The History of Western Architecture in Photos

Stonehenge in Amesbury, United Kingdom
Stonehenge in Amesbury, United Kingdom. Photo by Jason Hawkes/Stone/Getty Images
01
of 16

Monoliths, Mounds, and Prehistoric Structures

Silbury Hill, a man-made, prehistoric earthworks monument in southern England
Silbury Hill and the Dawn of Architecture Silbury Hill, a man-made, prehistoric earthworks monument in southern England. Photo by VisitBritain/Britain on View/Getty Images

What style is that great building? What buildings are beautiful? Join us for a photo tour through architectural history. In this photo gallery you will find buildings and structures that illustrate important periods and styles from prehistoric days through modern times. For more historic periods, also see our Architecture Timeline.

The Dawn of Architecture:

Prehistoric builders moved earth and stone into geometric forms, creating our earliest human-made structures. We don't know why primitive people began building geometric structures. Archaeologists can only guess that prehistoric people looked to the heavens to imitate the circular forms of the sun and the moon, using that natural shape in their creations of earth mounds and monolithic henges.

Many fine examples of well-preserved prehistoric architecture are found in southern England. Stonehenge in Amesbury, United Kingdom is a well-known example of the prehistoric stone circle. Nearby Silbury Hill (shown above), also in Wiltshire, is the largest man-made, prehistoric earthen mound in Europe. At 30 meters high and 160 meters wide, the gravel mound is layers of soil, mud, and grass, with dug pits and tunnels of chalk and clay. Completed in the late Neolithic period, approximately 2,400 BC, its architects were a Neolithic civilization in Britain.

Recorded history did not begin in a certain year or in a particular part of the world. Early peoples carried building ideas from place to place, and similar construction techniques evolved centuries and eons apart in distant locations. Some civilizations developed written language while others remained in pre-history.

Words Associated with Prehistoric Architecture:

The suffix -lith comes from the Greek word lithos, meaning "stone."

  • monolith—one stone (the prefix mono- means "one" or "single")
  • megalith—a huge stone (the prefix mega- means "very large")
  • Neolithic—description of a prehistoric time in world history when primitive people worked in stone; a New Stone Age (the prefix neo- means "new")
  • menhir—a tall megalith standing upright; from the Brittany, France word for "stone" (men) combined with the word for "long" (hir)
  • henge—a prehistoric, circular monument found on the British Isles

UNESCO World Heritage Property:

The prehistoric sites in southern Britain (Stonehenge, Avebury, and associated sites) are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site. "The design, position, and inter-relationship of the monuments and sites," according to UNESCO, "are evidence of a wealthy and highly organized prehistoric society able to impose its concepts on the environment." To some, the ability to change the environment is key for a structure to be called architecture. Prehistoric structures are sometimes considered the birth of architecture. If nothing else, primitive structures certainly raise the question, What Is Architecture?

Why does the circle dominate man's earliest architecture? It is the shape of the sun and the moon, the first shape humans realized to be significant to their lives. The duo of Architecture and Geometry goes way back in time and may be the source of what humans find "beautiful" even today.

Sources: History and Research: Silbury Hill, English Heritage Foundation; Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, United Nations [accessed August 19, 2013].

02
of 16

3,050 BC-900 BC: Ancient Egypt

he Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren) in Giza, Egypt
Early Masters of Engineering he Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren) in Giza, Egypt. Photo by by Lansbricae (Luis Leclere)/Moment Collection/Getty Images

The pyramid form was a marvel of engineering that allowed ancient Egyptians to build enormous structures. Read below for facts about architecture and engineering in Ancient Egypt.

Construction in Ancient Egypt

Wood was not widely available in the arid Egyptian landscape. Houses in ancient Egypt were made with blocks of sun-baked mud. Flooding of the Nile River and the ravages of time destroyed most of these ancient homes.

Much of what we know about ancient Egypt is based on great temples and tombs, which were made with granite and limestone and decorated with hieroglyphics, carvings, and brightly colored frescoes. The ancient Egyptians didn't use mortar, so the stones were carefully cut to fit together.

Pyramids in Egypt

The development of the pyramid form allowed Egyptians to build enormous tombs for their kings. The sloping walls could reach great heights because their weight was supported by the wide pyramid base. An innovative Egyptian named Imhotep is said to have designed one of the earliest of the massive stone monuments, the Step Pyramid of Djoser (2,667 BC - 2,648 BC).

