Architectural Development through Civilizations

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Since the moment mankind made the transition from being nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle, architecture became an important part of human survival. As time paced forward various civilizations conjured different architectural designs, materials, and layouts to best suit their needs as a society. Of course, as time went on so did the development of architecture. New wonders were developed, and innovative methods were used to create various structures that still stand today. Old designs have become outdated and the architectural image that existed at the start of humanity riding into ancient times have been eroded leaving only small, historical traces of what the past looked like.

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Starting from the ancient Egyptians, the appearance of different architectural features within a civilization and their appearance in modern day structures will be traced to identify which architectural designs survived the technological and intellectual development of mankind while also recognizing where in modern design we see these lasting features.

Ancient Egypt, a civilization that was technologically capable of constructing massive structures alongside its riverbank without advanced modern tools to aid them, introduced various architectural structures and design methods that were used for contributing to their religious and spiritual activities. The most prominent ones among all are the ancient pyramids. The first pyramid paid to be built in Egyptian history was commissioned by the Pharaoh Djoser, and the construction location was in Saqqara, Egypt (Canadian Museum of History). The pyramids were used as a tomb to hold a deceased pharaoh’s body as they went on their journey into the afterlife. This architectural structure replaced the previous burial tomb, the mastaba, first built by Abydos. These burial tombs where used in the first and second Egyptian dynasties to bury kings alongside family members and courtiers associated with the monarch of the time (Canadian Museum of History). Both the mastabas and the pyramids were built with symbolic purpose. They were constructed on the west side of the Nile symbolizing death and faced the east giving the promise of rebirth. Djoser’s pyramid in Saqqara was a collection of mastabas stacked upon each other, each lover smaller than the last. Although it was still considered a pyramid it wasn’t geometric like the pharaoh Snefru. During the fourth Egyptian dynasty the construction of the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid in Dahshur gave a new look to how the pyramids were built.

Instead of a step-like design these pyramids built during the reign of Pharaoh Snefru featured slanted, flat sides. Many of these structures have collapsed, eroded, or remain to be undiscovered. While the pyramids were iconic they were not just for decoration. Beneath the pyramid a collection of underground chambers that spanned from under the pyramid. These chambers lead to various rooms within the pharaoh’s tomb where offerings could be placed. To prevent the roof of the chambers from caving in and burying everything within the massive structure a corbel sealing was used to hold the weight of the pyramid up keeping the chamber halls open for passage. Additional architectural features that can be seen are hieroglyphs carved into the body of temples, palaces, and the insides of tombs. Within the hypostyle hall of the temple of Amen-Re in Karnak, Thebes, Egypt, you can two styles of columns with smooth column shafts and reliefs engraved into them, “one in the shape of an open flower and the other in the shape of a closed bud” (Cunningham). The Egyptians even went so far as to carve out the sides of stone hillsides to construct temples. Mortuary temples and the temple of Ramses II were “carved out of the living rock” and “served as a place of worshipping gods, pharaohs, and queens during the pharaoh’s life…and worshipped after death” (Cunningham). Though few architectural acts are referenced here the Egyptians worked wonders developing the ones that still stand today. From trial and error of pyramids, to structural stability, and the detailed carving of temples and glyphs into stone it’s fair to say that for their time the Egyptians had a unique skillset that would not have been expected of them.

Moving forward comes the ancient civilization of Greece. The floor plan for many temples residing in the Greek world were built in alignment to the Mycenaean Megaron (a rectangular reception hall). Features within this floor plan included a pronaos (portico); a cella, or naos (a large room that held the cult statue of the god or goddess to whom the temple was dedicated); and an opisthodomos (a rear-facing portico); surrounded by a peristyle formation of columns that stood upon a stylobate (Cunningham). While columns were featured in Egypt, Greek columns were different in nature. The Greeks had different orders in which a column was designed in. These orders are the Doric order (originating from the Greek mainland), the Ionic order (originating from Ionia), and the Corinthian order (originating from Corinth) (Becker). The Doric order features no base, a shaft with 20 flutes beveled inward, and an Echinus capital; the Ionic order features a base, a shaft with 24 flutes beveled inward, and a volute capital; the Corinthian order is similar to the Ionic order except it has a capital comprised of acanthus leaves (Cunningham).

These different orders are used in various Greek structures, mainly their temples, as an architectural symbol. Along these orders another column-like designed used by the Greek are Caryatids (these appear on the southside of the Erechtheion temple), a stone sculpture of a draped female figure used as a supporting column in a Greek styled building, that symbolically “hold up the roof and, by association, hold up the polis” (Cunningham). Moving away from temples another iconic development were theaters. The seats were structured in a semicircular manner around half of the stage that was a complete circulation shape accompanied with a skene, a separate building used as a dressing room or a backdrop by actors conducting a play (Cunningham). They were built into mountainsides and were designed to be constructed downward into the ground so when actors spoke their voice traveled up the rising semicircle of seats that rose away from the center of the stage. These Greek ideas brought forwards projects such as the Parthenon sitting upon the Athenian Acropolis and these features will be picked up by the Romans as they take over the Greeks and expand their territory.

