Text from How To Read Buildings – Chapter 1

The function of a building can influence its appearance,
and many types of buildings have distinctive features that
make them easy to recognise, such as a church tower or a
shop window. Often these features have a practical as well
as a decorative purpose: a church tower, for instance, may
hold the bells used to call people to worship. Familiarity
with these key features will help you
recognise different sorts of buildings, but
elements from one type of building can
also be used as decorative items on an
entirely different sort of building, often
to try and link one type of construction
with another.

Church spire
Many building types have particular features
that distinguish them from others, such as the
minaret of a mosque, the large doorways of
a warehouse or the oversized windows that
characterise shops. The spire of St Pancras
Church in London, built in 1819-22, clearly
marks it out as a church, although it has a
decorative temple front.

Temple facade
The distinctive front of a Classical temple,
with its prominent pediment supported
on columns, helps to conceal the cella,
or sanctuary building, within, as here in
the Temple of Dionysus, Teos, Turkey.
The temple front was widely used as
a decorative form in the Renaissance,
Baroque, and neoclassical periods.

Railway station
New functions have required new building
types to be developed, such as railway
stations. King’s Cross in London, built in
1851-2, was one of the earliest stations
and clearly shows the large, arched train
sheds on the building’s exterior. lt also has
a prominent clock and a large waiting area.

Combined features
It is helpful to be
able to recognise
the characteristics
of many different
building types,
because some
buildings combine more than one form.
The Knights’ Hall of Malbork Castle,
Poland, for instance, uses a fortified tower
form, but adds to it the large, decorative
windows that are characteristic of an
aristocratic residence.

Colonnaded terrace
The early 19th-century Park Terrace in
London, designed hy John Nash, is actually
a long row of houses attached to each other
on either side, but the projecting colonnade
serves to unify the entire design and create
a whole that is grander than any individual
house on its own.

The form of a saned building varies
from one religion to another, but most
share the characteristic of providing
a space in which worshippers can
gather. In many religions this space is
subdivided according to gender, and
there may also he special areas for
those who are not yet fully initiated
into the religion. Religions that include
a ritual carried out by priests, such
as the Christian mass, usually also
have a place reserved for this purpose,
which may or may not he visible
to the faithful. Religious buildings
are often among the most prominent
in a locality and may be further
distinguished by domes or tall towers
that punctuate the skyline.

Church elevation
Large medieval churches are multistory
buildings. anrl thf’ arrangement of parts
vertically is known as the elevation.
Key parts of the elevation of a church or
cathedral include the high-level clerestory
windows (1), triforium (2), vaults (3),
vault responds (4), nave arcades (5),
aisle windows ( 6) and blind arcading
(7), though not all churches have all
of these elements.

Temple plan
The interior cella (1) of a Greek temple
held a statue of the deity commemorated.
It had no windows and was reserved for the
priests, while worshippers stood outside.
In front was the pronaos (2). behind was
the epinaos (3). and the whole was usually
surrounded by a colonnade or peristyle (4).

Church plan
A Christian church has two main parts:
the nave ( 1) where worshippers gather, and
the choir (2) where the mass is celebrated.
Larger churches, like Cologne Cathedral,
Germany, seen here, are more complex, and
often include a curving apse (3), transepts
(4), aisles (5) and western towers (6), as
well as a central crossing (7).

A synagogue is a Jewish religious building,
and includes a raised platform at the east
end (1) for the Ark holding the holy scrolls,
a large area (2) for sealing, and a reading
desk or bema (3). Here at Temple Beth-el,
New York (1892), there are also women’s
galleries accessed by stairs (4).

Islamic places of worship are called
mosques. Key features include a tall tower,
named a minaret (1), for calling the faithful
to prayer, and a large hall (2), usually domed,
where worshippers gather for their prayers
and to hear sermons. Seen here is the 12th century
Sultan Barkuk mosque in Cairo,
Egypt (c.1149).

Castle & Palace
A castle is a defensible fortification, and a palace is a
grand royal or aristocratic residence, but the distinction
between the two was often blurred in the Middle Ages,
with castles having luxurious living accommodation and
palaces having strong outer defences.
Towers were also an important part of
medieval fortifications and aristocratic
residences. From the 17th century
onwards, fortification and aristocratic
accommodation were increasingly
separated, and palace architecture
developed as a showcase for the owner’s
wealth and prestige. Many great houses
were built in the 18th and 19th centuries,
and other new forms of buildings –
notably the grand hotel – also borrowed
the vocabulary of palace architecture.

Medieval castle
The medieval castle of the Old Louvre
in Paris (whose remains can be seen
under the present Louvre) was strongly
fortified, with a gatehouse (1), corner
turrets (2) and a central keep tower
(3), but it also had luxurious lodgings
(4) and a chapel (5) for the king and
his family.

Renaissance palace
The palazzo, or palace, of the Medici family
in Florence (begun 1444) is a typical
Italian Renaissance palace, with a strongwallcd
lower floor providing space for
storage of goods and an entrance onto
the central courtyard. The main living
accommodation was on the upper floors,
which have large biforate windows.

Millionaire’s mansion
The hugely wealthy trade and industry
magnates of the 19th century built
themselves enormous houses that are
palaces in all but name. One such is the
Vanderbilt family’s Italianate house, The
Breakers, in Newport, Rhode Island, USA,
which has 78 rooms. Designed by Richard
Morris Hunt, it was built in 1893-5.

Turreted palace
Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire was built for
the Duke of Marlborough in 1705-22. Its
corner turrets (1) hint at fortification and the
military victories the palace commemorates,
but they are decorative, not functional. As
was common in this period, the luxurious
main rooms are enfilade – linked to one
another without a separate corridor (2).

