Architecture Through Time

In this Expedition, we’ll go back almost 3,000 years and then work our way forward in time. As we travel through time and space, we’ll analyse how human buildings in Europe changed over the centuries.

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

Colosseum, Rome Colosseum, RomeTouring Club Italiano

The history of architecture reaches back to the beginnings of humanity, to the simple huts of our earliest ancestors. Since then builders have grown ever more skilful, building bolder, ever larger buildings with an increasing sense of scale.

An Iron Age Wooden Fortress

We have turned back time by 28 centuries or more, to the Iron Age, and we’re visiting what it now Biskupin, Poland. We are standing inside a reconstruction of the original buildings that comprised a fortified hill town.

Archaeologists date this site from the Iron Age, somewhere between 800–650 B.C. At that time, much of northern Europe was heavily forested. The Biskupin Hill Fort demonstrates how early architects made use of wood, their most abundant building resource.

Iron Age Town Planning

The Biskupin Hill Fort had streets that were laid out in parallel rows and paved with logs laid side by side. There were watchtowers at intervals along the walls. The settlement’s design shows the builders’ respect for symmetry and proportion.

Construction Technique

The builders of the Biskupin Hill Fort achieved strong, freestanding walls by stacking logs across each other at right angles. From this view into the gatehouse, we can see the careful cutting and shaping that made the logs fit together. 

Wooden Walls

The outer walls of the Biskupin Hill Fort consisted of a long double wall with ramparts and a higher palisade on the outside. The planks of the palisade demonstrate that Iron Age builders knew how to cut and plane wood.

The World Outside the Walls

The inhabitants of the Biskupin Hill Fort farmed, hunted, and fished on the surrounding lands and lakes. Some had huts out in the woods and enclosures for livestock. But for safety, they lived inside stout double walls.

Greek Temples of Stone

We are in Paestum, Italy. Twenty-five centuries ago, this was a thriving Greek town called Poseidonia.  The town contains some of the oldest and most complete examples of early Greek architecture. 

The temples at Paestum show that Greek architects had a deep understanding of balance, symmetry, and proportion, and that they had mastered working with stone.

Building stones had to be quarried, transported, shaped into cylinders and carved before being stacked to form columns and other architectural features.

Sacred Ground

The grounds of these two temples lay to the south of the agora, the open space at the centre of the town of Poseidonia. The temples date from the mid-5th century to the mid-6th century B.C.

Doric Columns

The Temple of Hera is an example of the earliest order of Greek architecture, the Doric. Doric columns rest on the building’s base, not on pedestals, and are crowned with plain round capitals. They are heavier than later Greek columns.

Columns and Entablatures

The second temple was dedicated either to Hera or to Apollo (scholars are not sure). The horizontal section that is laid across the tops of the columns is an entablature. Triangular pediments at the ends supported the roof.

Inside the Roman Colosseum

We are visiting Rome, Italy, and standing inside the great Colosseum, an ancient sports arena where gladiators once fought duels to the death. The stadium was built between 70 and 82 A.D., under the emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. 

The Colosseum demonstrates that by this time the Romans had great practical knowledge of geometry and were skilled at working with stone, bricks, and concrete. The structure has three tiers of semi-circular arches, arranged to make a giant cylinder.

Roman Arches

Half-circle arches are characteristic of Roman architecture. Arches enabled architects to construct walls that were lighter in weight but that could still bear heavy loads. To form arches, builders used stones or bricks that were trapezoidal in shape.

Under the Arena Floor

Looking down at an uncovered section of the arena floor, we can see the vast network of walls, columns, and arches that supported the building. The subterranean rooms included workrooms, dungeons, and cages for wild beasts.

Roman to Romanesque

We have arrived at Zadar, Croatia, and we’re standing before the Church of St. Donatus (the round structure), an example of Romanesque architecture. The Romanesque style prevailed in Europe from the time of the Roman Empire until at least 1,000 years after its end. 

This church was built in the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. In towns all over Europe, we can see similar buildings inspired by the Romans. In fact, buildings with Roman features continue to be built today.

Remains of the Romans

Zadar is an extremely old town that dates to at least the 9th century B.C. It became a Roman possession in the 1st century B.C. The columns and foundations stones are remnants of the forum, the Roman town centre.

