U3,4- History of architecture

The origins

  • 5000000 years ago (australopithecus) They had no shelter, did not know fire and lived in Central Africa. Later, after moving to a more northern location, they evolved into the Homo habilis

  • 1600000-200000 BC (homo erectus) They moved to the north, discovered fire and invented the first house, which had a fireplace. However, it was in fact a super simple one since they were nomadic. These houses are called huts and they were made with branches, that sunk in the sand, and surrounded by stones. The central fireplace reflects that they were congregation spaces.
  • 100000-40000 BC (homo neanderthal) inhabits caverns in the North of Africa, Europe an the East, since they were sedentary. They lived in “communities” and they first started experimented with spiritual or symbolic concepts such as life after death. As a matter of fact, in some burials there really is a complex social structure and in Iraq some graves have been discovered with flowers and some references to the sun movement.
  • 40000 BC (homo sapiens) It is the final form: humans, us indeed. This means, that they have more intellectual capacity than the other species. In fact, they are responsible for the first artistic expressions: paintings and sculpture in caves. They invented dwellings: more complex cabins agglomerated in a defensive way (around a central area). these have a circular plan and are covered with animal skins
  • 8000-4000 BC Due to the consolidation of agriculture and so of sedentarism, the first permanent houses were created. First cities appeared, which had defensive walls and “different” types of building. The variation of building types is thanks to the bigger complexity in societies.


4000-3000 BC (Mesopotamia) In Mesopatamia (between the river Tigris and Euphrates) there were larger cities. This era is characterized by the beginning of writing and its prosperity. Most of the architecture was made of adobe. For instance, the most representative architectural buildings of the period, ziggurats, were made of adobe bricks, too. These were temples with stairs and ramps built on platforms. The goal of these was to be closer to the gods. Also, they are similar to the Egyptian pyramids, but even more to the ones in Central America.


  • 3500 BC It was a prosperous civilization, that revolves around the river Nile. This river influenced Egyptian society and as a consequence, the architecture. All temples, cities and fields followed an organisation based in two perpendicular axes.
    • Temples were the religious and administrative and educational centre. They were the houses of gods. They represent continuity and order, in fact they nearly didn’t change anything throughout all years of Egyptian society. Their goal is to express solidity, durability.
    • Pyramids were for cult of the dead, since their society was obsessed with the concepts of life and death. They were made of limestone masonry. Pyramids were part of temples.


  • 1200- 146 BC They learnt from Egyptian architecture and art. From this, they created their own in a way they celebrated human capacities and founded Western civilization. Their art and architecture is based in the search of equilibrium and harmony and perfection, search of the immortality in human memory through art and intellectual activities and to honour both gods and the polis.
    • Polis were usually located on hills. They were the political, economical, social and cultural centres of Greek society, Besides, they had a grid-based organisation, with an agora (which was the centre of community) and with the temples on the top.
    • Temples were the houses of god. Apart from this, nearly no one could enter them. Examples of perfection and harmony.
    • Theaters and stadiums were huge and of course, outdoors on the slopes of hills. They had great acoustics and capacity and were surrounded by the landscape, which had a theatrical purpose too.
    • Houses were simple and with a central courtyard with the rooms around.


  • 1100 BC Romans were based in Italy but on top of that, they expanded through the Mediterranean and Europe. Due to this, the architecture style is “universal” in all areas of the empire. Construction wise, they discovered concrete which allowed new forms and experimentation with lights. Moreover, they started using arches, vaults and domes to cover up spaces. They were a remaining idea of the Greeks and admired grandiosity and functionality.
    • Civil works: they were experts in infrastructures like aqueducts, brides, walls, roads and commemorative monuments such as triumphal arches.
    • Public building were the political and commercial centre. Examples of these are thermal baths, theatres (inspired by the Greek’s but larger and circular), circus (destined for races and shows), basilicas (courts of justice) and amphitheatres, which were an innovation. The latter were elliptical double theatres for gladiators.
    • Cities were orthogonal and with a center, the forum (the Roman’s agora). They also had walls and fortified gates.
    • Religious buildings followed Greek orders but with several modifications. The compositions were livelier than Greek ones. They used arches and vaults and developed domes to cover the buildings.
    • Private buildings
      • Domus were the wealthy families’ house. They had an open area and were decorated with mosaics and sculptures.
      • Insulae had different floors for several poor families

Middle Ages

With the constant barbarian attacks, the Roman Empire weakened: due to this, most architectural works were paralysed. After the Visigoths conquering Spain and the North of Africa and sacking Rome, the Roman were lost. This way, Western Roman Empire was over and as a consequence, its centre was in Constantinople then. Apart from its downfall, it lost its pagan character. The society was being more and more christianized. Basically, the Middle Ages were started with the end of the Roman Empire. This era is characterized by the feudal and Christian society.

