History of architecture
Brief conceptual history of real-world architectural eras
The history of architecture is obviously a complex topic that spans entire libraries across thousands of years. So our goal is not to cover every building style, but instead here we focus on broad themes for interpreting architecture -- how to "read" and understand a building.
We will compare these ideas against the application of architecture in level design, with heavy implications for worldbuilding, storytelling, layout, blockout, and art passing.
Ooof this one is gonna take a long time to finish, if ever.

Antiquity / Medieval (9000 BC - 1500 AD)


The relatively few cities that existed were much smaller, 100,000-300,000 people at most. The biggest mega cities had maybe a million people (Rome, Nanjing, Baghdad) at their height.


Most of what's left of "ancient architecture" are big ruins made of bare stone, but this doesn't reflect how ancient people actually lived.
Throughout most of the pre-modern world, the average person lived in plain tents, huts, hovels, and houses made of a combination of rough stone, straw, mud, brick, and wood -- such vernacular architecture was designed and built by local artisans with local materials, using time-tested techniques passed through oral tradition and living memory. This vernacular architectural tradition still continues around the world, and in many ways, this "ancient" construction outperforms modern construction because it reflects thousands of years of human knowledge surviving in a specific region.


Basics of: stone arch, bricks, timber + joint, foundation


Sculpture, especially carved stone or wood / modeled from clay, was much more common than today. Pottery was very important to protect food from weather, insects, and rodents. For day-to-day decoration, common people had access to earthen paint colors made from local materials and fabrics with woven patterns. Medieval European monarchs brought colorful tapestries, tablecloths, and precious plates to decorate their residences as they toured around their lands.
Upper class people and governments could afford rare paint colors, glittering mosaics, large murals, and expensive glazed tile / brick. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian buildings, and many medieval European buildings, were originally polychrome -- richly decorated with a variety of bright painted colors as well as inlays with precious stones and metals. Ancient people did not walk around bleached marble columns, as modern neoclassical architecture (wrongly?) imitates today. The ancient past was colorful!
Assassin's Creed Odyssey features a reconstruction of ancient Athens with heavy use of polychrome; notice heavy use of paint and metals


Architecture was not an "art" to "study", and anyway books were rare and most people didn't know how to read. Instead, architecture was primarily a set of norms passed through local builders and craftspeople, who routinely designed buildings without thinking of themselves as architects n a vernacular tradition.
The sophistication of construction does not neatly correlate with time nor proximity to Europe. Early medieval (~500-1000) Northern European builders lost many ancient Roman techniques and basically forgot how to make bricks and tiles. Meanwhile, architects in Song Dynasty China (960-1279) were learning about complex wood joints from building manuals like Yingzao Fashi (1100), ensuring strong continuity across centuries of Chinese architecture. Stone masons in the late medieval Inca Empire (1438-1533) built massive precisely-cut stone walls with no mortar, far more impressive than the "incapable" walls built by the colonial Spanish.


Large monumental structures imply a culture or society that was powerful enough to muster the resources and labor to construct it. Big buildings symbolize power and stability.
Pre-modern monumental stone architecture is a special case. Large quarried stones are very heavy and difficult to move. To cut, shape, haul, and place all these stones, a society needs either sophisticated infrastructure and technology (roads, wheels, cranes, mechanical engines) or a lot of labor (historically, slaves).
The Great Wall of China, Pyramids of Giza, Machu Picchu, any large medieval European cathedral or castle -- all of these huge monumental stone structures were built at a mindboggling human cost with thousands upon thousands of laborers, made possible only by a social system of slavery or feudalism.

Building ancient / pre-modern levels

When building levels set in an ancient or early pre-modern time period:
  • (Materials)
  • (Structure) Most buildings should be 1-3 floors high. Wood buildings can be taller, stone and brick buildings are lower.
  • (Ornament) Decorate surroundings and use color, especially with paint and cloth, even for common housing. Different regions have different plant and mineral resources, which lead to different colors. But no matter what, avoid empty desolate stone ruins, unless you're actually indicating an older period of settlement within the game world.
  • (Craft) Most buildings should feel imperfect and unplanned, because professional architects were relatively rare and city planning was reserved mostly for military (castles, forts) or governments (administrative cities, royal residences, religious elite).
  • (Labor) Large compounds or structures imply a powerful society or owner. In the absence of magic or automation, large stone structures imply a society relying on forced labor.
    • As an exercise for the reader, we won't address whether capitalism is also a system of forced labor.

Early Modern / Renaissance

Capital-A "Architecture" was arguably invented in 1485 when Italian renaissance architect Leon Batista Alberti published "De re aedificatoria" ("On The Art of Building"), modeled after the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius' manual "De architectura" (circa 15 BC). As part of the Italian Renaissance, Alberti argued for a return to ancient Greco-Roman art and culture, and argued that architecture was a prestigious fine art based on mathematical proportion. This is essentially the basis of our modern understanding of capital-A "Architecture" today -- where a professional architect devises a plan, and a supposedly lesser-skilled builder merely implements the plan.


The importance of layouts is a Renaissance / early Modern idea, and the importance of blockouts is fundamentally a modernist idea.
The architect Louis Sullivan famously argued in an article "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered" (1896) that a boxy industrial office building had its own beauty that was timeless and universal -- that "form follows function."
Another architect Adolf Loos took this a step further, and wrote an essay "Ornament and Crime" (1910) who argued wasteful details were not just ugly, but morally wrong. Loos uses a weird racist / fascist logic here, comparing "uncivilized" peoples' decorative cultures to a supposedly evolutionarily superior European future. (We don't recommend reading his actual essay.)


Brutalism has a reputation of being cold and authoritarian. (Wolfenstein reboot) But what if we can reclaim brutalism as a humanistic architecture, since it symbolizes the last time Western governments invested deeply in social housing? (Control) https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2018-10-23-how-brutalism-has-shaped-games

Further reading on architecture

  • The Architectural Imagination is a free online introductory course to the history of architecture, run by the Harvard Graduate School of Design. It is popular and recommended among industry level designers, though it seems the ideas rarely survive in the final AAA product.