Architectural styles. From the classical orders to the avant-garde of the 20th century

There are different definitions of what architecture is. From the first homes and shelters of our most ancient ancestors to the current buildings, full of technology, architecture has walked hand in hand with the human being and his environment, shaping different architectural styles in each period of history.

Architecture does not derive from a sum of lengths, widths and heights of the constructive elements that envelop the space, but emanates from the void itself, from the enveloped space, from the interior space, in which men die and live

Bruno Zevi, italian architect (1918-2000)

In this post we will try to summarize the most recognized and documented architectural styles in history, from the rocky Romanesque temples of the late Middle Ages to the non-linear and fragmented designs of deconstructionism.

Classic orders

With differences and own architectonic styles in each region, during the last 2000 years we have assisted to different currents, almost all of them represented by temples or new forms of urbanism.

The survival of these buildings has served to x-ray not only the politics of their time, but also the way of life of their citizens and, of course, the stylistic evolution of architecture.

Romanesque, stone giants

The Romanesque was the first fully European architectural style since the fall of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the 5th century.

It took several centuries, all of them turbulent and crucial for the formation of the continent’s politics, for the Romanesque to be fully developed, which it did over the 10th century.

The main representation of the Romanesque style can be found in the Christian churches of the time. Its main characteristics are:

  • Latin cross plan with transept and one or more naves
  • Central cruise at the meeting point of the plant’s arms
  • Barrel vaults, which replace the wooden ceilings and give greater relevance to the temple
  • Thick walls to support the structure
  • Round arch, the type of arch par excellence of the Romanesque style
planta románica

Latin cross plan of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

estilo arquitectonico romanico

Gothic, the first skyscrapers

From the end of the 12th to the 16th century, the Gothic style prevailed, leaving behind the great walls and the robustness of the Romanesque to erect high buildings.

The most remarkable feature of the style is undoubtedly the buttresses, which allow a better distribution of the building’s loads and help it to project upwards.

On the other hand, another characteristic fruit of the relaxation of the loads is the use of the light, that takes a great protagonism when being able to create great stained-glass windows.

Along with the buttresses, ribbed vaults and the ogival arch are also popular as basic elements of support.

In a few words, its basic properties are:

  • Height: the gothic buildings, taking advantage of the commented buttresses, are projected towards the sky, symbolizing their ascension
  • Use of light: the temples are decorated with large, colourful stained glass windows that allow a great deal of light to pass through. Many churches of the time were oriented so that the first rays of the sun coincided with their altar.
  • Ribbed vaults: formed by the intersection of two barrel vaults, it is a type of light vault that starts from the projection of a column or an arch. It allows the covering of the vault to be equally lighter.
planta de la catedral de Salisbury

Plan of Salisbury Cathedral, England

Arquitectura gótica, ejemplos, contrafuertes

Renaissance, the return of the classical order

At the end of the Middle Ages, and within a great number of political and cultural changes, the Gothic was abandoned and the interest in the Hellenistic and Roman culture emerged strongly, occupying, among other aspects, the world of architecture.

The exaltation of personal fame, the strengthening of the third state raised by urban patriarchy and the leap to the protagonism of the individual, completely renewed the political sphere, which crystallized in the Renaissance movement.

Within this trend, works began to be erected that are today as well known as St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, the urban planning of the cities was rethought and numerous civil buildings were constructed such as large houses and markets.

Renaissance architecture is characterized by:

  • Classical order columns, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian to be used as supporting elements. The buttresses typical of Gothic architecture disappear and the walls regain their prominence
  • The use of the round arch, a type of arch in the shape of a semicircle typical of Roman architecture, which becomes basic in this period
  • Mythological themes. We can find them in sculpture and painting. Greek, Roman and Christian mythologies merge and adorn cities and temples
planta basílica de San Pedro

Plan of St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

Arquitectura renacentista

Baroque, the maximum expression of the curve

From the 17th to 18th centuries, the Baroque prevailed, replacing the smooth lines of the Renaissance with more dynamic forms and a taste for shapes, volumes and decoration.

The architecture shows the opulence of the great civil and ecclesiastical investments. With a more emotional style, we find curves, ellipses, spirals and complex figures, and a tendency to use sculpture and painting to form exuberant artistic sets.

The most important elements are:

  • Use of chiaroscuro, both in painting and architecture. Baroque architecture tends to manipulate the entry of light into its buildings, regulating it, illuminating some areas and darkening others.
  • A Solomon’s column, supposedly inspired by the texts of the Old Testament describing the palace of the Jewish King Solomon, are helicoidal columns ending in a capital, usually of classical order such as Corinthian or composite.
  • Elliptical and mixtilinear plants. Although the traditional rectangular plant is maintained, in the Baroque period a preference for elliptical plants or for the combination of straight and curved lines can be seen
Arquitectura barroca

Neoclassical, the adaptation of the Greco-Roman order to civil architecture

From the middle of the 18th century until the middle of the 19th century, the neoclassical style replaced the baroque. The Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution brought back the taste for classical architecture, but, on this occasion, the protagonist would be civil architecture.

It is usual to use the architectural style of the ancient Roman and Greek temples, adapting them to the buildings of the time, using only the facade and the main courtyard to develop, after these elements, a building of another typology, such as a parliament, a library, etc.