  • Byzantine: In this society, religion had the main power so the most important buildings were religious, There were road made to connect religious buildings and also hospices, hospitals and orphanages (since charity work was common). Most of the buildings were made of stone.
    • Hagia Sophia symbolizes the union of the empire and Church. It has a dome and a squared plan. The dome was reinforced with buttresses. It is supported by columns which are connected to it through four triangular concave pendentives. Besides, it has a lot of symbolism. and it plays with light, mosaics… in order to imitate heaven.
    • Military architecture is due to the instability caused by the fall down of the Roman empire. In fact cities were smaller in order to have a better defence. on top of that, they constructed huge walls with fortified centres and some innovations to attack. 

High Middle Ages

The society of that moment was based in feudalism. Also, this era’s architecture is called Pre Romanesque architecture. During this time, churches and monasteries were built but, for the first time, also castles.

  • Lombards (6-8th): They were a Romanized society converted to Christianism. In their works of construction, they integrated Roman elements but with more symbolism and with new elements. They mainly built small churches, with decoration influenced by goldsmithing (stained-glass pastes and coloured stones).
  • Visigoths (7-8th): their architecture (religious) comes from Roman basilica but with a central area and massive forms (huge walls and very few windows). The architecture was also characterized by the plain stonewalls with some vaults and columns inspired by the Roman ones but less slender.
  • Carolingian (9th): their aim was to emulate Roman architecture. This resulted in renovatio, a movement that celebrated the empire. It is characterized by the more complex decoration and the Westwerk (a building , symbolic of power and defence, in the facade).
  • Saxos (otonians, 9-10th): It is a more mature pre-romanesque architecture with a use of Westwerks (too), more openings, bigger buildings and more slender proportions. They mainly constructed religious buildings and started using galleries and both pillars and columns. 

Islamic (8-15th, in the Iberian Peninsula)

They built Mosques, for praying and meeting, and baths, but linked to a religious purpose (not like Roman baths). It is characterized by the use of towers (in case there is an attack) and water, whose presence represents wealth. Apart from those, they used ceramic with geometrical motifs and other bright and colourful decoration.

Romanesque (10-12th)

It was related to the Normans and mainly spread around Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. Also, religion became even more powerful, so they mainly built religious buildings in order to satisfy the need of evangelization. Nevertheless, they also constructed castles. This architecture is characterized by the massive buildings and proportions, the use of semicircular arches and vaults and the lack of openings.

Gothic (12-15/16th)

Mainly in England and the north of France. It is known by the use of ogival arches and ribs. In this period, they comprehended that vertical forces are easier to absorb than lateral ones.

  • Cathedrals: They are tall and have pointed structure to reach the sky (heaven). Their huge size is due to the aim to command respect and even fear. With the forces concentrated in the buttresses (external elements with vertical pinnacles and needles), the walls no longer have to sustain them, and so they are less massive and have more openings (covered with stained-glass). This opening of the space is partly thanks to the ogival arches, too.
  • Civil buildings: mostly buildings  used to trade or commerce or where local power resided (f.e. Palazzo Vecchio or Ducal Palace in Venice). Usually with open and light structures. These buildings are a consequence of the blooming commerce and economy.

Renaissance (15-16th)

Starts in Italy, mainly in Florence, where an urban culture arises. Also, humanism, opposed to religion and that sets the human being as the center of everything, started gaining importance. Besides, it also began with the rediscovery of Roman architecture and of course proportion, harmony, geometry… Therefore, Vitruvius and his books are rediscovered too. In Renaissance architecture there were some key figure, who are the following:

  • Brunelleschi: Architect, mathematician, sculptor and of course humanist. His goal was to build architecture in a rational way. He was in constant search for lighter structures. On top of that, he ended up becoming the designer of the dome of Florence Cathedral.
  • Leon Battista Alberti: Architect and follower of Vitruvius and classical features. He revolved around the ideas of beauty, which was harmony, and ornaments, that were complementary beauty. He remodelled the Rucelai Palace, according to his principles.
  • Andrea Palladio: Architect. He wrote books about Roman architecture. Also, he designed a lot of villas in Venice and Vicenza. His main ideals were proportion, simplicity and perfection. Definitely, he was inspired by classical temples.
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti: Sculptor, painter and architect. He actually represents the transition from Renaissance to Mannerism, a movement which uses classical elements but with variations. For instance, it changed the circle by an oval.

