European Architecture – Chronology, Styles and Characteristics

European architecture has had several architectural styles that have changed slowly over the centuries.

Unlike other styles, such as fashion or furniture design, building styles change much more slowly over the centuries.

However, the architectural style of a building can also tell us its time of origin.

Chronology of European architectural styles

  • Romanesque – from the end of the 10th century to the 12th century
  • Gothic – 12th to 16th century
  • Renaissance – early 15th century to early 16th century
  • Baroque – late 16th century in Italy and continued in Germany and colonial South America until the 18th century
  • Rococo – 18th century
  • Neoclassical – from 1750 to 1830 – 18th and early 19th century
  • Historicism – 19th and early 20th century
  • Art Nouveau – from 1890 to 1910
  • Modernism – 1930s to early 1960s

Each style has its own characteristics that make it easy to recognise and distinguish from other architectural styles.

At the same time, of course, there are also overlaps when it comes to certain elements of historical architectural styles.

Depending on the region, the respective styles were predominant at different times.

Architectural styles and features

We’ll give you a brief overview of the eras and their architectural characteristics.

1. Romanesque architecture

The Romanesque period in Germany begins in the early Middle Ages and can be roughly divided into three epochs:

  • Early Romanesque: from 900 to 1070
  • High Romanesque: from 1070 to 1170
  • Late Romanesque: from 1170 to 1240

The Romanesque style can still be found in buildings such as churches, monasteries and castles.

The buildings that can be attributed to this architectural style are often massive and dark.

Although their façades are fairly simple, the areas above the windows and doors have been elaborately designed.

Romanesque Architecture
Romanesque Architecture

Above these openings in the masonry, there are usually semicircular arches. In addition, there are sometimes so-called window roses and numerous decorations, such as figures or faces.

Romanesque architecture is characterised by massive buildings with semicircular arches in the windows and openings.

Sacred buildings such as churches, monasteries and castles were built in the Romanesque architectural style.

The thick walls and small windows are characteristic of this architectural style. The massive, dark buildings generally have simple façades.

Semi-circular arches are used for windows, doors and masonry openings.

The round arch frieze, a decorative element of semi-circular arches used to design wall surfaces and façades, was used.

In addition, buildings from the Romantic period feature ornate wall and floor mosaics with geometric patterns made from marble.

2. Gothic architecture

The Gothic period followed the Romanesque period. Gothic was replaced by the Renaissance in the 16th century.

Gothic architecture
Gothic Architecture

Gothic buildings are usually characterised by the following features:

  • mostly tall buildings
  • filigree work
  • pointed arches
  • traceries
  • exterior reinforcements
  • open-air exterior walls
  • thin-framed coloured glass windows
  • window surrounds
  • gargoyle

The skeleton construction with cross-ribbed vaults characterises the interiors and allows the walls to be opened up.

Gothic architectural elements
Gothic architectural elements

In addition, there is an elaborate system of buttresses that makes it possible to build tall cathedrals.

Gothic Architecture
Gothic Architecture

3. Renaissance architecture

The Gothic period was replaced by the Renaissance, which also marked the beginning of the modern era. It began in the first third of the 15th century and ended in the middle of the 16th century.

The term Renaissance comes from French and means rebirth.

General characteristics:

  • rationality,
  • dignity of the Human Being
  • scientific rigour
  • humanist ideal
  • re-utilisation of Greco-Roman arts
  • In Renaissance architecture, the occupation of space by the building is based on mathematical relationships (geometry, perspective)
Renaissance Architecture
Renaissance Architecture

As well as reviving ancient Greco-Roman culture, this period saw many advances and countless achievements in the arts, literature and sciences, which surpassed the classical heritage.

The ideal of humanism with the valorisation of man and nature, as opposed to the divine and the supernatural, concepts that had permeated the culture of the Middle Ages 

At this time, ancient buildings were the model for architecture. In particular, elements of Roman architecture were copied.

The architects of this era took great care to maintain symmetry and strict proportions.

Architecture of the Renaissance
Architecture of the Renaissance

The elements used were often based on geometric shapes.

At this time, sacred places were converted. Churches, for example, were intended to serve as meeting places. In addition, the buildings were often clad in light marble.

4. Baroque architecture

Baroque art originated in Italy (17th century) but soon spread to other European countries and also to the American continent, brought by the Portuguese and Spanish colonisers.

Baroque Architecture
Baroque Architecture

Baroque architecture covering the 17th and 18th centuries was sponsored by the Catholic Church which, by investing in rich and sumptuous works, tried to rescue the faithful lost to Protestantism.

The Baroque seeks to affirm Catholic sovereignty, and the art of this period is characterised by the exaltation of God and the Church;

Baroque Architecture
Baroque Architecture

Features of Baroque architecture:

  • strong presence of spaces and oval shapes, which bring the idea of centralisation
  • use of the Greek cross, which identifies Christianity
  • convex or concave façades, which reinforce the idea of movement
  • use of crooked columns and arches
  • exuberant decorative elements with a strong presence of gold
  • sensation of infinity and grandeur
  • murals and paintings on the ceilings
  • use of lighting to create a sense of mystery
  • exaltation of God and Christ as the main figures
  • strong contrasts in lighting, colour and form
  • many elaborate paintings

For a short time, the Baroque was overtaken by the Rococo, which was then replaced by Neoclassical architecture.

