Architecture Research Paper

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In the practice of architecture, the art and science of building environments for human needs, architects strive to design structures that are sound, useful to their inhabitants, and aesthetically pleasing to society—whether starkly monumental in structure (like ancient Stonehenge and the modern skyscraper) or elaborately embellished (like the Parthenon in Greece and Cordoba’s Great Mosque).

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Since prehistoric times, people have created architecture to shelter their activities and to express societal or personal values. Usually the term architecture refers to a building or group of buildings, but the field overlaps with interior design and with landscape and urban design. Many architects agree with the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (c. 90–c. 20 BCE), who wrote that architecture must be stable, useful, and beautiful. To accomplish this architects must understand (a) how to employ one or more structural systems to support the design, (b) how the design will be used once it is built, and (c) what a client or society will find visually pleasing. Therefore, architects are faced with choices regarding approaches to the building site, available materials, and building technologies.

Prehistoric and Nonurban Architecture

Nomadic humans of the foraging (Paleolithic) era (c. 35,000–8000 BCE) lived in caves and rock shelters, but they also created portable woven architecture—oval huts of vertical poles that were covered with hides or thatched reeds. In the Neolithic era (c. 8000–1500 BCE), herders and farmers erected permanent settlements, including monumental buildings that merged with surrounding landscapes. They crudely quarried large stones (megaliths), moved them by barge and by sled on rollers, and raised them on earthen ramps to create trabeated (or post-and-lintel) structures (dolmens) of vertical columns supporting horizontal beams. The most famous example of such a structure, located on Salisbury Plain, England, is Stonehenge (c. 2750– 1500 BCE), a series of concentric circles probably built to accommodate festivals held by related warrior tribes. The more common dolmen was a sepulchral chamber built of megaliths and buried within an artificial hill, called a cairn.

Little remains of more humble buildings, except their influence on the surviving vernacular architecture of villages around the world, rooted in the myths and traditions of the people. In African Cameroon each Bamileke village has a central open space, chosen as sacred by the ancestors. The adjacent chief’s house, an aggrandized version of the others in the village, has bamboo walls fronted by a porch and sheltered by a thatched conical roof. In Cameroon’s Fali culture, forms, orientation, and dimensions of the ideal human body inspire the design of residential compounds. The Dogon culture of Mali builds men’s assembly houses, open-sided huts in which anthropomorphic wooden pillars, representing the ancestors, support a thick roof of dried vegetation that shades the interior but allows air to circulate.

A similar situation is found in North America, where the Anasazi people constructed “Great Houses,” of which Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, is the largest known. Built in stages from the tenth to the mid-thirteenth century CE, the quarrying, timber cutting, and transport during the construction were done without metal tools, wheelbarrows, or draft animals. In its final form Pueblo Bonito resembled a “D” with a perimeter wall approximately 400 meters (about 1,300 feet) long. Sandstone walls defined adjacent living units accessed from openings in the wooden roofs. Hundreds of units encircled central plazas under which the Anasazi built subterranean sacred gathering places (kivas). Men entered a kiva—women were forbidden— through a hole in a domed ceiling of interlocking pine logs. Because the number of rooms at Pueblo Bonito far exceeds evidence of human habitation, and the desert locale made obtaining food a constant challenge, archaeologists believe that the Anasazi devoted many of the rooms to food storage. When threatened by enemies, the Anasazi abandoned the Great Houses for dwellings built into the sides of easily defensible, south-facing cliffs, such as those at Mesa Verde, Colorado (twelfth–thirteenth centuries CE).

Ancient Temple Ziggurats, Tombs, and Palaces

Urban civilization—dependent on the development of writing, trade, diversified employment, and a centralized government—produced a variety of monumental building types, generally to glorify gods and god-kings. In the first cities of Mesopotamia, temples were raised heavenward on giant stepped platforms called ziggurats. Both temple and ziggurat were built of sun-dried mud brick using bearing-wall construction. The Ziggurat of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 BCE) in Ur, Iraq, was faced in a more durable kiln-dried brick laid in a bitumen mortar. In Central America the stepped pyramids of the grand city of Teotihuacan (c. 250 BCE–650 CE), near present-day Mexico City, were faced with volcanic stone and stucco and probably painted bright colors. They formed the backdrop for the rituals and public events associated with the temples, which took place on the top platforms.

