarity of expression. The people who use and view them can easily understand them.