Great 19th century architecture

A tour of sites around the world where you can see significant architecture from the 19th Century.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Berlin, Unter den Linden. View of the Lustgarten with Schlossbrücke, the Altes Museum, cathedral, and palace (1823) by Karl Friedrich SchinkelKupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Altes Museum, 1830

Nineteenth Century architecture often evoked styles from the past, including ancient Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome, as well as the medieval styles, Romanesque and Gothic.

Facade of the Altes Museum Berlin (1830) by Karl Friedrich SchinkelAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Altes (old) Museum in Berlin is one of the oldest public art museums in the world. The row of eighteen massive columns across the front tell us that the architecture is looking back to the style of ancient Greek architecture, even though we are in Germany 2000 years later!

Visitors enter by walking up a central staircase. Above the columns a gilded inscription that runs the length of the building reads: “Friedrich Wilhelm III has dedicated this museum to the study of all antiquities and the free arts, 1828.”

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Altes Museum, 1830 (interior)

From the porch we entered a space that was once open but is now behind glass. We walked up a staircase and turned around to look out past the columns. We are surrounded by forms that recall the ancient Greek architecture.

Walking up the stairs brought us close to the massive capitals at the top of the columns. Look closely and you’ll see scroll shapes—an easily recognized characteristic of a type of capital called Ionic. We can also see the deep fluting—the vertical lines carved into the column.

Turning, we see the museum’s rotunda through the doorway. While the front of the building is ancient Greek in style, this spectacular space recalls ancient Roman architecture. At the top, we see an oculus (a round window) atop a round-walled room.

Charles Garnier, Paris Opéra, 1860-75 (exterior)

The Paris Opéra, where one can see ballet and opera, is one ornate public spaces ever created. It is a jewel at the center of Paris.

Ballet at the Paris Opéra (1877) by Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917)The Art Institute of Chicago

It was here, in the very heart of Paris that Impressionist painters such as Degas, Renoir, and Mary Cassett were inspired to sketch images of ballet dancers practicing in the building’s many studios, waiting back stage, performing or being watched by audience members in the loge.

A broad stair leads up to seven entryways. Above, seven balconies allow theatergoers to gaze upon the busy city below. Only flags and two enormous winged figures—representing Harmony and Poetry—rise above the roofline. Look carefully and you will see sculpted busts of famous composers.

The sculpture called The Dance by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux stands on a high pedestal at the edge of the stairs. Carpeaux depicts dancing Bacchae (female followers of the Roman god of wine, Bacchus) encircling a symbol of the spirit of dance.

Before the 1850s, Paris was a tangle of narrow winding streets. Huge sections of Paris were then demolished to make way for wide boulevards lined with fashionable apartment buildings and shops. These new thoroughfares radiated from key points in the city, including the Opera.

Views from a Grand Foyer balcony

The public spaces within the Paris Opera are among the most ornate ever designed. We are immensely fortunate that these interior spaces, with their opulent furnishings and decorations remain in excellent condition. Here we stand on a balcony overlooking the Grand Stair.

We are standing on a balcony—looking at the Grand Stair, surrounded by curving forms made of highly-polished marbles. Admire the lamps and the caryatids (female figures that stand in for columns) representing Comedy and Tragedy that frame the door across the way.

This is one of the many foyers that were filled with members of the audience during intermission and before and after the performances. In some ways, this is where the real show took place, as wealthy people socialized and came to see and be seen.

We see paintings in the ceiling above the Grand Stair. Just below the paintings you can just make out twelve classical female heads each radiating a crown of rays similar to the one worn by the Statue of Liberty.

The auditorium in the Paris Opera

We are now in the auditorium. Above is a massive chandelier. Before us is the orchestra pit and the stage with its pulleys for raising and lowering backdrops. And all around us, in a horseshoe shape, are the seats and the balconies.

The stage is sealed by a painted curtain that is lifted during rehearsals and performances. On either side of the stage, ornate columns, arches and railings are covered with so many complex forms that it is nearly impossible to take it all in.

Several stories of box seats rise above the orchestra. Each is partitioned for privacy from nearby boxes. These semi-private spaces are accessed by individual doors and and protected by a curtain and each accommodates approximately four guests.

We are looking up at the great chandelier surrounded by Marc Chagall’s mural.The chandelier in the center is bronze and crystal and is reported to weigh some seven tons. It was designed to be raised up into the dome above the ceiling.

The Palace of Westminster, Parliament Square, Westminster, Greater London (1870/1900) by York & SonHistoric England

Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament)

This is where the House of Lords and The House of Commons—the governing bodies of the United Kingdom—meet.

The building dates to the 19th century, though it was built in the older style of the Gothic cathedrals (and is therefore called the Gothic revival style). The architects were Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. Most of the earlier Palace burned down in the Great Fire in London of 1834.

The Gothic revival style was specifically chosen over the Neo-Classical (for an example of that style, think of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.) which was associated with the revolutions of the 18th century.

The Victoria Tower was built in part as the entrance through which Queen Victoria would enter the Palace on her way to the House of Lords.

In front of the Palace of Westminster is an equestrian (on a horse) sculpture of King Richard the Lionhearted, wearing a shirt of chainmail with his sword raised high. He was born in England but lived mostly in France where he also ruled large territories.

Westminster Hall is the oldest surviving Palace building. It was built in 1097. The hall and its great wooden roof survived the great fire of 1834 and remind us of the style of the buildings that once stood here.

Antoni Gaudí, Basilica of Sagrada Familia (Exterior)

At the end of the 19th century, architects looked for new visual forms that could reflect the modern world. Gaudí’s design for the Church of the Sacred Family, is a brilliant expression of these impulses.

Gaudi draws from the forms and shapes of the natural world transformed through his understanding of geometry. Gaudí was deeply religious and Sagrada Familia is an expression of his faith. However, this church remained unfinished at his death and its design and construction continue today.

We are standing before the unfinished “Portal of the Passion” on the west side of the church. Although extremely impressive, ultimately this will not be the primary entrance—that will be built around the corner to the right. What we are seeing is the side entrance.

Four spires rise high above the west entrance. Like traditional Gothic spires, they race towards heaven and function as a landmark, locating the church amid the surrounding buildings.

But here, the forms are far more organic than any spire ever made before. It is almost as if we are looking at the towers a child might make on a beach, letting wet sand drip from the hand but here on a huge scale.

This Portal is is unlike any other church architecture. Huge forms like great tree trunks seem to stretch like the silk of a spider’s web. Gaudi has invented an entirely new architectural style drawn directly from nature.

Antoni Gaudí, Sagrada Familia (Interior)

The interior of Sagrada Familia is kaleidoscopic. Everywhere brilliant colors pour through the stained glass. Nearly every form is a unique invention though likely rooted in the structures we see in nature, and these forms often carry complex symbolic meanings.

Central is the idea the beauty and majesty of nature as an expression of God on Earth. Look for Gaudi’s references to trees and flowers and sea shells seen through the lens of the architect’s interest in geometry.

We are looking away from the high altar, down the side aisle and main aisle (nave) towards the main door of the church. It’s as though we are in an ancient forest holding up the clouds that are at the same time flowers and starbursts.

We are now looking directly up at the dome. Reflective rays, irregular diamonds and brilliant lights radiate out. It is as if we are in a forest and heaven itself is resting among the top-most branches of the trees we stand amongst.

We are looking down the side aisle toward the church’s largest doorway. At the end we can make out a spiral staircase, one of two on either side of the entrance. Sagrada Familia feels almost alive, as if it was growing and changing around us.

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