Columns in Egypt

Builders in ancient Egypt didn't use load-bearing arches. Instead, columns were placed close together to support the heavy stone entablature above. Brightly painted and elaborately carved, the columns often mimicked palms, papyrus plants, and other plant forms. Over the centuries, at least thirty distinct column styles evolved. Learn more: Egyptian Column Styles

Influences of Egyptian Architecture

Archaeological discoveries in Egypt reawakened an interest in the ancient temples and monuments. Egyptian Revival architecture became fashionable during the 1800s. In the early 1900s, the discovery of King Tut's tomb stirred a fascination for Egyptian artifacts and the rise of Art Deco architecture.

Wonders of Ancient Egypt

2,575 BC - 2,134 BC: Old Kingdom

2,040 BC - 1,640 BC: Middle Kingdom

1,550 BC -1,070 BC: New Kingdom

03
of 16

850 BC-476 AD: Classical

The Parthenon sets on top of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece
Beauty from Order The Parthenon sets on top of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Photo by MATTES René / hemis.fr / Getty Images (cropped)

The Classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome has shaped the way we build today. Classical architecture is the style of buildings and the built environment of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.

How Classical Architecture Began

From the rise of ancient Greece until the fall of the Roman empire, great buildings were constructed according to precise rules. The Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius, who lived during first century BC, believed that builders should use mathematical principles when constructing temples. "For without symmetry and proportion no temple can have a regular plan," Vitruvius wrote in his famous treatise De Architectura, or Ten Books on Architecture.
Buy on Amazon

The Classical Orders

In his writings, Marcus Vitruvius introduced the Classical orders, which defined column styles and entablature designs used in Classical architecture. The earliest Classical orders were Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.

Classical Periods

700 BC-323 BC: Greek. The Doric column was first developed in Greece and it was used for great temples, including the famous Parthenon in Athens. Simple Ionic columns were used for smaller temples and building interiors.

323 BC-146 BC: Hellenistic. When Greece was at the height of its power in Europe and Asia, the empire built elaborate temples and secular buildings with Ionic and Corinthian columns. The Hellenistic period ended with conquests by the Roman Empire.

44 BC-476 AD: Roman. The Romans borrowed heavily from the earlier Greek and Hellenistic styles, but their buildings were more highly ornamented. They used Corinthian and composite style columns along with decorative brackets. The invention of concrete allowed the Romans to build arches, vaults, and domes. A famous example of Roman architecture is the Roman Colosseum. To view 3D images of Rome as it looked in 320 AD, visit romancolosseum.org or the Rome Reborn project at the University of Virginia.

From Classical to Neoclassical

More than 1,500 years after the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote his important book, the Renaissance architect Giacomo da Vignola outlined Vitruvius's ideas in a treatise titled The Five Orders of Architecture. Published in 1563, The Five Orders of Architecture became a guide for builders throughout western Europe.

In 1570, another Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio, used the new technology of movable type to publish I Quattro Libri dell' Architettura, or The Four Books of Architecture. In this book, Palladio showed how Classical rules could be used not just for grand temples but also for private villas. Palladio's ideas spread across Europe and into the New World, giving rise to a variety of Neoclassical styles.

Learn More:

  • Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, Dover
    Buy from Amazon
  • The Four Books of Architecture by Andrea Palladio, MIT Press
    Buy from Amazon

04
of 16

527 AD-565 AD: Byzantine

Church of Hagia Eirene in the First Courtyard of the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey
Church of Hagia Eirene in the First Courtyard of the Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Salvator Barki / Gallo Images / Getty Images (cropped)

Eastern and Western traditions combined in the sacred buildings of the Byzantine period. Buildings were designed with a central dome that eventually rose to new heights by using engineering practices refined in the Middle East. This era of architectural history was transitional and transformational. What is Byzantine Architecture? Take a look at early Christian churches to find out what makes it so important.

05
of 16

800 AD - 1200 AD: Romanesque

Rounded arches, massive walls, tower of the Basilica of St. Sernin (1070-1120) in Toulouse, France
Romanesque Architecture of the Basilica of St. Sernin (1070-1120) in Toulouse, France. Photo © Anger O./AgenceImages courtesy Getty Images

Even as the Roman Empire faded, Roman ideas reached far across Europe. Built between 1070 and 1120 AD, the Basilica of St. Sernin is a good example of this transitional architecture, with a Byzantine-domed apse and an added Gothic-like steeple. The floor plan is that of the Latin cross, Gothic-like again, with a high alter and tower at the cross intersection. Constructed of stone and brick, St. Sernin in Toulouse, France, is on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.

Romanesque buildings have regional variations, but share many common features, most notably the prominent rounded arch.

