Hotline: 0174 / 1927106
understand epochal architectural styles

Architecture and Power – Building styles


estimated reading time: 20 Minutes

Accessible signet designed by Stefan Wirtz

Be amazed about

Better understand historical periods of architecture

The most powerful people have always inspired the architects; the architect has always been under the suggestion of power. In the building the pride, the victory over gravity, the will to power should become visible.

The interlocking of architectural form and the structure of power is by no means limited to absolutist and totalitarian systems, such as in Pharaonic Egypt, absolutist France or Nazi-Fascism, where it is most striking.

In architecture, the power of the factual is combined with the power of the symbolic. Psychologically, for the consciousness, architecture is a matrix of perceptions, associations, meanings. This network of messages can be structured in terms of psychotechnical rhetoric in such a way that architecture acquires the capacity for mass influence and mass manipulation.

Simple overview of architectural styles:

1000 – 1250RomanesqueRound arches, barrel vaults, plain and massive stone masses
1140 – 1530Gothicpointed arches, cross vaults, higher towers, domes, ornaments
1420 – 1610RenaissanceColumns, capitals, triangular gables, churches and cathedrals, castles
1570 – 1770BaroqueOrnaments and ornamentation, splendor as a principle
1730 – 1780Rococofrom baroque but elegant and playful, mostly smaller art objects
1770 – 1840ClassicismLonging for clean lines, simple forms, model classical
Greek antiquity


Würzburg Kilians Cathedral in Romanesque architectural style
Würzburg Kilians Cathedral in Romanesque architectural style

Since the fall of Rome in the 5th century and the resulting end of antiquity, it is considered the first European artistic epoch. The central work is the church building, which captivates with monumental stone walls and demonstrative fortification. Romanesque architecture was characterized by massive stone walls and round arches. Only by means of the contiguous curves could the load of a stone roof vault be carried.

The Romanesque church as a massive stone building was intended to provide protected places of worship for the Christian community. At the same time, the sacred buildings of the Romanesque period served the founding families to accumulate glory and often contained treasuries for important relics.

Since the buildings were intended to convey the idea of Christian rule, the choir occupied a special position and was strongly emphasized – after all, the priest performed his spiritual acts there. It is therefore no coincidence that the choir in cathedrals and churches faces east in the direction of the birthplace of Jesus Christ and the rising sun.


The Gothic period is the second epoch of medieval architecture. Its preconditions were profound processes of socioeconomic and political change. The unity of church and state in Germany breaks down in long battles between emperor and pope. The direction of the inner sense goes in the direction of dissolving all earthly heaviness and making it translucent, detached from all laws of gravity.

Panoramaaufnahme von Frauenkirche vom Rathaus fotografiert

Cathedrals stretching towards the sky, churches flooded with light and filigree stained glass windows – with these and even more stylistic devices, the Gothic era has immortalized itself in the history of architecture.

Unlike the preceding Romanesque period and the subsequent Renaissance, the Gothic period was not based on ancient models. The most outstanding creation of the Gothic period was the cathedral. A cathedral was seen as a total work of art consisting of architecture, sculpture and (glass) painting. Sacred architecture (church building) was the central theme of the epoch.

The architectural emphasis was on the vertical – the striving towards the sky. A central feature of Gothic architecture was the pointed arch, which replaced the typical Romanesque round arch on portals and windows. Due to the static peculiarities of the pointed arch, the walls could be built extremely thin.


Augsburg city hall in Renaissance style
Augsburg city hall in Renaissance style

Literally translated, ‘Renaissance’ means rebirth. The Renaissance describes a social revolution that puts the human being back in the center. Man begins to think intensively about himself. It is the time of explorers and scholars. America is discovered, printing is invented. Art and culture experience a revolution. The Renaissance is one of the most dazzling and innocuous epochs of mankind.

Cultural elites provide a unique push for modernization. During the Renaissance, sacral architecture alone is no longer the dominant style. Within a few decades, grandiose buildings, paintings and works of art are created, which belong to the most important works of mankind. It is the time of proto-capitalism, a frenzied competition between cities, merchant houses, families and rulers. Even today our vocabulary knows terms from Italian banking such as giro and account, credit and bankruptcy – terms invented and coined by Italian bankers such as the Medici.

The Medici became so immensely wealthy because they rose to be the pope’s bankers – at a very important time in the papacy. Before the Fuggers, who will soon make their presence felt in Augsburg, the Medici were the greatest magnates in Europe. A milestone in architecture was, for example, the dome of the Florence Cathedral. What made it so special was the 107-meter-high dome with a diameter of 45 meters – it was built entirely without falsework (auxiliary scaffolding used in construction to build arches and vaults).

Clear geometric structures, symmetry and harmonious proportions were sought in the Renaissance style to achieve perfect balance. Numerous buildings were created according to the rule of proportion of the golden section.

