A Short History of Architecture

No 1. 400 AD to 1500 AD

By Kenneth Anns FRIBA, FRS Major MC

I have been, as always, very pleased to meet the old friends I knew in Lewisham a year ago and am delighted to be asked to talk to you again even is the subject has to be Architecture.

I am glad you are not Architects for no doubt the expert would consider that I am not giving enough descriptions of the characteristics of each period and a more detailed explanation of the individual slides which will later be given in outline.

I think your interest is to get a general idea of the evolution in design and be able to put a reasonable date, label on the buildings you see. Despite the dates I may give you please remember that culture traveled slowing in those early days and what appeared in the near East at any particular time did not arrive, in say England, until a hundred or more years later. You will however be looking at my subject tonight with the more detached eye of the painter and to him Architecture is represented in the massing of light and shade and the grouping of buildings.

Unfortunately Architects are individual and until the present day had little or no opportunity to control the massed effect of structures.

The 1947 Town and country Planning Act and the ability of large corporations to acquire land and develop it has made possible the pictorial development of Architecture, and those who scoff at Contempory design should pause and consider the ultimate effect that is being aimed for.

This however is the basis of an entirely different paper, and I will not pursue the matter further, but I recommend Mumfords book on the growth of cities to any of you interested in the matter. My job tonight is to introduce to you Architectural form and design, trace its origin and show its development through the centuries.

Time however is a limiting factor and in one paper, even by dealing lightly with the matter, I cannot do more than refer to origins and carry you up to about 1500 AD. All the real interest lies beyond the 1500 limit, and this could be the subject of a paper in February if you wished. It is however useless to start at the Renaissaince unless you know what it was a renaissance of, and that takes you back to 400 B.C. Except in ornament , and possibly the use made of early forms in contemporary Architectural work, priative art has not has a serions effect on Architectural design. One day the Middle Easer and especially Palestine and the Negev will yield up its secrets, and the link between the fertile valleys of the Tigris and the Nile completed.

I believe that all over the world the earliest man was busy on the long road to cultural evolution, but there must have been vast setbacks and failures because the only culture that grew, died down and grew again, was formed in the Middle East.

Today there is little or no Architecture in the world that did not have its roots there with the possible exception of the native Chinese thought this today is overlaid by the West. It must be presumed that the Arabian desert 600 B.C. was a land flowing with milk and honey just as was once in almost recent times the Dust Bowl of the Americas or the Sarah Desert in Africa.

It is in Arabia that undoubtedly Architecture as we know it in the world today had its birth. It rose and fell in the first four thousand years, but the traces are there and are now being disclosed. From this centre, civilization which carried its culture in its train., spread to the East and to the West. This part of Asia has a network of Camel routes to take the merchandise to less advanced countries in the search of raw materials, and defensive forts which had to be built grew to towns. Architecture developed as prosperity grew and skilled arts followed, but in all cases, as elsewhere throughout the world, native contacts altered and added to the basic forms.

Perhaps the most common known result of this is the Dutch influence in the 18th century which left a permanent mark on America, south Africa, the East Indies, and due to William of Orange, in England in the previous century. Yet whilst the West has at all times borrowed from the East, the reverse is by no means the case.

A moment’s thought on the effect thee East had on the West will remind you that in Textiles, Furniture, Porcelain, Carpets and certainly in ornament, we owe much to such contacts. If we accept the birth of Architecture as I have suggested, we find that in general principle it was always defensive or fort architecture.

Even when such needs slowed down or even disappeared as in Egypt the same form resulted, but buildings were opened up by board approaches not through gates as before, but through groups of columns or sculptured figures. Materials used were brick in the Tigris valley and in Egypt Stone. Both materials are found in the Mediterranean Asia area.

I am reminded by time alone in this talk that there starting period is 400 BC and it is at this period in History that the earliest of the Greek Architecture was conceived. Here we see the use of external columns surrounding the block of the building and, though not for the first time, the use of the pitched roof covered in clay tiles and the use of true ornament designed to balance the architectural conception.

In design the Architects used the form of the wooden house, constructed as it was from the trunks of trees, with squared off timbers supporting the roof beams, and surmounted with rafters carrying the pitched roof with gable ends. Although they have not survived this must have been the common sort of home for the early Greeks. This form they translate to stone and the carpenters craft was used to indicate the ornamament, and nails, wedges and ends of beams were used in the design of the first order of classic Architecture – the Doric.

The first order, mathematically precise as it is and constructed on engineer calculations with the columns slightly out of the vertical and every moulding or angle detailed to a precise proportion, is the most abstract and intellectual example of architectural design over erected by man.

The Ionic order was never improved by the later Romans and in Greece the Corinthian order was oly touched on in Embrionic form. This last order was undoubtedly the finest of the Roman classic achievements. As you all well know Sculpture has never been the same since Greek times and their use of this to accent a building has no equal. Because the Greek form did not allow of multistory building, and the arch did, the Romans used the arch in all their buildings. This enabled them to have wide spans and distributer the weight of the buildings over the whole structure. This arch in one form or the other reigned throughout the world until the use of steel in the early part of the 19th century. Conquests by Rome in Egypt and elsewhere in Europe brought in other native forms of architecture and with it a degree of sophistication and luxury which, afer the fall of Rome, did not re-appear until well into this century.

