How Classical Western Architecture has inspired the world

Agnes P. in Year 9 takes us on a lively whistle-stop tour of key features and sights in the history of Classical Western Architecture, looking at the three main styles – Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine – that underpin the architecture we see around us today

Architecture governs our lives. We live in a metropolis and everywhere we turn there is a new street with buildings from a variety of eras that give us the ability to eat, sleep and to live. In the Palaeolithic period, roughly 2.5 million years ago, when humans lived in huts and hunted wildlife for food, the key purpose of architecture was to provide shelter, but now, we have many uses for it, due to the wealth, wisdom and resources amassed by humanity over 2.5 million years. But we can still trace the roots of much modern architecture back to ancient times.

Archaic architecture from as early as the 6th century BC has influenced many architects over the past two millennia. If you have ever been to the British Museum, a building designed to mimic the Greek style, and looked up at the columns just before the entrance, you will have noticed the ornate capitals, decorated with scrolls and Acanthus leaves. They are derived from the two principal orders in Archaic architecture: Doric and Ionic. The Doric order occurred more often on the Greek mainland where Greek colonies were founded. The Ionic order was more common among Greeks in Asia Minor and the Islands of Greece. These orders were crucial if you were an architect living in 600 BC. Temples were buildings that defined Greek architecture. They were oblong with rows of columns along all sides. The pediment (the triangular bit at the top) often showed friezes of famous scenes in the bible or victories achieved by the Greeks. The wealth that was accumulated by Athens after the Persian Wars enabled extensive building programs. The Parthenon in Athens shows the balance of symmetry, harmony, and culture within Greek architecture; it was the centre of religious life and was built especially for the Gods to show the strength in their beliefs. Greek architecture is very logical and organised. Many basic theories were founded by Greeks and they were able to develop interesting supportive structures. They also had a good grasp of the importance of foundation and were able to use physics to build stable housing.

Image from Pexels

The Romans were innovators. They developed new construction techniques and materials with complex and creative designs. They were skilled mathematicians, designers and rulers who continued the legacy left by Greek architects. Or as the Greeks might put it: pretentious copycats who stole their ideas and claimed them as their own. We sometimes forget that the origins of Roman Architecture lay within Greek history. Nonetheless, brand new architectural structures were produced, such as the triumphal arch, the aqueduct, and the amphitheatre. The Pantheon is the best-preserved building from Ancient Rome, with a magnificent concrete dome. The purpose of the pantheon is unclear but the decoration on the pediment shows that it must have been a temple. Like many monuments, it has a chequered past. In 1207 a bell tower was added to the porch roof and then removed. In the Middle Ages, the left side of the porch was damaged and three columns were replaced. But despite further changes, the Pantheon still remains one of the most famous buildings and the best preserved ancient monument in the world. It even contains the tombs of the Italian monarchy and the tomb of Raphael, an Italian renaissance painter. Roman architecture is known for being flamboyant, and many features reflect the great pride of this culture, such as the great pediments, columns, and statues of Romans doing impressive things. These all show off their understanding of mathematics, physics, art, and architecture. Many American designs have been inspired by this legacy, including the White House and the Jefferson Memorial, which couldn’t look more Roman if it tried.

Byzantine architecture was the style that emerged in Constantinople. Buildings included soaring spaces, marble columns and inlay, mosaics, and gold-coffered ceilings. The architecture spread from Constantinople throughout the Christian East and in Russia. Hagia Sophia is a basilica with a 32-metre main dome, dedicated to the Holy Wisdom of God. The original church was built during the reign of Constantine I in 325 AD. His son then consecrated it in 360 AD and it was damaged by a fire during a riot in 404 AD. In 558 AD an earthquake nearly destroyed the entire dome and so it was rebuilt on a smaller scale. It was looted in 1204 by the Venetians and the Crusaders until after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Mehmed II converted it into a mosque but in 1935 it was made a museum. But then it was converted back into a mosque in 2020. The history of the Pantheon looks paltry compared to the history of Hagia Sophia!

Byzantine architecture remains as a reminder of the spiritual and cultural life of people who lived in the Byzantine era. The use of mosaic during the Byzantine era has inspired modern architects to create themed works using gold mosaic to evoke beauty, religiosity, and purity.

Encyclopædia Britannica
The London Library
MetMuseum – The Metropolitan Museum of Art Website

Is contemporary architecture threatening London’s historic skyline?

Walkie Talkie Building

Maddie, Year 13, argues whether modern buildings are ruining London’s skyline and balances the advantages and disadvantages of modern projects.

London’s historic architecture is one of our greatest assets – culturally, socially and economically. It lies at the heart of London’s identity and distinctiveness, and its very success. It is at risk of being badly and irrevocably damaged. More than 70 tall towers are currently being constructed in London alone, prompting fears from conservation bodies and campaigners that the capital’s status as a low-rise city is being sacrificed in a dash by planners to meet the demand for space and by developers to capitalise on soaring property prices.
There have been many examples of tall buildings that have had a lasting adverse impact through being unsuitably located, poorly designed, inappropriately detailed and badly built and managed. For example, the so-called ‘Walkie talkie’ building which due to bad design concentrated the sun’s rays melting parts of cars on the streets below. And recently there has, yet again, been another proposed skyscraper in the Paddington area to the west of central London. The 224m-high Paddington Tower costing £1 bn would be the fourth highest in the capital and the first of such scale in that part of London. A building of this scale in this location threatens harm to many designated heritage assets across a wide geographical area, including listed buildings, registered historic parks and conservation areas.

