Assignment #2: Architecture through the ages

Architecture through the ages:

I wrote this as a guide to architecture I might see on my trip. Architecture is an irritatingly complex study that can be over complicated. It is also hard to appreciate culture and history in Europe without knowing the style and time period of the structures you’re seeing. Design usually reflects the society and politics of its time, making architecture a really good way to learn. The guide has three parts: a timeline showing how architectural/cultural periods fit into history, a legend of architectural elements and plans and a description of the style in different regions with examples.

Things to note are, first, how much of our knowledge is based on temples and churches. Religion is an enormous part of European history and had the more influence and resources than individual nations. The churches were structures with the main purposes of inspiring and involving people and they stand out from the more obvious towns and castles which were defensive and utilitarian. Second,  writing about every city-state, duchy and kingdom would end up as a book and not a report. The countries described were either leaders in the style or too different to be under the same heading. For example, the Netherlands were separate from Germany and France, but usually followed their design. Third, the descriptions end in the mid 1800s. This is because the architecture becomes convoluted in the 19th century. The names and principles given to styles almost always come afterwards, at least 300 years later. Knowing what will symbolize a style once it has faded requires it to be ignored for a while.

Timeline of European architecture

Architecture legend


Classical: (500 BC – 400 AD)

Greek ruins of Ephesus, Turkey

The Mediterranean: Greece was the true beginning of  “western” architecture,  and of the style named Classical. The best surviving examples are religious buildings, in this case temples. Not as much is known of secular buildings, but this is partly because temples incorporated many structures (theatres, treasuries and altars) in to their own. An enormous emphasis in Greek Architecture was placed on the orders: the qualities of the columns used in building. The first two styles, Doric and Ionic, are the iconic Greek ruins.  Doric is solid, thick but detailed, common within mainland Greece, while Ionic is thinner, more graceful and while less preserved, more frequent in western Turkey. The third order, Corinthian, came later, being more ornamented. Although there are some obvious differences, classifying the three orders comes down to proportion and minute details. Orders originated from when temples were wooden, when the joins between beams would have a characteristic shape, defining how it was built. These were carried through to the stone and masonry buildings and became more of a design factor then a functional quality. Rome followed Greece’s example, but added a more rigid, structural level. Less inventive then the Greeks, they drew selectively from their techniques. Romans used the Corinthian order most, as well as the Ionic but more rarely Doric. When used, these three always had a system of Corinthian superimposed on Ionic with Doric at the base. The columns were transformed in to decoration while arches became the practical form for engineering. As more Roman complexes survived, more is known of the non-religious structures built by the Romans. Aqueducts, villas, basilicas and forums all survive to show the detailed planning of urban centres. As Rome began to fade, architecture reacted with a lavish period of church-like buildings (fueled by the conversion to Christianity) that would be echoed a thousand years later by the Renaissance.

Byzantine: (400 – 1400 AD)

Byzantine Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Byzantium: When the Roman Empire suddenly became Christian under the emperor Constantine, construction began on a series of churches, based not on temples (being pagan) but on public buildings. After Rome fell to the Germanic tribes this mission fell to the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire centered in Constantinople. The basic design of a basilica was the base of most great buildings (mostly churches): a two-story central space with an aisle on either side, divided by a series of columns supporting arches, called an arcade. Greek cross plans were also frequent. These became extravagant brick and concrete works with domes, for the first time, over non-circular spaces, a style probably influenced by culture of the Middle-East. With windows circling the second level or clearstory of the churches, an airy open feeling  was created. In the interior, paintings, decorations, mosaics, frescoes and moulding displayed increasingly religious scenes. This style grew until the arrival of the Ottomans, ending this period.

Russia:  Even after the fall of the Byzantine empire, the style had a chance to continue. It had touched on Italy and France, creating several standout structures, but had truly caught on in Russia and Eastern Europe. The main change this transfer brought on was a focus on the exterior versus the interior. This brought on the bulging and “spired” form typical of Russian architecture. Another modification was the use of wood instead of stone as building material. These minor modifications somehow carried the Byzantine style in to at least the 17th century, adjusting slightly to Baroque.

The “Dark” ages: (400 – 1000 AD)

Anglo-Saxon Brixsworth Church, Northamptonshire

Britain: The Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded Britain after Romans left were fairly advanced, indicated by written accounts and drawings of buildings, but not much other evidence remains.  Buildings were made of timber, then later stone with the influence of missionaries and monks.  With art, metalwork and architecture, Britain retained the most culture throughout this period.

Italy:  After the fall of Rome, Italy carried on with basilica churches, but did not advance the architecture as much as the decoration.

