The Architectural discipline dates back to the mere beginnings of time and has traveled a long way since then to transform into the contemporary, complex, technological version of herself that we get to experience. The events that led to the present are as vast as history itself; however, we will try to narrow it down to some particular circumstances, surfing through different styles and periods searching for the bare milestones for architecture.
Engineering and resources: the Pyramids
It is unexplainable to this day how humankind could reach the level of engineering employed to build its iconic, mind-blowing Pyramids. These structures not only speak of the comprehension of geometry and design but its territory and resources. In the desert lands of Egypt, the abundance of the adjacent valleys provided the civilization of granite and limestone from which they built the most magnificent tombs and temples to honor their rulers.
As Egyptians did not use mortar, they would cut stones carefully to fit perfectly with one another, their pyramidal base allowing the structure to reach great heights. Their unique, incomprehensible nature makes them remain one of the most pondered mysteries of humanity.
Beauty and Proportion: The Parthenon
The utmost symbol of power, beauty, and wealth sits atop of the Acropolis of Athens. The Parthenon has withstood natural disasters and the cruel passing of time with elegance and conviction since 447 B.C. This unique milestone teaches us proportion, classical orders, materiality, endurance, and belief. Its original will, to be the temple for Athena, goddess of wisdom, arts, literature, and war, shines through every pore of this Doric-style temple, in its symmetrical facade of columns, the story of this civilization’s battles and conquest carved in ist flesh of marble.
Light and Space: the Pantheon
Bricks and concrete defy gravity: the Pantheon, just like the pyramids in Egypt, seems to be a work made by the angels. Its exterior responds to the classical orders; Corinthian columns of Egyptian granite make up the entrance that faces the Italian Piazza. Magic, however, takes place on the inside, where the spatial experience is capable of moving the most skeptical, cold heart. Five rows of 28 rectangular coffers make up the dome. Its summit is carved with an oculus, making the whole space levitate in an almost cinematographic experience as the sunlight slips in.
Undoubtedly a milestone in architecture, the Pantheons instruct us about the importance of light and its quality to defy gravity. However, this building is more than scenic magic: studies around its technological and constructive methods intended to comprehend how ancient civilizations could achieve such a magnificent structure. Its coffers and oculus relieve some weight from the roof, relieving arches strengthen interior walls, thick, heavy concrete; mixed with lighter stone material as it gets to the ceiling. One way or another, this structure has influenced architecture for more than 2000 years.
Gothic Splendor: Notre Dame
Iconic and unique, Notre Dame is more than just a church but a symbol. This gothic cathedral built for the first time in 1163 has seen some of the most important events in French history. It has earned a spot in the imaginary conception of the city, becoming heritage and carrying its meaning. Throughout the years it has been restored several times, hosting priceless pieces of art and sculptures.
Notre Dame’s gothic nature has inspired architecture ever since its creation; however, the strange phenomenon in this building is that its essence is what makes her so unique. It’s the mystic air around it, the weight of history and faith tangible; its spatial conception makes you feel as if you were crossing the gates of time. Notre Dame is invaluable to the french, for Notre Dame is, somehow, France.
Death and Rebirth of the city: the Strike of the Bubonic Plague
There is nothing more eye-opening than incipient death. The strike of the Bubonic plague affected Asia and Europe during the XIV and XV century, drenching the streets in blood and despair and leaving an open wound in the imagination of the city and the societies then inhabited it.
Before the sanitary crisis, changes had to be made regarding urban conditions, beginning for cleaner, ventilated, brighter streets, concepts that hygienists will take in the year to come and transform cities worldwide. However, one of the reasons we should consider the strike of the plague as a milestone in the history of architecture is its impact on how human beings saw and lived their lives.
They began to fear God’s will, seeing death as a vile, independent character that acted mercilessly, randomly. Society became morbid and bleak, lured and terrified by death, a topic that became the center of literature, arts, and architecture. Some religions and cultures understood the plague as God’s punishment for human sins and their desires; others believed it was malice perpetrated by others such as Jews or Rabines, ending in persecutions. Racism and discrimination left scars that are still present nowadays.