Social development in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages (500 – 1500), the world view was characterized by a strict order of classes. The highest class was the clergy. It included all representatives of the Catholic Church, such as bishops, priests, monks and abbots. Then came the nobility and finally the peasants. In both spiritual and political life, the church was an extremely influential force in the Middle Ages. Bishops were not only powerful princes with landed estates and subjects, but sometimes even advised the king and emperor.

The ruler received an imperial crown from the hands of the pope, which led to conflicts time and again. The kingship, on the other hand, was not a matter for the church! From the end of the 12th century, the election of the king was reserved for the German electors, whose number was limited to seven from 1257. The profession of knight arose from the 9th century when warfare on horseback became more and more important. Soldiers with warhorses and armor were extremely important for warlords, which is why they enjoyed far-reaching privileges.

But the Middle Ages also stand for groundbreaking developments, e.g. for the founding of the first universities or the blossoming of the cities and thus also for the rise of trade and crafts. In the late Middle Ages (1250 – 1500), faith was faced with a strong competitor – science. In an increasingly complex world, people wanted to know more and more about the rules and connections behind the phenomena of nature – the reference to divine creation was no longer sufficient for many.


It is the age of staging. Showing power and splendor – not only the nobility, but also the church intended to convince their faithful of their power. It is virtually an architectural competition between a “small secular but supposedly ruler by the grace of God” and “fear of sacred buildings considered austerity”. While rulers in the Middle Ages traveled around in order to be regularly present everywhere in their countries, from the 16th century onwards they developed fixed residences into seats of power – magnificent castles, gladly away from the urban hustle and bustle, with huge parks and opulently decorated banqueting halls.

Kloster Ettal Basilika mit hoher runder Kuppel im Sonnenlicht
Kloster Ettal

Educated people could read the pictures in the palace like we read an advertising poster today. The pictures challenged the perceptive power of the viewer in a new way, as the art of observation and introspection was also needed in his everyday life. (Acting out the affects in watching). It was the images that remain…. Gradually, states with central administrations, a standing army and professional officials now developed. More and more nobles came here, built representative palaces; sought the proximity of the king, who now no longer traveled near their country estates.

Traditional rights, such as to posts or pensions, counted less and less; instead, the monarch decided who received offices, military commands, clerical benefices or pensions based on loyalty and usefulness. All of these were awarded at court. No wonder they all flocked.

The Sun King and Absolutism

Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) created the prototype of an absolutist court with the Palace of Versailles and its residential town, which was imitated throughout Europe. Court etiquette forced the rich aristocrats to spend immense sums of money on clothes and to spend their time at balls, dinners and other festivities. No aristocrat who depended on the king’s favor could risk absence.

From the first moment, the young king leaves no doubt about his unrestricted claim to sole rule. He purposefully pushed ahead with the disempowerment of the nobility, curtailed the right of parliament to object, levied new taxes under his own power, broke the Pope’s hold on the French church, and rallied the country’s clergy behind him.

The Baroque period is defined by two opposing poles: absolutism as a secular form of rule and the church as the governor of eternity and the afterlife. Understandable is the longing of the people for order, safety and security, especially after the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War, systematic witch hunts, etc.

Secret code of absolute power in the Baroque era:

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, Baroque buildings were built according to a symmetrical construction method with curved forms in the ground plan. The generously designed buildings thus served primarily as monumental representational buildings of the noble families and the Catholic Church. Interiors were lavishly decorated, often with precious materials such as marble and gold plating. Walls, facades and ceilings were decorated with cartouches – flat decorative frames – and filigree stucco work. Magnificent halls of mirrors were intended to enhance the spatial effect.

The incidence of light in churches was an important design element for the Baroque architects. Effects of light and shadow were intended to make a visit to a church an impressive experience. Tip: Visit the Asam Church of Weltenburg Monastery! – The church looks most beautiful in the early morning hours, when the sun shines through the three rear windows and bathes the room in radiant and at the same time warm light. The altar figure of St. Benedict shines first… – impressive!

Otherwise – colossal order (columns or pilasters running over two floors), colonnades (portico with straight entablature), volute (ornamental snail-shaped design element) Curved, large staircases in the exterior are typical components and design elements.


Rococo, strictly speaking, is not a separate epoch, but a style of the Baroque with certain characteristics that are simply lighter than in the Baroque. The development of Rococo as a new architectural style can be understood as a reaction to the pompous, sublime style of the French absolutist king Louis (Louis) XIV, whose power had permeated every area of life and art.

