How do you usually plan a trip around Europe? How do you start? Perhaps you open a newly bought Lonely Planet Guide or you do a quick search on Wikipedia. Maybe you go through travel blog after travel blog to find something that piques your interest?
Chances are that many of the texts you will read before your trip may speak of opulent Baroque churches or ornate Art Nouveau facades or strong Gothic influences. But what do all of these actually mean? Maybe you have a vague idea of what constitutes a classic Romanesque cathedral or perhaps you have no idea at all. Either way, architecture can certainly be enjoyed without understanding too much about it. You can look at a building as though it was a ginormous oil painting and just let the elements speak to you on an emotional level. Or you could take a closer look.
Why architecture is an important element of the travel experience
Architecture is often defined in terms of architectural styles which generally encapsulate changing beliefs, styles, ideas, techniques or materials. Consequently these styles emerge from the location’s history and strongly reflect contemporary themes in society. This means that a building can potentially tell you about the predominant religious beliefs or the advancement of technology at any given point in time. You can also get an idea of the region’s natural resources as in the past (and to some extent even today) architecture relied heavily on naturally and easily available resources and materials.
So if you are on a strict travel budget you can save yourself some money by skipping a few of the museums and getting the story right from the source. But in any case, understanding a bit about architecture will just help you to really get into touch with your surroundings when you travel.
Take an example: Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Sarajevo is hands down one of my favourite cities in all of Europe and I feel terrible that I got to explore it without Mihir. It is extremely rich in history and culture and most of what you need to know about the city, you can actually read from its facades. If you ever have the chance, take a walk through the different quarters, or just console yourself with my little virtual tour right now 😉
I will not drag this article out for too long, so I just want you to take a quick look at the picture of the oldest district of the city, Stari Grad, and think of your first impressions. What do you see? Round domes and a high tower on the left edge, looking almost like a minaret? Well, ok, it is. Perhaps the style is associated with an Islamic or oriental culture? Yes, it is. In fact, Sarajevo was founded in 1461 as part of the Ottoman Empire, which was spreading to Europe from Anatolia (Turkey) at the time. They continued to rule the city for the next 400 years, until…
Okay, this looks a little different from the first picture, doesn’t it? If you have travelled a bit through Central Europe, you may have come across this style then and again. In fact, the Habsburgs seized the city of Sarajevo from the Ottomans in 1878 and with them they brought an Austro-Hungarian interpretation of Neo-Classicism. The change in between the two styles is very distinct.
After the two World Wars, the city took on yet another shape. As the Yugoslavian Republic had been installed, a Socialist Style spread throughout the streets. Novo Sarajevo wears resemblance to many city areas of the former USSR.
That was a small excursion, but maybe you now understand where I’m going with this. In Europe most cities have grown organically. This means that the city has expanded in a circular pattern around an often medieval core. As you explore the outer districts you will find newer and even newer influences. And if a city doesn’t have a medieval core even that can tell you a lot about its history. A city has many stories to tell, you just need to listen carefully!
Thoughts on architecture
Architecture or the identifying of architectural styles is not a science. Well, in a way it is, but what I mean is that not all answers are going to be exact. So before we start I just want you to note a few things:
- All time frames mentioned are fluent. That means, as a style spread unevenly throughout the continent, it may have been prevalent for a longer or a shorter time in a certain place. Often the styles may also overlap.
- Regional differences in style need to be taken into account. A Polish Gothic church may look very different from its Italian brother. We hope we will give you the tools to identify the Gothic element nonetheless.
- Architecture is a very complex matter and we will only identify some of the most obvious elements of it, so it is accessible to everyone.
- Don’t worry if you can’t distinguish an original Gothic from a Gothic Revival cathedral or similar. That stuff is hard 🙂
- When we refer to an architectural style, we basically mean a fashion trend, popular amongst the national elite at the time. This varies from so-called vernacular architecture – the native method of construction used by local people, which is mostly indifferent to national trends. Perhaps we will cover aspects of this in a later series.
- In our infographics we will only point out where a style can dominantly be found. Naturally, further examples of the style may also be located outside these regions.
What you will learn from this guide
We are not trained architects or anything of the sort, we just really love wandering the streets and marvel at beautiful facades. And this is what we want you to do, too. So we will break down different architectural styles in their dominant elements and give you examples which will effectively enable you to identify them in the “wild” 😉 We’ll also give you background info on the style so you can understand its origins.
We will focus exclusively on European architecture for the time being and will begin in the Middle Ages, working our way up to Modernism and then circling back to Ancient architectural styles. We hope you’ll enjoy and learn something along the way.
If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us! Also, if you spot a mistake in any of our posts, we kindly ask that you send us a short message with a reliable source so we can rectify the mistake!
Start learning now!
Part 3: Gothic – Spanish, Manueline
Part 5: Introduction to Renaissance Architectural Styles (coming up 15.01.2017)
Now, what do you think? Is there anything we have missed? Have you already learnt anything from this guide? Which is your favourite architectural style? Share your thoughts and pictures with us. Let’s stay in touch!