The history of architecture is ultimately the history of human interaction. It is not simply about complex drawings, planning regulations or phallic-shaped skyscrapers. Rather, architecture is about provoking visceral emotions. It connects us to each other, to society and to the world around us. Of course, engineering and science play a huge part in this too, but the true power of architecture lies in the connections we feel to the places we physically occupy.
Aside from our basic human requirement for shelter (one of Maslow’s infamous “Five Needs”), our physical surroundings play a huge part in influencing our mental and physical health. Since its earliest beginnings in the Prehistoric period, no piece of architecture has been designed in abstraction. Each structure is connected to the politics, art, poetry, and social sciences of the time — and, most fascinatingly, to human nature. Architecture creates emotional resonance through its stylistic hallmarks, and its use of forms, structures, light conditions and materials have all evolved over time.
For the most part, architecture can be classified within an assortment of “movements,” each of which has emerged like a pendulum swing from one period to another. Hundreds have been identified — with formidable names like Bristol Byzantine or Egyptian Revival — but for the purpose of basic understanding there are widely considered to be eight key phases worth knowing about since ancient times.
If you’ve ever found yourself caught in conversation about the difference between Bauhaus and Brutalism, and been without a single word to offer on the matter yourself, consider this your one-stop homework lesson in all matters brick, concrete, glass, stone and steel.
The Age of Classicism
It would be absurd to try and shine a light on some of architecture’s key movements without beginning with the glory and triumph that was Ancient Greece and Rome.
Logic and order lay at the core of the Ancient Greeks’ philosophy, yet never at the expense of ornament or aesthetic value. They used advanced mathematics, geometries and optical illusions to build structures that appeared perfectly harmonious to the human eye. Simplicity, proportion, perspective and harmony were the pillars of their work. Public buildings, including temples, amphitheaters and stadiums, were their most lasting legacy, as was the invention of the classical orders: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. These orders, most commonly identifiable by the type of column used, divided architectural design into three distinct styles according to proportion and decoration.
Whilst Greek architecture provided the design foundation for generations of artists, architects and designers to come, Roman Architecture founded new engineering techniques that would influence building construction forevermore. The Romans built the first ever arches, vaults and domes, as well as developed concrete — a material that would go on to change the path of architecture forever and define huge swathes of its history.
The strength, low cost and flexibility of concrete created a new mode of ‘space-making,’ as it allowed buildings to span much greater distances and larger public spaces to be constructed. The sheer quality of construction exhibited in Ancient Roman buildings was such that many of them continue to stand today, thousands of years after they were first erected.
Notable Works: Periclean Parthenon of Athens. The Erechtheoin. The Alter of Zeus at Pergamon. The Pantheon, Rome.
The Age of Gothicism
Gothic Architecture (c1200 to c1500) sought to take structural design beyond pure function by emphasizing verticality and light. It found its greatest expression in the great cathedrals of Europe, some of which took more than one century to build.
This movement evolved during a period when architects had become frustrated with the existing construction techniques available to them, which dramatically limited the width, height, window size and overall design of their buildings. In attempting to solve the problem of their often dark, cold and claustrophobic designs, architects of the Gothic period were forced to innovate new building techniques. These included flying buttresses, pointed arches and vaulted ceilings, each of which required an unprecedented level of delicacy in its design.
Flying buttresses allowed architects to spread the weight of taller walls and grander-looking towers, while vaulted, ribbed ceilings allowed more space for openings such as doorways and windows. Buildings rose to new heights, and with them, so too did a whole architectural movement lasting almost 400 years.
Notable Works: Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Milan Cathedral. York Minster. The Chartes Cathedral.
The Age of Rebirth
It is during the early 15th century that a conscious ‘rebirth’ of classical elements occurred, based on ancient Greek and Roman design tropes. This era is widely termed “The Renaissance.”
Renaissance buildings had a very clear, simple mathematical approach compared to Gothic Architecture, where no set rules of proportion applied. During this era, architects sought to re-establish the ideal proportions of a building based on the human form. They believed that the universe was perfect based on certain mathematical ratios, musical harmonies and astrological angles. These ratios were incorporated into columns, pilasters, pediments, entablatures, arches and domes — each a central characteristic of Renaissance architecture.
Filippo Brunelleschi was an Italian architect trained in Florence and is considered the first working Renaissance architect, as he was the first since antiquity to use the classical orders in his work. His design of the Pazzi Chapel is a work of geometric lucidity, a space of calm serenity using white plaster, grey stone pilasters and glazed terracotta in perfect harmony. This chapel is not only considered a gem of the Renaissance, but the beginning of interior design.
During this period, Renaissance architects developed a newfound interest in subjects like art, classical literature and musicology, advancing their social status from “skilled laborer" to “artisanal genius.” This coincided with a more widespread pattern of learning throughout Europe, and set architecture as a whole on the path toward “Starchitect” status: a term coined in the late 20th century.