Lastly, the beings became interested in human anatomy: driven by the desire to comprehend, they got into science and studied the body, proportions, and function. Th /e afterlife was uncertain; therefore, humanity’s rhythm began to speed up as they became more pleasure-driven, surrounded by luxury and material happiness; this will be crucial to understand the behaviour of baroque citizens.
Renaissance: a New World For a New Man
Like the plague’s impact, human beings will position themselves and observe the world with new eyes. The renaissance man will create the linear perspective without a vanishing point, giving mathematical precision to their work and positioning themselves as active actors of the urban scenery rather than passive observers. Arts bloomed: painting, theatre, music made the city become a vital space.
The architecture will blossom, visionary works that re-imagine the city as a work of art will shape the conception of the urban display, and public space will become the scenery for cultural, social life.
Designed by Michel Angelo around the XVI century, this was the first public space to be designed to be walkable, livable, and thought of as more than the resulting void between the built environment. Michael Angelo intended the Piazza to face St. Peter’s Basilica, unfocusing from the old Roman Forum and orientated towards the city’s new political center. The Piazza rethought the preexisting condition of the void resulting from the then deteriorated historical buildings.
During this time, some of the most glorious religious edifications took place, such as the St. Peter’s Basilica. The most important building in the Christian faith with a dome and spatiality like that of the Pantheon’s church just as majestic, if not more. Faith meets art and spirituality in this heavenly construction in a way no words can describe.
Power and Masonry: the Baroque
Architecture has always been a tool to show power and install order. During the baroque, religion began to lose hold of people’s lives; therefore, architecture migrated from great cathedrals and churches to the hands of the nobility. A well-known case is that of the Palace of Versaille, a symbol of absolute monarchy power, luxury, organization, and the vivid image of the king himself, Louis XIV, who considered himself the Sun King, as the world revolved around him.
Versailles is a milestone in architecture for its one of the first palaces to be built, creating this new relationship with the urban tissue, where the palace made this sort of fence facing the city. To its back, the gardens of Eden served the political power in its whole. From then onwards, this organization became very popular all over the world.
The Industrial Revolution
This event will be a gamechanger for architectural conception in modern times, one of the essential milestones in history. Changes in technology and materials resulted from the proliferation of knowledge, a scientific approach to reality, and a new mindset. They sought to strip down the ostentatious, dressed up firm to its most honest expression.
The industrial revolution man lives at a higher speed and lowers costs than the classic being; therefore, new methods and ideas arise due to this new approach to time and space. Engineering took the wheel, and during this time, the focus will be on finding a new way of producing and reflecting the image of this intelligent, mathematically driven, scrupulous identity of this new reality.
As a result, we got buildings that will be considered milestones per se, such as the Crystal Palace, which responded to the Queen of England’s needs for an economical, quickly built venue for the first World’s Fair. Designed by the gardener Joseph Paxton, the building resembles a marvellous greenhouse, its structure as a puzzle of iron columns and girders allowed to assemble on site. The finished project took less than six months.
The first-ever Iron Bridge was built, and for the first time in history, the efforts for this fundamental structure have been calculated and thoroughly studied. The Eiffel Tower remains the vivid example of the resemblance of architecture and the machine, being a group of parts meticulously designed to fit perfectly in a specific logical order, holding together one of the greatest, most iconic engineering works of the industrial revolution, and probably history.
Lastly, during this period, LeBaron Jenney projected the first-ever skyscraper in 1885 in revolutionary steel framed structured Home Insurance Building in Chicago, built entirely in stone, iron, and steel, immediately becoming an icon of this new construction era.