Of the monumental tombs, the most famous are the three Great Pyramids of Giza (c. 2551–2490 BCE) in Egypt, which exhibited ashlar masonry (carefully cut stone blocks), piled in tight rows and faced in polished limestone. Workers probably used wooden rollers and sleds on earthen ramps to elevate the heavy stone blocks, and levers to place them in their final locations. These tombs memorialized god-kings for eternity and were seen as ladders for royal spirits to reach the heavens. In Greece beehive-shaped tombs survive, such as the Treasury of Atreus (c. 1300–1200 BCE) at Mycenae, where a vault of corbelled stone (formed by laying each course of stone slightly inward and beyond the previous row until it forms a narrow arch) capped the subterranean main circular chamber. The tomb, half buried until excavated in 1878, remained the largest uninterrupted interior space in Europe for over a thousand years, until the Pantheon in Rome (built in the first century CE), exceeded it in size.

A third type of monument served rulers during their lives. The enormous Assyrian Palace of King Sargon II (c. 720–705 BCE) at Dur Sharrukin, modern Khorsabad, Iraq, represented his combined secular and sacred authority and intimidated his foes with the carved imaginary beasts and scenes of military prowess that decorated its mud-brick walls.

The Greek Temple

The ancient Greeks influenced later Western builders with their post-and-lintel building tradition. Their three types of orders—systems of columns supporting entablatures—were distinguished by proportion and decoration, Doric being the most simple, Ionic more elegant in proportion than the Doric, and the Corinthian the most elaborate. Stone blocks of limestone and marble were held in place by metal clamps and dowels, and terracotta tiles covered the sloping wooden roof rafters. The apex of Greek architecture, the Parthenon temple (448–32 BCE), designed by Kallikrates, redesigned by Iktinos, with construction supervised by the sculptor Pheidias, was meant to be the focal point of Athens’s raised sacred precinct, the Acropolis. The Parthenon featured a stepped platform and an exterior row of columns (or colonnade) that sheltered a central room housing a gigantic statue of Athena. The temple’s proportions, determined by harmonious numerical ratios, were given life by the slight curvature of lines (called entasis), so components appeared to resist the weight imposed on them from above. (The entire temple was marble, even the roof.) Surfaces were stuccoed, painted, and embellished with colorful relief sculpture and friezes much admired for their graceful naturalism.

Roman Innovations and Their Eastern Progeny

Ancient Roman buildings, complexes, and new towns were regimented by simple geometric spaces related along clear axes and were often constructed using new materials and technologies. Voluminous interiors were created by using the semicircular arch, a method of spanning space with many small wedge-shaped elements that balanced against one another. Three-dimensional extrusions of the arch formed tunnels, rings, domes, and other types of spaces. The Romans employed concrete—a mixture of cement, water, and aggregate that can take on many flowing shapes—and faced it in stone or coursed brick and tile. The best-known examples of Roman architecture, the Pantheon temple (117–126 CE) and the Colosseum amphitheater (c. 70–80 CE), both in Rome, had interiors that were spatially exciting, their concrete surfaces lavishly finished with multicolored marbles, gilding, and sculpted detailing. The Pantheon, the result of sophisticated engineering despite its apparently simple dome shape, is one of the most remarkable structures existing in Rome today; from the inside the eye is drawn by a circular pattern of coffers (recessed panels) toward the ceiling (about 43 meters, or 143 feet, high at the summit), where light flows through a 9-meter- (29-foot)-wide oculus (central opening).