06
of 16

1100-1450: Gothic

North side of Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres, France
Architecture Reaches New Height Built in the thirteenth century, Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France is a masterpiece of Gothic Architecture. Photo by Alessandro Vannini / Corbis Historical / Getty Images (cropped)

Early in the 12th century, new ways of building meant that cathedrals and other large buildings could soar. Gothic architecture became characterized by the architectural elements that allowed these great heights—pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, and flying buttresses. In addition, elaborate stained glass could take the place of walls that no longer were used to support high ceilings. Gargoyles and other sculptures also enabled practical and decorative functions.

Gothic architecture began mainly in France where builders began to adapt the earlier Romanesque style. Builders were also influenced by the pointed arches and elaborate stonework of Moorish architecture in Spain. One of the earliest Gothic buildings was the ambulatory of the abbey of St. Denis in France, built between 1140 and 1144. Many of the world's most well-known sacred places are from this period in architectural history, including Chartres Cathedral and Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral in France and Dublin's St. Patrick's Cathedral and Adare Friary in Ireland.

Originally, Gothic architecture was known as the French Style. During the Renaissance, after the French Style had fallen out of fashion, artisans mocked it. They coined the word Gothic to suggest that French Style buildings were the crude work of German (Goth) barbarians. Although the label wasn't accurate, the name Gothic remained.

Beyond the Gothic:

While builders were creating the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, painters and sculptors in northern Italy were breaking away from rigid medieval styles and laying the foundation for the Renaissance. Art historians call the period between 1200 to 1400 AD the Early Renaissance or the Proto-Renaissance of art history.

Fascination for medieval Gothic architecture was reawakened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Architects in Europe and the United States designed great buildings and private homes that imitated the cathedrals of medieval Europe. If a building looks Gothic and has Gothic elements and characteristics, but it was built in the 1800s or later, its style is Gothic Revival.

07
of 16

1400-1600: Renaissance

Villa Almerico-Capra, also known as Villa La Rotonda, by Andrea Palladio
Classical Ideas Reborn Villa Almerico-Capra, also known as Villa La Rotonda, by Andrea Palladio. Photo © Giorgio Magini/iStockPhoto.com

During the Renaissance, architects were inspired by the carefully proportioned buildings of Classical Greece and Rome. Italian Renaissance master Andrea Palladio helped awaken a passion for classical architecture when he designed beautiful, highly symmetrical villas such as La Rotonda shown here.

Learn about Renaissance architecture

08
of 16

1600-1830: Baroque

Entrance to The Palace of Versailles in France
Architecture of Exuberance The Baroque Palace of Versailles in France began as a simple stone and brick home designed by Philibert Le Roy in 1624. In 1669, architect Louis Le Vau began a detailed renovation and expansion. Photo by Loop Images Tiara Anggamulia / Passage / Getty Images (cropped)

Early in the 1600s, an elaborate new architectural style lavished buildings. What became known as Baroque was characterized by complex shapes, extravagant ornaments, opulent paintings, and bold contrasts.

Architecture was only one expression of the Baroque style. In music, famous names included Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. In the art world, Caravaggio, Bernini, Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Velázquez are remembered. Famous inventors and scientists of the day include Blaise Pascal and Isaac Newton.

09
of 16

1650-1790: Rococo

The Facade of the Rococo Catherine Palace in Pushkin near Saint Petersburg, Russia
The Facade of the Rococo Catherine Palace in Pushkin near Saint Petersburg, Russia. Photo by Sean Gallup / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Rococo architects applied Baroque ideas with a lighter, more graceful touch. In fact, some historians suggest that Rococo is simply a later phase of the Baroque period.

Architects of this period include the great Bavarian stucco masters like Dominikus Zimmermann, whose c. 1750 Pilgrimage Church of Wies is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

10
of 16

1730-1925: Neoclassicism

West Front of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC
New Approaches to Classical Architecture West Front of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. Photo: Architect of the Capitol

Ornate Baroque and Rococo styles fell out of favor as architects returned to Classical ideals borrowed from ancient Greece and Rome. Read below for facts about Neoclassicism in architecture.

How Neoclassical Architecture Began:

In 1563, Renaissance architect Giacomo da Vignola outlined the principles of Classical architecture in a treatise titled The Five Orders of Architecture. A few years later, another Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio, described his own approach to Classical architecture in The Four Books of Architecture.

These books were widely translated and inspired builders throughout western Europe. By the 1700s, European architects were turning away from elaborate Baroque and Rococo styles in favor of restrained Neoclassical approaches. Orderly, symmetrical Neoclassical architecture reflected the intellectual awakening among the middle and upper classes in Europe during the period historians often call the Enlightenment. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the newly-formed United States also drew upon Classical ideals to construct grand government buildings and smaller private homes.

