History of western architecture

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Paleolithic earlier than 8200 BC

Mesolithic 8200 – 4800 BC

Neolithic 4800 – 2200 BC

Bronze Age 2200 – 100 BC

Iron Age 100 BC – present

9000 BC beginnings of agriculture/ first buildings from southern Turkey to the Nile Delta

7500 – 6000 BC permanent agricultural villages with mud-brick architecture

by 3500 BC emergence of small independent city states ruled by councils and assemblies in Mesopotamia

6000 – 4000 BC hunting-gathering in Nile valley

3200 BC unification under god-king and beginning of historical period in Egypt
In the 1st century BC, the Roman writer Vitruvius wrote the “Ten Books on Architecture” and defined architecture as the union of “firmness” (structural solidity), “commodity” (usefulness otherwise the structure becomes a sculpture) and “delight” (beautiful). This definition remains valid even today. Different periods in history had different focus but architecture always fulfilled the three parameters. Structural innovation was of primary importance during the Roman, Gothic and 19th century period while beauty was given primacy during the Greek and Renaissance period.
Monumental properties tend to dominate us throughout history because of their visual and spatial dominance and the ability to affect and shape us. Thus, the history of architecture tends to focus more on monumental architecture of the past.
Since early times human life has swung between movement and settlement. There has always been a tendency to trade mobility for security, to settle and rest or go back to the spot that offers shelter and food. For the earliest man food gathering and hunting did not encourage permanent occupation of land, as he had to follow the seasonal movement of animals and plants. Their dead, however, had a permanent place, a cave or a mound marked by a cairn. This is probably where they returned at intervals to pay respect and to keep happy the spirits of their ancestors. The Paleolithic man also came back periodically to the cave which provided him shelter against inclement weather and safety from wild animals. There are evidences all over the world that early man occupied or visited caves. This is where the first hints of civic life began, where people gathered periodically or permanently and shared the same magical practices or religious beliefs as indicated by the cave paintings of hunting and animals to ensure continued supply and success in hunting such as at Altamira and Lascaux. There is a painting of a man in deer skin wearing antlers on his head, presumably a wizard, which indicate some form of magical practice existed.
Although the cave is far removed from the city, it gave man the first concept of architectural space and the power of the space to intensify spiritual and emotional feelings. The later pyramid and ziggurat are the direct representation of the mountain cave.
About 15000 years ago, traces of permanent settlements occurred along river valleys. This was made possible by conditions which led to more reliable food supply; the availability of shell fish and fish and planted tubers. Agriculture and domestication of animals along with irrigation ensured better food supply. Replacement of the hoe by the plow increased agriculture production dramatically, releasing labor from the fields to undertake other communal works. The plow also initiated the division of land into rectangular plots, a practice which continues till today. Nomadic life was replaced by permanent settlements and better security. The role of women gained prominence as caretaker of children, plants and animals and the village became the collective nest for the care and nurture of children. If the period of the hunters was characterized by weapons of all sorts, the settlements in villages was characterized by the use of containers, stone and pottery utensils such as pots, vases, jars, granaries etc. for storing and preserving surpluses. There was a marked increase in population during this period.
The first settlements probably occurred along the Mesopotamia and Nile Valleys. The villages consisted of closely set mud houses, baked or of mud and reed construction, surrounded by fields and close to the swamp or river. It might also have a local shrine. The beginning of organized morality, government, law and justice existed and was meted out by the council of elders.
The hunter who was skilled with weapons and in stalking and killing animals did not disappear. Instead he found an easier and more secured life by giving protection to the agricultural villages first against wild animals and later against other hunters. As the villages became more and more dependent on them, the hunters gradually assumed the role of the chief of the villages due to their aggressiveness and superior leadership qualities. The hunter’s mobility and knowledge of wider horizons, his willingness to take risks and prompt decisions, readiness to undergo deprivation or fatigue in pursuit of game, his willingness to face death gave him special leadership qualities to control and subdue the docile agricultural communities. The chief could organize on a larger scale through force or threat. The plow replaced the hoe and released a large number of people from agricultural work. This surplus manpower was mobilized for the construction of protective walls and irrigation canals which increased the production and transport of food. Under the regimented control and command of the ruling minorities, some of the villages gradually began to change into cities.