During the waning years of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, Christians adopted the multipurpose basilica as the model for their churches, such as Old Saint Peter’s (begun c. 320 CE) in Rome. This multiaisled building featured parallel stone colonnades that supported the masonry walls above. Those in turn held up a roof structure of wooden trusses, rigid triangular frames that resulted in the typical gabled roof form. The glittering, glass mosaic surfaces of the interior were hidden by a bare brick exterior. Byzantine Christians in the eastern half of the empire chose Roman vaulted structures as their models, resulting in the Cathedral of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia (532–537 CE), by Anthemios of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. The enormous masonry dome, though it rested on four curved triangular surfaces (called pendentives) seemed to float unsupported above the interior, thanks to the ring of windows at the base of the dome and the light-reflecting surfaces of mosaic and marble throughout the vast interior. Also inspired by Rome, Islamic builders developed a new building type for communal worship, the mosque. The Great Mosque (eighth–tenth centuries CE) in Cordoba, Spain, exhibited the horseshoe-shaped arches of alternating stone and brick bands that became typically Islamic, while innovatively stacking the arches in two levels, thereby creating a limitless sense of space. Dazzling marble and mosaic decoration was limited to stylized vegetation and other nonrepresentational patterns, according to Muslim practice.

Beyond Rome’s orbit, in the Buddhist monastery at Sanchi in India, the dome of the Great Stupa (first century BCE–first century CE) enshrined important relics. (Stupas, religious structures fundamental to the Buddhist world, were first constructed to house the cremated remains of the Buddha after his death in 483 BCE.) Protected within a wall featuring four elaborate gateways, the earth-and-rubble-filled dome of the Great Stupa represented the mountain of the world. Pilgrim worshippers circumambulated the building on walkways at two levels, reflecting the Buddhist belief in cyclical Earthly suffering that was only relieved upon reaching nirvana.

The Middle Ages

In the centuries after the Roman Empire, European Christians supported powerful monasteries, whose builders turned to bearing-wall construction in limestone, granite, and sandstone. Master builders maintained the basilican church form (a rectangular building with side aisles separated from the center nave by colonnades), but ultimately they replaced the simple plan and trussed roof with more complex solutions to the problems presented by increasing numbers of pilgrims and concerns over fire safety. During the Romanesque Era (c. 1050–1200), so called due to the revival of Roman (that is, semicircular) vaulting techniques, builders experimented with heavy stone-vaulted ceilings and extended side aisles around the church’s perimeter to improve circulation for pilgrims. Extensive sculpted ornament in abstracted forms greeted visitors with Christian lessons of good versus evil. The French church of Saint-Sernin (c. 1070–1120) in Toulouse exemplified this movement.

Structural experiments coalesced in the later twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth, during the Gothic era, led by northern France, which dominated Europe at that time. Gothic verticality, aspiring to express divine loftiness, combined with great visual coherence at Chartres Cathedral (1194– 1220), where the minimal stone skeleton supported walls of stained glass illustrating sacred and secular themes. This effect was made possible through the combined use of the structurally efficient pointed arch, the framework of arched ribs (rib vaults) that allowed lighter vault panels, and the flying buttress that supported the vaults outside the building. Broad and steep roofs of innovative wood truss design protected the church vaults. A very high level of roofing technology was also evident in the contemporary wooden stave churches (using post-and-beam construction) of Norway.

Around the same time, builders in South and East Asia likewise developed impressively tall structures to house images of their gods and to visually connect Earth with heaven. Hindu Indians created the Visvanatha Temple to Siva (c. 1000) at Khajuraho, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Inspired in design by a mandala (cosmic diagram), the temple’s “grid plan” featured a sequence of increasingly important spaces, concluding at the inner sanctum with its image of Siva. Seemingly countless voluptuous sculptures covered the exterior surfaces that climaxed at the mountain-like tower over the inner sanctum. In China and Japan, Buddhist pagodas served similar uses but were characterized by their winged eaves and centralized plans.

In Europe continued insecurity encouraged the powerful to live in fortified castles. A moat and high walls with towers protected inner courts and the main multistoried residence, called a keep or donjon (the word dungeon is a derivative). By the latter Middle Ages, improved security fostered the development of the less-fortified, but still grand, manor house; the main room, or great hall, a multifunctional entertainment space, required sturdy roof support in the form of various trussed solutions. The Islamic rulers of Spain produced luxurious, sprawling palace complexes, such as the Alhambra (thirteenth–fourteenth centuries) in Granada. The gardens interspersed throughout the complex provided refreshing water, fragrant plants, and soft, indirect lighting. Rooms had ethereal domes, whose structure was veiled by muqarnas, open, honeycomb-like cells made from stucco or wood.