London Bridge However, some people think that cities face a choice of building up or building out. Asserting that there’s nothing wrong with a tall building if it gives back more than it receives from the city. An example of a building succeeding to achieve this is the £435 million Shard, which massively attracted redevelopment to the London Bridge area. So, is this a way for London to meet rising demand to accommodate growing numbers of residents and workers?

Well, planning rules are in place in order to make sure that London achieves the correct balance to ensure tall buildings not only make a positive contribution to the capital’s skyline, but deliver much-needed new homes for Londoners as well workspace for the 800,000 new jobs expected over the next 20 years. Furthermore, tall contemporary buildings can represent “the best of modern architecture” and it encourages young architects to think creatively and innovatively making London a hub for budding architects. It also means that areas with already run-down or badly designed features have the chance to be well designed improving user’s day-to-day life whilst also benefiting the local landscape.

Protected viewpoints of the city of London

The protected viewpoints of the city of London. Do skyscrapers threaten this?

Overall, I think that in a cosmopolitan and growing capital city, London needs contemporary architecture, to embody its spirit of innovation. However, this needs to be achieved in a considered and managed way so as not to ruin the historic skyline we already have.


Castles: architecture and story.

Wimbledon High History

Daisy (Y12) explores the significance of the castles that are dotted all over the British Isles, arguing that we should look beyond their architectural genius to study the stories behind them.

Castles are undoubtedly the most important architectural legacy of the Middle Ages. In terms of scale and sheer number, they undermine every other form of ancient monument and dominate the British landscape. What’s more, the public has an enduring love affair with these great buildings since they play an intrinsic role in our heritage and culture, meaning that over 50 million people pay a visit to a British castle each year.

Arundel Castle, West Sussex

The period between the Normans landing at Pevensey in 1066 and that famous day in 1485 when Richard III lost his horse and his head at Bosworth (consequently ushering the Tudors and the Early Modern period in to England), marks a rare flowering of British construction. Whilst the idea of “fitness for purpose” was an important aspect of medieval architecture, the great castles of the era demonstrate that buildings had both practical and symbolic use.

One of the most iconic forms of medieval castle, was that of the Motte and Bailey which ultimately came hand in hand with the Norman conquest of 1066. The Bayeux Tapestry eloquently depicts the Norman adventurers landing in Pevensey and hurrying to occupy nearby Hastings. The men paused on the Sussex coast and are said to have indulged in an elaborate meal whereby they discussed their plans for occupying the highly contested country. The caption of the Tapestry notes “This man orders a castle to be dug at Hastings”, which is followed by a rich scene illustrating of a group of men clutching picks and shovels heading to start their mission- castles were the Normans first port of call. In the years that followed, castle-building was an intense and penetrating campaign, with one Anglo-Saxon Chronicler stating that the Normans “built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people, and things went from ever bad to worse”. It was vital for William to establish royal authority over his newly conquered lands, and thus the country saw the mass erection of potentially more than 1,000 Motte and Bailey castles. With these buildings, speed was of the essence, and so the base, or Bailey, was made of wood, while the Keep (which sat on the top of the Motte) was relatively small and made of stone.

A drawing displaying a Motte and Bailey Castle.

Despite the fact that these castles obviously served a defensive purpose, with the elevation from the Motte providing the Norman noble with a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, their symbolic purpose was arguably of greater significance. The erection of such a large number of castles set out to alter the geopolitical landscape of the country for ever and made sure that the Norman presence would be felt and respected. Figuratively, the raised Keep acted as a physical manifestation of the Norman’s dominance over the Anglo-Saxons with the upwards gradient effortlessly representing the authoritative function and higher superiority of the Lord, which was the fundamental aspect of the feudal system. Additionally, as many academics tend to emphasise, the fact that they were often located in order to command road and river routes for defensive purposes meant that their possessors were also well placed to control trade, and thus could both exploit and protect mercantile traffic.

Another key development in castle building occurred approximately 200 years after the Battle of Hastings, during the reign of Henry II. Prior to Henry’s accession, England had been burdened by civil war and a period known as the “anarchy” under his predecessor, King Stephen. Taking advantage of the confusion and lawlessness displayed throughout Stephen’s reign, the barons had become fiercely independent. They had not only issued their own coinage but also built a significant number of adulterine castles and had unlawfully adopted a large sum of the royal demesne. As a result, in order to establish royal authority, Henry set about demolishing these illegal castles en-masse, on which he expended some £21,500, and further highlighted his supremacy. Thus, as seen under the Normans, castles were again used as a means of establishing royal authority. From here the British landscape was significantly altered for a second time, which, in a period lacking efficient communication and technologies would have been a highly visible emblematic change impacting all members of society from the richest of the gentry to the everyday medieval peasant.

As a result, whilst is it important to appreciate the architectural styles and physical construction of medieval castles, I believe it is vital to acknowledge their symbolic nature, and appreciate how through the introduction of such fortresses, peoples’ lives would change forever.

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