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The classical orders

Architecture is a language with its own vocabulary, like the classical orders of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian styles. These styles, developed by ancient Greeks, are the building blocks of Western Architecture. They're based on the post and lintel system, a basic, ancient building system with vertical posts supporting a horizontal lintel. Understanding these styles can help us see architecture everywhere! Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Architecture is a language. And you know how when you learn a new vocabulary word, you start to notice it, for the first time, everywhere? Well, the same thing happens with architecture. When you learn a new architectural form, you start to see it everywhere. DR. BETH HARRIS: And that's especially true of the classical orders. Because these are what are, essentially, the building blocks of Western Architecture. And they've been used for 2,500 years. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're basically talking about styles of architecture that the ancient Greeks had developed mostly for their temples. And you're right, that we've continued to use. DR. BETH HARRIS: And we've got several contemporary examples up along the top. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But what's important to remember is that it's just a fancy dressing, really, of a basic, ancient building system. DR. BETH HARRIS: So we've brought in Stonehenge, to illustrate that ancient, building system called post and lintel architecture. This is the most fundamental, most basic, oldest kind of architectural system. The posts are the vertical elements and they support a horizontal element called a lintel. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And you know what? We still use this basic system when we nail two-by-fours together. And that's what the Greeks were doing. But they were doing in a much more sophisticated way. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right. They developed decorative systems. And that's what we're referring to when we use the term classical orders. There are three basic orders, the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian. There's a couple extra, but we're not going to go into those today. But we've listed them here for you, just so you know what they are, the Tuscan and the Composite. So the Doric and Ionic and Corinthian are illustrated, here, in this diagram. First the Doric, and the Ionic, and then, the last two are Corinthian. These are just slight variations of these three orders. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And the Doric is really the most simple. The Ionic, a little bit more complicated. And then, the Corinthian, completely out of control. DR. BETH HARRIS: So let's start with the oldest order, the Doric order. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right, and we think that this order began in the seventh century, on the mainland in Greece. And we're looking at an actual Greek temple that happens to be in Italy. But nevertheless, is just a great example of the Doric in the classical era. DR. BETH HARRIS: Let's start at the top, with the pediment. The pediment isn't, officially, part of the order. But since Greek temples had, at one end or the other, a pediment, we just thought we would name that for you. And that's that triangular space at the very top of the temple. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. These are gabled roofs. Sometimes they would be filled with sculpture. DR. BETH HARRIS: The next area, below the pediment, is actually, officially part of the order. And that's called the entablature. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: OK, so that would be the area from about here to here. DR. BETH HARRIS: And the top part of the entablature is called the frieze. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: OK, so only this part, right here, is known as the frieze. So in other words, this whole section. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right, and in the Doric order, it is decorated in a very specific way, using triglyphs and metopes. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, actually, if you look at the word triglyph, you'll notice that the prefix is tri. Just like tricycle, it means three. And its suffix, glyph, means mark. So a triglyph, literally, means three marks. And you can see patterns of three marks moving all the way across the frieze. DR. BETH HARRIS: And then, in between the triglyphs are spaces that are called metopes. And in ancient Greek architecture, these were often filled with sculpture. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now the triglyphs we don't think are just arbitrary. We think that they probably came from a time when temples were built out of wood. And these would have been the ends of planks that would have functioned as beams in the temple. And they would have, of course, been supported directly over the columns. You'll notice that every other one, at least, is aligned directly over the columns. DR. BETH HARRIS: So as we move down the temple, the next area we come to is the Capital. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And this is a Doric capital. It's very simple. It's got a flare. And then it's got a simple slab on top. DR. BETH HARRIS: So the Doric is the oldest, and most severe, and was associated, according to the ancient Roman architectural historian, Vitruvius, most masculine form. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It is broad, it's not tall, and it feels heavy. DR. BETH HARRIS: It does. As we continue to move down, we come to the area that we commonly call the column but art historians call the shaft. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And if you look closely, you can see that it is not entirely plain. There are, actually, vertical lines that move across the entire surface known as flutes. Now, in the Doric, a flute is very shallow. And really, what it is, is it's a kind of scallop that's been carved out the surface. DR. BETH HARRIS: And what fluting does is, it creates a nice, vertical, decorative pattern along the shaft. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, one of the other defining features of the Doric order is that, at the bottom of the shaft, there is no decorative foot. The shaft of the column goes straight into the floor of the temple. DR. BETH HARRIS: And you can see that really well in the detail on the lower right, where there is no molding there to make a transition. So let's have a look at what these look like in person. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Capitals are up high so we would never see a person next to them. But I think it's easy to not realize just how big they. But I snapped this terrific picture of you at the British Museum next to a capital that actually comes from the most famous Doric temple, on the Acropolis in Athens. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right, the Parthenon. And they really are massive. And this photo is good, also, for seeing-- in this case, a reconstruction-- but giving you a sense of the entablature with that frieze with triglyphs and metopes. And we've got an example, on the right, of a relief sculpture that was for one of the metopes on the Parthenon. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right, so this metope, here, would have actually fit right in one of these squares. DR. BETH HARRIS: Let's talk about one last element that we find in Doric architecture. And that's something called entasis. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, this is a little tricky. Because I think most people assume that a column is straight up and down. That is, the sides of a column are parallel with each other, and the base of a column is just as wide as the area directly below the capitol. But in fact, the ancient Greeks didn't build their temples that way. DR. BETH HARRIS: No. It's fascinating to think about all the ways that the ancient Greeks are thinking about how to make their buildings beautiful, and speak of the realm of the gods. And so, when we look at an ancient Doric temple, we see that the shafts swell a little bit toward the center. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So right about a third of the way down, they would be at their widest. And it would taper, ever so slightly, towards the bottom, and taper much more so as we move up the top. So that the narrowest point of the column shaft would be right at the top. And the widest part would be about one third of the way from the base. DR. BETH HARRIS: And so, the building has a sense of liveliness that I think it wouldn't have if the column was exactly the same width at the top as at the bottom. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Architectural historians have debated why the Greeks bothered to do this. Because this was expensive. This was difficult. It meant that every drum that makes up this column has to be an individual, unique piece. These could not be mass-measured and mass-produced. DR. BETH HARRIS: So you just used the word drum. So the columns are not, actually, carved from one piece of stone. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And if you look very carefully at this photograph, you can just make out the seams between those drums. They would, also, have generally been a hole that would have gone through the center of each of these pieces. So that a piece of wood, sometimes, would actually string them together, almost like beads on a necklace. One of the other things that entasis does is to emphasize the verticality of the temple. Because they get narrower as they go further up, it seems as if the shaft of the column might actually be taller than it really is. Because of course, as things move away from us, they get smaller in scale. DR. BETH HARRIS: So the Greeks are thinking about human perception. They're thinking about how we see, not just an abstract idea of math and geometry, but actually, human experience, which says something about ancient Greek culture. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: One last detail-- the entasis gives the shaft of the column a sense of, almost, elasticity, that it is bearing the weight of the stone above it. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's really fascinating to think about all of these decisions that the Greeks are making as they build. So let's look at the Ionic order, which emerges shortly after the Doric order. Here's another building of the Acropolis, this is the Erechtheion. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is such a different aesthetic. There's such a sense of delicacy here. There is not that sense of mass, that sense of the muscularity of the buildings that we associate with the Doric. DR. BETH HARRIS: And in fact, Vitruvius the ancient Roman architectural historian, saw this as a more feminine order-- it's taller, it's thinner. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, one of the columns from this building in Greece is in the museum in London. We have some good photographs of it. DR. BETH HARRIS: And you can see the distinguishing feature really is at the top, at the capital, where we see these scroll-like shapes, also known as volutes. We also see a slightly different type of fluting. And we also, importantly see a base. Let's move to the Corinthian order. This looks really different and is the most decorative. And the distinguishing feature here is, again, the capital, where we see leaf-like shapes. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: They also have bases. They tend to be taller than the Doric, just like the Ionic. But they are highly decorative. There's a great myth about the origin of the Corinthian capital. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's a kind of fun story. Of course, we have no idea whether this is true. But the story is that there was a young girl who died. And her possessions were placed in a basket and put on top of her grave. Underneath that basket was a acanthus plant that began to grow. And because the heavy basket with the tile on top was on top, the acanthus leaves grew out the side. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, if we look at a Corinthian column, it really does look like that. DR. BETH HARRIS: It looks exactly like that. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so, it's a great myth, whether or not it's true. So the Corinthian order is the most complex. It includes both the scroll, that we would expect to see in the Ionic. DR. BETH HARRIS: The volutes. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. But also these very complex leaf-like forms, which you can just make out here, which is actually from the acanthus leaf. And we have a photograph of an acanthus leaf right down there. DR. BETH HARRIS: And these grow wild so it makes sense. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: What's important to remember is that the ancient Greeks, although they developed these three classical orders, were just the genesis. The Romans took these ideas over. And then, subsequently, people who've looked back to the classical tradition have borrowed from them yet again. And we still do this today. And there you have it. The Greek orders.