Monday, January 23, 2017


The classical Greek orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.
Note the difference in slenderness between the earliest
(Doric) and latest (Corinthian).
All the current yakking about Washington has got me to thinking about—what else?— classical columns. While they do still show up in designs these days—now and then supporting a porch roof, but more often just a coffee table—you’d never guess that columns once formed the very heart of Western classical architecture.

In ancient Greece and Rome, the design and use of columns was carefully prescribed according to aesthetic laws derived over centuries.  The degree of aesthetic perfection achieved by the Greeks in such examples as the Parthenon is the stuff of legend.  

The Roman architect Vitruvius, who lived during the time of Christ, set forth the design of classical columns into the three Greek “orders”.  Each had its own characteristic design and proportions, as well as the proper degree of “entasis”—the slight bulging of the shaft which suggests tensed muscles carrying a load.    

The Lincoln Memorial sports a "colossal order" of
massive and primitive looking Doric columns.
(Architect: Henry Bacon; completed 1922)
As recently as a century ago, a good part of an architect’s studies were still devoted to a thorough understanding of the classical orders. After all, columns were still the single most important element of monumental architecture.  Try to imagine a city like Washington D.C. without them.

The Doric order is the oldest and most powerful of the three Greek orders.  Stoutly proportioned, lacking a base, and topped with a heavy slab-like capital, it still hints at the column’s ancient ancestors made of wood or bundled reeds.   

The Treasury Building is another, older D.C. landmark,
this one having Ionic orders. Here, the Ionic order's
usual difficulty in "turning the corner"
is avoided by having only one line of columns.
(Architect: Robert Mills; completed 1842)
The more refined Ionic order features two decorative “volutes” (what most of us would call curlicues) on either side of the column’s capital.  This design confounded the perfection-seeking Greeks in one respect, however: when placed on a corner, the side of the volute was exposed, making it difficult to “turn the corner” gracefully. Hence, later Ionic columns placed the four volutes diagonally, giving the column the same appearance from both the front and side.
The Corinthian order, the most ornate of the three, is proportionately taller than the others and features a capital ringed with acanthus leaves and fern fronds, terminating in four miniature volutes.  

The Supreme Court building flaunts the most ornate
of the classical Greek orders, the Corinthian.
Where would D.C. be without columns?
(Architect: Cass Gilbert and Cass Gilbert Jr;
completed 1935)
The Romans, practical fellows that they were, simplified certain details of the Greek orders to reduce their expense.  With the addition of two further orders (Tuscan, which was unfluted, and Composite, a combination of Ionic and Corinthian), these slightly modified designs became known as the Roman orders. 
The classical orders remained well-entrenched in architecture until the arrival of Modernism in the 1930s. The Modernists did not cotton to tradition, no matter how ancient, and they quickly branded classical columns as elitist, representing as they did the architectural establishment and all that was wrong with it.  

A modern-day Tuscan column—one of the
modified Roman orders—executed in
fiberglass-reinforced plastic or FRP.
Today, after an eighty-year hiatus, classical columns are again widely available in wood and cast stone, as well as high-tech materials such as fiber glass. Some are faithful reproductions of the Greek or Roman orders—one manufacturer’s literature even boasts that its reproductions are “based upon Vitruvius”.  There are also many other styles of columns offered, some patterned after Renaissance examples, and others that are just plain inventions. Stay away from extruded aluminum columns, which have no entasis and hence appear stiff and top-heavy.  

Sure, right now classical columns are used mainly for table bases and plant stands.  But after surviving for two thousand years—who knows?

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