France: There are reports of extensive construction in France during the early part of this period, but few examples remain, probably due to later rebuilding. For the later period, see Carolingian.

Germany: Almost nothing remains or is expected out of this region’s early period. In the furthest east Byzantine influence is possible.  For the later period, see Carolingian and Romanesque.

Spain: The Visigoths probably built many churches after their conversion to Christianity, but when the Moors took over, almost none of these structures survived, replaced by the advanced but non-“Western” Moorish designs.

Carolingian: (700 – 800 AD)

Carolingian Speyer Cathedral, Germany

Carolingian empire: The return of a formal imperial power in western Europe began with Charlemagne, leader of the Franks. His empire controlled northern Italy, most of France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and a small portion of, Spain, meaning architecture had one prevailing style for the first time since Rome.  The style was based on Byzantine and Roman design, with pieces of old structures being built into new structures.  Carolingian architecture was bolder, less flourished but still following the basilica plan, although more often using the Roman cross instead of Greek. Much of its culture stemmed from the monastic orders who controlled the construction. The empire eventually dissolved but the culture continued, morphing into the conventional form that would become Romanesque

Britain: The Anglo-Saxons incorporated some of the Carolingian empire’s principles in to their own style.

Romanesque: (800 -1100 AD) 

Romanesque St. Etienne church, Caen

France: Romanesque in France was defined largely by the pilgrim and monastic movements. Designs started as dark, cautious but well-decorated with religious images along the route of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage that joins up in northern Spain.  The monastery’s effect on architecture was determined by two opposing orders: the extravagant, musical and powerful Cluny monks and the austere, conservative Cistercian. Cluny designs were tunnel-vaulted, like the pilgrimage churches, but much more splendid, including many musical motifs. The Cistercians were the precursor of Gothic, actually outlawing needless decoration, although still using many structural techniques. Besides these three styles, French architecture depended on the Region, with the south showing Classical qualities and the north being influenced more by the invading Normans. Norman design was immense, impressive but not sophisticated.  These eventually transitioned in to the Gothic phase.

Germany: Germany went its own way after the Vikings decimated the western Carolingian empire. The Ottonians, relatives of Charlemagne, took over the east and started the separation of French and German style. Romanesque is defined by Carolingian architecture switching from an experiment to a set style, climaxing during the Holy Roman empire. The pattern of one pier (rectangular-based support) followed by two columns (circular-based supports) became prevalent. The theme of Romanesque is a unified system of repeating elements of windows, arcades and vaults, often with apsed or semi-circular portions. Multiple large-stoned towers are also stood out from the two towered look of Carolingian, as well as following new patterns, including trefoil-shaped and octagonal designs. Romanesque held on much longer  in Germany than anywhere else, adapting the Gothic look instead of adopting it.

Britain: Although Britain was on its own path during the birth of Romanesque, the Norman invasion caught them up with continental Europe.  Wooden castles and cathedrals were immediately built, made of wood and stone brought from France. Castles were built defensively, with large square towers and a few large arches. Ignoring their Anglo-Saxon predecessors,  Normans  used their own design of three levels for churches: arcade, gallery and clearstory extended over extreme length and flat (non-apsed) ends. Vaulting was ignored for a long time, then suddenly advanced near the middle of the Romanesque period. Britain continued on its path, slowly transitioning from plain to slightly eccentric before being subdued by Gothic convention.

Spain: Spain was still considerably controlled by the Moors. Luckily for architecture, northern Spain had extracted the advanced, creative techniques of the Moors and combined them with the French style. In the far north, this manifested as the Spanish side of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage churches. In the centre of Spain, lobed arches, domes and windowless apses marked Spanish Romanesque as an eccentric off-shoot of the rest of Europe.

Italy: Italy was, at the time of Romanesque, very divided regionally because of its separate and conquered nature. The southern tip and Sicily was conquered by Normans, while the north was very Germanic in style.  Classical, Islamic and Byzantine motifs were also incorporated. Ironically for the period called Romanesque, Rome, usually a great cultural influence, did not stand out artistically during this time. Italy would not in fact have any distinct, unified  style till Gothic came in, and not lead till the Renaissance.

