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A brief history of architecture

Oliver Smith

A brief history of architecture

Architecture has been around since the day our ancestors decided to create shelter. Whether you notice it or not, every space you live, work and play has been designed with a certain intention for you to utilise, and hopefully enjoy.  Whether the design is good or bad is another discussion! Architecture sculpts our world, for better and worse, but today we take a look at some of the most iconic architecture in the UK and how we still use and enjoy them.

When we think of architecture’s earliest days we think of Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and of the Romans, with magnificent pyramids and staggering coliseums. However, think further back to prehistoric architecture like Stonehenge, and it’s clear that we have been fascinated with building structures for over 5,000 years.

But like anything in life, architecture has been shaped by history and has evolved to what it is today, with equally impressive feats of engineering.

We have created a timeline of architectural styles in the UK to see how they have evolved and what remains.

Understanding the evolution of architectural history helps us understand our modern day landscape and built environment. Here’s a brief look back at how Britain’s homes have changed over the ages…


Tudor houses can still be seen today, especially in the picturesque town of Lavenham in Suffolk – which is the best preserved town in the UK! Half-timbered with white-painted wattle and daub painted walls, Tudor houses had steeply-pitched roofs and small-paned casement windows, often with a jetty overhanging the street.

They are the very essence of Olde England, pretty black and white dwellings with great character and centuries of history steeped in their walls. Tudor homes were built at a time when the British were feeling less fearful for their safety, so houses were more outward-facing than in the Middle Ages when the need to defend the family led to many houses facing inwards onto a central courtyard.

Glass was the latest innovation, but was expensive to produce, so was made into tiny panes, held together by lead strips. The wealthier you were, the more windows your home had – and it was common practice to take them with you when you moved to a new house!

Stuart / Jacobean

This style of architecture is represented by flat-fronted, bare brick-built houses with sash windows, often built in a classical Palladian style terraces, and with gothic touches.

The first-floor room was where the household gathered to dine, socialise, and entertain guests. But from the 1660s the parlour and the dining room became the main living areas for the family, signalling a change in the way households lived with a greater separation between the family, their servants, apprentices and other employees.

The Civil War in the 1640s and 50s and the Great Fire of London in 1666 both had a marked effect on the way British homes evolved. After the blaze destroyed 13,200 wooden-built houses across the capital in just four days, Parliament ruled that homes must be built of brick. The War sent many men to the continent to flee the fighting or later to follow Charles II into exile, where they were hugely influenced by French, Dutch and Italian architecture. This lead to a flurry of buildings which reflected the latest European trends, and which eventually filtered down from the nobility to the masses.

Life in London was also increasingly cosmopolitan, with merchants trading as far afield as India, the Far East and Africa. The economy was growing, and the middle classes were prospering, and able to buy expensive items from overseas like silver, porcelain, colourful textiles, mirrors and clocks to adorn their homes.

It was during this period that servants – most families had at least one or two who could include unmarried female relatives – would be accommodated in smaller rooms at the top of the house.


The Georgian design is all about proportion and balance, with sash windows, stucco cornices and often a rectangular window or fanlight over the six-panelled front door.

Harmony, symmetry, airiness, space and light … these were the trends for Georgian houses. Influences came from wealthy families taking the Grand Tour of Europe, and architects like Inigo Jones drawing inspiration from the classical Palladian style.

Rooms were generously sized, with the important entertaining and family rooms on the first floor above the noise at street level, although usually at the front of the house. A cosier family parlour would be at the back on the first floor, bedrooms were on the second floor, and servants and 'poor relations' housed in smaller rooms right at the top of the house – often on the fourth storey. 'The hierarchy of how houses were organised became more important,' says Alex Goddard, curator of the Geffrye Museum in London. 'The lower floors were definitely where the family, not servants, would gather and live.'

High ceilings, pale colour schemes, light-painted woodwork and delicate furniture all added to the feeling of spaciousness. Paint became popular because although softwoods were being used as they were cheap and versatile, they weren't durable, so needed to be painted to preserve them. The number of windows in the house denoted how wealthy a family was as a heavy window tax was levied to help fund the army. Some thrifty people bricked up windows to avoid paying it – which you can sometimes still see today!


Bay windows, coloured brickwork, decorated bargeboards and roof tops, and a garden back and front are common in Victorian architecture.

The 64 years of Queen Victoria's reign saw huge changes in domestic housing. The industrial revolution brought with it mass manufacturing and meant that many more people could afford to buy their own homes, or upgrade them more often, especially in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This was the time of the emerging middle classes and they moved into substantial detached, semi or terraced homes, still large enough to accommodate a couple of servants, with large reception rooms with high ceilings, elaborate moulded plaster cornices and marble fireplaces.

