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Late 19th-Century Architecture: Characteristics, Materials & Famous Works

Late 19th-Century Architecture: Characteristics, Materials & Famous Works
Coming up next: Social & Historical Context of Late 19th-Century Art & Architecture

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  • 0:03 Building in the 19th Century
  • 0:49 Neo-Architecture
  • 2:28 New Materials
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the architecture of the 19th century CE and discover how empires and materials both influenced styles of building. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Building in the 19th Century

I like this hat.

character with old fashioned hat

Many years ago, this hat was in style. Even if it isn't now, styles tend to come back around. This is true of hats, and it's true of architecture. In the late 19th century, architecture went through a period where old styles became new again. A lot of this came from the fact that European nations were at the height of their imperial power, expanding into Asia and Africa, and wealth was pouring in. So, they had the money to build, and for inspiration, each nation began to proudly look back on the traditions of their heritage. Old styles re-emerged but always with a focus on the modern.

Neo-Architecture

Most 19th-century architecture was focused on reviving old styles. When an old style is revived, the result is never quite the exact same. It is still a new style, and so it gets the prefix 'neo,' or 'new.' For example, Italy in the 19th century looked back to the Romans as the source of their heritage and revived Roman architectural styles. Roman architecture is called 'Classical,' so the revival was called Neo-Classical. See how that works?

Let's look at an example. England in the 19th century used the Neo-Classical style, but they really looked to the medieval era for their heritage. You know, the era of knights and damsels and jousts and all of that. Architecture of that time was called Gothic, defined by the use of spires to create imposing structures. Why, here's an example of the English Gothic right here.

English Gothic architecture
example of English Gothic architecture

Now compare that building to this one.

The House of Parliament
House of Parliament

This is the Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, where British Parliament meets. Designed in 1834, it certainly has Gothic elements, doesn't it? Spires, towers, a sense of symmetry and strength. But, it's not truly Gothic architecture. The floor plan is so geometric that it's almost Neo-Classical, and of course the actual interior of the building was designed with modern comforts in mind. So, it's not Gothic, but Neo-Gothic. Old styles, modern forms.

New Materials

For as much as architects of the 19th century loved their various neo styles, they were also dedicated to new and innovative architecture, and this meant taking advantage of new building materials. Cast iron was a material that had been used for functional things, such as bridges and docks, but not really explored beyond that. 19th-century architects fell in love with cast iron for its crude, unrefined appearance.

Additionally, just in terms of building, iron was strong, fire resistant, and sturdy. It supported lots of weight, meaning architects could design large, open structures without columns or supports. Being all about the use of new material, many cast-iron structures were largely undecorated so that the iron would be very visible. These styles became even more popular after 1860, when steel became commercially available.

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