Don’t know the difference between a plinth and a pilaster? You don’t need to be an expert to recognise a good building but understanding a little about architectural history and theory can make a walk around an unfamiliar city all the more rewarding.
Get to grips with the basics and see how many styles you can identify while on the road with our simple guide.
The Colosseum, Rome – a classic example of classical architecture © Steve Whiston / Getty Images
Era: 850 BC to 476 AD
The mother of all architectural styles, the elegant proportions and stately poise of classical architecture sired a legion of later revivals. The grand temples and civic structures of ancient Greece and Rome followed strict rules known as the ‘orders’ of architecture. The three most important are Doric, Ionic and Corinthian; all easily recognisable from their capitals (the decorative bit at the top of the columns).
How to spot it: Doric: plain capitals. Ionic: scroll-like capitals. Corinthian: elaborate capitals with carved acanthus leaves.
Where to find it: the Colosseum or Pantheon in Rome; the Acropolis, Athens.
The domes of Aya Sofya (Istanbul) dazzle, whether viewed from inside or out © Kav Dadfar / Getty Images
With glittering mosaics and more domes than a field full of mole hills, Byzantine architecture was built to impress. Walking into a lavishly decorated basilica with high domed ceilings and a blanket of gold ornamentation, worshipers would have been under no illusions about the power and wealth of the emperors.
How to spot it: multiple domes and sumptuous decoration.
Where to find it: Aya Sofya, Istanbul; St Mark’s Basilica, Venice; Sacré Coeur, Paris (Byzantine revival).
You don’t need to hold it up – The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy, was built to last © James Farley / Getty Images
The heavyweight of medieval architecture, Romanesque (called Norman in the UK) buildings were big, brawny and simple. A lack of technical know-how meant thick walls, massive columns and rounded arches were necessities while windows were small, vaults were built like barrels and decoration was confined to lozenges, chevrons or zigzags.
How to spot it: rounded arches and thick columns.
Where to find it: Leaning Tower of Pisa; San Gimignano, Italy; Durham Cathedral, England.
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, is a fine example of gothic architecture © TARDY Herv / Getty Images
Era: 12th-16th centuries
The lovechild of improved building techniques and European prosperity, the Gothic style spawned buildings that were taller, lighter and brighter than ever before. Embraced by the church and state, the new style quickly swept across Europe. The key element is the pointed arch but the strength of the Gothic revival from the mid-18th to mid-20th century means that many you see will be much later in date.
How to spot it: pointed arches, narrow columns, ribbed vaulting, towering spires, flying buttresses.
Where to find it: Notre Dame, Paris; Westminster Abbey, London; Cologne Cathedral, Germany.
St Peter’s Basilica, Rome – one of the city’s many architectural delights © RudyBalasko / Getty Images
Era: 14th-17th century Europe
It’s revision time. Remember those classical orders of architecture? They’re back in fashion. As classical philosophy and ideas on arts and literature were revived, architects too returned to the proportion and symmetry of classical Greek structures but embellished them in lavish ways.
How to spot it: classical style of columns, pediments and domes refined and developed.
Where to find it: Florence and Milan Cathedrals; Louvre, Paris; St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.
Visitors get a grand welcome at the Palace of Versailles, France © Daniel Haug / Getty Images
Baroque and rococo
With all the pomp and pomposity of a powdered wig, baroque architecture was a sugary confection of extravagant ornamentation. The baroque period added more elaborate decorative features to buildings than ever before and by the late 18th-century had become the totally theatrical rococo, where every surface was awash with flamboyant flourishes.
How to spot it: extensive ornamentation, ceiling frescoes, dramatic use of light.
Where to find it: Versailles, France; Trevi Fountain, Rome; St Paul’s, London.
Everything’s in order at the White House, Washington DC © Walter Bibikow / Getty Images
Era: mid-18th century Europe
Repulsed by the sickly-sweet excesses of the rococo era, prim and proper neoclassicism returned to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. Unlike during the Renaissance, it played strictly by the rules in a sometimes severe reincarnation of the original styles.
How to spot it: columns, pediments and domes in strictly proportional designs.
Where to find it: The White House, Washington, DC; Hermitage, St Petersburg; Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.
Paris’ metro entrances add a little flair to the commute © Images Etc Ltd / Getty Images
Curvy, leafy and forever associated with Paris thanks to its iconic Metro entrances, art nouveau was a short-lived movement that saw weaving, plant-like designs and flowing natural forms permeate everything from furniture design to architecture.
How to spot it: flowing lines, organic forms and decorative plant-like designs.
Where to find it: Musée Horta, Brussels; Paris Metro entrances; Lavirotte Building, Paris.
The Chrysler building’s spire shining in the New York evening sun © C. Taylor Crothers / Getty Images
All the glamour and sophistication of the roaring 20s is reflected in art deco architecture and its expensive materials and clean, geometric design. Flappers danced in jazz clubs, the great Gatsbys threw wild parties and architects cleverly used minimal decoration to create a sense of unbridled luxury.
How to spot it: use of chrome, geometric motifs and strong colours.
Where to find it: Chrysler Building; Empire State Building; Miami Beach; Napier, New Zealand.
The design of London’s Barbican Complex is harsh but beautiful © VictorHuang / Getty Images
Era: early 20th century to 1980s
Austere, minimalist and unrepentantly plain, modernism insisted design should be dictated by function. Rectangular and cubist shapes, reinforced concrete, open-plan design, large windows and a lack of ornamentation are its hallmarks.
How to spot it: plain, rectilinear buildings using reinforced concrete and open-plan designs.
Where to find it: Boston City Hall; Barbican, London; Fallingwater, Pennsylvania; Brasília.
HSBC headquarters stands proud in Hong Kong © Michael Coyne / Getty Images
The architectural equivalent of wearing your clothes inside out, high-tech architecture gleefully embraced new technology and materials and showed it all off on the outside. Inside, these buildings had flexible layouts with moveable room divisions.
How to spot it: pipes and structural elements on the outside of the building.
Where to find it: Centre Pompidou, Paris; HSBC HQ, Hong Kong; Patscenter, Princeton.
Postmodernism can be hard to recognise – just like spies… MI6 building, London © VictorHuang / Getty Images
Era: 1960s to present
Experimental, controversial and playful, postmodernism replaced the puritanical principles of modernism with fun, irony and bright colours. Anything goes in this movement making it hard to recognise, but whimsical references to classical architecture were common and frequently provoked scorn.
How to spot it: bright colours mixed with odd shapes and a nod to the classical orders.
Where to find it: Staatsgalerie extension, Stuttgart; The Portland Building; MI6 London; M2 Tokyo.
Travel to the future at City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia © Laura Grier / Getty Images
Era: 1960s to present
Wilder than a Hollywood sci-fi set department, neo-futurism blends the latest technologies with brilliant minds and unbridled creativity, pushing materials and concepts beyond all previous boundaries. Buildings bend and twist in mysterious ways, lean at impossible angles and sweep along in undulating curves.
How to spot it: sharp free-form curves and fragmented geometry.
Where to find it: Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre, Azerbaijan; City of Arts & Sciences, Valencia; The Gherkin (30 St Mary’s Axe), London.
Who said walls need to be straight? EMP Museum Building, Seattle © Artie Photography (Artie Ng) / Getty Images