Early Western Architecture

New Architecture & New Society in the West

Early European architecture and the history of architecture in Europe

Eventually, Western Europe would move into a period of “rebirth,” a period known as the Renaissance. Renaissance literally means “rebirth,” and in Western Europe, this period was marked by a renewed interest in the arts and higher learning. These new interests, of course, led to an increased focus on architecture and to higher quality architecture and new architectural achievements. Below, a few of the greatest architectural achievements of this unique period in history are explored.

A timeline outlining the key periods and developments in early Western architecture:

  • Early Western Architecture Timeline

  • Prehistoric Architecture (10,000 BCE - 2000 BCE):

    • Development of megalithic structures such as Stonehenge in England and dolmens across Western Europe.
  • Ancient Greek Architecture (8th century BCE - 1st century BCE):

    • Emergence of architectural orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian).
    • Construction of monumental temples like the Parthenon and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
  • Ancient Roman Architecture (3rd century BCE - 5th century CE):

    • Advancements in engineering with the use of arches, vaults, and domes.
    • Construction of iconic structures such as the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and aqueducts.
  • Early Christian Architecture (2nd century CE - 6th century CE):

    • Adaptation of Roman architectural forms for Christian worship.
    • Development of basilicas and martyria as centers of Christian community and pilgrimage.
  • Migration Period and Early Medieval Architecture (5th century CE - 10th century CE):

    • Transition from classical to early medieval forms influenced by Germanic, Byzantine, and Islamic styles.
    • Construction of early Christian basilicas, monasteries, and defensive structures.
  • Romanesque Architecture (10th century CE - 12th century CE):

    • Emergence of Romanesque style characterized by thick walls, rounded arches, and barrel vaults.
    • Construction of churches, monasteries, and castles across Western Europe.
  • Gothic Architecture (12th century CE - 16th century CE):

    • Rise of the Gothic style marked by pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses.
    • Construction of towering cathedrals like Notre-Dame de Paris and Chartres Cathedral.

This timeline provides a chronological overview of the key periods and architectural styles in early Western architecture, highlighting the evolution and diversity of architectural forms during this formative period in history.


Early Western Architecture: Exploring the Roots of Western Building Traditions

Early Western architecture encompasses the formative stages of architectural development in Western Europe, tracing back to ancient civilizations and early medieval periods. Let's delve into this fascinating period of architectural history.

What Defined Early Western Architecture?

Early Western architecture was characterized by its simplicity, functionality, and durability. Structures were often built using local materials such as stone, wood, and clay, reflecting the available resources and technological capabilities of the time. These buildings served practical purposes, providing shelter, storage, and communal spaces for early societies.

What Were the Key Architectural Styles of this Period?

During the early stages of Western architecture, several distinct architectural styles emerged, each influenced by different cultural and historical factors. These styles include:

  • Prehistoric Architecture: Dating back to the Stone Age, prehistoric architecture includes megalithic structures such as Stonehenge in England and the dolmens of Western Europe, built using large stones arranged in various formations for ceremonial and burial purposes.

  • Ancient Greek Architecture: The architectural achievements of ancient Greece, characterized by the development of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders, as well as monumental structures like the Parthenon and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

  • Ancient Roman Architecture: Building upon Greek architectural principles, ancient Roman architecture expanded the use of arches, vaults, and domes, creating enduring structures such as the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and aqueducts.

  • Early Christian Architecture: In the early Christian period, architectural styles evolved to accommodate the needs of the growing Christian community, with basilicas and martyria serving as centers for worship and pilgrimage.

How Did Early Western Architecture Influence Later Periods?

The architectural innovations and principles developed during the early Western period laid the foundation for future architectural styles and movements. Elements such as the use of columns, arches, and vaults, as well as principles of proportion and symmetry, continued to influence architectural design throughout the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods.

How Can We Still See the Influence of Early Western Architecture Today?

The influence of early Western architecture can still be observed in modern buildings and urban landscapes around the world. From the classical proportions of government buildings to the use of arches and domes in contemporary architecture, the legacy of early Western architecture continues to shape the built environment.

