What Defined 19th-century European Architecture?

The connection between design and engineering in 19th-century architecture is more apparent than one might think.

Aug 8, 2023By Nicola Van Der Merwe, BSc Architecture and Design



During the 19th century, advancements in engineering techniques boomed, while simultaneously the idea of design in the architectural world rapidly evolved. Architectural theorists such as AWN Pugin and Nicolas-Louis Durand played an important role in connecting the disciplines of good design and good construction. Their theories showcased new ideas and notions that were never seen before in the architectural world. Simultaneously, the gap between design and construction was bridged through works made by Henri Labrouste and Joseph Paxton. Their projects showed that new construction techniques had a place in architecture and could be united with design.


19th-Century Architecture and Religion

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AWN Pugin (1812-1852), via The Pugin Society


The English architect, designer, and critic, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) is best known as a pioneer of the Gothic revival. Though he had a short life, he managed to influence the field of 19th-century architecture in numerous ways. He designed a vast number of parish churches, decoration pieces, and furniture. He also contributed to the design of the Houses of Parliament.


He also started promoting attitudes about the honesty of materials and structure. Pugin was very critical of the social exploitations of the industrial revolution. He longed for a return to the pre-reformation Christian values and architectural forms that had a Faith-based function. Pugin’s theories are often viewed as those that focused on a religious tone in architecture. Because of this, some people believed that he fell behind in scientific and industrial expansion. Pugin rather aimed to discover a new meaning for art while creating principles in design. He wanted to change the course of England’s destitute style of architecture and decoration.


Pugin was confronted with the architect’s dilemma himself through his own architectural principles, the essence of which were beauty, propriety, and truthfulness. Apart from his architectural career, he also published many books and writings. One of the more famous ones is titled The true principles of pointed Christian Architecture. He stated that the language of 19th-century architecture should be established around concepts of purpose, advancement of construction, and most importantly, utility.

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19th century architecture augustus pugin the grange
Exterior of AWN Pugin’s residence The Grange, via Kent Online


Pugin negated the division between art and construction in his Gothic turn. Instead of being in old-fashioned opposition to the increasing industrialization of the century, he searched for unity between aesthetic and moral excellence. However, he still acknowledged the rationality of the technological advances in late Enlightenment-era England.


Pugin’s major buildings include his family home called The Grange and the St. Augustine’s Church, both designed between 1843-1844 in Ramsgate, Kent. Pugin’s home and the church present his views on 19th-century architecture in a simple way. His house has a conspicuous exterior made up of steep roofs, a noticeable tower, and irregular brickwork. St Augustine’s church, positioned in the complex of his house, is an even more noteworthy building with its black flint cladding and stained-glass windows. The use of brownstone is also interesting. It accentuates the walls and windows, contrasting the dark exterior. Pugin’s dedication to designing his own home and the adjoining church according to his architectural ideals shows his dedication to his views on 19th-century architecture.


19th Century Architecture and Construction 

19th century architecture jean nicolas louis durand architect
Portrait of Durand as Professor at the École Polytechnique, via Wikiwand


The work of architect and theorist Jean Nicolas Louis Durand (1760-1834) focuses on many dilemmas found in architecture. It looks at the relationship between specific and universal, conceptual and tangible, and art and construction. Durand was born in Paris. He worked under several influential architects and civil designers. Notably, he worked with Jean-Rodolphe Perronet who designed the Pont de la Concorde in Paris. Durand himself became a professor of Architecture in 1795 at the École Polytechnique. His lectures greatly influenced many architects and scholars of his time. They were published and spread across countries. This way he could share his thoughts and ideas on a revolutionary new system of design.


In his theories on architecture, he described a system of simplified and repetitive elements, anticipating the industrialization of building and construction. He tried to find a common ground between art and construction by developing a set of basic principles which would define a building. According to Durand, a diversion from pre-existing principles happened as architecture evolved and needed to be redefined in the new century.

19th century architecture durand procedural design methods
Durand’s ensemble des édifices, via Researchgate


For Durand, the fundamental elements of architecture were the elements that were found in any type of building, regardless of its genre or era. He called these the éléments des édifices (building elements) and the ensemble des édifices (set of buildings). These terms individually comprise elements such as columns, slabs, vaults, walls, and openings. Additionally, the combination of these elements turns them into porches, stairs, and courts that ultimately produce a building.


