Architectural Evolution: A Journey through European Architecture by Era

European Architecture by Era - The Royal Albert Hall The Royal Albert Hall viewed from the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, London (Wikimedia Commons).

From the grandeur of the Renaissance to the flowing, organic lines of Art Nouveau of the early 20th century, European architecture has not only witnessed the evolution of styles, techniques, and cultural influences in mansions and palaces across the continent, but also shaped approaches to town planning that are still evident today.

Providing a fascinating journey through these evolving styles, techniques, and cultural influences, each era’s architecture stands as a monument to the styles of the time, as well as the historical context, social values, and technological advancements that shaped its buildings.

Renaissance Revival palaces that draw influence from Roman and Greek architecture, grand Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, ornate and elaborate Baroque designs, refined Neoclassical architecture, and Georgian approaches to city living have all contributed to a European architectural style that stretches across the continent, and beyond. So, join us on a tour of Europe’s architectural evolution, absorb some of the key characteristics of the era, and even discover the best places to visit some iconic architectural designs.

Renaissance Revival (19th century)

Sometimes referred to as Neo-Renaissance, 19th-century Renaissance Revival architecture drew inspiration from a wide range of classic architecture to create a diverse group of architectural revival styles. And not only do they still dominate many towns and cities today, but the revival would have a lasting influence on England’s elite architecture in the 18th century, and even influence some of the most well-known buildings in the United States.

Palladian Perfection (16th-18th centuries)

Named after the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), Palladian architecture is deeply rooted in classical principles, and characterized by precisely balanced proportions and the mathematical ratios of classical architecture. Grand Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns and pilasters were based on classical designs, while ancient Roman temples provided inspiration for triangular pediments, grand porticos, and Facades that mimicked classical temple fronts. Inside, the interiors were often opulent. Extravagant in detail, elaborate decoration, gilding and ornamentation often contributed to a lavish environment.

Reviving the principles underpinning ancient Roman architecture, Palladio was considered one of the most influential architects of his day and his designs embodied the proportions and symmetry of the classical orders. Inspired by the Roman and Greek architecture of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Palladio greatly influenced British designers with his ideas of perfect proportion, as shown by Inigo Jones’s (1573–1652) projects for the Royal family at the Queen’s House at Greenwich, Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Queen’s Chapel in St James’s Palace, London. Jones even undertook a Grand Tour to Italy to see Palladio’s work and purchased his Four Books of Architecture (I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura), published in 1550. And the influence is clear, as he symbolized a British style of exteriors based on rules of symmetry, perspective and proportion.

Jones’s time in Italy had a huge impact on his architectural style, as well as the architecture of Britain. Two years after returning from Italy, he designed the Queen’s House in Greenwich, employing ideas found in the architecture of Palladio and ancient Rome. It was the first classical building in England and Jones’s earliest-surviving work. It’s well worth a visit if you’re in London, as is his Covent Garden square, which became a model for future developments in the West End.

Its effect was also felt across the Atlantic, most notably by Thomas Jefferson, who was a fervent admirer of Palladio, and brought the style to his plantation home in Monticello, Virginia and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Jefferson founded and designed the museum where he showcased Palladian elements in its layout and buildings. Today it stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

European Architecture by Era - Inigo Jones - The Designs.

Inigo Jones – The Designs. Sold for £1,000 via Forum Auctions – UK (July 2023).

For those undertaking a modern Grand Tour, a trip to Villa Rotonda in Venice is a must to see one of Palladio’s most famous works. The “palazzo” as it was described by Palladio, is a symmetrical building with four facades and a circular hall decorated in trompe-l’œil. Then take the Eurostar to London and follow Inigo Jones to the Queen’s House at Greenwich, Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Queen’s Chapel in St James’s Palace. While there, Chiswick Houseprovides an impressive example of Neo-Palladian architecture, and Holkham Hall, Norfolk shows how Palladian principles suit a Neo-Palladian country house.

Baroque Extravaganza (17th-18th centuries)

Highly ornate and elaborate, the Baroque boom of architecture, art, and design that flourished in the 17th and first half of the 18th century spread from Italy to become the first global style. This was a time of absolute monarchies, when rulers flexed their power and wealth through extravagant architecture and interior design. The Baroque period was marked by the Counter-Reformation and the desire of the Catholic Church to convey religious themes to combat the Reformation and the Protestant church. The plan was to surprise and inspire through architecture.

The required awe and wonder was achieved through elaborately decorated domes often painted in trompe-l’œil and echoing theatrical techniques. Painted ceilings were filled with angels suggesting glory or a vision of heaven, contrasts of light and shadow were created to add to the drama, and grand stairways served as dramatic settings for ceremonies and announcements. The more ornate the decorations, the more frescoes and gilded sculptures, the better.

