Whitepaper: How has architecture changed over time and what could this look like in the future?

Architecture is often driven by the desire to solve problems. From the earliest construction, which was necessary to provide security and shelter, to more recent examples of architectural skill used to take advantage of vertical space, this is a sector with a focus on progression and problem solving. The way in which architecture has changed over time provides a fascinating insight into the development of the human race, from the influence of industry to technological progress. In this whitepaper we will look at some of the key influences in Western architecture, focusing on the industrial revolution, as well as analysing some of the more unusual architectural styles and iconic European architecture projects.

Western architecture – the key influences

Many people tend to assume that architecture as we know it today starts with the structures that the Romans and Ancient Greeks were responsible for. However, it began much earlier than that. There are some fine examples of prehistoric architecture – such as Stonehenge – that show how prehistoric people shifted earth and stone to create geometric structures. The Bronze Age in particular would lay the foundations for metalworking, which would be a huge influence on architectural development. This time period also saw complex fortifications, such as nuraghi (round towers) constructed in places such as Sardinia and advanced graves and tombs from this period can be found all over Europe.

The Ancient Egyptians

Probably most famous for the pyramids, the Ancient Egyptians drove architecture forward at a considerable pace during the period 3,050 B.C. to 900 B.C. Engineering capabilities were significantly advanced in this era, allowing the Egyptians to create their famous structures, which could reach great heights. These designs achieved such vertical reach because of the wide pyramid base that was designed to support them. Outside of the pyramids the Egyptians were renowned for using closely placed columns in multiple numbers to support structures, as opposed to load bearing arches.

The Ancient Greeks

There is no doubt that the classical architecture of Ancient Greece had a huge influence on the builders and engineers of centuries that followed. The first Doric column was created by the Greeks as early as 700BC and was used to great effect in some of the most iconic buildings of the time, such as the Parthenon in Athens. At around the same time the Ancient Greeks were also pioneering the use of fired-clay roof tiles. Like the Ancient Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks were fond of using architecture as a way to demonstrate wealth and power, especially when it came to temples.

The Romans

In many ways the Roman Empire took what the Egyptians and Ancient Greeks had begun and expanded on it considerably. This was also a civilisation that favoured the construction of impressive and heavily detailed temples but these differed from the Greek designs, as they were often circular. Many of the buildings that the Romans were responsible for were highly ornamented and their use of concrete was the beginning of a new era in construction. It was this that enabled the Romans to be so ambitious in terms of their architectural plans, incorporating design features, such as arches and domes. The Romans also broadened out the range of materials used in construction, from marble and volcanic rock to unburned bricks faced with stucco, which were particularly characteristic of earlier Roman architecture. It was this civilisation that also pioneered the creation of public buildings, such as baths and theatres. We also owe the concept of town planning largely to the developments that took place during the Roman era.

527 – 1200

Architectural style evolved into something much more graceful through the Byzantine and Romanesque periods. It was during 527 – 1200 that the majority of architecture began to use brick instead of stone, changing forever the way that buildings would be constructed. Domed roofs and elaborate mosaics appeared in many religious constructions. Christian buildings provide some fine examples of the ways in which Western Architecture was changing, such as the first Christian basilicas in Rome and, later, the Hagia Sophia in Turkey. The use of rounded arches was a particularly prominent architectural style during this time, especially in the construction of churches and cathedrals.


The Gothic period marked another shift in the evolution of architecture with construction that was characterised by elements that could support taller and more elaborate building. Flying buttresses, ribbed vaulting and pointed arches meant that buildings could be designed to reach much higher without sacrificing anything to style. Tracery on stonework, as well as elaborate stained glass windows, characterise some of the most influential buildings of the Gothic period, including Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

Pre-industrial revolution

Between the Gothic period and the arrival of the industrial revolution there were a number of key architectural styles that made a big impact, including Rococo, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassicism. Baroque and Rococo in particular pioneered the use of lavish details and finishing not really seen before in architectural design. The Palace of Versailles in France is a great example of the complexity and opulence that this period was responsible for.