Idealized Plans and the Renaissance

Beginning in the fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance, men with humanistic educations, not just practical building experience, aided by familiarity with classical antiquity, mathematics, and orthogonal drawing, won many architectural commissions. Their buildings and publications argued for the unity of architectural practice and theory. Filippo Brunelleschi’s Cupola (1417–1434), or dome and lantern, for the Cathedral of Florence combined a Gothic pointed profile and a Pantheon-like concentric grid with his original ideas of a double shell, interlocking brick pattern, and inventive construction mechanisms. Sophisticated uses of Roman ideas also characterized the work of Leon Battista Alberti, whose classically grand Church of Sant’Andrea (begun c. 1470) in Mantua, Italy, derived from ancient building types, proportional systems, and the classical orders. Its facade—a classical temple front and triumphal arch, with two sets of Corinthian pilasters on the porch—belies the grand interior: an immense barrel-vaulted nave flanked by tall chapels.

Efforts to supersede classical accomplishments were evident in the contemporary architecture of Rome. The first grand scheme by Donato Bramante (1505) for rebuilding the Basilica of St. Peter affirmed the humanist interest in the idealized centralized church plan. Under Michelangelo’s guidance the design of the basilica’s cupola (1546–1564) was largely resolved, producing a cohesive and influential scheme that was the last of the great purely masonry domes. Michelangelo also designed a monumental civic center, the Campidoglio (begun 1538), its complexity organized by a strong central axis, colossal pilasters on the building facades, and the view over the city.

Renaissance ideas spread from Florence and Rome. Near Venice, Andrea Palladio, an experienced stonemason and a humanist scholar, advanced his own influential architectural treatise; by the eighteenth century most educated people (including Thomas Jefferson in America) had his Four Books of Architecture in their libraries. In his design for a suburban residence near Vicenza, Italy, the Villa Rotonda (begun 1566), he appropriated the portico (four, actually, one on each side of the square structure) and central domed hall formerly associated with religious buildings. The building is famous for its idealized siting, harmonic proportions, simple geometries, and clear axial relationships. Venice’s powerful nemesis, the Ottoman Empire, produced Palladio’s counterpart, the architect Sinan, whose skillful designs for central-domed mosques with stunning tile work were represented by his Mosque of Selim II (1568–1575) in Edirne, Turkey.

Idealized masonry monuments of the West contrasted with the idealized wooden post-and-lintel structures of the East, climaxing in Ming dynasty (1368–1644) China. The focal point of Beijing’s monumental Forbidden City was the emperor’s principal throne room, the Hall of Supreme Harmony (begun 1627). Though grander in size and ornament than other Chinese halls, its arrangement of standardized interchangeable parts was similar. A grid of wooden columns supported fingerlike brackets, which in turn held boxlike truss beams (or stepped roof trusses) that produced the characteristic curve of the tiled roof. Japanese builders transformed the Chinese architectural system by favoring more subtle asymmetrical arrangements and indirect paths of circulation, from Sen no Rikyu’s intentionally rustic Tai-an tearoom, Myoki-an Temple (c. 1582) to the impressive Imperial Katsura Palace (largely c. 1615–1663), both in Kyoto.

Baroque Vitality

In the seventeenth-century West, Renaissance priorities blended with the dynamic growth of science, nationalism, and religious fervor. Designs, often structurally and spatially complex and characterized by illusionistic effects, were best appreciated by a person moving through them, for example, Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Piazza (1656–1667) at St. Peter’s in Rome. Intense ornamentation was common during the period and spread to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America. The monumental enlargement of the Chateau at Versailles (1667–1710), for France’s autocratic “Sun-King” Louis XIV, had a network of axial pathways that led to the king’s central bedchamber. In the chateau’s Hall of Mirrors, innovative large mirrors created infinitely reflecting vistas of the vast gardens. Christopher Wren, who was a scientist before becoming an architect, reworked continental influences in his redesign for St. Paul’s Cathedral (1675–1711) in London, where the cupola combined an inner masonry shell with a lightweight outer dome and lantern. In Bavaria structural experimentation, illusionism, and spatial complexity climaxed in works such as the Residence of the Prince-Bishops (1719–1753) in Wurzburg, by Johann Balthasar Neumann.