A typical Victoria villa would contain 12 rooms or more, including bedrooms with adjacent dressing rooms, large reception rooms with high ceilings, elaborate moulded plaster cornices and marble fireplaces.

There was a much greater specialisation of room function – the sitting room or parlour was for females, while the dining room or study was the preserve of the men of the house. Decor would reflect that – heavier, darker furniture and darker decoration for the 'male' rooms, while the parlour would be much lighter and brighter. 'Victorian times were the zenith of clutter,' says Alex Goddard, curator of the Geffrye Museum in London. 'The whole house would be heavily patterned with differing designs on wallpaper, carpets and upholstery to create a very luxurious effect.'

Towards the end of this period most middle-class homes had flushing toilets, gas lighting, inside toilets and open coal fires. Cheap plate glass invented in 1832 and the repeal of window tax in 1851, encouraged large windows in new homes.


Squatter than Victorian buildings, most were set on a wider plot and were two storeys tall, with elaborately carved and painted wooden balconies, porches and verandas.

This was the heyday of the new middle classes and there was a huge demand for airy, larger homes, many built in new suburbs on the leafy outskirts of cities and towns close to the new railway lines. Bigger houses no longer required servants' quarters in the wake of World War I when domestic staff had moved into factory work.

After the heaviness, clutter and dark colours of Victorian interiors, people wanted their homes to be less formal. Women needed to be freed from ornate, dusty, labour-intensive bric-a-brac, so Edwardian style was born – and it was a breath of fresh air.

Wider plots meant that hallways were opened up, living rooms were designed with windows at both ends and French windows opening into the garden were very popular.

This was also when the Arts and Crafts movement was at its height, led by idealistic textile designer William Morris as a backlash against the mechanisation and mass-production of the industrial revolution. Many people were disturbed by the speed of the revolution, so found comfort in a return to well-crafted details and objects around them.

The post war semis

The typical post war home was a semi, built in the retro Tudorbethan style, half-timbered with a mix of red brick and pebbledash or with areas of herringbone brickwork, and with diamond-shaped leaded pane windows.

The 30s family ideal was a safe haven from the city where they could raise their children with fresh air and exercise on the doorstep, often in suburban developments outside existing towns and cities. Cars and commuting played an increasing role.

Houses were smaller than those built before 1914, with a front room off a hall, a second living room at the rear and a kitchen. Upstairs there would be two large bedrooms, a third much smaller room and a bathroom and toilet. Classic or chalet-style bungalows with bedrooms in the roof were popular.

Art Deco influences peaked in the early 30s, declining by 1939, with bold geometric shapes, rich colours and lavish ornamentation.

1950s buildings

1950s architecture exhibits traditional, rectangular homes, many with flat roofs, large picture windows and plain basic brickwork – not an iconic period for domestic architecture.

Hundreds of thousands of homes had been destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, sparking a building boom in the late 40s and 50s. Many of the resulting homes were boxes – traditional semis, high rise flats, garden city developments. But they were optimistic times and by the end of the decade wages had nearly doubled from £6 to 11 a week. Hire purchase regulations had been relaxed and many Britons had truly 'never had it so good.'

Interiors were simple, open plan areas such as merged living and eating spaces were seen for the first time in the 50s, but 64per cent of women told an Ideal Home Exhibition survey that they wanted the kitchen to be separate from the living space.

The focal point of the living room became the TV, which took off massively after The Queen's Coronation in 1953. This era also saw the development of trolleys, sofa beds, ironing boards and stacking furniture – all space-saving inventions. In the post war years, the 50s was the decade that transformed Britain's social and cultural landscape – it was truly the age of the consumer.


Building design in the millennium consists of pick 'n' mix styles incorporating traditional design with modern techniques.

The Noughties have seen a revolution in design and function as we adapt to our changing needs, economic constraints and important eco-awareness. The dining room is now virtually non-existent in many homes, replaced by open plan living. Many homes are defined by social areas rather than designated hallways, kitchens and dining rooms.

'Houses, particularly older properties, were designed with people's lives in mind, with set rooms for set activities, but as times change, so does what we want from our homes,' says Simon Hamilton, Director of the British Institute of Interior Design. 'With our increasingly hectic lifestyles, convenience and sociability have become key – which is why kitchen diners and games rooms have grown in popularity.'

Space is at a premium; the average new-build home in the UK is half the size of a comparative new-build in Denmark, so furniture and other items need to be easily disassembled and multi-functional.

Homes have evolved with our needs and environment and we still enjoy many homes from the periods of history listed above.

Whatever your involvement is in construction from heritage sash windows to architects creating the buildings of tomorrow we can help you showcase your work – as it really is something to be very proud of! Chat with us about your marketing plans.

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A brief history of architecture

A brief history of architecture
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