Gothic: (1100 – 1500 AD)

Gothic Notre-Dame, Paris

France: The base of Gothic architecture was both religious and French. The first Gothic works were built near Paris, funded by the king’s adviser, Abbot Suger. From there, Gothic thrived, going through three distinct styles within France. The first style was a progression as the use of coloured glass, pointed arches and rib vaults were added to the established three-storey cruciform shape. The west front with two towers, many spires and honeycomb-like decoration became its mark.  This was eventually High Gothic, dependant on the principles of light and shadow, the skeleton like-shape and high levels. It transitioned to become the Rayonnant or Court style, a design based on tracery (stonework supporting glass) and generally two-storeys as the gallery was replaced by continuous windows. The structure was almost a framework for the decoration: sculptures, metalwork, pinnacles and windows that covered the buildings. This continued in to the last phase, Flamboyant, named for the flame-like patterns frequently used during this time. While the interior of the cathedrals didn’t change, gone was the west front façade with two towers, replaced by interlacing spires, and multiple towers. This cacophonous design, based on the Decorated style of Britain, would slowly fade as the new style of Renaissance developed.

Britain: Being a mid-sized island, Britain had to import much of the stone and supplies needed for construction. Because of this, buildings were rarely destroyed to make way for new ones, like in France, but instead built-in layers to cut costs. This meant Romanesque structures were hybridized with Gothic portions and motifs. However, a few truly Gothic buildings exist and show three separate styles. Early on, this produced a longer, lower version of French High Gothic, still strongly carrying emblems of Romanesque. Many eccentric details, asymmetrical ribbing, miniature or blind arcades, pointed to the creativity of the British, combined with the tracery and rose windows of the French. This Early English style led to the Decorated style, which made Britain a leader in architecture. Obviously, Decorated was highly decorated, with almost no function to many elements.   Where Gothic had started with ornamentation with a purpose, highlighting only structural elements,  it was now free to cover anything. The distinct bays and aisles of French Gothic were thrown aside for the form of Decorated buildings. All this decoration, invention and unconventional design was tiring on the British, though, and they gave it up for the exact opposite: the Perpendicular style. Perpendicular reduced the curves and variation to straight sides, fewer divisions and less ornamentation. The exception was fan vaulting, although even this kept a clean and extended feeling.

Spain: With France having been the main “Western” influence in the past few centuries, Spain saw no reason to change. Spanish Gothic was French in inspiration but with many of its own touches. Central towers, more decoration, extreme width and height as well as screens made it definitely something else.

Germany: Germany spent so much of this period happily pursuing Romanesque, that its developments came late. The main characteristic was the hall-church with its flowery, spiralling free-form ribs. It also incorporated tracery and brickwork, but had so little time before the Renaissance began that it remained in one beautiful, limited style.

Italy: As always, Italy was in its own dimension, ignoring the mysterious, vertical northern Gothic and preferred the light and space that their designs held. Many Italian structures had iron beams supporting either side, leaving no reason to wonder how the building stayed up.  With the exception of the Milan cathedral, there was little evidence of northern architecture and Italy seemed to like it that way.

Renaissance: (1400 – 1600 AD)

Renaissance Library of St Mark’s, Venice

Italy: Italy led the Renaissance -it had both the most surviving examples of Classical architecture and was the home of many great thinkers of the time. People like Brunelleschi, who had studied Roman ruins, incorporated the old concepts in to new designs. Geometry and proportionality made a comeback, along with domes and the strict use of orders.  These were applied to the building of churches  and public buildings. Bramante, another leader in architecture, used the perfect shapes of circle, sphere, square and cube to guide design. The High Renaissance was the name given to this time. Rusticated stone, rock left unfinished, as well as courtyards and staircases were a key elements.  The plans of buildings tended to be Greek or Roman cross or rectangular. Architecture became a series of formulas and discipline, with set patterns and rules. All was based on harmony and balance. With the Reformation, however, style was changed to reflect the uncertainty, pioneered by the tension and distortion of Michelangelo.  This was called Mannerism.  This stressed period would span between the High Renaissance and the later Baroque period.

France: France continued Gothic for a century longer than Italy, but having invaded parts of its southern neighbour, the new style seeped in. At first, small Renaissance details were added to Gothic works, but when Italian artists arrived, the process sped up. A “French order” was developed, made up of three levels, a French pitched roof, triumphal arches and plenty of sculpture. This was developed under the French Mannerism style. A new phenomenon, the best examples are not churches but actually the castles, mainly the Loire valley.

Germany: The Renaissance was reluctantly incorporated in to Gothic-happy German design. Although some of eastern Europe was quite forward with the new style, it was not the same. Being a largely Protestant region, few of the Catholic Italians came to Germany, so it took much longer for the Renaissance to spread. When it did arrive, it spawned only a few buildings in the Catholic south, mostly adding strange notes to existing Gothic structures.  Germany almost skipped over the Renaissance, rejoining the other countries only with Baroque.