The oldest artificial structures are believed to be some 20 huts at Terra Amata in Southern France almost 300,000 - 400,000 years old. The huts were oval in shape (8-15 m. long and 4-6 m. wide). Small bands of hunters, about 15, used them for limited hunting forays. The huts were left to collapse and were rebuilt or new ones were built nearby. The huts were built of branches or saplings set close together in the sand and braced by a ring of large stones on the ground. Larger posts held up the roof but it is not known how. A hearth was in the center. Some huts were used for sleeping, others for working, kitchen, and even as toilet areas. During the time of the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon, 40,000 – 100,000 years ago, weapons were sharper and easier to use. Skins of animals were used to cover the frame of the huts in order to keep out the cold winds. A hut near the village of Moldova in the Ukraine dating back to about 44,000 BC measured 8 m by 5 m and had a wooden frame covered with skin. The wooden framework was held in place by mammoth bones. Similarly, there was a tent-like structures in Plateau-Parrain in France (15000 BC) with a floor area about 3 m by 3 m.

Permanent buildings of pre-dynastic Egypt and the Near East were single cell type – round or oval in plan- or multi-celled collection of rectangular units. By 9000-8000 BC there were round or oval dry stone huts built in open settlements near water sources. Beehive forms were constructed of reeds or matting supported on posts. Some huts had stone paved floors. Buildings were round with a diameter of 5m and had a domed superstructure of branches covered with mud. Rectangular rooms probably dated from 9000-7000 BC. Use of mud bricks mixed with straw encouraged the construction of rectangular rooms with buttresses. In 7350 BC Jericho there was a 3m thick and 4m high protection wall with a circumference of 700m. Fortification produced one of the first monumental structures. Jericho was exceptionally large for an early farming settlement and the huge defensive wall suggests a central authority holding power over the community. Architecture consisted of two roomed rectangular houses with smoothly finished lime plaster floors and walls.

About 7000 BC a highly organized “city” with specialized craft and economy partly founded on trade existed in Catal Huyuk in the Anatolian plains of Turkey. The settlement specialized in metal work in addition to stone and shell beads, flint knives, bone ladles, belt hooks etc. Possibly a public market existed for exchanging goods. Catal Huyuk had no defensive walls, public works or streets, only an occasional courtyard which was not a central space, rather a space for lavatory and throwing refuse. Houses and foundations were made of shaped mud bricks. The houses were roughly rectangular in plan, one story high and divided into living and storage spaces. Entry to and between the houses was by wooden ladder through a hole in the roof which also acted as an outlet for the smoke of the hearth beneath it. There were no doors or windows on the outside, sometimes only small openings under the eaves, and the houses were joined in a continuous cellular structure, which gave them defensive and structural advantage.

Khirokitia (Cyprus) c. 5500 BC had a definite linear street pattern and houses were approached from the street. It even had a large open space in the center, suggestive of the Greek agora which was to follow later. The settlement had no fortifications.
Mesolithic dwellings have been found at Lepenski Vir (5410-4610 BC) in Yugoslavia. The houses were built on terraces in rows of about twenty. The houses were roughly trapezoidal in plan with floor areas ranging from 5-30 m square. The wider end was oriented towards the river and contained the entrance. The floors were of hard limestone plaster.
During the Neolithic period, small, square or rectangular single-family houses or longhouses occupied by multiple or expanded families were built. Nea Nikomedeia (c. 6220 BC) in Macedonia Greece was one of the oldest European settlements. It had square houses, about 7.5 m by 7.5 m in plan, with mud walls supported by a framework of oak saplings and bundles of reed attached to the frame. The inside was plastered by a mixture of mud and chaff while the outside was coated with white clay. It is thought that the roof was sloped with thatch covering and overhanging eaves. Longhouses such as at Bylany, Czechoslovakia (c. 4200 BC) had a width of about 6 m but its length varied from 8 m to 45 m. Wattle walls covered with clay were supported by strong oak posts.
Drystone houses at Skara Brae (c. 2500-1700 BC) in the Orkney Islands, off the NE coast of Scotland had double skinned walls 3 m thick. The inner and outer drystone walls were about 1 m thick and the gap was filled with mud and refuse. The houses were upto 7 m in diameter and were accessed by tunnel-like passageways which could be closed by doors. It seems the houses had thatch or turf roofs with a smoke hole positioned over the central hearth.