The Industrial Revolution

What the Industrial Revolution did was to give life to architectural visions of height and strength that couldn’t have previously been achieved due to a lack of the right materials. Mass availability of iron and glass meant that buildings could be made taller from materials that were much lighter, and glass porches, roofing and domes could be added into construction design.


In recent years the biggest influence on architecture has been the availability of technology, such as computer programming and software. This has made ever more ambitious projects possible, from eco structures through to those that appear to defy gravity. New structural methods, such as cantilevering, have become common and construction today often involves innovative materials as well as unusual aesthetics. The current period of architecture is often called ‘Neo-Modernism’ and is characterised by the boldness and eccentricity of design that is enabled by the involvement of technology like computers. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is a great example.

Key period for Western architecture: the late 19th century

As already noted, the Industrial Revolution had a huge impact on architecture and the evolution of construction substance and style at the time. Strictly speaking, the Industrial Revolution is divided into the First Industrial Revolution (mid-18th century to about 1830) and the Second Industrial Revolution (mid-19th century until the early 20th century). It was during this time that a whole range of new materials became available for use in the construction process, providing architects and designers with a wealth of alternative options for creating buildings that were more versatile, functional, creative and much taller than those that had gone before.

The influence of The Industrial Revolution

The main influence during this era was in terms of construction materials, both those that could be put into buildings and those that could be used to create tools and equipment with which to engineer construction. Some of the key changes to note during this time included:

  • Switching from manual to machine driven manufacturing
  • Increasing use of water and steam power
  • The beginning of chemical manufacturing
  • The use of machine tools

The importance of iron and glass

The UK already had an existing iron industry but, before The Industrial Revolution, it was quite limited. Innovation during this time removed many of the obstacles to the mass production of iron and this was to have a significant impact on architecture of the period – and of the future. In particular, it made the use of iron frames in construction possible. Marshall, Benyou, and Bage’s flourmill in Shropshire was one of the first buildings to be constructed using an iron frame. Iron frames not only made for stronger construction but were also much safer than the timber structures they replaced – which were far less fire resistant. Glass making also evolved during The Industrial Revolution with the creation of sheet glass by the Chance Brothers. The combination of iron and sheet glass made a whole range of different construction possible including:


Architecture using sheet glass could now be more ambitious – the Palm House at Kew Gardens is a fine example of the new construction built during this time.

Glasshouses and porches

From botanical glasshouses to grand residential porches, glass and iron made many more creative options possible. Both materials enabled more extravagant and detailed design. The Coal Exchange in London was a particularly decorative example of what could be done with these new materials, with ornamental iron balconies and a delicate dome of iron and glass.

Markets and train stations

Many of the most notable buildings of the era had orate and incredible roofs made from iron and glass. Kings Cross St Pancras, for example, was designed with wrought-iron arches with a span of 243 feet. Victor Baltard’s Halles Centrales in Paris received a huge iron and glass umbrella over market stalls, both to provide protection and for the purposes of design.

Iconic construction

The Eiffel Tower was perhaps one of the most prominent examples of iron and glass construction during this time. Built during 1887–89 by Gustav Eiffel it remains one of the most famous illustrations of innovative design to this day.

Study: Deconstructivism

After The Industrial Revolution architectural influences began to diversify. The range of design enabled by the innovation of that time allowed new movements to be born, many of which seriously challenged ideas of what construction should be. Deconstructivism was a prime example of this kind of development, a movement created around the idea of breaking down established concepts of architecture derived from reason and logic. The progress achieved in the late 19th century had given many architects the freedom to start thinking beyond what logic and reason offered in construction terms.

The Theory of Deconstruction

At the heart of deconstructivism is the Theory of Deconstruction, which originates from a 20th century philosophical movement based on the idea that the meaning from words, symbols etc exists only because of relationships. Applying this way of thinking would mean that ‘good’ only exists because there is ‘bad,’ for example. And that a chair only has meaning to us as humans because we know it is a chair. The Theory of Deconstruction puts a fluid construction on the idea of meaning i.e. it can change, adapt and be influenced by relationships that arise elsewhere, such as cultural references, age or gender.