Britain: Britain ignored the Renaissance for as long as it could.  There were a good number of Italian artists in the English court, but no architects were present. On their isolated island, the British took motifs of Renaissance, warped them and applied them to their own medieval-like style. Then an architect named Inigo Jones, originally a theatre designer, brought his Renaissance style forward, a design based on Andrea Palladio. This Palladianism entrenched itself in many large-scale buildings, but would reach its height after the intervention of Baroque.  

Spain: Spain held on to Gothic the longest and when it did transition, had its own addition. Plateresque, the use of massive quantities of silver plating, had a strong influence, adding Gothic and Moorish decoration to the Renaissance structures.  This did fade to a simpler, slightly gloomy style enforced by the bruised Catholic background.

Baroque: (1600 – 1700 AD)

Baroque monastery of Melk, Austria

Italy: The principle of Baroque, which came to symbolize rejoicing, stems from Italy. The shapes and patterns used in Mannerism continued, but were emphasized differently. The logic and clear function of elements was abandoned for a dramatic, flourished look emphasizing light.  The oval became a popular building plan, highlighted with deep porticoes (porches with columns) and tall domes were Baroque’s signature, as well as layers upon layers of art, sculpture and optical illusion.  All of this was driven by the Catholic church and the Counter-Reformation, which supported strong religious meaning in the luxurious buildings and art.

Central/Eastern Europe: Freedom returned for these architects with Baroque’s less regimented style.  Italians who visited the northern courts encouraged the movement and fluidity of Gothic style, allowing for a revival. Protestant northern Germany was dwarfed by the style of the Bavaria, Bohemia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Stucco was enormous, as was the concave-convex pattern of facades (front of structure). Palaces were great examples of this region’s Baroque phase, establishing standardized organization. Still the church prevailed in this region, even with the arrival of Rococo from France. The illogical, happy exuberance of this new style meandered in to almost all buildings of this period.  

Spain and Portugal: Baroque in Spain has been described as painful, but more because of its sharp, distressed motifs then its quality. Plateresque was revived in the form of Churrigueresque, but Italian style was still incorporated in to its writhing, dramatic look. Portuguese architecture was actually quite different from that of Spain, heavily relying on oval or octagonal plans and domes instead of the Spanish Romanesque-like façade and towers.

France: The shift from Renaissance to Baroque in France was not obvious in any particular form, the closest examples being too restrained and orderly to really count. The French understood the domes, curved lines and rhythm, but didn’t include the lavish intensity of Baroque. How Rococo  was born from this watered-down Baroque interpretation is a mystery. France stuck to Classical, with Rococo decorating only the interior of some buildings. It was actually the art and furniture, not the architecture, that made France’s new style, especially its new palace of Versailles.

Flanders: Being a tiny region, Flanders should not really count, but its Baroque was so quirky and decorated, that it condensed all the ornamentation of a much larger country in to its own small area.

Britain: British Baroque probably didn’t exist. Except for a few stray domes, almost no large-scale elements of the Baroque look made it across the English Channel. Instead, this period was marked by eccentric, original and just plain bizarre designs, with parts that could be called Baroque, but never a whole structure. Often, Palladianism was the outcome of this combination.


Neoclassical: (1700 – 1800)

Neoclassical Altes museum, Berlin

Europe: The development of architectural schools solidified the style of Europe in to one during this time. Neoclassical was international: instead of architects interpreting the style, they followed a strict theory. Philosophy, design and book writing played a larger role in development than actual building. The difference between Baroque and Neoclassical was very difficult to see in countries such as Britain, northern Germany and France, but very clear in the other regions. The rules and formulas spread unaltered to all of Europe, crossing religious lines. The term rational architecture was used to mean clearly functional elements, proportional systems and clear ornamentation. It was graceful, orderly and unimaginative.  Neoclassical went through four phases: Palladianism, Greek-revival, Neo and Empire style. Palladianism was simply the spread of this style from Britain to the rest of Europe. Palladio’s Renaissance mixed with pure classical designs appealed to Neoclassical. Although Roman architecture had been the model, greater investigation brought on Greek styles, with Doric and Ionic at the forefront. During the French Revolution period , the Neo phase broke with tradition, emphasizing geometry, sometimes using spheres and cubes as the sole shapes. Order returned with Empire, named for Napoleon, a style most obvious because of its interior, not its exterior. This led to Regency and then Victorian periods in England. All these styles were shown best through the grand palaces, orderly town plans and tasteful private residences of the period.


After learning about European architecture I have a better understanding of its history. Seeing how different themes such as classical were repeated over time shows the effect one culture can have on future development. It also pointed to the amount of modern design and language that is based on historical architecture.  I hope to learn more when I visit sites similar to those I’ve studied.


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