Architectural history is a very long narrative, and rightfully so. What began as a simple solution for humankind’s need for shelter quickly evolved into so much more. Caves and primitive huts quickly gave way to what is today’s highly varied and sometimes overwhelming urban landscape. Over the years, the creativity and intellect of the human mind have yielded in some of the most interesting things out there, some pioneers in their time.
1. The Great Pyramids- Giza, Egypt
Tombs and Mausoleums have long since held a strange fascination for the human race. Beautifully eerie structures like Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal or the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (and its terracotta army) have brought tourists flocking to it every year. Yet, one of the earliest and most legendary tributes to the dead lies in Giza, in its pyramidal necropolis. The Egyptians may not have pioneered these “cities for the dead”, standing alongside its ancient Greek and Persian counterparts, but they certainly cemented the art of monumentalism for the dead. One of the first successful attempts at constructing a true pyramid, it was novel in so many ways, its sheer scale remains a testament to its builders. Towering at 146.5m, The Pyramid of Khufu, the tallest of the three, was one of the world’s tallest structures for 3,800 years until overtaken by the Lincoln Cathedral. The only ancient wonder of the world to still stand, intact, the pyramids bear witness to the philosophy of ‘go big or go home’. Every necropolis, every monument following the Pyramids of Giza were forced to measure up to the lofty standards it had set.
2. The Parthenon- Athens, Greece
How can one begin to comb through architectural history without stumbling across the Parthenon? Glorious proportions inspired by the Golden Ratio; Huge, Doric columns imbibed with the subtle illusions of entasis; Beautiful, fine sculptures and carvings. Though just one among dozens of marvels of ancient Greece, it foreshadowed architectural styles for the years to come. An imposing temple atop the Acropolis of Athens, it was originally dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena Parthenos. A visual directory of the Greek classical order, The Parthenon not only introduced the world to the scale and might of the Greek Empire but also captured their mastery of the finer arts. The structure and architecture of the Parthenon went on to lend its colonnades, entablatures, and pediments to its Roman successors and eventually inspired churches and cathedrals. After the splendor and glory of the Parthenon, nothing remained the same.
3. The Pantheon- Rome, Italy
At a glance, The Pantheon may seem like nothing more than the typical arrangement of Corinthian order columns, pediments, and carvings. As one of Rome’s oldest buildings, it does, however, have a lot to offer – beautiful coffered ceilings, and open- to- the- sky oculus and so many intricate details. But, its real achievement and crowning feature, quite literally, is its dome- the world’s largest unreinforced, solid concrete dome. To this day, it holds that title. With both the diameter of the dome and the floor to apex distance measuring 43.4 m, the room could, in theory, accommodate a perfect sphere. To be able to master dome construction, while maintaining such intricacy and precision was a testament to Roman engineering. The Pantheon not only redefined Roman classical antiquity, but it also became an excellent blueprint for future designs. Years later, it would inspire architects to revive the magnificence of classical architecture.
4. Basilica of San Vitale- Ravenna, Italy.
Built-in the 6th century, the Basilica of San Vitale is the only major church from the Justinian period to remain standing. As an early example of Christian Byzantine architecture, the Basilica was still just grappling with newer concepts of narrow brickwork, polygonal apses, early signs of flying buttresses, and rich mosaic work. Paying homage to old Roman traditions while establishing new Byzantine roots, it was also a defining presence in what is considered ‘the greatest building of the Dark Ages in Europe’- Emperor Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel. A keystone of Carolingian architecture of North Europe, the Palatine Chapel, situated in Aachen, Germany, owed much to the Basilica.
5. Abbey of Saint-Denis- Saint-Denis, France
Europe is full of Gothic cathedrals and abbeys. While Paris’s Notre Dame or Germany’s Cologne Cathedral are excellent examples of beautiful gothic architecture, it was the choir of Abbey of Saint-Denis, completed in 1114, that first showed signs of a new Gothic era. In the 12th century, Abbot Suger rebuilt parts of the abbey church to incorporate characteristically gothic rib vaulting, pointed arches and buttresses, inadvertently creating the first truly Gothic building. Over the years, the Abbey continued to influence the design of medieval cathedrals and abbeys, serving as a live model of the early Gothic period. Over time, the style grew into a vast one, branching into smaller sub-types across France, England, Germany, across all of Europe, and today its revival influences are scattered all around the world.