Note that Rome was a civilization focused more around the expansion of its territory and the might of its army. Considering this factor, their architectural developments are absorbed from other cultures like the Greeks, Egyptians and, most notably, the Etruscans and built upon to meet their needs.  The use of the vault and arch got pulled from Etruscan society and implemented into the roman world. The different vaults that appeared are the barrel vault, groin vault, and segmental vault. The barrel vault is a roofed-over space or tunnel constructed as an elongated arch or vault, the groin vault operates as intersecting barrel vaults, and the segmental vault is a fenestrated sequence of multiple groin vaults (Cunningham). Along with these are the dome which uses stress and counter-stress components to keep its half spherical shape from collapsing into the circular base it is built upon. An example of this is the Pantheon in Rome, Italy, built 118-125 BCE (Early Roman Empire), features a dome upon a cylindrical shaped structure with an oculus (circular opening) in which sunlight peers through as the sun moves across the sky. Lastly comes the arch, a curved symmetrical structure spanning an opening. The romans used this architectural feature to build aqueducts like the Pont du Gard in southern France that spans 25 miles long and the Colosseum in Rome, Italy (Cunningham). The romans were iconic with their designs and left impressive structures that are marveled to this day.

As seen in Egypt and Greece the act of cutting a structure into rock can also be seen in south Asian culture of the Indian Kingdom. Of course, such activities were heavily influenced by the religious practices of Hinduism, Buddhism, And Jainism. Temples and monasteries were “carved out of solid natural rock, typically into cliffsides” (South Asian Art). This was practiced by the three religious’ groups. Buddhist architecture started in the first half od the Indian Kingdom. A noticeable quality that south Asian architecture has is its deep, sharp details embedded in the design of their architectural structure. These structures are referred to as a Stupa (dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine). The hemispherical mound is built on top of the decease’s remains (Cunningham). These buildings feature a dome supported by corbelled stones, and an ornament framed within a square enclosure on top of the dome. The largest Buddhist construction is the Borobudur stupa complex in Indonesia, featuring a terraced, heavily sculpted platform surrounded with small stupas (South Asian Art, p.4).

Entering the second half of the Indian kingdom comes Hindu architecture. With Hindu architecture temples were constructed out of stone blocks and referred to as stone temples. Its structure is derived from the Buddhist stupa. Features include tapered towers, low-lying extensions around the chambers of the statue, surrounding towers apart of the main structure, and divided into horizontal bands (South Asian Art, p.4). It’s key to remember that upon construction the structures were not carved from a single piece of stone. Stone blocks were brought to the sight and assembled into place. In northern India the towers were curved upon being constructed, while in southern India they were straight (South Asian Art, p.4). This resulted in pyramidal towers like the Angkor Wat, in Angkor Cambodia. These constructive ideas were shared between these three religious’ and philosophic groups as time based through the existence of the Indian kingdom, some sites converting from being a Hindu or Jain temple to be a Buddhist temple. The idea that the conversion of these sites between religions and philosophic ideas is an architectural feature.

Chinese architecture is different from the other civilizations mentioned. While the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and south Asians used limestone, concrete, mud rock, or stone cliffsides, the Chinese were using wood. While this material doesn’t sound like the safest option the Chinese proved otherwise with their still standing structures like the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City. China had three architectural styles: imperial, traditional, and religious. In imperial wood was used to produce architectural components such as “Columns, beams, and purlins” were crafted and attached with “tenons” (a projecting piece of wood made for insertion into a mortise in another piece) and “mortises” (a hole or recess cut into a part, designed to receive a corresponding projection (a tenon) on another part so as to join or lock the parts together) (Fercility, Ancient Chinese Architecture, p.2). Overhanging eaves, upturned roof corners, and variant roof shapes of a symmetrical nature (served to reflect their aesthetic of harmony and balance), based on an axis-centered principle that also served practical purposes regarding weather (Fercility, Ancient Chinese Architecture, p. 2). In traditional or residences, the materials used were “functional and suited to local conditions” (Fercility, Ancient Chinese Architecture, p.5). Bamboo was used to construct houses in muggy environments in southwest China, while in loess-carved dwellings that retained heat and didn’t cost much to construct were used to combat the cold in northern Shaanxi Province (Fercility, Ancient Chinese Architecture, p.5). Other architectural features that were developed during the Chinese dynasties include defensive walls made from stonework (the Great Wall); Pagodas constructed with bricks (Big Wild Goose Pagoda); altars and temples constructed of wood (Temple of Heaven); and Mausoleums constructed with stone (Fercility, 5 Types of Ancient Chinese Architecture-with Famous Examples, p.10). Chinese architecture provided history with elegant architectural structures (that can also be seen in Japanese architecture) that drip symbolic religious themes and pose a harmonic aesthetic to be enjoyed.

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Architectural Development Through Civilizations. (2019, Mar 25). Retrieved from