Notable Works: Pazzi Chapel. Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo), Florence. The Medici Palace (Michelozzo di Bartolommeo). Cathedral of Pienza.
The Age of Misshapen Pearls
A misshapen pearl is beautiful, yet abnormal — splendor paired with the drama of the grotesque. ‘Baroque’ translates to ‘misshapen pearl’ in Portuguese. This term aptly describes the Baroque era of Architecture that began in the late 16th Century in Italy, reaching its apex in France during the 17th Century. It developed during a time when architects were greatly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, who decided that ‘the arts’ should communicate religious themes at all times.
The most obvious architectural innovation of the Baroque style was its expanded use of curves. Rather than regular, repeating forms, various styles were mixed, birthing much more dramatic and irregular designs that accentuated light, shadow and form. Interiors were considered an opulent shell for painting, sculpture and stucco. A stunning example of this being Louis XIV's royal palace at Versailles: a huge U-shaped mass with two long wings at the center of which was the kings bedroom!
Notable Works: Louis XIV's palace at Versailles. The Vatican, Rome. S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.
The Age of Purity
Jumping forward a few years, the so-called “International Style” emerged in Western Europe during the early 1930s. This is considered the formative years of modern architecture, with noted architects like Le Corbusier in France and Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe in Germany helping push a style that has since become infamous.
This new architectural direction coincided with wider social reform, and a perceived desire to design a more open, transparent society. The Bauhaus school in Germany was one of a number of European associations who focused on uniting traditional craft with industrial technology in order to bring about change in society by turning "art into industry."
During this time, classic aesthetics were abandoned in favor of drastically unadorned architectural styles. Geometric shapes, open floor plans, flat roofs, willful asymmetry, and a prevalent use of steel and glass became hallmarks of a movement that looked shockingly different to anything that had come before it. Pure functionality took precedence over any form of stylization, dramatically affecting the feel of buildings as well as their looks. Modernism, as it eventually became known, reached beyond historicism and embraced the new “machine aesthetic” of an industrialized, mass-producing society — something seen in the extensive development of skyscrapers across the United States.
Notable Works: Villa Savoye (Le Corbusier). Barcelona Pavilion (Mies van der Rohe). Lovell House, LA (Richard Neutra).
The Age of Brutes
Raw, radical and confrontational… the architectural movement affectionately known as Brutalism emerged in Britain during the 1950s, and to this day remains one of the most controversial architectural movements in history.
Despite being synonymous with the harsh use of concrete, fortress-like structures and ‘anti-bourgeois’ (read plain and obstinately functional) design tropes, Brutalism also managed to manifest itself in many more sculptural forms. This innately austere and rugged approach to design is considered a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness and optimism of architecture during the 1930s and 1940s. Architects including Louis Kahn and Marcel Breuer responded to the transparent International Style of the first half of the 20th Century by creating works with more monumental qualities and material weight.
In the architectural community, “Brutalism” is often considered misunderstood. While the connotations of the term “brutal” are generally negative, Brutalism doesn’t simply refer to a particular brand of severe looks, but an entire architectural approach. This movement advocated a more honest, uncompromising aesthetic based on socially progressive intentions of co-habitation and shared space. It was presented, especially by Le Corbusier (one of the most influential architects of the 20th Century), as the paramount option for forward-moving, high-density modern urban housing. As such, many government projects during this period were designed according to Brutalist principles, which gave the world much of its high-rise housing, educational buildings and shopping centers. As grey and hard-edged the word ‘brutal’ sounds, it is an aesthetic criticism, not an architectural movement in itself.
Notable Works: The Economist Building, London. The Barbican Estate, London. Unité d’Habitation, Marseille.
The Age of Wit
If you took a model of a building, tore it apart, smashed it on the floor… even jumped on it a little… and then put it back together without looking, you’d have something that would likely fall within the “Post-Modernist” architectural movement — that or its close counterpart, “Deconstructivism.”
Postmodern architecture was a reaction to the notion of absolutes in design during the late 1970s, including that of “pure” form and “perfect” detail. It challenged traditional conventions of design and instead found inspiration in Cubism, Dadaism and the Russian avant-garde architecture of the 1920s — all movements that also broke traditions of their own.
Frank Gehry embodies this architectural movement, especially his iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. His experimental style involves unusual use of materials, personal stylistic tropes and an eagerness to disrupt public expectations. His innovative Bilbao design, now referred to as the “Bilbao Effect,” added an estimated $160 million to the Basque economy in the year after opening. Gehry was the first person to be given the label “Starchitect” (a recognition he relentlessly continues to reject). His work sits alongside contemporaries like Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid in the architectural canon — all characterised by wild, radical lines and almost surrealist shapes.
Notable Works: The Wexner Center for the Arts. Seattle Central Library, Washington. Jewish Museum, Berlin.