Weiße Innenpfeiler der barocken Wieskirche mit hohen Fenstern für viel Lichteinlass und fantastischen Deckenfresko
Barocker Innenraum von Wieskirche

After the representative, dignified grandeur of 17th century architecture, Rococo architecture yearned for more intimacy and lightness. Architecture was to be elegant, comfortable, and especially comfortable in its interior decoration. Thus, the Rococo period saw an outstanding attention to the interior, with the individual arts, such as sculpture, painting and crafts, contributing to a real synthesis of the arts.

Due to the adapted functionality to the overall building, the proportions and dimensions became more delicate, the division of architectural elements lighter. Attention was paid not only to the overall construction, but also to the individual details and decoration.

However, the real attraction of rococo architecture lay and still lies in the rather restrained facade design and the highly developed room decoration. Whereas in the Baroque period the primary goal was to show the power of the prince through the splendor of his castles, it now became more important that the castles also appeared cozy and homelike.

All the knowledge and skills, all the sciences are used to enchant people. Baroque church buildings are less pedagogical, they do not want to instruct, but simply to surprise. The fruits of salvation and grace are not enumerated, but should be visible at first sight.

The term Rococo comes from the French word “rocaille”, which means “shell work”. The shell was particularly popular as an ornamental form at the time. While people in the Baroque period preferred symmetry, the Rococo is characterized by asymmetry and rampant ornamentation.


Glyptothek am Königsplatz
Glyptothek am Königsplatz

In the ground plan, Classicist architecture only allows the straight line, the right angle and, in the case of central buildings, the circular line to apply. This geometric order leads to smooth, generous surfaces in the elevation, column orders are purely constructional, they carry entablatures and serve not only to divide the walls.

The symbolic, representative meaning was more important in classicism than the mere usefulness of a building. The model for classicist architecture was primarily the Greek temples of antiquity.

At the time of classicism, numerous buildings, such as palaces, parliament buildings, churches, town halls, victory monuments and city gates were built in imitation of the long-gone era. The style of classicism is characterized by the urge for monumentality, pomp and grandeur. The domed building supported by columns or the temple front with the typical triangular gable, the tympanum, were popular.

In Munich, the Bavarian King Ludwig I (1786-1868) was a patron of art and culture. He called numerous artists and architects to Munich and had buildings constructed in the classicist style.

The Glyptothek on Königlicher Platz, the museum for Ludwig I’s Greek sculpture collection, exhibits the classicist monumental character. The symmetrical building with the entrance in the center of the structure has a monumental gable front supported by eight Ionic columns.

The classical Propylaea city gate in Munich is framed by two monumental towers on either side. A relatively flat, temple-like structure in the center, with Doric columns and triangular pediment stands in imitation of the Propylaea in Athens, the gateway to a sacred precinct of the Acropolis.

Six “keys of architecture” for rulers

Architecture has a special affinity with power. As the “public art” and built model of the social pyramid, architecture has been the concentrated expression of political, economic, clerical, and other powers throughout cultural history. It was considered the most distinguished mouthpiece of the potentates and was the favorite toy of the dictators, built to announce their power and glory.

Klassizistisches Gebäude mit Hakenkreuz und vielen Sportlern bei gymnastischen Übungen
Klassizistisches Gebäude mit Hakenkreuz

Aestheticization of politics

Transport of an ideological message, such as the mass marches in the Third Reich with the quasi-sacred mood of the somber pathos of architecture and the austerity of architectural orders is also called medial Gesamtkunstwerk or aestheticization of politics.

“Palace and hut” – metaphor

Weiße Marmortreppe steil aufsteigend zu einer einer mannshohen Figur in runder Wandnische
Treppe aufsteigend zur Machtdemonstration

Palace and hut are considered architectural metaphors for the opposition of ruler and ruled. The splendor of the palaces proves to be a multiple code:

The ornate-luxurious ambience is self-exaltation of the ruler by way of autosuggestion, status symbol against the envious competition and dazzling of the subjects. This is repeated in the royal palace, in the bank palace, in the consumer palace of goods. The increase of power corresponds with the humiliation of the subjects.

Unification of the banal

Apartment house with many individual apartments
Apartment house with many individual apartments

In the cell, on the plot. The latent effect of massification and depersonalization. From the power-political calculation not only to house the masses uniformly, but at the same time to disenfranchise them as nameless.


The dialectic of concealment and demonstration is directly reflected in architecture, for example, in the relationship of underground to above-ground spaces.  

Ziegelgemauerter Kellergang mit Nischen unter Tage mit Eisengitter am Eingang
Romanesque cellar corridor with niches

The labyrinth of secret passages, cellars and bunkers established a zone of power that was dangerous because it could remain undetected.  

Thus, a city splits into an “above-ground city for the soul” (Albert Speer) and an underground, camouflaged zone of the functional exercise of power. Opacity is a constituent factor of power. It is places of isolation and concealment that remove the renegades from the view of the rest of society. 