Learn More About Neoclassicism:

Learn More:

11
of 16

1885-1925: Beaux Arts

The Paris Opera, also known as Palais Garnier, at Night in Paris, France
Neoclassicism Gone Wild - The Paris Opéra, designed by Beaux Arts architect Charles Garnier. Photo by Francisco Andrade / Moment / Getty Images (cropped)

Combining classical Greek and Roman architecture with Renaissance ideas, Beaux Arts architecture was a favored style for grand public buildings and opulent mansions.

12
of 16

1905-1930: Neo-Gothic

Built in 1924 by Raymond Hood and John Howells, the Tribune Tower in Chicago is Neo-Gothic in design
Gothic Ideas Adapted to Modern Times Built in 1924 by Raymond Hood and John Howells, the Tribune Tower in Chicago is Neo-Gothic in design. Photo by Glowimage/Getty Images

Early 20th century skyscrapers borrowed details from medieval Gothic architecture. The Tribune Tower in Chicago is an example of Neo-Gothic design. Read below for facts about Neo-Gothic architecture.

Gothic Revival was a Victorian style inspired by Gothic cathedrals and other medieval architecture. In the early twentieth century, Gothic Revival ideas were applied to modern skyscrapers. Twentieth Century Gothic Revival buildings are often called Neo-Gothic.

Neo-Gothic buildings have many of these features:

  • Strong vertical lines and a sense of great height
  • Pointed windows with decorative tracery
  • Gargoyles and other carvings
  • Pinnacles

Famous Neo-Gothic Buildings:

The Chicago Tribune Tower shown here was built in 1924. The architects Raymond Hood and John Howells were selected over many other architects to design the building. Their Neo-Gothic design may have appealed to the judges because it reflected a conservative (some critics said "regressive") approach. The facade of the Tribune Tower is studded with rocks collected from great buildings around the world. Other Neo-Gothic buildings include:

Neo-Gothic Architects:

Gothic Styles in Architecture:

13
of 16

1925-1937: Art Deco

The Art Deco Chrysler Building in New York City has jazzy automobile ornaments
The Art Deco Chrysler Building in New York City has jazzy automobile ornaments. Photo by CreativeDream/E+/Getty Images

With their sleek forms and zigzag designs, Art Deco architecture embraced both the machine age and ancient times.

The Art Deco style evolved from many sources. The austere shapes of the Bauhaus School and streamlined styling of modern technology combined with patterns and icons taken from the Far East, classical Greece and Rome, Africa, Ancient Egypt, India, and Mayan and Aztec cultures.

Art Deco buildings have many of these features:

  • Cubic forms
  • Ziggurat shapes: Terraced pyramid with each story smaller than the one below it
  • Complex groupings of rectangles or trapezoids
  • Bands of color
  • Zigzag designs
  • Strong sense of line
  • Illusion of pillars

By the 1930s, Art Deco evolved into a more simplified style known as Streamlined Moderne, or Art Moderne. The emphasis was on sleek, curving forms and long horizontal lines. These buildings did not feature zigzag or colorful designs found on earlier Art Deco architecture.

Famous Art Deco Buildings

Some of the most famous art deco buildings have become tourist destinations in New York City—the Empire State Building and Radio City Music Hall may be the most famous.

The Chrysler Building in New York City was built in 1930. For a few months, this Art Deco skyscraper was the tallest structure in the world. It was also one of the first buildings composed of stainless steel over a large exposed surface.

The architect, William Van Alen, drew inspiration from machine technology for the ornamental details on the Chrysler Building: There are eagle hood ornaments, hubcaps and abstract images of cars.

14
of 16

1900-Present: Modernist Styles

De La Warr Pavilion, 1935, Bexhill on Sea, East Sussex, UK
De La Warr Pavilion, 1935, Bexhill on Sea, East Sussex, UK. Photo by Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Modernism was not just another style - It presented a new way of thinking. Modernist architecture emphasizes function. It attempts to provide for specific needs rather than imitate nature. The roots of Modernism may be found in the work of Berthold Luberkin (1901-1990), a Russian architect who settled in London and founded a group called Tecton. The Tecton architects believed in applying scientific, analytical methods to design. Their stark buildings ran counter to expectations and often seemed to defy gravity.

The expressionistic work of the Polish-born German architect Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953) also furthered the modernist movement. Mendelsohn and Russian-born English architect Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996) won the competition to design the De La Warr Pavillion in Britain. The 1935 seaside public hall has been called Streamline Moderne and International, but it most certainly is one of the first modernist buildings to be constructed and restored, maintaining its original beauty over the years.

Modernist architecture can express a number of stylistic ideas, including Expressionism and Structuralism. In the later decades of the twentieth century, designers rebelled against the rational Modernism and a variety of Postmodern styles evolved.