In your home, if you were of the middle class in 300 A.D., you had a choice of warm air or or water space heating, piped water both hot and cold and a W.C with a sewage system and even a flushing chamber with it. There were public baths where, without entrance fee, you could enjoy at least four different forms of cleansing. You could relax and dine in public restaurtants listen to musical instruments and be entertained with dancers, the one such bath “the Diocletian” was 900 feet square and fitted out with the utmost luxury and sophistication. Your house was built round a courtyard garden and was furnished and decorated in a style which has its origins in Egypt and the public houses and shops were on your doorstep, whilst theatres and public games were at your disposal. Roman husbands gave their wives fine jewelry in gold, wraught and chased and superb carved cameos in shell or marble, necklaces and pins, mirrors and toilet articles. They collected libraries, racehorses, and personal champions for use in the public games and even had water clocks to tell them the time.

In other words the 20th century appears little more than, the combustion engine, trains, aeroplanes, wrist watches, television and of course the Atom bomb as an improvement on the culture of Rome, but in this country, as in almost all tohers excepting America, in 1959 25% of the houses only have a chemical closet and in a large proportion baths are unknown. The public bath today runs a very poor second to the same article in Rome. With the removal of the Roman Garrisons from European outposts, the rush covered floor of the crude born, housing both the family and the pigs or cattle sufficed for the people for the 700 years whilst the Monastery an the Castle held the rulers in the form of superstition or fear. Nothing remains of these homes and only the debris of their civilization is found from time to time buried deep in the soil. Occasionally the timber house of the latter part of this period is found in England and in Europe but it was not until the 14th and 15th century that the timber house – the home of the people – had a chance of survival. This then marks the end of this great Classic period which was in its original form when Rome was sacked.


Although Rome was over-run in about 400 A.D. and the life of the City, or what remained of it , contracted, the Christian religion not only flourished but probed out into the decivilized areas of Europe. The adherents to the church may have lived in hidden underground homes and held services in similar churches but this teaching and impact of its appeal gradually dominated and converted the conquerers.

With this came the rebirth of Classic Architecture, moe subdued, shorn of most of flamboyant ornament, and adapted to simple structures and in general form it has remained so until this day.The Western Sates were constantly at war with Eastern Europe and the near East of Asia and it is hardly surprising that we were not popular with the Islam sphere.

It is therefore also not surprising that Architecture from the near East had no real echo in Western thought. Despite this the pointed arch did come from Syria and before the Gothic era was established in the Far East, although it was not used in Greece and Italy.

Before the Gothic period and consequent on the spread of Christianity furing the Roman Occupation of Europe, church Architecture went through a native renaissance in the various countries where religion penetrated, and in England we find remains in the Anglo Saxon churches which appear mostly on the East coast, but almost all the early cathedrals as we see them today are built on the foundations of the Saxon Church.

The churches were built, burnt down and built again. Religion was driven West, and returned again to the East, and this constant harrying was evident over Northern Europe. But Gothic Architecture had arrived and as the country became more settled and tribes combined under a single King and became countries, the early Gothic, or Norman Gothic, took the place of the early church forms.

The West was busy adapting Romanesque design to the needs of the Western people, and in England this form was known as Norman – chiefly because it was introduced here at the time of the conquest. This is a massive structural form delivering the loads squarely over the supporting columns. Outward thrust was small and the thickening of the outer wall of the aisles by means of a simple buttress sufficed.

The slides I show do not of course illustrate secular architecture simply because, as I have said, except in called towns, the people lived, and continued to live for further hundreds of years, in wooden structures mostly single storey. The rounded Arch was now replaced by the pointed arch and Gothic Architecture was born. This enabled builders to span greater widths and the Cathedrals were able to soar up towards the heavens. Surrounding the Monastery were the mud huts and humbler single storey dwellings of the men who slaved to erect.

I find it hard to estimate the thoughts of the builders as they climbed the 100 foot or more of scaffold every day on their work, with primitive tackle hauled the stones one by one to the top, and with even more primitive tools shaped and dressed each stone to fit the next by key and centering. No body of men under similar conditions could do the same thing today, and yet this was happening all over Europe.

The Architects were the Monks as well as many of the craftsmen, and the stone from which these buildings were built were hauled by ox wagons over many miles of country – in some cases the best part of 60 miles. Foundations in some cases as at Winchester were thousands of wooden piles driven by a primative machine deep down into the mud of the Itchen river. These structures produce their problems, for as the buildings gained height, they lost stability due to outward thrust , and support at certain points had to outward thrust, and support at certain points had to be set back some distance from the building.

We now enter the period of the flying buttress which produced Architecture known as the perpendicular – for obvious reasons – culminated in such buildings as Salisbury, Rouen, Milan and other cathedral. In the later Gothic era Secular buildings of note acrose in Europe, but I believe not one example can be found today in England.