Monument and colossus

Monumentale römische Arena mit Rundbögen
Antike römische Arena als Monument

In architecture, the monumental and the colossal are the preferred rhetorical figures for the expression of power. A double effect emanates from the monumental building, on the one hand the sensation of the smallness and insignificance of the individual human being in relation to the whole, and on the other hand of the sublime and grandiose, which just transcends us.

Cult of the center

The cult of the extroverted center is a sign of the architecture of rule. The more centralistic, the more absolute the exercise of power, the more clearly this character emerges. In the case of the absolutist Palace of Versailles, for example, the sovereign’s bedchamber was the intersection of the axes.

In the ancient cultures of Central Asia, Iran, India, and China, there was the notion of the Middle Kingdom as a geographical interpretation with cosmological symbolism. The cult of the center as a centralist practice entails the disdain of the periphery.

Basic questions of architecture

Architecture (Greek: Baukunst) refers to the totality of all buildings with artistic design that go beyond the requirements of their pure purpose or utility. With regard to the “function” of a building, a distinction is made in particular between

Profane buildings

Sacred buildings

Sacral architecture (Latin “sacer” = sacred) is the collective term for all buildings that serve cultic and religious purposes (sacred buildings):

In medieval architecture, “number symbolism” – especially of the numbers three, four, seven and twelve – plays a major role. Three, for example, is considered an expression of perfection (Trinity, resurrection on the third day) and is expressed, among other things, in the three-nave church and the “trefoil” (tracery form). Like the artist, the architect can become a mediator between the divine and the human, between idea and appearance.

Factors influencing church construction

Three influencing factors for the narrow shape of the church building can be named in the Trias (triangle): Builder, worship, and architecture.

Secret building lodge knowledge

Mystical architecture, which used means such as measurement, orientation, number symbolism, light guidance technology and the taking up of sacred space structures. Building secrets were nothing else than knowledge of sacral technology to proportions and spatial symbolism, ultimately old geomantic building knowledge, about the correct handling of the depth dimensions and the power of space.

Thus, places were created that are not only places of assembly, but also places that offer us an encounter space with the divine origin, access to our own inner world and a spatial resource of experiencing center or blessing power.

The seven liberal arts – “Artes mechanicae”

A master builder with skills as a stonemason, carpenter, as well as in sculpture, painting, mechanical engineering and organization was considered an artist. Around 1030, church stones were still hewn on the spot and adapted to the installation site.

With the Gothic period began the prefabrication of special parts in the quarry or in the building lodge. Prefabrication now made it possible to work throughout the year, in heated rooms and huts. The knowledge acquired over the years was regarded as capital worthy of protection, which ensured a monopoly position. Thus, construction hut secrets had to be adopted and internalized by the master craftsman.

Proportions and golden cut

Artists at all times have tried to define balance and beauty according to their design intentions. One such principle is proportion (lat. Proportio = ratio), i.e. it represents the relationship to the whole. Geometric figures such as the square, triangle and circle were considered beautiful even in ancient times.

The best-known rule of proportion is called the “golden ratio”. It was already used in works of art and architecture in antiquity and cannot be expressed with rational numbers, but can only be achieved by construction.

One draws the distance AB and establishes over B the perpendicular BC with BC= ½ AB. Then one strikes a circle around C with radius CB, which meets AC at point D. Then you draw a circle around A with radius AD. It intersects AB in E.

Golden cut technique

If one divides the height of the human being according to the golden section, then the point E lies in the navel. In ancient times, the view prevailed that the human body and its parts must possess a certain symmetrical harmony, which could also be described mathematically, in order to be perfect. Its golden point was the navel, the part above it should correspond to the minor and the one below to the major of the body size.

Proportioning in architecture, as well as works of art from painting, sculpture, are based on the findings of Fibonacci.

The ratio of numbers begins as follows (see the picture above in the middle):

This sequence of numbers is directly related to the dimensional ratios of the golden ratio: the larger the sum in the Fibonacci method becomes, the closer the ratio of the successive numbers approaches the golden number Phi.

Concrete example from practice:

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

Famous painting - The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci:
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci:

Light and architecture

The most important contrasts to light are semi-darkness and shadow. Since ancient times, people have used fluting (which are vertical, upright round depressions) on columns, pillars and pilasters for light-shadow effect and as a means of optical slenderness. Architecture is the artful, correct and grand mirror of the structures gathered under the light, our eyes are created to see the forms under the light: Lights and shadows reveal the forms.

The degree of illumination, the color of light, shadow effect and the alternation of light and dark affect the well-being, rhythm of life and mood of people.

Architecture is experienced and judged on three levels of perception: a pragmatic, an aesthetic and an emotional one. Put even more simply, this means: Architecture should serve, should be beautiful, and should move us. In an analytical search, we come across three other levels of perception that are located in our visual center. They interact and increase from the rational, via the existential to the emotional.

« go back