Its worldwide impact can be seen from Africa, to Asia, and the Americas. And Baroque changed as it traversed the globe, adapting to new environments, tastes, and materials. In China, the Qing ruler’s interest in European arts and architecture was evident in their European pavilions located in the Summer Palace, Beijing, which were the grandest expressions their reign. Completed between 1756 and 1766, they were destroyed by English and French troops in 1860.

European Architecture by Era - Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy.

Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy. Image courtesy of Atibordee Kongprepan via Flickr.

Rome is the birthplace of Baroque though and it still hosts some of the finest examples of religious Baroque architecture. Sat in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, St Peter’s Square was designed with Baroque theatricality in mind by Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose grand, imposing curved colonnades were installed to create a sense of awe, while the Baroque sense of theatre continues in the trapezoidal shape of the piazza, which heightens perspective for visitors leaving the basilica.

And no Baroque inspired trip to Rome is complete with visiting the Trevi Fountain. The pinnacle of Baroque aesthetics, drama, and opulence, it was completed by Nicola Salvi in 1762 and depicts the god of all water, Oceanus, in a scene of mythological and allegorical figures. Get there early to appreciate it in all its dramatic splendour. Establishing the blueprint for what a palace should be, the Baroque Château de Versailles, near Paris, France was one of the most extravagant and expensive palaces of the era palace that has seemingly endless sequences of impressive rooms and vast formal gardens open to explore.

Still standing and only a few hours away, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, was designed in the English Baroque style by Sir Christopher Wren. The Exterior dome bears comparison with St Peter’s in Rome, but it’s the West façade that houses the most Baroque drama, with a two-storey classical portico, six paired columns on the ground floor and four smaller pairs above to create a sense of movement to the triangular pediment above.

Enlightenment Enlightenment (18th century)

Promoting ideals of reason, order, and civic virtue, the Age of Enlightenment’s search for morality that was absent from the art and design in previous eras brought with it a sense of order. Drawing inspiration from archaeological discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum, neo-classical art and architecture was born, which can be seen in the arches, goddesses, and other classical elements of early American art and architecture.

Neoclassical Elegance (18th-19th centuries)

Sharing Baroque’s interest in the revival of Renaissance architecture, Neoclassism differed in its restraint, as it stripped away the excesses of late Baroque to reveal a more authentic classical style that would have its greatest impact in the United States. Emerging in the 18th century, the reinterpretation of classic antiquity and arose in response to the excesses of Rococo and Baroque.

European Architecture by Era - Jefferson Memorial seen across the Tidal Basin.

Jefferson Memorial seen across the Tidal Basin. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Spearheaded by architects Robert Adam and John Soane, they drew inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the influential Andrea Palladio. Aligning with the Age of Enlightenment’s ideals, Neoclassical buildings charted a return to the simplicity and purity of classic architecture, with an emphasis on symmetry, clean lines, geometric forms, and the prominent use of classical columns and triangular pediments. Taking its influence from the Pantheon of Rome, The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC embodies the Neoclassic approach.

In fact, Neoclassicism would prove particularly important for the country that was formed 26 years into the Neoclassical era. Drawing inspiration from imperial Rome, government buildings were designed in the style. And, Washington, DC, hosts a large collection of Neoclassical buildings. From the Palladian-influenced White House with its central portico supported by a row of columns, to the classical block style of The Lincoln Memorial, and the Treasury Building, the nation’s capital bears the stamp of Neoclassicism.

The seat of the United States Congress remains one of the most architecturally impressive feats in the country. Corinthian columns line the façade, but the expansive Capitol dome captures all attention first. Similarly, the Pantheón in Paris, France includes an impressive and domineering dome. Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s temple-style Neoclassical architecture was designed under instruction from King Louis XV and modelled on the Pantheon in Rome. Complete a European tour with a trip to the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain to experience the domineering presence of the Doric columns, and take in art from Diego VelázquezFrancisco Goya, and Hieronymus Bosch.

Georgian Grandeur (1714-1830)

Named in honour of George I, George II, George III, and George IV, who reigned in succession from 1714 until 1830, Georgian architecture bore a striking similarity with Neoclassicism, but with a British twist. Characterized by elegant simplicity, refined proportions, and attention to detail, Georgian architecture was defined by symmetrical facades, sash windows, and ornate doorways adorned with decorative pediments and columns.

By the early 19th century, a shrinking world brought a range of architectural styles to Europe, as displayed in all its exciting grandeur by the Indian-Chinese-Egyptian influenced Brighton Pavilion, designed by the Prince Regent’s favourite architect, John Nash. Nash also redesigned Buckingham Palace and its western front in the Georgian Neoclassical style, along with the Bank of England, National Gallery, and Somerset House in London, which can all be seen in a day of a sightseeing.

The late Georgian period brought even greater change, as a coherent approach to town planning added a uniformity to rows of town houses. The Georgian period transformed housing across Britain, as terraces and squares of houses, semi-detached houses, and detached country villas offered people the opportunity of improved living, behind a composed stucco façade.

