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MAIN Arrow to ArtArt & Culture Arrow to Architecture Architecture Arrow to History of Architecture History of Western Architecture

Plan of the Abbey of St. Gall
Detail from The Abbey of St. Gall,
the only architectural plan which
survived between the fall of
Rome & the 13th century.

Rising out of the Neolithic mud and stone buildings of prehistory simply built to human scale, the basic principles of architecture ultimately reached their height with Greek and Roman religious and other structures, which were principally designed to awe and overwhelm.

The Greeks were first to utilize the golden ratio of proportion, employing subtle and sophisticated style tricks to fool the eye, i.e., tapering their columns at the top (with a slight bulge in the middle) to make them seem even taller and grander than they actually were.

While Greek architecture was largely religious in nature, the Romans later adopted similar principles as a platform to boast of Roman might and power.

Following Rome's fall, the less subtle form of Romanesque architecture was typified by thick stone walls, small semicircular windows, and cruder stone carvings from which later gave rise to the revolutionary Gothic style.

With the re-adoption of more sophisticated geometric principles, medieval architects still built in stone, but also introduced the flying buttress, which enabled them in effect to build the world's first skyscrapers, as seen in towering cathedrals and even some civic structures. Colorful stained glass and highly decorative stone carvings also typified the medieval Gothic style.

At 10 stories, the Home Insurance Building was the world's first skyscraper in 1884.
The invention of the first safety elevator in 1852 gave rise to the world's first
modern skyscraper, Chicago's Home Insurance Building built in 1884.


In response to the freer, more decorative style of the Gothic period, the art and science of architecture came full circle when Renaissance architects reintroduced the classical ideals of geometry and proportion. A few centuries later, the pendulum swung again when the 17th century Baroque period became, in turn, a reaction to the strict adherence to the classical, and allowed more latitude in the form of elliptical arches, splashes of vivid color, and more highly decorative architectural elements.

The postmodernist Sony Building, New York City
Mixing modern and classical elements,
Phillip Johnson's Sony Building sported
a broken pediment in 1984 signaling
a break with modern Manhattan.

The 19th century once again saw a return to the basics with the rise of the Neoclassical and Greek Revival movements, followed closely by the industrial revolution which gave rise to the simplicity and efficiency of the modern movement.

The use of electricity over steam power (along with the invention of the elevator) played no small part in buildings rising higher and sleeker than ever before.

Architecture's radical break with the past in the late half of the 20th century eventually witnessed a complete shedding of any form of decoration. The "form follows function" directive resulted in glass-sheathed boxes that were much in favor by corporations and big business.

Today, the ebb and flow of architectural history continues as the post modern architectural movement of the late 20th century helps reintroduce buildings built to a more human scale, along with re-infusion of color, creativity, and sensitivity to the environment to commercial architectural design.

Interesting firsts in architectural history

Abbey church of St. Denis, Paris
St. Denis becomes the
world's first example of
the Gothic style in 1144.

• Imhotep, the first architect in recorded history, created the first pyramid - the 'step pyramid' at Saqqara - as a tomb for the pharaoh Djoser in 2620 BC.

• Around 350 BC, the Greek ruler Mausolus was entombed in a building so spectacular that it gave birth to a new architectural term - the mausoleum.

• Concrete was developed around 500 BC by the Romans who use the material (similar to today's Portland cement) to build houses, civic buildings and temples.

• In 1144, the abbey church of St Denis was consecrated near Paris, introducing the style of architecture later known as Gothic.

• The first documented prefab house was the Manning Portable Cottage, built in the 1830s by London carpenter H. Manning, whose son was immigrating to Australia and needed a comfortable place to live.

• The first female architect in America, Louise Bethune of Buffalo, NY, receives her license in 1888. More than a half century later, Norma Merrick Sklarek becomes the first African-American woman architect in 1954.


More about architectural history around the Web:


World Heritage - Discover why architectural preservation is relevant and important in this heartfelt collection offering tours to fascinating sites around the world. QuickTime required.

The Digital Archive of American Architecture - Award winning site by Boston College's Professor Jeffrey Howe presenting a photographic tour on the topic from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

The Digital Archive of European Architecture - Here's an even more extensive photographic survey by Professor Jeffrey Howe from Prehistoric Europe up to the 20th century.


also in Architecture -> Architectural Styles

also see in History -> Ancient Egypt

 

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