London’s architecture is like an enormous open-air museum showcasing the city’s fascinating history. Here’s how to identify the key styles.

 

A major settlement on London’s ground dates back to at least Roman times. Since then, the city has seen fires, wars and revolutions. Built then rebuilt and built again once more, the result is an amazingly rich collection of overlapping styles.

 

The perfect four

Before we dive into the history — from medieval to modern — here are four London landmarks which show just how diverse and interesting the city’s architecture is.

 

The OXO Tower

The architect wanted to advertise the famous beef extract in electric lights, but after being refused permission, spelt it out in windows – which the authorities could do nothing about! Take brunch in the 8th floor and check out the well-stocked (pun intended) craft shops down below.


The Shard

309 metres above street level, you can see for 40 miles, and as the viewing galleries are open to the public, it’s a naturally popular spot. Controversial at first, Londoners are now getting used to their pointy wonder.


Marble Arch

The sculptures on the North side include representations of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Richard Westmacott. On the South are Roman and Greek inspired sculptures by Edward Hodges Baily, who is better known for the sculpture of Nelson atop his column.



St Paul’s Cathedral

Designed by Christopher Wren, who was inspired by Renaissance styles and Italian architecture. St Paul’s Cathedral is Baroque in style and the dome is based on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Built on the highest hill in London, it has been a part of the landscape since its completion in 1710.




Architectural Styles

Medieval (1066–1485)

Very little remains London’s Medieval architecture, yet there are a few notable exceptions. One is the well-known Tower of London. Construction of the white central tower was begun by William the Conqueror in 1066, while the walls and other buildings were added over the following centuries. 


Tower of London, one of the few Medieval buildings left in the city


Repute of the Tower of London rapidly spread far and wide. The building has hosted Guy Fawkes and the Kray twins, among others. 

How to spot it:

Strong stone walls and four spired domes

Tudor and Elizabethan (1485–1603)

During this period, Britain began to develop its own identity and expand its empire. As with Medieval architecture, only the grandest of buildings from this period survive, but they take that grandness to brand new levels. Hampton Court Palace and St James’s Palace date from this period - both were both built by Henry VIII, and remain as impressive now as they were back then.


Hampton Court Palace, built for Henry VIII


If you’re on the hunt for some everyday Tudor architecture, head over to the Staple Inn on High Holborne, which dates back to 1585. You’ll see the distinctive half-timber beams and definite signs of age in its sagging form.

How to spot it:

Castle-like features (turrets and towers) in larger brick buildings

Black and white exteriors with visible timber frames

 

Georgian (1714–1837)

The Georgian period covers the reigns of George I–IV. It was a period that encompassed the Industrial Revolution, and signs of mass production are everywhere in buildings dating from this period, from wrought iron fences to windows, doors and fittings. 


Many of London’s terraced buildings – both residential and commercial – were built in the Georgian period. One of the world’s most famous terraced homes, 10 Downing Street, is typical of the style: ordered and symmetrical and with a door opening straight onto the street.


National Gallery, a clear Greek influence


Larger buildings and monuments follow the symmetrical pattern, and borrow heavily from ancient Greek and Roman styles: think columns and light stone. Buckingham Palace, the National Gallery and Wellington Arch are all typically Georgian.

How to spot it:

Fan-shaped windows above the front door

Symmetrical design with tall windows

Greek/Roman influence in larger stone buildings

Victorian (1837–1901)

Hot on the heels of the Georgian period came the Victorian era. It was another time of massive growth in London, and hundreds of thousands of Victorian terraced houses still line the capital’s streets.


The Royal Albert Hall continues the Classical Roman influence


Much of the Georgians’ obsession with Greek and Roman architecture continues in the large Victorian civic buildings, making it hard to pinpoint their age. The Royal Albert Hall is proudly Victorian, as is the Victoria and Albert Museum. Yet the Victorians also loved a bit of Gothic, and you need look no further than the Houses of Parliament for evidence.

How to spot it:

Two- or three-storey terraced houses, generally smaller than Georgian homes

Geometric patterns incorporated into brickwork

Bay windows in terraces, with a small front garden

Chequerboard floor tiling on pathways and in halls

Modern (1901–present)

The word “modern” doesn’t help much, but it describes a time when the rulebook was thrown out and architects spread their wings. World War II left acres of space for new homes and offices, and the pressing need to rebuild the capital led to many concrete structures going up. Some fell into the “Brutalist” category, where exposed concrete in windowless blocks is the key look. The Barbican Centre is a good example.


BT Tower, the beginning of a big changes to the skyline


From the 1950s to the 1970s, Londoners started reaching for the skies, with dozens of concrete blocks of flats being built around the suburbs. The city centre started getting a higher skyline, too. Examples include the BT tower (1964); the Natwest Tower (1980, now called Tower 42); One Canada Square (1991); The Gherkin (2003); and The Shard (2012), currently the UK’s tallest building (and Europe’s, if you exclude Moscow).


London Underground’s Art Deco style


The Modern period includes genres like Art Deco (1920s and 30s), with its ancient Egyptian undertones and long, parallel features and curves. Broadcasting House, Battersea Power Station and many of the London Underground stations follow this style, but there remain plenty of Art Deco cinemas, although they’re now often converted into churches, bingo halls, restaurants and shops.

How to spot it:

Extensive steel, concrete and glass on show

Residential properties higher than four storeys

Unique buildings, not following a template


Why not check these buildings out yourself? You can travel to London easily with Virgin Trains.

Back to London

Related posts:

Be bound for glory

7 useful things to do on the train to Uni

By order of the Peaky Blinders

Soho guide hub image

The Londoner's Guide to Soho

Why Coventry shouldn't be overlooked