The growth in private dwellings was reflective of an economic boom that also saw a rise in the public buildings, built in the Georgian Neoclassical design. Town halls, theatres, concert halls, and shopping arcades appeared, while spas and resorts popped up in towns like Bath and Brighton. And this prosperity continued to have an impact on architecture into the Victorian era.

Industrial Revolution (18th-19th centuries)

Not only changing industry and transforming the financial fortunes of countries like Britain the Industrial Revolution also introduced new building materials like iron, steel, and plate glass, which allowed for the construction of larger and more elaborate designs. For imaginative architects, the doors of possibility were opened by the availability of prefabricated and mass-produced materials that made decorative features more affordable and widespread. This was a boom time in Britain and for British architecture.

Victorian Vernacular (1837-1901)

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 was transformative for Britain and its architecture, as significant industrial, social, and cultural changes shaped architectural styles that is still evident in town and cities across Britain today.

Influenced by the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution, together with colonial expansion and the emergence of various cultural movements, a diverse and richly ornamented style emerged. This was largely due to the British Empire’s vast reach that exposed architects and designers to a diverse array of global architectural styles. As a result, Victorian architecture was an eclectic mix of styles that took in Gothic, Italianate, and Eastlake influences. This blend of historical styles produced elaborate decoration, a fondness for asymmetry, vibrant colors, and varied materials that reflected the prosperity of the era. Intricate woodwork, patterned brickwork, and terracotta tiles sat on complex rooflines, with pitched roofs and decorative gables, while decorative stained glass adorned windows and doors.

European Architecture by Era -Detail of the North Front of the Palace of Westminster, London.

Detail of the North Front of the Palace of Westminster, London (Wikimedia Commons).

Absorbing elements of the Gothic Revival movement, which emphasized pointed arches, steep gables, and intricate tracery, the ornate detailing and a fascination with historical styles led to Romanticism influencing the picturesque and whimsical elements of Victorian architecture. And towards the end of the Victorian era, the emergence of the Arts and Crafts Movement saw a return to traditional craftsmanship and materials, as a reaction to the industrial mass production.

These elements can be seen across London, most notably in the brick and terracotta construction and intricate interior of the Royal Albert Hall, which opened in 1871, while The Palace of Westminster was rebuilt in the Gothic Revival style by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin after a fire in 1834. This is also evident in the quintessential Queen Anne style of Carson Mansion, Eureka, California with its intricate woodwork and varied textures, as well as The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island, designed by Richard Morris Hunt.

Art Nouveau Aesthetics (1890-1910)

As the Victorian era came to a close, so too did its eclectic tyle. And so, in reaction to the Industrial Revolution’s impact on craftsmanship, Art Nouveau was born. Inspired by nature and the modern age, this new approach sought to break away from historical styles and create something entirely new, and in its own image.

This resulted in an ornamental style of art and design that flourished between about 1890 and 1910 throughout Europe and across the United States. Characterized by flowing, organic lines, natural motifs of flowers and vines, and intricate decorations often inspired by nature, Art Nouveau incorporated new materials, such as iron and glass, and took a more Holistic approach to design that integrated architecture, interior design, and decorative arts.

European Architecture by Era - Casa Mila by Antoni Gaudi

Casa Mila by Antoni Gaudi (Wikimedia Commons).

Antoni Gaudí was a keen proponent of Art Nouveau and elements of the style can be seen in his incredible Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, alongside Catalan Modernism and Spanish Late Gothic design. A visit to the Gaudi designed Casa Batlló, while in Barcelona showcases the organic forms of Art Nouveau. Worth the visit for the astonishing tracery, irregular oval windows and flowing sculpted stonework.

Similarly, the Hôtel Tassel in Brussels, Belgium, designed by Victor Horta is another a masterpiece of Art Nouveau, while the Secession Building, in Vienna, Austria highlights the style of the Vienna Secession movement, part of the broader Art Nouveau style.

Art Nouveau brought architecture into the 20th century and capped an incredible few centuries for design that not only saw styles and trends shape the appearance of grand palaces across Europe, but also have an indelible impact on housing and town planning. Architecture has transformed the lives of Europeans, and done so in the best possible, eclectic, and ornate taste.

Sources: – Palladian Perfection of Chiswick House | – Palladianism – an introduction | – A Glimpse into the Past: London’s Historic Georgian Architecture | – Palladianism | – What is Palladianism? | – The Baroque Style | – Inside the Baroque Palace | – The Trevi Fountain | – Neoclassical Architecture Explained | – Thomas Jefferson Memorial Features | – Georgians: Architecture | – 7 Fine Examples of Georgian Buildings | – Instant classic – the many versions of St Martin-in-the-Fields | – Architecture | – Victorian Architecture | – Art Nouveau | – How Antoni Gaudí’s Eccentric Style Changed the Face of Modernist Architecture | – About the Sagrada Familia