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Architectural styles throughout history – and where to find them

One of the many marks of an empire is the architectural footprint it leaves behind.Here’s a handy guide to the styles that dominate many of the world’s greatest cities. A timeline of architectural styles around the world.

Classical 850 BC–476 AD

Greek

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Athens
Ancient Greece
The architecture that flourished in Ancient Greece from 900BC through the 1st century established formality and symmetry in town planning, not to mention the fluted structural columns we’ve mimicked for centuries. 

Where to see it

Modern Athens still converges on the Parthenon, a 2,500-year-old marble temple on Acropolis Hill that was nearly obliterated in a 17th-century ambush. Its vertical Doric columns epitomize the Ancient Greek penchant for mathematical order and simplicity. Further down the hill stands another staple of classical design – the amphitheater. The Theater of Dionysus, predating the Parthenon by some 150 years, was built to hold 20,000 spectators.

Parthenon

Roman

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Rome
Ancient Rome
Before 20th century Brutalism, there was the Concrete Revolution of Ancient Rome. Developing this innovative material allowed the Romans to expand on the traditional Greek model with arches, domes and bridges. 

 

Where to see it

The Colosseum, the largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire, was built at the heart of ancient Rome in 80AD as a series of decorative columns and arches (80 per tier) in concrete and travertine. Walk two kilometers west and you’ll see an even better-preserved monument – the Pantheon. The temple’s granite portico leads inside to a soaring concrete dome open to the sky via a perfectly round oculus.

The Colosseum

Ming dynasty 1368–1644

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Beijing
Built for emperors across the Middle Kingdom, the lacquered wood villas and swooping eaves popularized during the Ming Dynasty set the architectural tone for centuries. The style demanded precise symmetry – not only within the buildings but in their relation to one another. 

Where to see it

You won’t see a richer example than Beijing’s Forbidden City, a 15th-century imperial palace ringed by moats and gardens. The grand central halls line up perfectly, parading their red-lacquered pillars, latticed windows and yellow-gold glazed roofs. Holy temples and villas, where concubines hid away, ripple outward over many acres.

The Forbidden City

Renaissance 1400–1600 

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Florence
Renaissance Florence gifted us a riot of monochrome marble churches and bell towers. Architect Filippo Brunelleschi broke size records when he pioneered his distinctive egg-shaped terracotta domes in the 15th century. 

Where to see it

The slender medieval streets leading to the Duomo frame awesome views of Brunelleschi’s vaulted dome. Inspect the flamboyant contrasting marble, twisted pillars, rose windows and Giotto’s statuesque Gothic campanile, then walk five minutes west to Santa Maria Novella, with its harmonious 1470 facade inset with geometric designs in deep green marble.

Florence

Dutch golden age 1590–1715

Photo: Getty Images
Amsterdam
The wealth flooding into 17th-century Amsterdam as it morphed into a financial and cultural capital -ultimately went into expanding the city fabric. Royal palaces topped by classical pediments sprawled out horizontally, while merchants built narrow canal houses climbing five stories to stepped gables.

Where to see it

The most elegant houses of the Dutch Golden Age line the cobbled streets of Amsterdam’s canal belt, faced in smooth stone with simple mullioned windows and winches to hoist furnishings into the gables. Learn more from the inside out at the Canal House Museum (Het Grachtenhuis), which overlooks the Herengracht canal.

Canal House Museum

Georgian 1720–1830


Boston 
By the 18th century, countries in the West had already circled back to their passion for Greek classicism, sparking a serious architectural revival. Bostonians had no sooner embraced the clean Georgian brick of the era than they began adding stately pillars and pediments.

Where to see it

America was still a British colony when the first politicians built their state capitol on Washington Street, complementing the brick civic hall commissioned in 1742 by the Faneuil family. Both buildings embrace the vogue for Georgian. Quincy Market, built in the style of a Greek temple, sells fresh produce and clam chowder across the square.

Massachusetts State House

Art Nouveau 1890–1914


Vienna
Austria’s capital marched toward the 20th century with new attitudes about modernity and artistic freedom. Out were classical and baroque flourishes, in came sweeping arches, natural motifs and glass. 

Where to see it

What Gustav Klimt did for portraiture, Joseph Maria Olbrich and Otto Wagner did for buildings, with prac-tical dimensions and hard angles. Olbrich’s 1897 art pavilion Secession, just south of the ring road, is just this, with a dome of gilded leaves as its crowning glory. To the east, Wagner’s low-slung Stadtpark station is trimmed in verdigris curves and Art Nouveau swirls.

Wiener Secession

Art Deco 1925–1937

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Miami 
Between the world wars, Art Deco was a palate-cleansing sorbet with its sexy, sinuous silhouettes and soft seaside palette. Miami called its subdued version of the style “Streamline Moderne”.

Where to see it

By the 1970s, developers were eyeing Miami’s shabby beachfront for demolition. After activists revolted, hoteliers bought up the finest Moderne examples for restoration, helping resurrect Miami’s cultural life in the process. Weaving around South Beach, you’ll see a colorful collection from the Breakwater and Carlyle hotels on Ocean Drive to the banana-yellow Marlin Hotel and scallop-edged Webster on Collins Avenue.

Miami

Modernist Styles 1900 to Present


Modernism
Chicago 
Before New York had its Empire State Building, Chicago architects were discovering ways to build steel-framed towers clad in stone. Nearly as wide as they were tall, they got their style from roofline friezes and distinctive windows divided like a Mondrian painting. Half a century later, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe set the template for the contemporary skyscraper with his glass and steel grids. 

Where to see it

Walk the Lakefront Trail around Oak Street Beach to view a century’s worth of super-tall towers in a single panorama. You’ll spot everything from Gothic high-rises and post-war Mies van der Rohe apartments to the 1960s John Hancock Center looming in the background.

Chicago

Postmodernism 1972 to Present

Brutalism
London
Post-war concrete architecture gets short shrift in Victorian London, but the monolithic masses of Brutalism have won fans lately for their socialist values and avant-garde forms. A mid-century response to the concrete modernism of visionaries such as Le Corbusier, the poured-concrete towers across London rehoused thousands of people and introduced the concept of communal estates incorporating retail outlets, sporting facilities and even schools.

Where to see it

London’s most treasured example is the Barbican Estate, a collection of low- and high-rise residences centered on interior ponds and gardens. Conveniently located adjacent to the old financial center, it houses acclaimed art and architecture galleries, a plush symphony hall, a playhouse and a food hall. On some Sundays (check the website), you can visit the triple-height conservatory with greenery dripping from the concrete rafters.

London

Neo-Modernism and Parametricism 1997 to Present

Neo-modernism
Shanghai 

In 1990, the territory east of the Huangpu River was undeveloped hinterland. A year later, the bulbous Pearl Tower went up, the area was officially targeted for expansion and hundreds of businesses began setting up shop in increasingly futuristic skyscrapers. 

Where to see it

To get the big picture, walk the west bank of the Huangpu. When the towers light up at night, they set the entire waterfront aglow. Then challenge your fear of heights at the 92nd-floor cocktail bar atop the Shanghai World Financial Center (also known as the “bottle opener”). Or visit the 121st-floor observation deck of the new Shanghai Tower.

Shanghai

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