Grand hotel
Hotels, which became an increasingly
important building type as the development
of trains and steamships during the 19th
century promoted mass travel, borrowed
the visual language of palaces to create very
grand buildings. Raffles Hotel in Singapore
(1887), for instance, combines Palladian
windows with locally derived motifs.

Houses are the main type of building that surrounds us, but
house design has changed considerably over the centuries.
In the ancient world – and still in many hot countries today
– houses were built around a central courtyard with rooms
opening off the sides. In medieval Europe, the key element
of houses was the great hall, a large open room that served
as kitchen, eating place and sleeping area. In the 16th
century, compartmentalised private spaces, including those
on upper floors, became more common. The growth of cities
also led to the development of terraces, or rows of houses
linked at the sides.

Tuscan atrium
The interior of this
atrium tuscanum
(Tuscan atrium)
shows the extremely
rich internal finishes
of ancient Roman
houses. The central
atrium, which is
open to the sky, has
a coffered ceiling
and painted frescoes
on the walls. Individual
rooms opened onto
it, and there was a
central water feature.

Great hall
The great hall was the main living area
in a medieval house, serving as both a
communal eating and sleeping space, and
was typically open to the roof, with large
windows. The two doors at the far end
provided access to the pantry and buttery
for dry and wet food storage respectively.

Suburban house
How can we be certain that this is a house,
and not a shop, for instance? Partly, because
of its size, not too large nor too small, but
also because of the single entrance and the
windows, which are much the same size on
all floors – unlike shop windows, which
would be larger at ground level.

Jettied urban house
Even without going
inside, it is possible to
tell that this medieval
French house has
several storeys. The
projecting jetties,
which represent the
ends of floor joists
cantilevered out for
strength, clearly
indicate the presence
of floors. The jetty
beam along the front
of the house is often
heavily decorated.

Apartment block
The Highpoint flats in London’s Highgate
were built c.1935, and you can clearly
recognise them as flats by the prominent
single entrance and multiple windows over
many storeys. The blocks were designed
in such a way as to provide each flat with
good light and air.

Most societies have some sort of public buildings for civic
and governmental purposes, for large-scale entertainments,
and for housing collections that are open to many people.
Among the most common types of public buildings are
theatres, governmental buildings, libraries, and museums.
Such buildings have architectural vocabularies of their
own, which are distinguishable from those of religious,
domestic or commercial buildings; and certain key features
– such as the prominent towers of town and city halls –
are widely seen. Public buildings also have distinctive
internal arrangements, such as the auditorium of a theatre
or the open gallery spaces of a museum.

This cutaway view
of an ancient Greek
theatre shows how
similar it was to a
modern theatre.
Seating was raked
or angled back to
give everyone a good
view; the action took
place on a raised stage
above the orchestra,
for musicians and
dancers; and behind
were dressing rooms
and storage areas.

Town hall
The 15th-century late Gothic town hall in
Brussels, Belgium, has a very prominent
tower, which had a clock and also housed
bells. Not only did the tower make the
clock more visible above
the city, but it was
also a prominent
marker of civic
pride and
local power.

Public museums were a
new building form in the
late 18th century, and the
Alte Pinakothek in Munich,
Germany, was one of the
earliest. It has a series of
interconnected galleries
down the middle of the
museum, lit from above,
with smaller galleries
opening off at the sides,
an arrangement that is
still common in museums.

College library
A library has always been fundamental
to schools, colleges and universities. The
17th-century library of Trinity College,
Cambridge, has large windows supplying
good natural light in the upper-floor reading
room. The lower arcades conceal the area
with the book stacks.

Government building
The architectural form of the US Capitol in
Washington DC reflects the structure of the
US government with its two elected bodies,
the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Each has a large chamber, one at either end,
and in the centre is a domed entrance
rotunda. There is a smaller court chamber.

Every society that buys, sells or makes things needs places
where these goods can be produced and stored, as well as
places where buyers and sellers can meet. A commercial
space can be as simple as a blanket spread on the ground,
but as cities developed it became desirable to have
buildings dedicated to such purposes where goods could
be both stored and sold. In cities, the pressure on space
meant that urban shops were often combined with
residential premises, either for the owner to live in or to
let out. In the 19th century the department store selling
all types of goods was developed.

The ancient Greek
stoa, a type of one or
two-storeyed covered
colonnade, was an
early shopping centre
and often surrounded
a marketplace. Small
shops were constructed
against the solid wall
at the back, while the
open colonnade at the
front provided a shady
walkway for shoppers
and other pedestrians.

Commercial and domestic
The pressure on space in cities meant that
shops and dwellings were. and still are,
often combined in the same building. This
late medieval French building had a shop
on the ground floor and several levels of
dwellings above, which may have been
used by different families, much like
modern flats.

Department store
Department stores like Bloomingdale
in New York were invented in the 19th
century and brought together a wide
variety of different goods previously sold
in separate shops. You can easily recognise
them by their very prominent entrances,
inviting customers in, and by their large
display windows at street level.

Market house
The increasing amount of international
trade during the Middle Ages led to the
development of buildings for merchants in
trading centres such as port cities. This fate
medieval Spanish casa lonja (commerce or
market house) in Valencia has thick walls
and heavily barred windows to protect the
goods being stored there.

The late 19th-century Dalton Brothers’
warehouse and showrooms in Sydney,
Australia. features large openings for carts
and prominent ground-floor windows. Such
buildings were not only practical places to
keep goods and transact business, but, in
using the latest architectural fashions, served
as large advertisements for their owners.