Durand’s method starts with a simple geometric scheme which gradually evolves into the final structure through the éléments des édifices and the ensemble des édifices. Before Durand, there wasn’t anyone who proposed the idea that a building’s design is the result of a rational approach in such a forthright manner. The ultimate connection of these physical components is what unites two ideas: one of a building seen as a construction and the other, the idea of a building seen as a piece of architectural design.


Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve by Henri Labrouste (1801-1875)

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Henri Labrouste (1801-1875), via Ribapix


The Parisian-born architect Pierre-François-Henri Labrouste showed great promise in Architecture from a young age. He won the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome when he was only 23. Due to this success, he went on to spend five years in Italy where he studied Roman construction. During this time, he was confronted with the theories of Jean Nicolas Louis Durand which influenced his approach to design and philosophy throughout his career.


At the close of his own studio in 1856, the Encyclopédie d’architecture (architecture encyclopedia) noted his design approach as the idea that in the design of buildings, the form should also be suitable and subordinated to function and that decoration should be born of construction expressed with artistry.


Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the way Labrouste unified art and construction is the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Built in 1851, this Parisian library gears towards utilitarian and organizational practicality, a notion that dates back to Labrouste’s time.


19th century architecture bibliotheqe saint genevieve labrouste
Interior of the Bibliothéque Sainte-Geneviéve, via Researchgate


Labrouste created a new type of architecture. He reduced the building’s outward appearance to that of a simple rectangular container, showing structure by leaving the cast-iron columns that separate the interior exposed. The design choice of these columns was a direct consequence of the structural considerations Labrouste had to make. He considered a row of stone or marble columns carrying arches but concluded that these would not be strong enough. Instead, he chose to rely on the thin columns as bearing points in the center of the space. This in turn allowed air and light to circulate in every direction.


When looking at this example, the connection between the building seen as art and construction is clear. This is supported by the fact that the new Bibliothéque Sainte-Geneviéve became one of the earliest public buildings to house a gas-lighting system. Labrouste in turn used this design opportunity to develop a symbolic meaning of the library using light.


The Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton (1801-1865)

19th century architecture crystal palace joseph paxton
Interior of the Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton (1850), via Researchgate


Sir Joseph Paxton was another pioneer who bridged the gap between art and construction in 19th-century architecture. Born in Bedfordshire, England he worked as a landscaper, botanist, and designer of greenhouses. He designed one of the most famous greenhouse structures called the Crystal Palace.


In 1850, his design for the Great Exhibition in London was approved. Using prefabricated elements of iron and glass, the palace was built in just six months. It was only later that the stylistic impact of the Crystal Palace was acknowledged. The design was imitated across Europe and the Americas. The building was moved to Sydenham in 1854 in order to be used as a museum and concert hall. It was damaged by fire in 1936. Ultimately, it was demolished in the 1940s in order not to attract enemy planes that were flying in the sky. Paxton became a knight for creating his revolutionary design in 1851.


The Crystal Palace had specific environmental considerations which influenced its construction and overall design. The mechanical abilities of the iron structure and the properties of glass which Paxton used in a variety of ways helped his attempt to use the glasshouse as a way to restore the wellness of the human environment in the midst of 19th-century industrialization and cities ridden with poor hygiene, minimal daylight, pollution, and overcrowding.


Uniting Art and Construction Through 19th Century Architecture

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Digitally rendered recreation of the Crystal Palace exterior, via Behance


As a result of the works of Pugin, Durand, Labrouste, and Paxton, the architect’s dilemma, which consists of a choice between being an artist or an engineer, ultimately merged with the engineer’s tradition of using new materials. As a result of the industrialization process of the nineteenth century, the limits of what a building could be was rapidly expanded. There were new opportunities for architects who made fresh designs and innovative concepts. This allowed for the unification of art with engineering in the end and its products were seen in 19th-century architecture.

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By Nicola Van Der MerweBSc Architecture and DesignNicola is an architecture student from a small university town in South Africa, currently studying at the University of Pretoria. Her passion for research and writing stems from years before her studies, recently pivoting to the field of architectural history. Her interests include Classical and Baroque architecture, as well as the Modern Movement. Apart from studying and writing, she holds a Grade 8 Piano qualification and is still an active musician and music teacher.