The Influence of Muslim and Arab Architecture on Western Architecture

The influence of Muslim and Arab architecture on Western architecture is profound and multifaceted, spanning centuries of cultural exchange, conquest, and trade. Here are some key ways in which this influence has manifested:

  1. Moorish Spain: One of the most significant periods of interaction between Islamic and Western architecture occurred during the period of Moorish rule in Spain (8th to 15th centuries). This era saw the construction of iconic structures like the Alhambra Palace in Granada and the Great Mosque of Cordoba. These buildings featured intricate geometric patterns, horseshoe arches, and ornate stucco work, which influenced later Spanish and European architecture.

  2. Islamic Art and Architecture: Islamic architecture is characterized by its emphasis on geometric patterns, arabesques, and calligraphy. These decorative elements found their way into Western architecture through various channels such as trade, diplomacy, and cultural exchange. European travelers, scholars, and architects were fascinated by the richness and sophistication of Islamic design, leading to its adoption and adaptation in Western contexts.

  3. Arabic Influence in Sicily and Southern Italy: Sicily and Southern Italy were under Arab rule for significant periods during the Middle Ages. This resulted in the transfer of architectural knowledge and styles from the Islamic world to Europe. Examples include the Norman-Arab buildings such as the Palermo Cathedral in Sicily, which incorporates elements of both Norman and Arab architecture.

  4. Trade and Diplomacy: The Islamic world served as a vital center of trade and cultural exchange during the medieval period. European merchants and diplomats traveling to regions such as the Levant and North Africa encountered Islamic architecture firsthand, bringing back ideas and motifs that influenced the design of buildings in their home countries.

  5. Renaissance and Islamic Revival: During the Renaissance, there was a renewed interest in classical learning and a revival of interest in Islamic architecture. This period saw the incorporation of Islamic motifs and architectural forms into Western buildings, particularly in decorative arts and garden design.

  6. Colonialism and Imperialism: European colonial powers, particularly in regions like North Africa and the Middle East, often imposed their architectural styles on indigenous populations. However, there were also instances of mutual exchange and hybridization, where elements of Islamic architecture influenced colonial architecture and vice versa.

  7. Modern Architecture: In the 20th century, architects like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright drew inspiration from Islamic architectural principles such as modular design, geometric abstraction, and climatic responsiveness. This influence can be seen in modernist buildings around the world.

Overall, the influence of Muslim and Arab architecture on Western architecture is a testament to the interconnectedness of civilizations and the enduring impact of cultural exchange. It has enriched the architectural vocabulary of the Western world and contributed to the diversity and richness of its built environment.


Case Study Examples: Some Notable Examples of Early Western Architecture

Notable examples of early Western architecture include the Parthenon in Athens, the Colosseum in Rome, the Temple of Hephaestus in Greece, the Pont du Gard aqueduct in France, and early Christian basilicas such as Old St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

Palazzo Medici, Florence

The Palazzo Medici is a Renaissance palace that was built in Florence, Italy. Michelozzo di Bartolomeo was the Italian architect and sculptor who was commissioned to design the palace by Cosimo de’ Medici. Medici was the first member of what would become the Medici political dynasty, a group that would rule Florence throughout most of the Renaissance. Medici was a well-known banker, which was how he earned his sizable fortune and how he could afford to have the palace built.

The palace took several years to build, with construction starting in 1444 and ending in 1484. Featuring classic stone masonry and a tripartite elevation, the castle is a perfect example not just of Renaissance architecture but of the values that pervaded the Renaissance period as a whole. The structure of the palace honors three values deemed important to people of the period: rationality, order, and classicism.

Though the palace is very obviously a Renaissance structure, Bartolomeo still drew influences from other architectural periods and schools of thoughts, namely Roman architecture and Brunelleschian architecture. The Roman influence can be seen particularly in the masonry and the cornice, though a close inspection will reveal that even those features have uniquely Renaissance and Florentine characteristics.

Another example of a Roman-and-Florentine styled feature is the open colonnaded court. Also, the “kneeling windows,” which feature scrolling consoles, are indicative of both architectural styles.

A truly unique and much-celebrated feature of the palace is the Magi Chapel, a 15th century piece featuring frescoes designed by Benozzo Gozzoli, the famed Italian Renaissance painter. The frescoes contain what are believed to be thinly veiled portraits of the Medici family and other important and influential figures of the period.

