A History Of European Architecture

When we consider the achievements of ancient Europe, it would be remiss to omit its architecture. For thousands of years, Europeans have been renowned for innovative buildings and structures in a wide range of styles. From the age of Antiquity to the Middle Ages, the Continent has emerged with a variety of designs that captivate generations of onlookers. Let’s explore the history of European architecture from its pre-Roman roots up to the present day.

The dawn of European architecture dates back to the Neolithic Age, when significant structures like Avebury and Stonehenge were being built with great precision. Ancient societies like the Greeks, Romans, and Celts who inhabited the continent from 3000 BC also left a lasting influence. The Ancient Greeks were known for their intricate and ambitious temples, beautifully decorated with fluted columns and exquisite statues of gods and goddesses. Meanwhile, the Romans erected large public buildings like their famous Colosseum in Rome. The Celts erected rings and circles of stones that are still standing today, such as Stonehenge.

The Middle Ages brought with it a new era of architecture and design. Castles and cathedrals, such as York Minster, dominated the urban landscape. Gothic cathedrals evidence immense craftsmanship, utilising exaggerated points, ribbed vaults, grand stained-glass windows, pointed arches, and intricate sculptures. These visionary buildings have become icons of Western European culture and are awe-inspiring to behold.

The Renaissance period was another significant event for European architecture. Ideas from the Classical world were now employed in the design of cathedrals, palaces, and civic buildings. This era marked the birth of the Italian Baroque style which saw the construction of iconic structures like the Piazza San Marco in Venice and the Trevi Fountain in Rome. The Baroque style also spread to other European countries like France, Spain, and England.

Due to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, European architecture underwent a radical transformation. The Neoclassical style, which included extensive use of columns, domes, and colonnades, became popular amongst the elite. Concrete and iron were also now widely used, allowing for the construction of skyscrapers, high-rise buildings, and bridges. The Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Crystal Palace in London are monuments from this era.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the modernist style emerged and replaced the radical designs of the previous century. Unlike the Baroque and Neoclassical styles, this new style was characterised by form follows function; buildings no longer had to appear beautiful, or have particular embellishments, but instead, they had to meet certain spatial and utilitarian requirements. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is a leading figure of the modernist movement, while a revival of the Gothic style can also be attributed to this era.

Leading Architects

An interesting angle to explore the history of European architecture is to look at the work of some of its most prolific architects. Giorgio Vasari and Michelangelo, both of Italy, have left an indelible mark on the continent owing to their prominent contributions in the Renaissance period. Christopher Wren and Sir John Soane are an eminent British architects from the 18th century, who designed such buildings as the st. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Further, the famous Le Corbusier was a Swiss-French designer, who in the modernist period, revolutionised urban planning with the famous concept of ‘streets in the sky’.

Modern Features

European architecture has evolved over the centuries, influenced by new materials, ideas and technologies. Nowadays, contemporary European architecture focuses heavily on green, sustainable materials and designs. Architects utilise recycled materials such as bamboo, wood, and limestone, to reduce their buildings’ carbon footprint, while intelligent insulation technologies keep warm air in and conserve energy. Meanwhile, the use of LED lighting and solar technology help to further reduce the operating costs.

Sustainability is paramount to 21st-century European builders and government-backed initiatives provide greater impetus. Green roofs, living walls and urban gardens are all widely employed across cities, while the concept of the ‘city in the forest’ or ‘the edible city’ sees urban spaces blend with greenery and organic products.

Architectural Awards

The influence and power of European architecture also translates into the world of architecture awards. The esteemed EU Mies van de Rohe Awards recognize the best architectural designs over a two-year period from across the member states, from residential to public buildings. The program also supports a special award that focuses on architects under the age of 40 years old. In addition, the EU culture program Heritage in Motion Awards rewards exemplary ways of preserving and restoring architectural heritage.

The RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) International Prize is another prestigious accolade recognizing achievements in international architecture. This award is presented biennially, and celebrates an exceptional example of global architectural design.

Economic Impact

European architecture has maintained a strong economic base due to the abundance of raw materials and skilled labour, as well as its geographical proximity to the Mediterranean. Utilising local materials helps to keep costs down, while the presence of some of the world’s leading design schools, such as the Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris and the Art Noveau- inspired architecture school in Vienna, help to sustain an educated and competent work force. In addition, architectural designs from Spain and Britain have also been exported to other continents, generating an immense additional source of revenue for the continent.


European architecture has come a long way since its primitive beginnings. From the Neolithic villages to shapes of Baroque and Gothic splendour, to the modernist and green visionaries of this century, European architecture has provided ideas and materials that have influenced and inspired the way we live and interact with our concretised environment.

Anita Johnson is an award-winning author and editor with over 15 years of experience in the fields of architecture, design, and urbanism. She has contributed articles and reviews to a variety of print and online publications on topics related to culture, art, architecture, and design from the late 19th century to the present day. Johnson's deep interest in these topics has informed both her writing and curatorial practice as she seeks to connect readers to the built environment around them.

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