6. Villa Almerico- Capra (The Rotunda)- Vicenza, Italy
To many, the classical antiquity of the Greeks and Romans were too good to be left behind as mere records in history. Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio was just one among a handful who had a deep respect for a style long gone. In an attempt to revive the rationality in clarity, order, and symmetry he found in classical forms, he put together Neoclassical Palladianism. Villa Almerico- Capra was one of his most famous works, largely inspired by Rome’s Pantheon. By the 18th century, Palladianism had spread even to the far-off American colonies, reaching a self-taught American architect- Thomas Jefferson. Drawn to the strength and scale of classical architecture, inspired by Palladio’s ‘The Four Books of Architecture’, and armed with Virginia’s unique resources, he gave birth to the Jeffersonian Neoclassical sub-sect. Today, The United States of America is full of Jeffersonian Neoclassical monuments and buildings, both directly and directly inspired by it.
7. Bauhaus building- Dessau, Germany
Designed by Walter Gropius, The Bauhaus building was not only instrumental in influencing and changing modern architecture but also strove to transform architectural education. Gropius’s philosophy was not only translated to his students but was also channeled into his work. Following on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, it was a school of thought intended to unify mass production with artistic details and sentiments, combining arts and crafts. The building stood as a symbol of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (“comprehensive artwork”), both an icon and facilitator. The Bauhaus movement went on to change the face of modern art, architecture, interior, graphic and industrial design.
8. The Home Insurance Building- Chicago, USA
The Home Insurance building was considered to be one of Chicago’s first skyscrapers, a product of the Chicago School of Thought (or the Commercial Style). Originally a ten-storeyed building, it was supported by a steel and metal skeleton, inside and out, one of several of steel-framed buildings to come. It strove to embody the essence of the style- to create taller, spatially efficient buildings instead of large palatial structures spread out across acres. The building helped ease the introduction of lighter weight materials and tube-frame structures into an industry previously limited by the properties of masonry. The Home Insurance Building weighed only one-third that of a typical masonry building of its size, causing so much concern that construction was halted until they could confirm its safety. William Le Baron Jenney’s design was demolished in 1931, but it has since then inspired the growth and rise of skyscrapers, altering Chicago’s skyline forever.
9. Villa Savoye- Paris, France
Swiss architect Le-Corbusier was one of the pioneers of modern architecture, so it comes as no surprise that his Villa Savoye also stood to influence it greatly. Although famous for many things, his most well-regarded principles remain his “five points”.
- Pilotis-use of reinforced concrete columns instead of supporting walls to elevate the building
- An open plan, free of supporting walls
- Free design of the façade, a mere skin keeping the façade free from structural limitations
- Horizontal windows, cut across the entire length of the façade and lighting up the inside
- Roof gardens, both for aesthetics and protecting the concrete roof.
Though intended as a universal rule-book of sorts it perfectly sums up Villa Savoye. Situated in Poissy, in the quaint outskirts of Paris, it diverges greatly from the usual countryside villas and bungalows. Contradicting years of countryside housing designs, Corbusier’s symbolized an emerging Modern Architecture, pioneering the International Style. One of his most renowned works, the concrete house created enormous implications for International Modernism.
10. Guild House, Philadelphia, USA
Robert Venturi’s first major project, The Guild House is an important post-modern building. The residential building looked to re-invent the starkness of modernism and infuse it with a little art, history, and life. It helped usher in a new face of 20th-century architecture – a post-modern one. Not only did the house help establish Venturi as an ambitious architect with great potential for America’s architectural scene, but it also stood as a visual representation of everything he stood for. Rather than disregarding what he considered to be banal 20th-century commercialism, he combined it with historic tones and elements. As Venturi said, “Economy dictated not ‘advanced’ architectural elements, but ‘conventional’ ones. We did not resist this.”
Today, postmodernism has changed the face and evolved into yet another style, yet buildings like the Guild House continue to remain relevant.