Sephardic Synagogue, Amsterdam

The Sephardic Synagogue, also known as the Portuguese Synagogue or the Esnoga, was built in the 17th century in Amsterdam. At the time of the synagogue’s construction, Sephardic Jews made up a huge part of the Dutch population. And, not only were these Jews prolific in number, but they were very wealthy as well, which allowed them to construct such a large and impressive synagogue.

Perhaps another reason for the massiveness and grandiosity of the synagogue was the fact that the Jews who built it had escaped great persecution encountered in Spain and Portugal.

The Sephardic Jews hired architect Elias Bouwman to create their synagogue. Bouwman began work on the project on April 17, 1671 and had completed the structure by August 2, 1675. His work is a completely freestanding synagogue supported by wooden poles and foundation vaults. Inside, the Sephardic Synagogue features rustic wooden benches and classically Dutch sand floors. The floors are particularly unique; the Sephardic Synagogue is one of only five synagogues in the entire world to have sand floors.

Villa Rotunda

The Villa Rotunda, which is also known as the Villa Almerico Capra, was designed by Andrea Palladio, a famed architect who built many structures in the Venetian Republic. The Renaissance style villa, located just outside of Vicenza in Northern Italy, is considered by many to be Palladio’s crowning achievement.

The rotunda sits atop a small hill and features six columned porticoes and a central dome, believed to be one of the first domes to be used in a non-religious structure. Another unique feature of the rotunda is that its living quarters are located solely on the ground floor. Palladio’s intriguing design would live on long after his death since many used the rotunda and the surrounding structures that came later as inspiration for the homes of 18th century British aristocrats.

Despite the long-lasting influence of the rotunda, however, Palladio would not live to see it completed, nor would it be completed to his exact specifications. Palladio, for example, had no intention of making the villa amenable to a farm as it now is. Like Palladio, the original owner, Paolo Almerico, would also not live to see the structure complete or to oversee progress on the building. Instead, Vincenzo Scamozzi, a Venetian architect and architectural writer, was hired to oversee the completion of the project.

Under his direction, the planned-for center hall was covered with a small dome featuring an oculus that drew inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome. Other features of the circular shaped hall include a beautiful balcony, a cupola, and heavily decorated walls and frescoes. It should also be noted that the rotunda, though it appears symmetrical, is designed with slight twists and shifts to offer the most pleasant views of the countryside possible.

Vitruvius Britannicus

Vitruvius Britannicus is a unique architectural contribution and a unique contribution to our list since it is not actually a structure in and of itself. Instead, it is an architectural encyclopedia of sorts, penned by Colen Campbell, a Scottish architect credited with creating the Georgia style.

His work, Vitruvius Britannicus, which means “The British Architect,” was published in three volumes, all published from 1715 to 1725. The work is the first real example of architectural literature to be released in England other than John Shute’s older First Groundes.

Contained in the volumes are listings and definitions of different types of designs and styles, engravings from respected architects of the time, layouts of outdoor structures like courts and parks, and opinion pieces related to architectural styles. Many full building plans and drawings of buildings from different perspectives are also included.

Each of the volumes was quite popular and contributed to architecture in that it brought about an interest in neo-Palladian architecture, leading to many structures being erected in this style throughout the 18th century.


Monticello is well known as one of the residences of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. Not only did Monticello serve as his primary residence, but it was also a large slave plantation. Jefferson’s plantation, which he began constructing at the young age of twenty-six, was 5,000 acres and featured tobacco crops, mixed crops, and wheat crops.

The major connection between Monticello and Europe is that Jefferson designed the plantation based on principles held by Andrea Palladio, an Italian Renaissance architect, whom, if you’ll remember, was responsible for the Villa Rotunda. As a result, Monticello is very neoclassical in terms of its design and has many elements that are distinctly reminiscent of 18th century European architecture, odd for a plantation based in Virginia.

Monticello, as one might expect given Palladio’s influence on its design, looks very much like a villa. It is important to note, however, that Jefferson desired to create “a new architecture” and added some of his own unique design concepts into the structure.

Construction began on Monticello in 1768 but wasn’t truly complete until 1809. Throughout the building of Monticello, Jefferson would regularly make adjustments to the plans to suit his evolving tastes, including an interest in the French architecture popular around 1784.