Temples and Ritual Structures
In the Neolithic communities of Europe, religion found two expressions: 1) their reverence for the cave and memories of ancestors and 2) the new found order of the sky. The double temple at Ggantija is a good example of the first while the Stonehenge is representative of the second. The complex of Ggantija in Malta was built of stone using a mixture of megalithic (Gk. MEGA: great, LITHIC: stone) and cyclopean (irregular shaped stones laid without mortar, so large they were thought to have been raised by giants known as Cyclops) technique during the 3rd millenium BC. The massive walls consisted of a double shell filled with earth and rubble. The walls were rough-hewn and no attempt was made to dress them. The inner sanctuary was of greater concern and was dressed. Ggantija is a wholly manmade form and perhaps one of the earlier true building types. The inner space consisted of a double set of receptacles signifying the obese mother goddess of the cave, the lady of fertility. It had a concave façade. A string of stone wall provided a forecourt. A central axis led to the interior sanctuary. Animal sacrifice was observed as evidenced by their remains. The roof probably had partial corbelling with stone slabs at the top. It is also very likely that the uppermost span was bridged by wooden members and covered with thatch.
Large megalithic structures are found strewn all across Europe. Menhirs were the primary monuments of that period. Because of their height and mass and visibility from afar, they served as directional foci, encouraging movement towards and around them, a form of organizing space giving people a reference point in their movement in open space. Such examples were used throughout history and are found even today in cities in the form of statues, fountains, columns etc.
The Stonehenge at Avebury England, 13 km. north of Salisbury, is one of such intriguing structures. It is thought it was used to celebrate the annual lifecycle of the Great Goddess responsible for the change of seasons. It has also been believed that the stonehenge was a type of astronomical clock or calendar for predicting the seasons. The Stonehenge consists of a circular ditch 1300 ft. in diameter with several rings of stone enclosed within it. It was built between 3100 and 1550 BC. According to evidence from excavations, there were three distinct periods of construction. The ditch and the ring of 56 holes known as the Aubrey holes were built in the first period in 3100 BC. During the second period, probably around 2100 BC, huge rock pillars were brought from southwestern Wales and erected in two concentric circles around the center. This double circle was never completed and was dismantled during the subsequent period. The monument was remodeled to the existing shape during the third period.
The stonehenge has an altar in the center and is surrounded by 5 trilithons which are double upright stones each 40 tons capped by a flat stone lintel in horse-shoe plan. This is surrounded at a diameter of 106 ft. by circular stones 13½ ft. high with continuous stone lintel. These stones were found to have been hauled from 140 miles away. Further out near the boundary are moveable marker stones set in 56 equally spaced pits. Beyond this is the boundary trench. Mortice and tenon joints were used to hold the stones while the uprights were slightly tapered towards the top, anticipating the entasis of Greek columns. The placement of the heel stone beyond the outer circle possibly during the second period was a major accomplishment as it showed the early people had knowledge of astronomy. On summer solstice (the longest day) when gazing from the center towards the opening created by the trilothons, the sun rises from a little to the left of the heelstone.
Collective Tombs
Unlike menhirs, Neolithic stone tombs were designed as closed space with simple box-like Chambers made of upright stone slabs for walls and flat stones for top cover. Such structures were referred to as dolmen. However, a striking architectural feature of the Neolithic period is the widespread construction of collective tombs. There are about 40,000–50,000 megalithic tombs throughout Europe, spreading from the Mediterranean, Iberia, France, Holland, northern Germany to Scandinavia. The collective tombs are of two types: gallery graves and passage graves. These appear to have been built between 4500 and 1500 BC and although they contained dead bodies, it is not proven that this was the primary function of the structures.
Gallery graves were long narrow corridors divided into many compartments with upright stone walls capped by stone slabs laid in a row. The whole structure was then covered by a rectangular mound. Bodies were buried along the walls which converged towards one end. An examples is the gallery grave at Midhowe, Shetland Islands which consists of a chamber 23 m long divided into 12 sections and covered by a mound approximately 33 m by 13 m in plan. The gallery grave at La Halliade in France is over 12 m long covered by a 21 m long mound and is entered at right angle to the main gallery.
Passage Graves had corridors which culminated in a rounded burial chamber built of stone with crude corbelled roofs. The passage grave at Maes Howe, Orkney Islands is a mound 38 m by 32 m surrounded by a wide space and a ditch beyond. A passage 1 m wide and 1.5 m high led 15 m into the mound and opened into the burial chamber 5 m square. The corners were buttressed and inclined walls supported a stone corbelled vault originally 5 m high. The walls were smooth, built of rectangular blocks with fine joints. On three sides of the chamber were cells raised 1 m above the floor level entered through window-like openings which could be sealed by stone slabs. Similar graves have been found at Los Millares in Spain and many other areas.
In England earthen longbarrows were more common for burying the dead. The grave had split tree trunks supporting a ridge beam on which rested sloping timbers. These were covered by planks over which were laid a layer of flint nodules and the whole was covered with a layer of turf. The trapezoidal mound was often 40 m long and 6-12 m wide and seemed to have an entrance porch supported on four posts. The interior was about 2 m high and was believed to have housed over fifty bodies.

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