Features of Romanesque Architecture

The Romanesque style had many of the same features as Roman buildings, such as towers made of stacked cubes, half-circle arches, and round towers with domes. Walls were solid, with few exterior windows.

An 11th-Century Church and Convent

St. Mary’s Church, which dates from 1091, is another stunning example of Romanesque style. Its Roman elements include a roof that is a barrel vault and a cubed tower. The simple Roman-style building next to the church is a convent.

Gothic Splendour at Westminster Cathedral

We are in London, England, looking at Westminster Abbey, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Work on this building began in 1245 A.D. The Gothic style flourished in France, England, and other European countries during medieval times. 

Medieval architects inherited some features, such as towers made of stacked cubes, from Roman and Romanesque buildings. But the Gothic style added pointed arches, lancet windows, stone tracery, stained glass windows, and other features to create ornate buildings that reach toward the sky.

Arches and Vaults of Stone

The pointed arch is a distinguishing feature of Gothic architecture. Inside buildings, pointed arches are combined to make tall vaults that taper up to points. The pointed vaults allowed builders to make very high, vaulted ceilings.

Entrance to Dean’s Yard

The building next to Westminster Abbey has an arched doorway that leads to an interior courtyard, Dean’s Yard. The building’s gothic features include tall, thin octagonal towers with turrets, lancet windows, and pointed arches.

A Romanesque Revival

St. Margaret’s, the smaller church next to Westminster Abbey, was founded in the 11th century. It has been rebuilt several times, always in the Romanesque style. This was the prevailing building style in Europe between Roman and medieval times.

The Renaissance Revives Roman Grandeur

We are in Vatican City, Rome, visiting the Basilica of St. Peter. This massive church was built between 1506 and 1615 A.D. It is an important destination for Christian pilgrims. A succession of great architects, including the artists Raphael and Michelangelo, contributed to the design of this sanctuary.

The Renaissance and Baroque architects of St. Peter’s consciously revived elements of Greek and Roman architecture, such as columns, round arches, and domes, as well as a Classical sense of grandeur.

The Dome of St. Peter

The great dome of St. Peter’s is in the centre of the church, above the high altar. Designed by Michelangelo, it inspired many other domes, including that of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

By Loomis DeanLIFE Photo Collection

Bernini’s Masterpiece

The elliptical piazza through which pilgrims approach St. Peter’s Basilica was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and built between 1655 and 1667. The architect intended the wide, sweeping circles to suggest the welcoming arms of the church.

The Baroque Style Takes Hold

We are in St. Petersburg, Russia, in front of the Winter Palace, a magnificent Baroque building that was completed in 1762, the same year that Catharine II assumed the throne. The term baroque connotes elaboration in music and art as well as architecture.

However, the underlying structures of baroque architecture are often of stark, even severe design. Their ornate decoration is what makes them Baroque. The Winter Palace is now the main building of the Hermitage Museum.

Gilded Grandeur

The green, white, and gold façade of the Winter Palace highlights another element of Baroque architecture—its sense of lightness. Baroque buildings have many windows, decorated columns, and other graceful features that appealed to an aristocracy devoted to pleasure.

Neoclassical Scale

Another feature of many Baroque palaces is a gigantic sense of scale. Like Versailles Palace near Paris, France, the Winter Palace is surrounded by enormous neoclassical buildings, to create a setting worthy of an imperial family.

A Modern Home for Baroque Music

Opera is a form of music that dates from the Baroque era. But here in Valencia, Spain, opera is performed in an ultra-modern building, the Reina Sofia Palace of the Arts.

Like many other modern buildings, the Reina Sofia Palace is a freeform structure that makes creative use of metal, glass, poured concrete, and other building materials. Gone are the straight lines and right angles that characterized buildings of earlier eras.

The Dome

The dome of the Reina Sofia Palace of the Arts is 74 metres high and made of metal. A huge curved “plume” extends from the dome and sweeps down to the ground, giving the building the feeling of a giant ship or spacecraft.

A Spectacular Space

Calatrava intended the Reina Sofia Palace to be a symbol of Valencia and an urban gathering place as well as a music venue. The building, which is surrounded by gardens and parks, contrasts spectacularly with angular modern buildings nearby.

A Mix of Modern and Traditional

Looking out from the modern Reina Sofia Palace of the Arts, we see older buildings from the 20th, 19th, and 18th centuries. Modern European buildings both contrast and harmonize with the architecture of past eras.

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