Historical Revivals

Eighteenth-century architectural influences included the Enlightenment, which emphasized the individual person; increased historical scholarship, especially archaeology; and the Industrial Revolution. Giambattista Piranesi’s widely disseminated, imaginative views and reconstructions of ancient Roman ruins aroused awe. In England, Robert Adam’s renovation of Syon House (1760–1769) in Middlesex sought to authentically re-create the architecture of classical Rome. Yet with Horace Walpole, Adam also created the mysterious, picturesquely asymmetrical Gothic Revival Strawberry Hill (1749–1763) at Twickenham, its different parts appearing to be centuries-old accretions. French architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot combined Gothic structural lightness with classical spatial purity in his Church of Ste.-Genevieve (1755–1780) in Paris. Etienne-Louis Boullee drew unbuildable projects, like the Cenotaph to Isaac Newton (1783–1784), a classical but sublime giant hollow sphere that celebrated the achievements of the great physicist. It connected use and form in a direct manner called “architecture parlante.” The mining of historical styles for contemporary projects continued into the nineteenth century, highlighted by Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Greek Revival Altes Museum (1824– 1830) in Berlin, and the Gothic Revival Houses of Parliament (begun 1835) in London, by Charles Barry and A. W. N. Pugin.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Europeans began to seek increasingly private and comfortable residences. Renovated (1732–1739) in the delicate Rococo style by Germain Boffrand, the Hotel de Soubise in Paris incorporated intimate interiors that were easily heated by improved fireplace design and easily illuminated by large windows and mirrors. Residences of the wealthy incorporated dumbwaiters and corridors to allow greater separation between masters and their servants. The English aristocracy and North American colonists also turned to making more comfortable buildings, typically favoring a restrained neo-Palladian approach to design, such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (1768–1782) in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Early Modernism

In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution expanded its impact on European architecture. France’s official architectural school, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, emphasized “universal” architectural ideals found in primarily classical models, but the buildings of its alumni, including Charles Garnier’s exuberant Opera (1860–1875) and Henri Labrouste’s Bibliotheque Ste.- Genevieve (1838–1850), both in Paris, united those lessons with contemporary technology. The Eiffel Tower (1887–1889), by Gustave Eiffel, epitomized the celebration of modern materials and their logical assembly. Conversely, William Morris, the most significant British voice at the time, protested against the social upheaval and shoddy craftsmanship associated with the Industrial Revolution. His own home, The Red House (1859–1860) in Bexleyheath, Kent, designed by Philip Webb, exemplified his Arts and Crafts Movement with informal, vernacularly derived forms and materials that hearkened back to a simpler time.

American architects adapted these British ideas to their own context. Balloon-frame construction (precut timber studs connected by machine-made nails), which was sheathed with wooden shingles, allowed more informal, open interior layouts that were easy to heat with American central heating systems and easy to cool during the hot American summers. The epitome of the American Shingle Style was the Mrs. M. F. Stoughton House (1882–1883) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Henry H. Richardson. Americans continued to take the lead in residential design with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose inspiration came from nature, simple geometries, and exotic cultures. Wright’s F. C. Robie House (1908–1910) in Chicago climaxed his search for the “Prairie House.” The building’s strong horizontality and locally inspired ornament harmonized with the prairie of the Midwest. Abstracting Japanese and other prototypes, he created transitional zones that wove together exterior and interior space and effortlessly connected interior spaces around the central hearth.


Seeking to express contemporary life and technology, modern architects increasingly relied on modern materials, exposed structure, and undecorated compositions that were open and asymmetrical. Many designers searched for schemes that would be universally valid in a world made more homogeneous by technology. The results spanned from a machinelike precision to an organic expression of use and/ or place.