Baroque (17-18th)

It was the result of the reaffirmation of the power of religion after the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which supposed a step back after Humanism. Characterised by the disruption and spacial liberation, the avoidance of simplicity and harmony and the search of voluptuosity and decoration. This artistic expression looked for fantasy, mutability, asymmetry… It was in fact the next step after Mannerism.

  • Bernini: Sculptor, architect, painter and the heir of Michelangelo. With architecture, he pursued emotional impact. Moreover, he played with the contrast of lights to accentuate the composition. As a matter of fact, he is indeed the architect of Saint Peter’s Square.
  • Borromini: He was an extremely original and revolutionary architect. He also mastered simple geometric forms (triangles, circles, ellipses…), which were manipulated. He designed the facade of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and the San Ivo alla Sapienza.

After Baroque, Rococo (18th) came. It is not a current but a fashion born in France. It was also characterized by the meaningless and ostentatious decorations. 

In the end, these luxuries ended up accentuating the social differences between the upper class and the lower class which finally lead to the French Revolution (1789). Aside from that, architecture wise, the 18th century was rather confusing. This is due to the fact that there was a moment when there were a lot of different but coexistence movements: Baroque, Rococo, Romanticism and Neoclassicism.

Neoclassic (18-19th) 

It was one of the first worldly expanded styles. This artistic movement was influenced by the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment, the ancient Grecolatin art and its ideals (simplicity, order and rationality). It was a great change from Baroque and Rococo. Some architects focused on pure geometric forms, creating a “new architecture”.  

19th Century

The Industrial Revolution resulted in the growth of cities and population and the need to build infrastructures. Also, there were new technical and material discoveries such as concrete which allowed more shapes and forms. Opposed to the industrialization of society, some movements like Historicism, Exotism or Eclectism bloomed. On top of that, in response to the need for evasion and Romanticism, a new movement which showed the crude reality was born: Realism (Impressionism and Postimpressionism).

20th Century

  • Art nouveau or Modernism. It was a consequence of the well-being of the bourgeoisie. Art nouveaus was a new and modern style, inspired by nature, simple geometry, curved lines and symbolism. Also, despite refusing to acknowledge the past, they praised japonism and oriental arts and romantic symbolism, but also medievalism. The main exponent of Modernism here in Spain is the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.
  • Avantgarde (historical, between wars, post-war). The openness to different cultures provoked a necessity to adapt more points of view and to run away from conventional art. 
    • Before wars: The invention of photography demystified realistic art.
      • Expressionism advocated for the distortion of the rational form to express the spirit. An example is the Casa Milà by Gaudí.
      • Cubism was based in the idea of simultaneous points of view transported to architecture. This way, the limits between exterior and interior are eliminated. 
      • Futurism searched the idea of movement, inspired by machines and speed.
    • Between wars: The aim was to provoke and ridicule Western culture.
      • Contructivism was based in simplicity and abstraction, pure lines and geometry. It was also a reflection of the communist identity: they created diaphanous and shared spaces with poor light and materials.
      • Neoplasticism was based in the orthogonal projection in search of balance of essence and matter.
      • Bauhaus rationalism (Germany) looked for functionality, simplicity, straight lines, and elementary shapes and colours. The Bauhaus movement was the initiator of the Modern Movement. In fact, after Bauhaus closed the ideology was still spread. For intance, Le Corbusier added some points to rationalism and Mies Van der Rohe broadened the chromatic range.
    • Post-war: In the beginning of this period, most architects were classified depending on how much they adapted the Modern Movement. However, throughout time more proposals arerevealed.
      • 50s and 60s: There were continuists of the Modern Movement like P. Luigi Nervi and others who wanted to adapt architecture to the human needs and to the cultural tradition of its place like Aalto.
      • Since 60s. There has a lot of experimentation, therefore it’s difficult to classify styles. The individuality of the architect is more important. Also, sustainability has become key.

Bibliography and image sources