Its peculiarities are:

  • Use of columns as support elements, recovering the classic orders
  • Classical and scarce decoration, especially on the facades of the buildings, which show sobriety, seeking the harmony of the whole on the detail
  • Simple geometry, as opposed to the previous styles, baroque and rococo
Estilos arquitectónicos - El neoclásico

20th century architecture, avant-garde

Throughout the twentieth century we find many architectural styles and trends, largely characterized by the search for functionality and the importance of interior space, to the detriment of the ornamental work of the facade.

The civil architecture is established as the true protagonist of the architectural movements, gaining special importance the urbanization and the blocks of houses, that go united to a great philosophical production.

Next, we will talk about some of the most important styles of the 20th century.


Modernist architectural styles emerged in contrast to the previous trend, the Cast-iron architecture (whose greatest exponent is the Eiffel Tower in Paris), and are presented as deeply decorative trends, with rounded shapes.

This type of architecture seeks to break the monotony of the lines of the facade through the asymmetry and the curved and free forms.

The most commonly used materials are steel, wrought iron and glass, typical elements of industrial-type architecture, but used in combination with the forms of nature and a revaluation of craftsmanship.

In Spain, the modernist school has its greatest concentration in the area of Catalonia, with Antoni Gaudí as its maximum exponent. His works, brimming with curved lines and full of creative freedom, feature all kinds of mosaics, polychrome and stucco.

estilos arquitectonicos - el modernismo

Art Deco, Hollywood style

Art Deco is a style that emerged after the decline of Art Nouveau and grew in the inter-war period of the 20th century, becoming especially popular in Hollywood as a luxurious style, ideal for the film production.

Contrary to Soviet constructivism, which became popular at the same time, Art Deco is considered a decorative and eclectic style. Its aesthetic lines were strongly influenced by the geometry of Bauhaus or Art Nouveau.

The use of geometry is not dedicated to the straight line, but also to the usual use of curves, circles, polygons, etc. Aztec, Egyptian or Mesopotamian motifs also appear, as well as zigzag lines.

Perhaps its greatest representative is the Chrysler building in New York, despite which there are numerous examples throughout the world and the style has transcended popular culture in the form of setting for video games, animation or films.

Rationalism, when concrete came to stay

Rationalism is considered the main architectural style of the 20th century. The Bauhaus style, with its cradle in the German design school of the same name, and the Soviet brutalism, styles of which we will now speak, were derived from this current.

Rationalism, which finds in Le Corbusier its most canonical representative, emerges, as we have seen with previous styles, in opposition to modernism and Art Deco, and in the heat of the ideas of functionality and the rural exodus that took place at the beginning of the 20th century.

The rationalist focus was on the construction of large housing blocks of simple, symmetrical geometric shapes, in which concrete was the material of choice.

Rationalism is guided by the following five points:

  • Pilotis: they support the building, with the initial idea of allowing space for vehicles and avoiding the commercial ground floors and basements. The floor is transformed into a clear space.
  • Free design of the ground plan. The fact that the structure that supports the building is based on the floor and the pillars, opens the possibility of modifying the uses and interior spaces, making them independent of the structure
  • The free facade. The facade becomes a thin skin with a mainly protective function, freeing it from its structural load.
  • The use of light, through large horizontal windows. The loss of supporting walls by means of pillars and slabs allows for the opening of large horizontal spaces in the walls. The light enters uniformly illuminating the whole room.
  • Terrace and roof gardens, replacing the traditional sloping roofs. In this way, the terraces of the buildings become another element of the development that can be used for different purposes by the tenants.
corrientes arquitectónicas, el racionalismo de Le Corbusier

Bauhaus, the first design school

Founded by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus School was born in Germany in 1919. It meant a revolution and some of its students are among the most renowned architects and designers worldwide.

Its prestige has led it to remain an icon of design and architecture to this day.

His most recognized motto, which is nevertheless attributed to the architect Louis Sullivan of the Chicago School, “Form follows function” is a declaration of intent and perfectly represents his love of simple forms and rationalism.

Within the world of architecture, the Bauhaus style represents simplicity and minimalism. One of its greatest representatives and last director, Mies van der Rohe, is considered one of the most illustrious architects of modern architecture and one of the greatest influences in the world.

Brutalism, the concrete and steel giants

Brutalism, Soviet in origin and born as one of the branches of rationalism, reached its peak of popularity during the 1970s in Eastern European and Anglo-Saxon countries.

Once again, concrete and steel are the main materials, in this case, to create imposing geometric buildings of large volumes showing the raw material, hence the name of the movement.

The forms of brutalist buildings tend to be simple, with a predominance of straight lines, with few exceptions. They are usually made up of repeating modules around articulated functional areas

Over the last years, and despite the deterioration that many of the brutalist structures have suffered throughout the years, the movement is resurfacing strongly within the current architectural styles by the hand of architects who claim for their legacy.

estilos arquitectonicos - el brutalismo

Deconstructivism, controlled chaos

As we saw in the post of the Prague Dancing House, deconstructivism, as a style, was born in the 1980s as a movement that seeks the fragmentation of buildings, the challenge to straight lines and classic geometric forms.

The buildings that are into this style show risky forms and sometimes give the impression of being chaotic within an established order. For their cladding, it is common to use innovative materials that adapt to the design devised by the architect.

estilos arquitectónicos - la arquitectura deconstructivista

At this point we conclude this small review of the most recognized architectural styles of recent years (and centuries). As you have been able to see, each style has some peculiar characteristics that are the result and representation of its own time.

One can only wonder what new styles and trends will appear in the next few years and what novelties and materials they will bring with them.