Architectural Design Through The Ages: Part 1 (The Ancient World)


Over the past few thousands of years, there have been countless architectural design styles, worldwide. I’m sure we can all cast our minds back to primary school where we first learnt about the Ancient Egyptians and their mind-boggling feats of innovation with the Pyramids. Whilst the offices and school buildings of today’s world may seem like a far cry from those pyramidal monuments of old, many of the architectural principles still in use today were first pioneered by those ancient civilisations all those centuries ago. With that in mind, here at Munday + Cramer we wanted to take a look at how architectural styles have changed over time, from the ancient era all the way through to today. In today’s piece, we’ll be looking at the ancient civilisations!

Pre-Historic (Neolithic) Times

Before any of the civilisations came about with which we’re all more au fait, there were first the pre-historic civilisations. And there doesn’t come much more prehistoric than Neolithic architecture. This era encompasses a large swathe of time between 10,000 and 2,000 BCE.

One of the most famous Neolithic settlements is found close to home, in the Orkney Archipelago off the Scottish coast. The ancient houses at Skara Brae were built into existing mounds of earth, or middens, and were roofed with organic material. They were linked together by passageways covered with stone slabs.

Though fairly rudimentary in terms of architectural design – with each dwelling comprising only one basic room – the fact that the buildings remain today (and even with some of the furniture within the interiors – a stone dresser, for instance) and were thought to have continually supported a settlement for well over half a millennium, is truly testament to early human levels of ingenuity and determination, especially in such a wild and unforgiving settlement.

Ancient Egypt

As we alluded to in the introduction, Egypt’s pyramids are perhaps the most recognisable and well-known architectural structures to have ever stood. The pyramids were never simply one homogenous mass, however, and they themselves saw great levels of development and change throughout the successive Egyptian dynasties.

Pyramid Evolution

In the civilisation’s infancy, in the 3rd dynasty of the Egyptian Old Kingdom (which extended from 2686-2181 BCE), the first pyramid was constructed. The Pyramid of Djoser initially started life as a Mastaba, an ancient flat-roofed Egyptian tomb with inwardly-sloping sides. Constructed sometime between 2670 and 2650 BC, it quickly developed from the singular Mastaba into a basic step pyramid, something more akin to the model with which we’re all so familiar today.

One century later, the scale of the pyramids had ramped up significantly, with the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. At over double the height of its forebear, the Egyptians had, in the space of only one century, refined their architectural design process down to a fine tee. The prism through which we look at ancient architectural design, then, should not be one of a stationary, unchanging block of time, but as a dynamic period in which immense levels of human creativity, skill, and development were showcased.

Ancient, But No Less Amazing

At this point, it’s worth highlighting the level of accuracy showcased by the Egyptians, regarding their architectural design. The average error, for instance, for the pyramid’s four base sides is only 58mm in length, whilst the average opening of the joints is only 0.5mm wide. Similarly, the levelling across the site is comparable to the levels of accuracy you get from modern laser levelling methods. There are probably some contractors, nowadays, who could learn a thing or two from those early Egyptian architects!

Ancient Classicism

Greece

The architectural styles introduced by the ancient Greeks and Romans went on to form the basis for, not just much of Western architecture, but Western arts, philosophy and society in general. Greek architecture not only produced magnificent buildings like the Parthenon, but it introduced crucial architectural principles as well. Standardisation and order was implemented in a way that hadn’t been previously, with the introduction of ‘orders’ (the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns were a staple of Greek temple architecture).

The Greeks’ use of mathematics in their design was more complex than previous civilisations; their utilisation of the ‘golden mean’ (a ratio regularly occurring across the natural world) was indicative of their first and foremost commitment to a building’s appearance.

Rome

In many ways, Roman architectural design was very similar to that pioneered by the Greeks. However, there was one area in which the former trumped the latter  – their development of arches and vaults. The importance of these structures was not only in the engineering, itself, but what it signified for wider society. Through their development of ‘Roman concrete’, they were able to build structures which could support truly huge amounts of weight, in turn enabling the creation of mammoth water-carrying aqueducts, and complex vaulted bridges. This allowed cities all across Rome’s empire to flourish even more than they already were.

These engineering developments by the Romans played into their larger societal and infrastructural vision, the scale of which was only made possible by the sheer size of their empire. The Romans were, in essence, master planners. Unlike any preceding civilisations, the Romans found lightning in a bottle with the way in which they paired their systematic ‘big-picture thinking’ for their cities, and how they were connected, with utterly meticulous execution. Having the idea for a big empire is one thing, being able to implement it, practically, is quite another. The aqueducts, roads, bridges and other forms of civil engineering that the Romans pioneered, introduced the foundations for how towns and cities would be planned, even now, and the importance of that really can’t be overstated.

“Something Looks Familiar…”

Neolithic, Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman architecture all revolved around the ‘trabeated’ system of construction. Also known as post and lintel, this style involves utilising large horizontal elements supported by (equally large) vertical elements. It’s still one of the most distinctive and recognisable architectural styles, even today. Stonehenge is a prime example of trabeated construction in practice.

Hopefully, you’ll have stuck through this history lesson and are eager for the next one! The building blocks laid out by these civilisations have gone onto influence how we build and design, today. Next time, we’ll look at the middle age. So, if you’d like to find out more about our architectural design services, operating in Essex, Kent, London, Norfolk and Suffolk, then get in touch! Contact Munday + Cramer today on 01245 326 200.