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Baroque Architecture - Space is an Illusion

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Greek Antiquity | Roman Antiquity | Byzantium | Middle Ages | Renaissance | Baroque
Kalskirche Baroque Church, Vienna

At the end of the Renaissance age the Counter-Reformation (mid to late 16th Century) and the regeneration of the Catholic Church brought back power to the pope and the clergy. Most European kings ruled their lands in an absolutist system – meaning they alone had all the power. All this resulted in both the clergy and the nobility wishing to express their power with new buildings and art. At the other side stood the Protestant countries, which were in a continuous conflict with the Catholic lands. It was also the time of Enlightenment with famous scientists like Isaac Newton and composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi.

Italian architects lost their influence during the mid-17th Century and France rose to be exemplary in style for all of Europe. The Baroque style spread over the continent after the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648)1. In Britain, English Baroque was only rather short-lived and never as extravagant as in continental Europe, having a strong Classicistic influence.

During the Baroque era many people moved to the cities which made them even more cramped than before. High houses with multiple apartments were built on narrow plots with difficult shapes. On the outside they had decorated façades and therefore looked impressive externally but inside the living conditions were no better than in earlier centuries. The rich built themselves large town houses in the fashion of small palaces. Floor plans were more practical than in earlier times, with different rooms dedicated to different functions. The Belétage (1st floor2) became the elegant living rooms of the rich.

To relieve the pressure from cities, new cities were built on symmetric plans with a grid or radial streets. They were divided in different functions and different areas for different parts of the population. Work and living were separated. At the most important place of the city stood a palace or citadel and the perimeter was defended by bastions3.

Floor plans gained importance during the Baroque era. They were pieces of art themselves and were filled with symbols. While the most important geometric shape in the Renaissance was the circle, this was replaced by the oval, which symbolised both passion and also the incomprehensible.

Symmetry was a symbol for divine order and can be found not only in architecture but also for instance in Baroque music. It was important in the greater layout of things as well as in small details. Façades became more dynamic than during the Renaissance age and curved outwards and inwards to gain depth. They adopted the Giant Order, where vertical elements like pilasters4 can reach up over two or more storeys, while other elements continued to subdivide only single storeys.

Windows were mostly arched or had a flat lintel and were decorated with elegantly curved gables. Another favourite shape for windows was the 'oeil-de-boeuf' (bull's eye), which was oval. Façades gained depths through different layers of design elements being arranged at different levels. Cornices and other horizontal elements follow these levels back and forth.

Capitals of columns often showed leaf decorations like the Corinthian columns of antiquity, but also deviated quite a lot from this ideal and had many imaginative decorations stacked on each other. The columns themselves were not always straight but could be shaped like corkscrews.

Many different materials were used to create the perfect interior. Decorations made from stucco were very popular. Luxurious materials were also in high demand, but often too expensive. Therefore a lot of materials which were used during the Baroque were not really what they seemed to be. Real materials were for instance used at eye height and replaced with imitations further up. Bronze was used instead of gold for instance and expensive marble was often replaced by 'stucco lustro', which is basically polished lime mortar of different colours. It takes skill and time to make but can imitate the look of marble in any colour.5.

During the Baroque age the borders between architecture and arts blurred. Rooms were visually extended with murals that for instance opened the ceiling to the sky. But illusionistic artworks were not only painted but actually built. Through the perfect use of perspective illusions buildings could seem larger than they actually were and rooms appear much deeper6. The same happened also with the use of mirrors which were produced in large numbers for the first time.


The wish for representative buildings resulted in the Baroque period being the prime age of European palace building. During the early 16th Century castles stopped being built as defensible houses for the nobility. Defensive buildings and palaces became two separate things. Palaces became distinguishable from mediæval castles through symmetry and the design on axis. This meant for instance that all doors in a sequence of rooms were lined up to make it possible to look from the first room to the last through the open doors.

The first palaces in Italy were developed from Renaissance palazzos - the town houses of the wealthy - which had a simple cubic shape. There were however improvements made on the layout and relation of rooms to each other. A richly decorated main hall was at the centre of the building and was reached from the ground floor over a grand staircase. Outdoor spaces like gardens and an inner courtyard also became part of the design. The façades of these palaces got more and more 3-dimensional and were often even curved.

In France the Baroque style was developed further and became the French Classicist Baroque. French Baroque palaces did not have an inner courtyard but were rather stretched to a wide building – visually even more elongated by horizontal lines in the plaster. The roofs were steep and high or surrounded by balusters, which were often topped with ornamental vases. At the centre of the palace was a ballroom looking out on the gardens. Often artificial ponds were used as a mirror to double the beauty of the palace and add another level to the symmetry to the buildings.

For the first time instead of removeable tapestries walls had coverings made of cloth or wood which were designed for this particular room. Also for the first time furniture was not moved around between palaces but designed for a particular room. The colours and patterns of the upholstery (also a new invention) was co-ordinated with the wall coverings, curtains and everything else. This made each room a complete piece of art. Consecutive rooms usually also had a co-ordinated design with each other.

