Architectural Styles and Media

What makes a style? Explore how popular culture and media impact architectural styles from the Renaissance to present day.

By Royal Institute of British Architects

This story is based on a RIBA commission with Space Popular, displayed at the RIBA Architecture Gallery, 2020

Entrance to Freestyle exhibition commission by RIBA with Space Popular (2020) by Photographer: Francis Ware and Designers: Space PopularRoyal Institute of British Architects


Set within rows of lush Georgian houses in central London, the Royal Institute of British Architect stands out with its exterior in the style of Art Deco. Inside, a plethora of architectural styles collides and adorns the Architecture Gallery in the exhibition Freestyle – Architectural Adventures in Mass Media.

Freestyle takes you on a journey through time from Renaissance to postmodernism. Drawing on RIBA’s world-class collections, the multidisciplinary design duo, Space Popular were commissioned to examine how popular cultures, mass media and development of technologies impact architecture and its style evolution.

Historic artefacts are displayed alongside newly commissioned content, with an oversized architectural model taking centre stage. Traversing the gallery, it highlights iconic buildings from different stylistic movements bookended by Hardwick Hall in the style of Elizabethan architecture and the high-tech Media Centre at Lord's Cricket Ground.

Installation shot, Freestyle exhibition (2020) by Photographer: Francis Ware and Designers: Space PopularRoyal Institute of British Architects

500 years of Architectural History

The building contours of the model are reflected in a wallpaper that meticulously maps successive and overlapping stylistic movements.

Installation shot by Francis Ware (2019) by Photographer: Francis Ware and Designers: Space PopularRoyal Institute of British Architects

The vertical lines from the wallpaper continues in the psychedelic carpet to visually connect style periods with pictograms of various forms of media – like the mobile phone – used to distribute and accentuate their popularity. 

Film Still Act1 03, Freestyle VR Film (2019) by Designers: Space PopularRoyal Institute of British Architects

Lastly, Space Popular uses a series of virtual reality films to create a beguiling universe that bridges the experience of the physical model and historic artefacts. 

Guided by talking and moving avatars, seven key technological innovations are linked to the objects on display and their influence on styles.

"Style is recognised intuitively and produced through repetition ... the strength of any style relies on its ability to communicate"

Film Still Act2 01, Freestyle VR Film (2019) by Designers: Space PopularRoyal Institute of British Architects

The Printing Press - Renaissance: 1425-1700

The invention of the printing press enabled mass production of books for the first time. Rapid dissemination of ideas and knowledge spread throughout Europe with national styles now crossing borders, especially the revival of classicism deriving from Italy. 

Facade of a domed palazzo incorporating a terrace flanked by a pair of obelisks (1537) by Architect: Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554)Royal Institute of British Architects

A popular figure in the Renaissance was Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio. His treatise Seven Books of Architecture – one of these is dedicated to the study of architectural style –reached architects who could never dream of visiting Italy themselves. 

In this illustration Serlio sets out the iconic components of Renaissance style palazzo: the symmetrical portico and central pediment; the rusticated ground floor and the crowning dome. His books acted like an accessible encyclopaedia of all things architectural – not only for architects but for builders everywhere.

St Paul's Cathedral, City of London (1711) by Artist: Colen Campbell and Architect: Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723)Royal Institute of British Architects

Christopher Wren was an English architect influenced by new ideas and styles taking hold in London from literary sources. This is reflected in his baroque design for St Paul's Cathedral (1710) which challenged the dominant Gothic style of church-building in England at the time. 

The final form incorporates details seen in Paris – on Wren’s sole European excursion – alongside the strong influence of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, studied second-hand through engravings. 

Film Still Act2 03, Freestyle VR Film (2019) by Designers: Space PopularRoyal Institute of British Architects

The Empire Travelogue - Orientalism & Exoticism 1740-1860

As the British Empire rapidly expanded so did the technology to produce high-quality illustrations from countries beyond the European continent. This introduced new sources of architectural forms, patterns, and colours.

Royal Pavilion, Brighton (1819) by Architect: John Nash (1752-1835)Royal Institute of British Architects

Completed in 1823, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton by architect John Nash is built in the style of Indo-Saracenic, a fanciful hybrid of the British Raj.

Nash took inspiration from the artists Thomas and William Daniell's Oriental Scenery – a collection of watercolours, etchings and aquatints, made over many years’ travel on the Indian subcontinent and published as six volumes between 1795 and 1808.

Royal Pavilion, Brighton, England

The Grammar of Ornament (1852) by Architect: Owen Jones (1809-1874)Royal Institute of British Architects

Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament, first published in 1856, became one of the most influential reference books featuring over a hundred plates of global styles: Persian, Indian, Hindoo and Chinese. Jones used the expensive technique of chromolithography to preserve crispness, with images composed of up to twenty layers, each colour prepared on a separate stone.

