David John Watkin (1941-2018) was a British architectural historian. He has taught at the University of Cambridge and his research mainly focused on neoclassical architecture. He has written many relevant books and is considered an expert on classicism and its revivals in architecture. 

“A History of Western Architecture” was first published in 1986, at a time when the architecture world was beginning to transcend the movement of modernism and question its “certainties”.

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David Watkin_©The Telegraph

In his book “A History of Western Architecture”, David Watkin analyzes the evolution of architectural forms from antiquity to the present day. Through three millennia of human civilization, he chronicles the appearance and evolution of architectural rhythms and styles and points out the intersections and the elements of continuity. 

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A history of architecture on the comparative method for the student, craftsman, and amateur in “The Tree of Architecture” from Banister Fletcher_©University of Pittsburgh Press

The description of the most memorable buildings and monuments of the western architectural heritage is combined with the analysis of the aesthetic perceptions and the patterns that prevailed in the respective periods. The various effects that contribute to the formation of trends and schools are also detected. 

Architecture and city planning are inscribed in their broader historical and cultural context and are interpreted concerning the general social and economic conditions, without, ignoring the crucial role of the individual.

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Pages from the book_© Thames & Hudson Australia

Deviating from other historiographical approaches that treat the past of Western architecture as a graveyard of diverse styles, David Watkin points out that the revival of traditional forms was the trigger for many of the great phases of architecture, and highlights the successive revivals of perpetual validity and vitality of the classical architectural language. 

The book is an attempt to tell the story of western architecture and show how the classical architectural vocabulary has been used considering the residential needs, technological developments, cultural ideals, and existing goods in different cultural contexts, cultures, climates, and places.

The Significance of Classical Architecture in Later Examples

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Robert Adam Portman Square Section_© Sir John Soane’s Museum

David Watkin points out the importance of classical tradition as a driving force for the creation of new architectural styles. He states that through observing the successive revivals of classicism, one can see that each generation had to rediscover the classical language on its account. 

Architects have always been looking for the secrets of ancient design, reflecting in this search their expectations, which colored their reactions to what they found or thought they had found. In the 15th century Alberti, in the 16th Palladio, in the 17th Perrault, in the 18th Adam, in the 19th Schinkel, in the 20th Lutyens, they all rediscovered the language of classical architectural rhythm that signified their Epoque.

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Thomas Jefferson’s design of the Rotunda_© the library at the heart of the University of Virginia
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Nazi Pantheon (unbuilt)_© Ullstein Bild/Getty Images, Image Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing

Therefore, in different periods the same form can be revived with very different intentions and recall different sets of concepts and echoes. Thus, Thomas Jefferson used a classicism inspired by ancient Greece to symbolize the democratic principles of the 18th century in America, while similar forms had very different correlations in Germany in the 1930s when the Nazi Government sought to assert its prestige by engaging in recognized symbols and values of the classical past. Architecture is in itself neither totalitarian nor democratic.

The Book Structure

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An illustration of the Five Architectural Orders engraved for the Encyclopédie, vol. 18, showing the Tuscan and Doric orders (top row); two versions of the Ionic order (center row) Corinthian and Composite orders_©artfl.uchicago.edu

David Watkin defines the roots of classical architecture as the classical foundation, which includes Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman architecture. He emphasizes, though, the importance of the times before the first appearance of classical architecture in ancient Greece. Thus, in the first chapter of his book, he refers to the early civilizations of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. 

He devotes considerable length to the early Christian and Byzantine heritage, to Carolingian and Romantic architecture. Then, he continues with the frame analysis and presentation of examples of the Gothic, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, the 18th and 19th centuries with the new architectural directions, and the creation of the skyscraper. 

Finally, he focuses on art nouveau and the 20th century. Here, he highlights the spirit of the new era when the classical principles were neglected or devalued by the modern movement. 

Furthermore, he analyses the diverse movements, such as expressionism, futurism, modern and postmodern, and eventually comments on the architecture in the new millennium and the innovative computer-aided design software.

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Victor Place-Félix Thomas, Palais. Ensemble de la porte Z. du harem, Ninive et l’Assyrie, 1867-1870_© General Research Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Indicatively, the titles of the chapters are the following:

  1. Mesopotamia and Egypt
  2. The classical foundation: Greek, Hellenistic, Roman
  3. Early Christian and Byzantine
  4. Carolingian and Romanesque
  5. The Gothic Experiment
  6. Renaissance Harmony
  7. Baroque Expansion
  8. Eighteenth-Century
  9. The Nineteenth Century
  10. Art nouveau
  11. The Twentieth-century and Beyond

An Architectural Journey for Everybody

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View of the Parthenon from the Propylaea, Athens, 1805_© Simone Pomardi

In “A History of Western Architecture”, David Watkin not only documents the historical evolution of architecture but also looks at the history of the western world through the prism of architecture. Emphasis is placed on how each socio-political situation was linked to the emergence of specific movements and how the various shifts contributed to the evolution of architectural composition and construction. 

This book is a detailed illustrated survey that provides the reader with a complete yet fresh perspective, highlighting the continuity of architecture rather than its separate styles. It offers a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between architecture and the evolution of Western man and society, between past and present. 

It evokes critical thinking and proves that each era is based on works from previous periods either to continue them or to challenge them and revolutionize to achieve innovation.

Author

Evgenia is a young architect interested in interdisciplinary urban projects. She believes that the urban environment defines social relations and that people should actively claim the right to the city. Her interests embrace mapping and cinematic spaces. Besides architecture, she loves illustrations, fables, and science fiction.

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