See also History of Baroque Architecture in North-East Brazil and Minas Gerais

5. Rococo architecture

Rococo architecture (1700-1790), often known as late Baroque, is a highly ornamental and theatrical style of architecture.

Rococo Architecture
Rococo Architecture

While Baroque architecture began in Rome to express religious mysteries, Rococo architecture developed in Paris as a secular style.

Rococo art and decoration combine symmetry, delicate use of light colours, broad curves, gilding, sculptural mouldings and Trompe-l’œil frescoes to create an illusion of drama and movement.

Rococo is above all a style of residential interior decoration.

The characteristics of Rococo architecture establish a sense of dramatic emotion with energy and action.

Features of Rococo architecture:

  • rich textures/rich surface treatments
  • light colour palette
  • asymmetrical spaces
  • curved/squeezed shapes – especially domes
  • twisted elements
  • irregular or complicated shapes
  • concave and convex surfaces to imitate undulation
  • large staircases
  • exaggerated grandeur
  • use of the oval, both in the layout and ornamentation
  • Trompe-I’oeil treatments in interiors – A technical-artistic resource used to create an optical illusion.
  • groupings of columns and niches
  • luxurious and dramatic paintings on ceilings and walls.
  • images that create optical illusions
  • Rococo ornament derives from natural forms – shells, flowers as well as seaweed, particularly if they are double S-curves.

6. Neoclassical architecture

Neoclassical architecture, a renewal of classical architecture during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Neoclassical Architecture
Neoclassical Architecture
Classical architecture, architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, especially from the 5th century BC in Greece to the 3rd century AD in Rome, which favoured the column and the pediment.

Features of Neoclassical architecture:

  • rows of columns
  • a large scale
  • rectangular or square floor plans
  • little ornamentation
  • porticos, friezes and other elements of Greek and Roman design
  • vaulted, flat and gable roofs, depending on the style
  • architecture was once again more strongly orientated towards Antiquity

However, unlike the Renaissance, it was based above all on models from Greek antiquity.

Columns, in particular, were often used as a design element in classical buildings.

In most cases, there is also a so-called portico, i.e. a gallery whose roof or vault is supported by columns or an arcade.

These stylistic elements can be seen in the White House in Washington D.C., for example. According to the classification, the time of construction covers the period from 1770 to 1840.

The model for classicist architecture was above all the Greek temples of antiquity. At this time, architecture was expressed by the desire for monumentality, pomp and grandeur.

The domed structure supported by columns was very popular. The basic classical shapes, such as triangles, circles, columns and squares, were also increasingly used.

7. Historicist architecture

Historicism, also known as Romanticism, developed mainly in the 19th and early 20th centuries and focused all its efforts on recovering the architecture of the past.

It was about imitating architectural styles from other eras, incorporating some of the cultural characteristics of that century, while eclectic architecture was dedicated to mixing styles to give shape to something new.

Like Neoclassicism before it, Historicism also draws inspiration from previous architectural eras.

Many stylistic subtypes can be observed in Historicism:

  • Neo-Romanesque
  • Neo-Gothic
  • Neo-Byzantinism
  • Neo-Baroque

The construction technique used sometimes depends on the function of the building in question.

For example, you’ll often find churches built in the Gothic style, while, for example, town houses are more orientated towards the Renaissance style and representative buildings mainly follow the Baroque style.

Nowadays, many buildings can be attributed to the Historicism stylistic era – which is sometimes also due to the strong building boom of this time, triggered by the Industrial Revolution.

 8. Art Nouveau architecture

In the history of architecture, Art Nouveau emerged around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Casa Milá in Barcelona (Spain), by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, is an example of a work in the Art Nouveau style
Casa Milá in Barcelona (Spain), by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, is an example of a work in the Art Nouveau style

Among other names, the style is also known as L’Art Noveau, Secession Style or Modern Style.

It should be noted, however, that Art Nouveau was not initially an autonomous style; instead, the current delineation developed from several styles.

The Art Nouveau style is inspired by the natural world, characterised by sinuous, sculptural and organic forms, arches, curved lines and sensual ornamentation.

Decorative elements found inside and outside the buildings include intricate mosaic work, coloured and curved glass and decorative wrought iron.

What these different styles had in common was, above all, that they departed from the historicism that had prevailed until then.

Art Nouveau in Architecture
Art Nouveau in Architecture

The characteristics of Art Nouveau include:

  • Common motifs include stylised versions of leaves, flowers, vines, insects, animals and other natural elements.
  • Figures
  • sinuous, sculptural and organic shapes, arches, curved lines and sensual ornamentation.
  • Departure from symmetry
  • design according to the motto “art and life”

It should be noted, however, that due to the different styles, not all characteristics have to appear together.

9. Architecture Classical Modernism

Around 1900, along with Expressionism, Futurism and Cubism, the phase of Classical Modernism began.

The buildings of modern architecture were centred on reason, logic and pure functionality.

Architecture Classical Modernism
Architecture Classical Modernism

Thus, representative details and conspicuous ornamentation were omitted.

The materials used in the buildings were industrially manufactured construction materials.

The characteristics of Classical Modernism include:

  • functionality
  • no ornamentation
  • open, functional and fluid space plans
  • exposed structure
  • use of modern materials such as reinforced concrete, glass and steel
  • use of traditional materials in an innovative way
  • open floor plans

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