One of the best known palaces which became a blueprint for buildings all across Europe is Versailles. When Louis XIV could not find enough space within the walls of Paris to build his palace, he decided to move to Versailles where he had a hunting lodge. The new palace was built in the 1660s and 70s. Thousands of people lived there as the king wanted to keep a close eye on the nobility.

The new palace consisted of all the parts that became typical for this building type in Europe. A main building and two side wings surround a courtyard. Inside there is a grand staircase. The interior is strictly divided into representative rooms (suite) and private rooms (apartment). The centre of the suite (and centre of the whole building) is the throne room – or in case of Versailles the state room with the 'bed' of the king. Other important parts of a palace were the ballroom, a theatre, and a chapel. Each room was decorated and furnished according to its function. The gardens surrounding the palace were also all oriented on the building with radial axis leading there. The different parts of the garden were laid out on geometric shapes.

Baroque palaces were often finished in a very short time to be useable in the client's lifetime and soon enough for them to enjoy. Therefore, the buildings were often not very well built, but this was hidden under decorated surfaces anyway.


 Baroque Church plan

In many European countries the Counter-Reformation brought a boom in building churches. The style of churches during the Baroque was greatly influenced by national traditions. Many older churches were also re-decorated in the Baroque style. Even St Peter in Rome was transformed to a longitudinal church and an oval plaza was added. The altar was no longer separated from the community but became an important visible object within the church.

During the early Baroque central plan buildings7, which were favoured in the Renaissance age were given up in favour of longer buildings oriented on Early Christian basilicas. A central plan building part which was topped by a dome was however still integrated in the longitudinal shape most of the time. Instead of aisles the churches had small chapels at both sides. Later they were inter-connected, giving the impression of aisles again. Above the chapels balconies can be situated. The interiors seemed larger through the positioning of windows in the chapels, choir8 and apse. The halls were topped with painted barrel vaults and domes.

During the High and Late Baroque central plan churches came back in fashion. Oval floor plans were popular. Different overlapping geometric shapes were also used, which created niches around the walls for altars and statues. For the domes however they were often very difficult shapes to rest on. Central plan buildings north of the Alps – especially in Switzerland, Germany and Austria - were mostly used for pilgrimage churches. Often a corridor separated from the main hall with columns let pilgrims walk around the interior of the church.

As the longitudinal shape was still more practical, this shape was achieved by fusing multiple rooms together. An anteroom and separate apse were added to the hall for instance, this way multiple central plan rooms in the end shaped one longitudinal building. Façades were often designed to be visually parted in two storeys. Most of the time two towers were arranged symmetrically left and right of the entrance, which made the façade wider.


Rococo was a lifestyle originating at the French court. In architecture Rococo started around 1720 and was mainly an elegant style of decoration. The traditional division between walls/pillars and ceiling was given up in favour of blurring the different building parts. The stucco on the walls also fused with the paintings on the ceiling. One popular decoration was the main theme of the Rococo: the rocaille. This was an asymmetric decoration vaguely resembling a seashell. Architecture went away from traditional shapes and ideals. It was irrational and phantastic, featuring many curves and curled leaves. Other frequently used decorations were small angels and free-standing statues.

Contrary to the Baroque style, in Rococo asymmetric shapes were regarded as beautiful. Windows took on imaginative rounded shapes. Corners were rounded and generally everything was playful and bright. Windows grew larger and often reached down to the floor. Instead of being saturated with symbols, decoration was now mainly just that. It was meant to look pretty. People also had a taste for 'exotic' interiors like Chinese style rooms with walls covered in porcelain or lacquered wood.

During this time the nobility moved out from the difficult living conditions of Versailles and built their own smaller houses (hôtel) in the city. They did not like the restrictions of the Baroque style anymore. Floor plans were mostly U-shaped and the houses had a front yard which was closed towards the street. Interior decorations consisted of ceiling high wall panels with decorative frames. Flowers, leaves and garlands were quite popular, sometimes the panels were also painted. Very often the lady of the house had an influence on the decoration.

Rococo churches were often simple halls with an oval floor plan. Advances in statics allowed more and more complex shapes and the use of fewer pillars and columns. Often multiple intersecting shapes created one interior. A complex system of arches helped to achieve more space between columns.

Freedom and a Hard-Boiled Egg

In the mid-18th Century the irrational Rococo style came under increasing criticism. This criticism resulted in a radical countermovement: Classicism9. With grave dignity it went back to the ideals of Antiquity. This was reinforced by archaeological discoveries like the city of Pompeii, which directly influenced decorations. The French Revolution put an end to monarchy for the immediate future and with it also ended the Baroque way of life.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

1A period of religious wars involving Catholic and Protestant countries2That's one floor above street level.3Bastions are defensive structures and parts of fortifications. They project out of the wall at different angles and offer better defence than a straight or simple round enclosure.4A rectangular column projecting from a wall, usually solely ornamental.5If you are not sure if what you see is real marble or fake, touch it (if it's allowed). Stucco is much warmer to the touch than real stone.6Just as it is done for instance at the theatre.7Central plan buildings are built on a floor plan that has the same length and width, for instance a circle, square or polygon.8Also spelt 'quire'.9Though in Britain, English Baroque had always had a strong classicism influence.

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