From Ancient to Zany: a short 12,000-year history of architecture

For anyone interested in studying architecture, this time line of great builds is the ultimate source of inspiration

Architecture is about a lot more than construction. It’s about creativity, vision, dedication and inspiration; creating something that reflects an intangible feeling evocative of a particular time and place. When we look back at the course of human history, it is architecture which marks the shifts, changes and growth most clearly and dramatically.

Humanity leaves echoes of its history using the tools, means and art of the time, and architecture is the most evocative example of this. It is the way in which generations of people aim to become immortal, leaving a mark which stands the test of time and becomes something more than just four walls. From the Taj Mahal to Notre Dame to the Great Pyramids and even the Empire State Building, our society’s great building feats show us how generations past wished to project themselves into the future. They become iconographic of a moment, capturing the spirit of its setting. Who can picture Paris without thinking of the Eiffel Tower, or imagine Rome without the Coliseum? Similarly, the pieces we create in the modern age are the design feats which will remain long after their creators have passed.

As such an important part of the human experience, architecture is a field which many people are keen to get through the door of. We’re going to take a look back at the greatest architectural masterpieces of all time, starting 12,000 years ago, to provide the ultimate inspiration for any budding architect waiting to leave their own monumental footprint on the world.

10,000 BC to 1 BC – Ground-breaking history

One of the earliest records of architecture in our society dates back to the 10th millennium BC, when Göbekli Tepe in Turkey was discovered – an ancient structure believed to be the very first place of worship.

Between 6000 and 2000 BC, wooden frames began to emerge in Chinese architecture, using joinery to build wood beamed houses. One of the most iconic pieces of architecture – the Great Pyramids of Giza – was built in the 2600s BC. These creations took centuries to build, and in fact the last Egyptian pyramid was built in Hawara in the 1800s BC.

The 1600s BC saw the completion of Stonehenge, while the 900s BC marked the construction of the earliest Greek temple in Samos.

According to legend, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC, becoming home to some of the world’s most iconic architectural landmarks including Pons Fabricus – the oldest functional stone Roman bridge in Rome – which was built in 62 BC.

0 AD to 1700 – Monumental creations

Between 70 and 80 AD, one of Rome’s most important features – the Coliseum – was completed. The Arch of Constantine was also completed in 315 AD in dedication to the Battle of Milvian Bridge. A little closer to home, the 1090s marked the creation of Durham Cathedral. This was a time when many churches and cathedrals were appearing all across the country and the wider world, including Cologne Cathedral in Germany, which had its foundations laid in the 1240s.

In 1481, the iconic Sistine Chapel was completed, to be famously decorated by Michelangelo in the early 1500s. The 1600s saw plenty of great architecture too, including St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City (1626), the Taj Mahal in the 1630s and the enlargement of the Palace of Versailles in 1661.

18th and 19th Century – Cathedrals, churches and palaces

Many of the greatest European architectural feats were completed during the 18th and 19th centuries, including St Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1708. Mavisbank House in Scotland was designed in 1723, while Buckingham Palace itself was built in 1735.

In 1764, construction began on the stunning Church of La Madeleine in Paris, while across the pond the Old East was erected on the campus of the University of North Carolina in 1793. This is the oldest public university building in the USA. In 1796, Sir William Chambers saw his design completed in the form of London’s Somerset House. It was later expanded during the Victorian era.

The turn of the 19th century was celebrated with the completion of the White House in Washington D.C., created in 1800 by a team that comprised of architect James Hoban, planner Pierre L’Enfant and George Washington himself.

Another iconic creation, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, was commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1823, work began on the British Museum in London, designed by Sir Robert Smirke. Another London staple, Trafalgar Square, was completed in 1845, while later on the Natural History Museum was opened in 1881.

It wasn’t just London which was home to architectural feats however. The Gyeongbokgung of South Korea was restored in 1868, marking a new age for one of the nation’s most well-known royal palaces.

1900 to 1949 – Persevering through war

The French capital celebrated the beginning of the 20th century with the completion of the Musée d’Orsay in 1900, then known as the Gare d’Orsay. On a darker note, the all-encompassing effects of war made their way into the architectural world, with many pieces taking on a disturbingly political quality. Perhaps the leading example of this is Tatlin’s Tower, or the Monument to the Third International, which was planned by Vladimir Tatlin in 1922 but never built. It was planned to dwarf the Eiffel Tower in size and would issue constant propaganda in the form of radio waves and loudspeakers.

In 1931, the Empire State Building was completed, and gained the title of the tallest building in the world, while war continued to effect architecture around the world with a surge of monuments and memorials, including the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in 1941.

1950 to 1969 – Mid-century masterpieces

Many of the most prominent American builds were completed in the middle of the 20th century. The United Nations Headquarters were completed in 1953 in New York, while the world’s first theme park – Disneyland – opened in 1955 in California. 1956 saw the completion of Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

After 16 years of work, the Guggenheim Museum was finally opened in New York City in 1959, while in London the BBC Television Centre opened in 1960. In 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed only be famously demolished in 1989. In 1968, the New National Gallery in Berlin was also completed.

1970 to 1999 – Art and ambition

In what is now a solemn feat, the World Trade Center towers opened in New York in 1973. In 1975, Seoul Tower in Seoul, South Korea was completed and in 1976 the CN Tower in Toronto opened as the tallest freestanding structure on land.

In 1981, installation artist Richard Serra installed his infamous Titled Arc in the Federal Plaza in New York City, only for it to be removed in 1989 as it was seen as an eyesore and a nuisance to locals. This is a great example of how controversial architecture can be. Also in 1989, I.M. Pei’s famous pyramid was added to the Louvre in Paris.

In 1993, the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka City, Japan was completed.

21st Century – A thriving and exciting industry

The new millennium was famously marked with the creation of the London Eye and the Millennium Bridge in 2000. The Gherkin building was also created in the City of London in 2004.

In 2010, Burj Khalifa in Dubai became the world’s tallest manmade structure at 828 metres, which equates to 2,717 ft. In 2014, the tragedy of the September 11th attacks was honoured through architecture with the erection of the One World Trade Center in New York City. Shanghai Tower in Shanghai was completed the following year in 2015, becoming the tallest building in China and the second tallest building in the world.

The future of architecture is just as exciting as its past, with plans for the City Palace reconstruction in Berlin scheduled in 2019. If you’re keen to be part of the timeline of architecture, making the most of your studies is vital. One way to give yourself a head start is with a two week school programme from Cambridge Immerse. This gives you the chance to build key skills, get familiar with the subject and gain confidence.

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