Iron and steel structural frames increasingly transformed architecture beginning in the late nineteenth century. European Art Nouveau designers copied natural forms and exposed the sinuous iron structure in their glass-filled buildings, such as Victor Horta’s Tassel House (1892–1893) in Brussels, Belgium. In American cities the demand for space, the need to cluster offices, and the desire to create bold symbols of business set the stage for modern skyscraper construction. Tall buildings depended on the passenger elevator and the development of metallic cage construction that was fireproofed, insulated, and ornamented in brick, stone, or terracotta. Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building (1894–1895) in Buffalo, New York, exemplified early attempts to devise a visually coherent solution to a new building type. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the master of the steel and glass skyscraper, pared away visual clutter to express the purity and careful proportions of the steel skeletons, as exhibited in his Seagram Building (1954–1958) in New York City. Other building types were similarly transformed by metal construction, for example Kenzo Tange’s steel tensile suspension design for the National Gymnasium (1961–1964) in Tokyo, Japan.

The rediscovery of concrete as a primary building material and the innovative addition of metal bars to create reinforced concrete structures expanded the scope of modern architecture. Le Corbusier (born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) established his international reputation with machine-age designs like the pristine concrete box of the Villa Savoye (1928–1929), near Paris; and later he led the expressionistic Brutalist movement with the aggressive, roughly finished concrete forms of the Capitol Complex (1950–1965) in Chandigarh, India. The contours and textures of subsequent reinforced concrete buildings ranged from the soaring openness of Jorn Utzon’s Opera House (1956–1973) in Sydney, Australia, to the contemplative enclosure of Tadao Ando’s Koshino House (1979–1981) in Hyogo, Japan.

Over time architects increased their use of glass from the exterior “curtain” (non-load-bearing) walls of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus Building (1925–1926) in Dessau, Germany, to the strut- and mullion-free glazed exterior of Norman Foster’s Willis Faber Dumas Office Building (1975) in Ipswich, United Kingdom.

Some highly successful twentieth-century architects gained respect by adapting modern, universal themes to local conditions and cultures in their work. Among the most noteworthy were Alvar Aalto’s Civic Center (1949–1952) in Saynatsalo, Finland; Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Building (1962–1974) in Dacca, Bangladesh; and Renzo Piano’s Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center (1991–1998) in Noumea, New Caledonia.

Architecture in the 21st Century

Contemporary architectural trends continue to respond to the issues of culture and technology. Like many leading architects, Rem Koolhaas has questioned societal beliefs and institutions in his Netherlands Dance Theater (1987), The Hague. Innovative solutions for structure and interior illumination aided the design of Norman Foster Associates giant Hong Kong Bank (1986) in Hong Kong, China. Tensile membrane structure, such as the Denver (Colorado) International Airport (1994) by C. W. Fentress, J. H. Bradburn & Associates, allows large spaces to be enclosed, while the curving structural steel columns of Beijing’s National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest)—designed for the 2008 Olympics by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron in collaboration with Chinese artist and architect Ai Weiwei— weave a permeable outer layer that can be crossed or even climbed, allowing people to feel absorbed rather than smothered by the enormous structure. Digitized imaging software facilitated the titanium-clad design of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum (1997) in Bilbao, Spain.

In the growing trend of “green” or ecologically sustainable design, designers conserve materials and energy, provide occupants with abundant fresh air and natural light, and carefully manage waste. Among the best-known examples is William McDonough & Associates Offices for Gap, Inc. (1997) in San Bruno, California, with its careful siting, vegetated roof, and other “green” elements. Kenneth Yeang’s Menara Mesiniaga Building (1991) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, connects sustainable design with the local traditions of Southeast Asia.

A third trend is the revival in vernacular traditions that has been building since at least Hassan Fathy’s design for the Village of New Gourna (1945–1948) at Luxor, Egypt. In the United States vernacularism has inspired the pedestrian-friendly “new urbanism” movement publicized by the design of Seaside, Florida (begun 1981), by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.


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