While Monticello is certainly a testament to who Jefferson was and what he preferred, it is often compared to other structures, such as the Chiswick House. The Chiswick House is a Palladian villa located in England. Designed by Lord Burlington, the villa features English landscape gardens and is considered an excellent example of neo-Palladian architecture, as is Monticello.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Western Architecture

Welcome to our FAQ section where we'll address common questions about Western architecture, its styles, elements, and more.

What is Western Architecture?

Western architecture refers to the architectural styles that have developed in Western Europe and later spread to other parts of the world influenced by European culture. It encompasses a wide range of styles and periods, from ancient times to the present day.

What is the Old Western Architecture Style?

The term "Old Western Architecture Style" is not specific as Western architecture has evolved over centuries, encompassing various styles such as Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, and more. Each of these styles has its unique characteristics and flourished during different historical periods.

What are the Elements of Western Architecture?

Elements of Western architecture include structural components like columns, arches, vaults, and domes, as well as decorative elements such as ornamentation, sculpture, and stained glass. These elements vary depending on the architectural style and period.

What is the Earliest Architecture Style?

The earliest known architecture style is generally considered to be ancient Egyptian architecture, dating back to around 3100 BC with structures like the Step Pyramid of Djoser. However, various civilizations around the world developed their own architectural styles independently during different periods of history.

What is the Most Famous Western Architecture?

One of the most famous examples of Western architecture is the Gothic cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris. Built between the 12th and 14th centuries, it showcases the intricate architectural details and soaring verticality characteristic of the Gothic style.

What is the Name of the Western Architecture?

Western architecture encompasses a broad range of styles and periods, as mentioned earlier. Each style has its own name, such as Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, and many more.

What are Western Concepts?

Western architecture often reflects cultural, philosophical, and technological concepts prevalent in Western societies. These may include ideas such as symmetry, proportion, humanism, rationalism, and the use of advanced construction techniques.

What are the Three Types of Architecture?

Architecture can be broadly categorized into three main types: residential architecture (homes and dwellings), commercial architecture (buildings for businesses and commerce), and public architecture (structures for communal use such as government buildings, churches, and monuments).

What is Key West Architecture?

Key West architecture refers to the architectural style found in Key West, Florida, which is characterized by its tropical influences, historical significance, and diverse cultural heritage. Key West architecture often features elements such as pastel-colored wooden houses, verandas, and decorative details influenced by Caribbean, Victorian, and Bahamian styles.


What is the Role of Western Architecture in Modern Society?

Western architecture continues to play a significant role in modern society, influencing urban landscapes, shaping cultural identities, and providing functional spaces for living, working, and socializing.

How has Western Architecture Evolved Over Time?

Western architecture has evolved through various historical periods, responding to cultural, technological, and societal changes. From the monumental structures of ancient civilizations to the sleek skyscrapers of the modern era, it reflects the progression of human civilization and architectural innovation.

What are Some Notable Examples of Western Architecture Around the World?

Notable examples of Western architecture around the world include iconic landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Colosseum in Rome, the Sydney Opera House in Australia, and the Empire State Building in New York City. These structures showcase the diversity and influence of Western architectural styles on a global scale.

How Does Western Architecture Differ from Architecture in Other Parts of the World?

Western architecture often emphasizes principles such as symmetry, perspective, and classical proportions, which are rooted in Greco-Roman traditions and later influenced by European cultural movements. In contrast, architecture in other parts of the world may be characterized by different aesthetic principles, materials, and cultural contexts.

What Factors Influence the Design of Western Architecture?

The design of Western architecture is influenced by a multitude of factors, including geographical location, climate, available materials, cultural traditions, technological advancements, economic considerations, and the preferences of architects and clients.

What are Some Current Trends in Western Architecture?

Current trends in Western architecture include sustainable design practices, adaptive reuse of existing structures, incorporation of smart technologies, emphasis on wellness and biophilic design principles, and a focus on creating inclusive and accessible spaces for all members of society.

How Can I Learn More About Western Architecture?

There are various ways to learn more about Western architecture, including studying architectural history books, visiting museums and architectural landmarks, taking courses or workshops, engaging with online resources and forums, and exploring architectural exhibitions and events in your area.