Crystal Palace, Sydenham, London (1860) by Architects: Owen Jones (1809-1874), Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865), Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877)Royal Institute of British Architects

Translating plates into practice, Owen Jones created an exaggerated Egyptian-styled courtyard, like a theatrical set, within an entirely new type of architecture for a new public audience: the light-filled Exhibition Hall for the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Film Still Act2 06, Freestyle VR Film (2019) by Designers: Space PopularRoyal Institute of British Architects

Photography - Revivalism and Historicism: 1850-1920

Alongside the sophistication of the printing processes, photography emerged as a new media to rival previous forms of documentation. The ability to objectively replicate the world enhanced the desire to recreate other time periods, such as Gothic and Queen Anne Revival.

Rievaulx Abbey (1859) by Photographer: Francis BedfordRoyal Institute of British Architects

Early photographs like this one by Francis Bedford of the ruined, Gothic cathedral at Rielvaux demonstrate the medium’s careful and almost sublime quality, allowing the viewer to detach from time and space, introducing distant styles.

Chamberlain Square, Birmingham (1950) by Photographer: Sam Lambert and Architect: John Henry Chamberlain (1831-1883)Royal Institute of British Architects

A favoured style during the Victorian era was Gothic Revival, mimicking the 13th and 14th-century medieval period. Here playing centre stage at Chamberlain Square in Birmingham with the memorial fountain and the building on the left, the Liberal Club.

Film Still - Freestyle, Space Popular, Act 3 (2019) by Designer: Space PopularRoyal Institute of British Architects

Motion Pictures & Lifestyle Magazines - Modernism: 1927-60

The profusion of Hollywood motion pictures and lifestyle magazines dominated the modernist period with new aspirations for radically different ways of living and designing.

Foundling housing scheme (Brunswick Centre) (1960) by Architect: Patrick Hodgkinson (1930-2016)Royal Institute of British Architects

The Brunswick Centre with its concrete frame and elevated walkways connected working, shopping and dwelling in the Brutalist style.

This collage includes figures cut from magazines rather than drawn, indicating the impact of popular culture, with the woman dressed in formal business attire, standing in but not bound to the kitchen. Wren's dome of St Paul's Cathedral can be spotted outside the window.

Film Still Act3 08, Freestyle VR Film (2019) by Designers: Space PopularRoyal Institute of British Architects

TV & Computer Games Postmodernism: 1960-90

More than most styles, postmodernism lends itself to a cartoonish style. Part of its mission was to recognise more popular and less elitist forms of culture, with influence from new entertainment media entering the home. 

Charles Moore (2000) by Artist: Louis Hellman and Architect: Charles W Moore(1925-1993)Royal Institute of British Architects

Louis Hellman's humorous portrait of the postmodern architect Charles Moore reprises elements from his buildings, reinforcing his iconic, recognisable style in a collectible poster format.

Film Still Act4 09, Freestyle VR Film (2019) by Designers: Space PopularRoyal Institute of British Architects

Virtual Spaces: 21st Century

Virtual environments created by millions through games and immersive social worlds, increasingly make it possible for anyone to create architectural experiences. This challenges the fixed model that has existed for 500 years, where only an architect can construct space. But how does this impact the style of our own time?    

Film Still Act4 02, Freestyle VR Film (2019) by Designers: Space PopularRoyal Institute of British Architects

Space Popular believes that social media, alongside the interactivity of virtual media, will leave their mark on the ‘style’ of the present moment. Can we even imagine or define such a style within our own ‘historic period’ when styles are retroactively identified?  

"Style is about us, about appreciation and exchange"

The slower production and distribution of the Renaissance printing press prolonged the classical styles over centuries. But the speed at which we process images and patterns today – communicated and discarded in one tweet – makes us live in stylistically confusing times. Styles today are pluralistic, and they are much more easily described through images than words, aided by the internet, our current style-making paradise.

Credits: Story

Explore more from RIBA Collections here.
All images are from the RIBA Collections unless listed.

All installation shots of the exhibition at 66 Portland Place (except the Google 360 shots) are photographed by Francis Ware, including entrance to Architecture Gallery
All Film Stills are designed and copyright of Space Popular
Image: Poster with portrait of Charles Moore by Louis Hellman. Rights: Louis Hellman/RIBA Collections

Curation and Interpretation by RIBA Public Programmes

FREESTYLE - Architectural Adventures in Mass Media opened at RIBA Architecture Gallery on 26 February 2020. Enter the exhibition in virtual reality here
Commissioned by RIBA. Exhibition concept and research, plus exhibition design, installation and graphics by Space Popular - a multidisciplinary design and research practice led by Lara Lesmes & Fredrik Hellberg.

This exhibition has been supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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