The architecture of Gods and Kings

A review of Architecture: A Visual History, by Jonathan Glancey

Written by Jenna Collignon, Junior Editor, Matrix Group Publishing

From the start, architecture has had “great and even other worldly ambitions” (pg 4).  Since the very beginning of cities and civilizations, from the building of shelters out of rock and wood, to the modern-day glass and metal giants that today line city skylines, architecture has been an incredibly important element to everyday life in our world.  Jonathan Glancey’s book, Architecture: A Visual History encompasses the world over a span of 5,000 years, and showcases upwards of 350 of the world’s most iconic buildings that have come out of each architectural movement.

Upon First Glance

In a single word, this book can be best described as ‘stunning’.  Presented in a beautiful slipcase that displays an image of the Colosseum, the book itself features a glimpse of architecture that comes out of the modern age.  As well as being very informative, this book is presents a gorgeous visual history.
The book is separated into twelve chapters, arranged chronologically and regionally, and concentrates on where civilizations grew and changed the most influentially throughout the millennia.  Every chapter begins with a ‘Key Dates’ timeline along the bottom, which highlights the important points throughout the period to properly position the chapter’s contents within world history.

Chapters One to Three: The Beginnings of Civilization

The book’s first chapter maps out the beginnings of architecture, which began in the commencement of humans gathering together to create the very first civilizations and cities.  These villages and cities were then, and for the next few thousand years, oriented around religion and power, as well as driven by agricultural successes and technological development.  This early architecture focuses on the regions of the ancient Middle East and ancient Egypt, which produced many of the iconic structures that we still visit and study today.
Chapters Two and Three highlight the beginning of arguably the most well-known architecture for us today: the civilizations of both North and South America, and of the Greek and Roman Classical period. From these architectural movements, we have stepped pyramids, stone masks, colonnaded halls, friezes, wall reliefs, and many, many more features we have become familiar with.

The Architecture of Gods and Kings

As the book details all the beautiful and intricate design elements of each region and time period, there are innumerable differences between them.  That being said, there is a uniting factor (excluding the industrial era and modern times) in the inclination for humans to construct their cities and buildings according to Gods and Kings.
As cities were formulated and power structures instituted, kings (and similar ruling titles, such as tsars and emperors) became staples across the world.  These rulers were almost as important as the gods that dominated faiths, and merited power in the forms of protection and prowess.  Civilizations gathered around palaces and large citadels for protection, and thus began the rise of cities, pockmarked with beautifully ornate buildings for the royal family’s use, or that were built in honour of the god(s).
This trend continued throughout the ages, and is still visible throughout the modern world; although we no longer create buildings specifically for rulers and gods that are any more beautiful than the ones we create for corporate buildings or homes for millionaires.

Beautiful buildings such as the Hawa Mahal (featured on pg 94) which is a royal palace in Rajasthan, or the Terra-Cotta Warriors (featured on pg 111) which adorn the tomb of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, are still standing.  Relics of castles adorn the landscape of Europe, reminders of a time of war and the Dark Ages, when Gothic and Romanesque architectural styles dominated the then ruling empires of the world.  All around, in every city in the world, there are these pieces of history that tell a story, acting as reminders of the history behind us.
Glancey’s book takes us through each of these time periods and style movements by giving the time to highlight buildings from each era, showcasing their history and stories one by one.  Of course, if there were a book in this world that was to contain all of the buildings ever made, it would need to span untold volumes; but the selections presented within this Glancey’s book are so beautiful and well-explained that it truly captures your attention.

Chapters Seven, Eight, and Nine: Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque

Even though each chapter within Glancey’s book is visually stunning, these chapters covering the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods stood out.  It’s within these three eras that the influence of previous movements begins to appear in architecture, and that architecture begins to move away from honouring Gods and Kings.  These time periods stand on their own for being some of the highest points of inspiring and daring buildings found in our world.The columns of Ancient Greece and Rome return in the Romanesque style of Medieval Europe, along with the ornate and intricate carvings of the time.  Gothic style adds the element of height and prowess as buildings reach skyward into the medieval heavens.  The Renaissance brought with it a surge of learning, a challenging of religion and gods, and a rise of artists that woke the European world from the Dark Ages.  Baroque and Rococo brought with them a frivolity and delicate attention to detail, and this was the time that public spaces became areas adorned with statues and fountains, acting as places of enjoyment for the regular public.
“It was no longer just church and court that could afford bravura design, but also an ever increasing number of wealthy private individuals” (pg 207).

Final Thoughts

This book is truly a world tour of architecture and, through Glancey’s work, the beauty and breathtaking detail of the world’s architecture comes to life..One of the best things about this book is the way that Glancey’s voice takes a backseat and lets the architecture speaks for itself.  They say a picture speaks a thousand words which – in this case – is very true.  The book captures the feeling of wanderlust and pours it out through the page, enticing you to travel and see these architectural marvels for yourself.If you’re looking for a beautifully informative and visually stimulating book, I highly recommend you pick this one up. 

Jonathan Glancey

About the Author

Jonathan Glancey is an Architectural critic and writer, whose expertise granted him the position of Architecture and Design editor for both The Independent and The Guardian. His knowledge has also lead to his involvement in prestigious magazines, including Building Design, Architectural Review, and Blueprint.

Jonathan is an Honorary Fellow of the RIBA, he is a frequent radio and television broadcaster. He is the author of several books on architecture and design.