How Architecture of the Past Influences the Present

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Photo by Mario Cuadros

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but in truth, it never stopped being built upon. The past always influenced the future, from art to architecture. In today’s blog, we at Urban Design Associates are looking at how Roman architecture of the past influenced today’s buildings all over the world. 

A Brief History of Rome 

Before we can dive into architecture, it’s important to first understand some of the rich history that created these cultural phenomenon. 

Rome was founded around 625 BC in the areas of ancient Italy known as Etruria and Latium. It’s original origins are unknown, though historians believe Rome was formed by Latium villagers joining together with settlers from the surrounding hills in response to an Etruscan invasion. 

The history of the Roman Empire can be divided into three distinct periods: The Period of Kings (625-510 BC), Republican Rome (510-31 BC), and Imperial Rome (31 BC – AD 476).

As the power of the Pope grew, so did Rome’s power. Rebuilding was funded by the popes, cardinals and other wealthy church officials, thus leading to the formation of Romanesque architecture in the mid-11th century.

The style is a fusion of  Roman, Carolingian, Byzantine, and Germanic traditions and is considered to be the first true European architecture style. In it, masonry vaulting replaced timber construction to prevent devastating fires.

Another revival of Roman architecture came forth in the 15th and 16th centuries during the Renaissance. Signs of that influence are still found in today’s modern world. 

Modern Romanesque Revival Architecture 

Romanesque Revival is a style of building that became popular in the mid-1800s. It drew influence from earlier medieval Romanesque architecture, hence the name. Unlike earlier Romanesque influences. revival forms feature simpler arches and windows.

You can identify it from its round arches over windows and doors, with heavy emphasis around them. It’s common to see thick masonry walls, rounded towers with conical roofs, and asymmetrical facades as well. They’re pretty easy to pick out and are found in some famous American buildings. 

The most renowned example is the Smithsonian Institution building in Washington, D.C. It is  considered to be the most accurate interpretation of the earlier Romanesque style in the United States. You can also find this style of architecture in the Trinity Church in Boston, the Allegheny County Courthouse and jail in Pittsburgh, and the Marshall Field Wholesale store in Chicago.

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Trinity Church in Boston.

Roman Arches and Columns 

Roman arches are a common theme in all Roman architecture. However, did you know that the Romans didn’t invent arches? It was actually the Greeks. Rome took the idea and developed them to support underground drainage systems and for inscribing significant happenings. For example, the Arch of Constantine was built to celebrate the victory of Constantine the First over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

Roman arches are also found in modern architecture, such as the interior of Union Station in Washington D.C. The station edifice features columns, statues, and a triumphal structure, and was confirmed to be modelled after the Arch of Constantine in Rome. 

Another famous building is the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. The columns are clearly influenced by Roman architecture. In fact, the memorial’s edifice is actually modeled after the Roman Pantheon — a building Jefferson alleged loved! 

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Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.

Sanitation Systems and Central Heating! 

While not an exterior architecture highlight, every modern building comes with Roman influences. The plumbing and sewer system? Yup, that’s thanks to the Romans! Without their innovation, there is no saying what modern day bathrooms and plumbing would look like. 

They single handedly developed an essential feature to our everyday life. While there have been improvements to their design, the idea is still the same. The Romans used gravity to move fresh water into the city and homes, and used the same system to whisk away waste. This was the purpose of their multiple aqueducts.

In addition to plumbing, Romans also invented heating flooring. Of course, back then they didn’t use electricity. It was actually an accidental invention. Known as the hypocaust system, Romans used air, generated by burning fires, to heat homes. However, the hot air flow didn’t always go where intended and would seep into the empty chambers under floors. The feature quickly caught on among the wealthiest and became a staple in many homes. 

Today, it’s a luxury that many people enjoy in their homes. 

As architects, it’s important for us to learn from the past so we can continue to create innovative designs for the future. As you can see, we have a lot to thank the Romans for. From beautiful arches and columns that inspired many of our government buildings, to plumbing and heated floors, they were ahead of their time. We at Urban Design Associates tip our hats to them — without the Romans, our job, your house, and the entire landscape of the modern world might be very different than it is today.