Applying this to architecture

According to deconstructivist thought, the traditional symbols of architecture take on a different meaning depending on their context. So, a Doric style column was viewed as a very masculine symbol when it was first created, while Corinthian columns were a feminine expression. However, many years after the Ancient Greeks first invented them, both columns moved into having a much more neutral meaning. This is based around a relationship established through semiotics – the study of non-verbal communication, and the way that we get meaning from symbols

In practice, this has allowed deconstructivist architecture to challenge the idea of what a building really is. As a result it’s often very far from what might be considered classic architectural style. Many good examples of deconstructivist architecture have unbelievable curves or multiple right angles and straight lines that defy gravity and symmetry. Architects who create in deconstructivist style, such as Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, often design buildings that are intended to impact on – or interact with – the landscapes around them. In many ways this is the ultimate expression of architectural development – but simply would not have been possible without the thousands of years of construction evolution that took place before.

Examples of iconic European architecture projects

Perhaps one of the most compelling insights into the way architecture has evolved – and where it’s likely to go in the future – are available via the projects that have proven to be the most influential. Europe has been a melting pot of architectural and design talent over the centuries, birthplace of styles such as The Renaissance, and home to much of the innovation that has made architecture what it is today. Some of Europe’s most important architecture projects have also gone on to influence the development of architectural design in other locations across the world.

The Eiffel Tower, France

Construction first began on the Eiffel Tower in 1887. It was created in order to be the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair and to mark the 100-year anniversary of the French Revolution. At the time of its construction there was a lot of criticism of the design but it has gone on to be one of France’s iconic monuments. Today it is the second tallest freestanding structure in France after the Millau Viaduct. Repainting takes place every seven years and requires 60 tonnes of paint.

Sagrada Familia, Spain

Gaudi’s cathedral was actually begun by another architect – Francisco de Paula del Villar who resigned from the project before Gaudi stepped in. This Art Nouveau structure was begun in 1882 and parts of it still remain unfinished today. The work that Gaudi did on the building is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 2.8+ million visitors every year marvel at the strong colours and Gothic motifs that define the design of the cathedral.

Florence Cathedral, Italy

The origins of Florence’s Cathedral date all the way back to the late 13th century – today the cathedral is still in great condition and now the fourth largest in the world. It combines many fine examples of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, including ordered columns and flying buttresses. The dome is of particular interest to visitors, as it was engineered in the same style as the Pantheon in Rome.

Palace of Versailles, France

Although Versailles had some fairly humble origins, thanks to the dedication of Louis XIV (who spent 60% of France’s revenue on it at the time), it became a grande dame of French architecture. Versailles was the principal royal residence of France between 1682 and the start of the French Revolution in 1789. It’s an example of Baroque architecture at its finest and remains one of Europe’s most opulent constructions.

Acropolis of Athens, Greece

Work on the Acropolis was begun in the 5th century BC, making this one of the earliest iconic architectural projects of Europe. It is a fine example of Ancient Greek construction style, in particular the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders and was created as a monument to the goddess Athena.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

The ultimate fairytale castle, the 19th century turrets and towers of Neuschwanstein provided the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle. Romance was always at the heart of the Romanesque revival design of the building but King Ludwig II of Bavaria also intended it to be a sign of his admiration for the composer Richard Wagner.

Colosseum, Italy

If there is one building that represents the Roman obsession with columns it is the Colosseum. The structure is defined by its iconic use of columns, which progress from Doric on the ground floor to Ionic on the next floor and then Corinthian. Work first started on the Colosseum in 72 AD and although earthquakes and stone robbers are responsible for a degree of ruin it remains a fine example of imperial Roman architecture today.

Architecture has changed enormously over the centuries, from the temples of the Ancient Greeks to the deconstructivist design of modern pioneers like Zaha Hadid. This evolution provides an exciting signpost towards what we can expect from architecture in the future.

At RG Group we believe evolution in architecture is an ongoing process and we’re always keen to stay on top of developments. Read our blog or get in touch to discuss your project today.

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