Modernist architecture has these features:

  • Little or no ornamentation
  • Factory-made parts
  • Man-made materials such as metal and concrete
  • Emphasis on function
  • Rebellion against traditional styles

For examples of Modernism in architecture, see works by Rem Koolhaas, I.M. Pei, Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, and Mies van der Rohe.

Learn More:

  • Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn't Worked by Peter Blake, Little Brown & Co, 1978
    Buy on Amazon

15
of 16

1972-Present: Postmodernism

Postmodern Disney Building, 220 Celebration Place
Reshaping the Past Postmodern Disney Building, 220 Celebration Place. Photo © Jackie Craven

Combining new ideas with traditional forms, postmodernist buildings may startle, surprise, and even amuse.

Postmodern architecture evolved from the modernist movement, yet contradicts many of the modernist ideas. Combining new ideas with traditional forms, postmodernist buildings may startle, surprise, and even amuse. Familiar shapes and details are used in unexpected ways. Buildings may incorporate symbols to make a statement or simply to delight the viewer.

Philip Johnson's AT&T Headquarters is often cited as an example of postmodernism. Like many buildings in the International Style, the skyscraper has a sleek, classical facade. At the top, however, is an oversized "Chippendale" pediment. Johnson's design for the Town Hall in Celebration, Florida is also playfully over-the-top.

Postmodern Architects:

Further Reading:

The key ideas of Postmodernism are set forth in two important books by Robert Venturi.

Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture
In this groundbreaking book, published in 1966, Robert Venturi challenged modernism and celebrated the mix of historic styles in great cities such as Rome.
Buy This Book on Amazon

Learning from Las Vegas
Subtitled "The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form," this postmodernist classic called the "vulgar billboards" of the Vegas Strip emblems for a new architecture. Published in 1972, the book was written by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown.
Buy This Book on Amazon

16
of 16

21st Century

Curving Computer-designed Parametricism of Zaha Hadid's Heydar Aliyev Centre, 2012, Baku, Azerbaijan
Modernism's New Form Parametricism: Zaha Hadid's Heydar Aliyev Centre opened 2012 in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images Sport Collection/Getty Images

Some call today's architecture Neo-Modernism. Some call it Parametricism. But, is it beautiful?

What qualities do you think make a building beautiful? Graceful lines? Simple form? Functionality? Here are some ideas from architecture enthusiasts around the world:

  • All great architecture has balance and symmetry. That's why classical architecture - Greek, Roman - has endured through the ages.
  • I think the most beautiful buildings are the ones that surprise us. They break all the rules. That's why I like Frank Gehry so much.
  • The appearance of a building or its elevational geometric(s) should certainly be the result of the building's functionality. Simply put, it is form deriving from function that equals to aesthetics. The form therefore should be of pure geometry without frills, giving interpretation to all horizontal angulations offered by the plan. There should be no arbitrary interpretation from the horizontal plane to its true orthographical projection directly to its regular verticality. The Designer must relay a clear isometric clarity by crystallographic simplicity accountable to its structural determinants.
  • A beautiful space must satisfy the purpose, place, period, and people for whom it is designed.
  • A building is beautiful, I suppose, When it's sculpted like a rock, Yet unfolds like a rose.
  • To me, the beauty of a building is its functionality. Then I can relate with it perfectly, I can speak to it and it will respond, I can rest in after a hard day's job and I will be soothed. Especially, in Lagos, Nigeria where traffic is always is locked. In the Third World, it's not always about the flowery landscape. Oftentimes, it's about a space to lay your head with plenty of fresh air with two eyes closed.
  • What makes a building beautiful? Balance, proportion, appropriate embellishments, congruity with its environment and evidence of human skill.
  • The town of Bath in England is uniformly beautiful because of the symmetry of design and colour of its primary buildings. A soft yellow sedimentary stone, called Bath stone, has been used to face all the buildings built there since the mid-1700s. When you approach the city from the east, you look down into a large bowl-shaped valley that seems to be full of pale honey. The Bath Crescent, an immense arc of Georgian townhouses, to me is the most beautiful building in the world.
  • Great architecture is when entering or viewing a building, I feel great. HAGIA SOFIA MAKES ME ECSTATIC, I am knocked out by 12th and 13th century French gothic cathedrals, seeing the Taj is breathtaking. Wright's home in Oak Park is very exciting, the light and color in Legoretta's are wonderful, St. Mark's Square in Venice is unforgettable, Palladio and Aalto's buildings are exciting. These are just a few examples.
  • Beauty comes when it tries to please all our senses.