Iktinos and Kallicrates, The Parthenon, Athens, Greece, 447-432 BCE, By Harrieta171 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Architecture is the art in which large spaces are enclosed. For Giorgio Vasari, this was one of the major “Fine Arts” of the 16th century. Architecture is the fine art that we interact with the most, and yet probably think about the least. There are various elements that are central to the process of building, and important factors that builders need to take into account. Humans started building permanent structures for shelter and worship, in addition to meeting other needs, by the Neolithic period. These were often built of perishable materials, and reflected the shift in culture from hunter-gatherer societies to farming ones. Early buildings also were often built with load-bearing construction, which means that the walls had very few openings.

As societies shifted to more settled, highly stratified communities, and emerging states and empires, buildings of stone began to mark state control of religion and labor. One of the earliest building techniques is the use of post and lintel as a means to span openings. This allows architects to account for thrust, or the force of gravity pushing down, while spanning openings. Stone is typically a brittle material, so the posts have to be placed closer together to account for breakage. These closely placed posts are called colonnades. The Parthenon, pictured above, uses this basic post and lintel system with colonnades in its construction. The architects, Iktinos and Kallikrates, used the Doric order, for the post part, and created visual “cheats,” such as the entasis, or slight swelling in the center of the columns which makes them appear straight; placing columns at the corners closer together to make all of the appear uniformly placed; and creating a slight dip at the center of the stylobate, the steps supporting the structure, to make it appear straight. The Renaissance marked the first revival of the Greco-Roman style of architecture, with architects heavily influenced by Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture. Architects and theorists like Leon Battista Alberti and Andrea Palladio used that as the basis for both their architecture and their writings.


Roman, Pantheon, Rome, Italy, 118-128, By Maros M r a z (Maros) – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

The Romans perfected the arch and the vault, partially through their use of cast concrete. This led to the innovation of the dome as a means to space space. In the Pantheon, pictured above and to the left, the Romans placed their dome on a drum, and put the thickest walls at the bottom of the structure, allowing them to thin out at the top. This meant that the dome was completely supported. This technique shifted in later years, with the Byzantine innovation of pendentives, which were upside down triangles formed in the spaces where 4 arches met, as a means of supporting their domes. Byzantine architects also used  squinches, which are used when the space to be domed is a square. Squinches turn that space into an octogon as a means of supporting the dome. Domes were expanded upon in the Renaissance, with Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome of the cathedral in Florence, said to have been inspired by the dome of the Pantheon, and Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.



Romanesque, St. Sernin, Toulouse, France, consecrated 1180, © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / , via Wikimedia Commons


St. Sernin, Toulouse, Interior, Jose Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro/, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Romanesque period, builders used the barrel vault to create large, high-ceilinged spaces that allow for pilgrims to move around and through the spaces easily. These had ribs that helped carry the thrust down to the piers, and large buttresses on the exterior to contain that thrust, and stop it from flattening the church, as pictured above and to the left. Eventually, Romanesque builders began to use the groin vault as a means to create even larger, higher ceilings, which would eventually give way to the Gothic.


Notre Dame de Amiens, France, 1220-1269, (photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (own work), [GDFL ( or CC by 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Gothic period, there is an emphasis on height, as well as light, seen as the light of Heaven. The Romanesque innovation of groin vaults here help to raise ceilings higher, and flying buttresses, pictured below, allow for the opening up of the walls to allow for more windows. These were typically made of stained glass, and allowed for this heavenly light to shine in.


Detail of Flying buttresses on Notre Dame de Amiens, (photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (own work), [GDFL ( or CC by 3.0


Detail of the interior of Notre Dame de Amiens, (photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (own work), [GDFL ( or CC by 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

By the middle of the 19th century, the architectural innovations primarily had to do with advances in materials and technical sophistication due to the Industrial Revolution. Architects started to use cast iron, now fortified with coke, a byproduct of the smelting process, as well as new types of steel in their structures, which began to rise up further than before, especially after Mr. Otis invented the elevator in the 1890s.


Louis Sullivan, Wainwright Building, St. Louis, MO, 1890-91, (photo Public Domain,

Louis Sullivan was one of the first to work with these materials, giving the maxim that “Form Follows Function,” meaning the form of the building should show the function of that building.

Sullivan was also the mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright, the major American innovator of architecture in the early 20th century. Wright also found inspiration in Asian architecture, adopting some of the elements of the Chinese Complete Frame System into his conception of open floor plans.

U of Chicago

Frank Llyod Wright, Robie House, Oak Park, IL, 1909 (Photo by  Dan Smith-Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

All of these innovations would lead to the development of the International Style in the mid-20th century, with large glass and steel rectangular structures dominating the skyline of most major world cities. Postmodern architects reacted to this style in a variety of ways after the 1960s, with Deconstruction becoming one of the major trends. Some contemporary architects have begun to take environmental concerns into account in designing their structures, with sustainability becoming one of the important factors in the design and construction of many major buildings.




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