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Norman Architecture (1066-1200)

The oldest surviving architectural style in England dates to when the 1066 Norman Conquest brought the Romanesque era to Britain, where it flourished as the Norman style.

Churches in this style were large, with wide naves and aisles to accommodate the crowds who came to hear Mass and worship at the altars of various saints. But to support the weight of all that masonry, the walls had to be thick and solid, giving Norman churches a dark, somber, mysterious, and often oppressive feeling.

Church Architecture 101 -- The best examples of Norman architecture include London's White Tower (1078), William the Conqueror's first building in Britain at the Tower of London; Durham Cathedral (1093-1488), with a Norman floor plan; and Ely Cathedral (1083-1189), with a nave and south transept that are perfectly Norman.

While each architectural era has its distinctive features, there are some elements, floor plans, and terms common to many. This is particularly true of churches, large numbers of which were built in England and Wales from the Middle Ages through the 18th century.

From the Norman period on, most churches consist either of a single, wide aisle or a wide central nave flanked by two narrower aisles. The aisles are separated from the nave by a row of columns, or square stacks of masonry called piers, and connected by arches.

This main nave/aisle assemblage is usually crossed by a perpendicular corridor called a transept near the far, east end of the church so that the floor plan looks like a Latin Cross (shaped like a crucifix). The shorter, east arm of the nave is called the chancel; it often houses the altar and stalls of the choir. If the far end of the chancel is rounded off, it is called an apse.

An ambulatory is a curving corridor outside the altar and choir area, separating it from the ring of small chapels radiating off the chancel and apse.

It's worth pointing out that very few buildings (especially churches) were built in one particular style. Massive, expensive structures often took centuries to complete, during which time tastes would change and plans would be altered.

Gothic Architecture (1150-1550)

The French Gothic style invaded England in the late 12th century, trading rounded arches for pointy ones -- an engineering discovery that freed church architecture from the heavy, thick walls of Norman structures and allowed ceilings to soar, walls to thin, and windows to proliferate.

The Gothic proper in Britain can be divided into three overlapping periods or styles: Early English (1150-1300), Decorated (1250-1370), and Perpendicular (1350-1550).

The best example of Early English is Salisbury Cathedral (1220-65), unique in Europe for the speed with which it was built. The first to use pointy arches was Wells Cathedral (1180-1321), which has 300 statues on its original facade.

The facade, nave, and chapter house of York Minster (1220-1480), which preserves the most medieval stained glass in Britain, is Decorated, though the chancel is Perpendicular and the transepts are Early English. Exeter Cathedral (1112-1206) has an elaborate Decorated facade and fantastic nave vaulting.

The Perpendicular King's College Chapel at Cambridge (1446-1515) has England's most magnificent fan vaulting, along with some fine stained glass. Henry VII's Chapel (1503-19) in London's Westminster Abbey is textbook Perpendicular.

Renaissance Architecture (1550-1650)

It wasn't until the Elizabethan era that the Brits turned to the Renaissance style sweeping the Continent. England's greatest Renaissance architect, Inigo Jones (1573-1652), brought back from his Italian travels a fevered imagination full of the exactingly classical theories of Palladianism, a style derived from the buildings and publications of Andrea Palladio (1508-80). However, most English architects at this time tempered the Renaissance style with a heavy dose of Gothic-like elements.

Jones applied his theories of Palladianism to such edifices as Queen's House (1616-18 and 1629-35) in Greenwich, the Queen's Chapel (1623-25) in St. James's Palace, and the Banqueting House (1619-22) in Whitehall (the latter two in London).

Baroque Architecture (1550-1650)

England's greatest architect was Christopher Wren (1632-1723), a scientist and member of Parliament who got the job of rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666. He designed 53 replacement churches alone, plus the new St. Paul's Cathedral, which was the crowning achievement of English baroque and of Wren himself. Other proponents of baroque architecture were John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) and his mentor and oft-collaborator Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), who sometimes worked in a more Palladian idiom.

Neoclassical & Greek Revival Architecture (1714-1837)

Many 18th-century architects cared little for the baroque period, and during the Georgian era (1714-1830) a restrained, simple neoclassicism reigned. This Greek Revival style was practiced by architects such as James "Athenian" Stuart (1713-88), who wrote a book on antiquities after a trip to Greece, and the somewhat less strict John Soane (1773-1837).

Much of the city of Bath was made over in the 18th century, most famously by the father-and-son team of John Woods, Sr. and Jr. (1704-54 and 1728-81, respectively). They were responsible, among others, for the Royal Crescent (1767-75), where you can visit one house's interior and even lodge in another.

Victorian Gothic revival Architecture (1750-1900)

The early Romantic Movement swept up others with rosy visions of the past. This imaginary and fairy-tale version of the Middle Ages led to such creative developments as the pre-Raphaelite painters and Gothic Revival architects, who really got a head of steam under their movement during the eclectic Victorian era.

Gothic "Revival" is a bit misleading, as its practitioners usually applied their favorite Gothic features at random rather than faithfully re-creating a whole structure.

The best example is the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), London (1835-52). Charles Barry (1795-1860) designed the wonderful British seat of government in a Gothic idiom that, more than most, sticks pretty faithfully to the old Perpendicular period's style. His clock tower, usually called Big Ben after its biggest bell, has become an icon of London itself.

20th-Century Architecture

After the World War II Blitz, much of central London had to be rebuilt. Most of the new commercial buildings in the city held to a functional school of architecture aptly named Brutalism. It wasn't until the boom of the late 1970s and 1980s that postmodern architecture gave British architects a bold, new direction with a skyscraper motif.

Stellar examples of modern architecture include Lloyd's Building in London (1978-86), the masterpiece of Richard Rogers (b. 1933), and Canary Wharf Tower (1986), also in London, a complex designed by Cesar Pelli (b. 1926).

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