A smart guide for identifying different architectural styles

Buildings have changed greatly in appearance over the centuries, thanks to engineering progress, social demands and altering fashion. Here's a guide to recognizing some of the most significant styles.

A smart guide for identifying different architectural styles

Getting started

A building's look isn't always a reliable guide to its age; architectural styles, like fashions in clothing, are subject to revival.

  • Part of the interest lies in identifying the styles that have influenced a later building; the White House in Washington D.C., for example, borrows heavily from the classical era, while London's Houses of Parliament are a Gothic flight of fancy.

Classical and renaissance

The architecture of ancient Greece and Rome was characterised by distinct 'orders', most recognisable by their style of column.

  • In the Renaissance age, architecture — like all the arts — strove to revive Greek and Roman principles.
  • There was a new interest in classical proportions, and the five orders were re-introduced.
  • These classical ideas were also applied to new, technically innovative features such as the tall dome (unknown to the Greeks), and architects such as Andrea Palladio (1508-80) took the idea of a columned classical temple and turned it into a façade – both ideas were copied by Christopher Wren (1632-1723) at St Paul's Cathedral in London.

Baroque and rococo

The simple classical lines of Renaissance architecture gradually gave way to a style that was more theatrical, sumptuous and decorative. This style is known as baroque and culminated in the frivolous and light-hearted rococo style.

  • The first buildings in the baroque style were commissioned by the Catholic Church in late 16th-century Italy, but the style gradually travelled throughout Europe and was used in secular as well as religious buildings, including the great Palace of Versailles outside Paris.
  • The Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, is a fine example of the late baroque period. It was built in 1726, destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945, and then rebuilt and reopened in 2005.

Art nouveau

Architecture in the art nouveau style came to the fore around the turn of the 20th century.

  • Its most noticeable feature is a playful obsession with stylized plant forms, both inside and outside a building.
  • It might take the form of a wrought iron balcony made to look like tangled ivy, or a sinuous staircase and balustrade, lettering that's curled like roots or fronds, or walls with organic curves, as if they had grown out of the earth rather than been built to a plan.
  • The Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) filled Barcelona with such buildings, including his unfinished cathedral, the Sagrada Familia.

Art deco

The art deco style, which originated in the 1920s directly after art nouveau, is a kind of opposite: its defining characteristics are streamlined, mechanical shapes and strictly geometric patterns (think of New York's Empire State Building).

  • Art deco buildings also feature unashamedly industrial materials such as gleaming chrome, polished enamel and expanses of glass.

Keep this guide in mind and impress your friends with your ability to quickly recognize and identify different architecture styles.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
Close menu