Art Nouveau and Figurative Avant-Garde
The opposition to the machine by artists and artisans that had found their work vulned and futile compared to the output of the industrial production fostered the appearance of new art movements. Cubism, impressionism, expressionism, and so many others pursued to place the sight back to nature, to organic figures, colors, and lines. They tried to understand and interpret reality rather than focusing on literal transcription.
These movements brought about architects like Gaudi, or Henry van de Velde, who sought the organic expression in curved yet strong lines that spoke of nature in the built language, restoring natural materials and industrial steel and glass wood and stone.
Gaudi’s Casa Milá, built-in 1910, talks of how imagination and technology can recreate nature’s will in this modern, open-spaced housing building, where architecture meets art in a practical, plastic, magnificent way. His understanding of architecture will give Spain a renewed identity and expand its ideals throughout the world.
On the other hand, in the same year and across the world, Peter Behrens built the AEG factory. This rational, modern industrial building became the first industrial structure to be designed and thought spatially, dignifying the everyday jobs of those who worked in the factory. The studied relationship between iron and glass, every part and element, the expression of every encounter created an imponent, cold, strong image of rationality. This factory became the milestone for industrial building, which would become overly popular in the years to come.
Education and Quality: The Bauhaus
The most iconic milestone in modern architecture was the creation of the Bauhaus school, where art, technique, and taste met in an actual educational process to fight the monstrous result of mass-produced artisanal goods through industrial methods. This education set the basis in the workshops, an innovative concept, but the usual practice nowadays in most universities.
In the first six months, students would undergo the preliminary course to develop their creative potential and familiarize themselves with the essential components of the architectural and design practice. With an artistic intelligence, they would begin their three years of workshop practice, seeking to raise critical designers that understood how to adapt the design to the new industrial reality. Students could participate in internships to gain experience in the real world. They could further extend their education by making a practical education to experience firsthand in site work.
The result was an integral educational reform and an ‘international style.’ Preparing students as free creative individuals set a mindset that gave rise to similar designs and methods. This way of teaching has been adapted to the present times, becoming one of its biggest influences.
Le Corbusier: the Domino Structure and the Five Points in Architecture
Le Corbusier is considered one of the fathers of modern architecture for its work and theoretical inputs. Around 1915, after undergoing several studies, he concluded in what he called the Domino Structure, affirming that to build a city, all you need is concrete slabs, columns, and stairs. With this invention, he freed us from constructive restriction allowing open floor plans and non-bearing facades. Le Corbusier is responsible for the most common characteristic in contemporary architecture.
By 1929 he presented the ‘Five Points of Architecture’ in his manifesto work, the Ville Savoye. These were five steps every dwelling had to follow to be the inhabiting machine he believed every house should be and consisted in:
- Houses elevated in pilotis to avoid humidity and earn more green space.
- Open, free ground plan, slabs supported by columns as described in the Domino Structure eliminating the need for bearing walls, allowing greater spatial flexibility.
- Freedom to design the facade, now freed from its bearing role.
- Horizontal windows capture natural lighting and frame the landscape beyond the glass, in direct contact with nature.
- Roof gardens to control temperature and humidity and get back some of the green space lost on the ground floor.
Le Corbusier’s ideas revolutionized modern architecture with his theoretical and practical work, modernity’s most influential milestone.
Restoration and Patrimony: the Venice Charter
We could list essential buildings and events in architectural history forever; however, this last event can give a good closure to this article. As we have seen, the world is full of masterpieces and relics of history that were crucial for the development of architecture and continue to influence this breathtaking, vast universe.
The Venice Charter is the summit of many years of progressive work where the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) set the basis for preserving buildings in the character of patrimony, cultural heritage, or World Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO. This document protects historical buildings and monuments beyond their physical appearance, but for their role in history and the conception of the urban imaginary.
Needless to say that too many milestones didn’t make it to this list, such Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn’s work, and XXI century architects as Frank Ghery, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Rafael Moneo, Enric Miralles, too many to even mention them. Thankfully, just as they do, we can continue to learn, interpret and rediscover history repeatedly through this mesmerizing universe that is architecture.