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A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris

In classical architecture, the Orders consist of variations of an assembly of parts made up of a column (usually with a base), a capital, and an entablature. These structural units may be repeated and combined to form the elevation of a building and its architectural vocabulary.

There are eight Orders in total: Doric (Greek and Roman versions), Tuscan, Ionic (Greek and Roman), Corinthian (Greek and Roman), and Composite. The simplest is the Tuscan, supposedly derived from the Etruscan-type temple. It has a base and capital and a plain column. The Doric is probably earlier, however, its Greek version having no base, as on the Parthenon. The Ionic Order, with its twin volute capitals, originated in Asia Minor in the mid-6th century B.C.E. The Corinthian Order was an Athenian invention of the 5th century B.C.E. and was later developed by the Romans. The Composite Order is a late Roman combination of elements from the Ionic and Corinthian Orders.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, Michael Clarke, Deborah Clarke. © 2012 Oxford University Press. Available at Oxford Art OnlineAncient Greece

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Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
Architecture's language, and you know 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. And it'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 2500 years. We're basically talking about styles of architecture that that the ancient Greeks have developed mostly for their temples. And you're right, that we've continued to use. And we've got several contemporary examples up along the top. But what's important to remember is that it's just a fancy dressing, really, of a basic, ancient building system. 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 horizontal elements called a lintel. And you know what? We still use this basic system when we nail two by fours [2x4s] together. And that's what the Greeks were doing, but they were doing it in a much more sophisticated way. 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, at the Tuscan and the Composite. So the Doric and Ionic and Corinthian are illustrated here in this diagram. First the Doric, then the Ionic, and then the last two are Corinthian. These are just slight variations of these three orders. And the Doric is really the most simple, the Ionic a little bit more complicated, and then the Corinthian completely out of control. So let's start with the oldest order, the Doric order. Right, we think that this order began in the 7th 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. Let's start at the top, with the pediment. The pediment isn't officially part of the order, but since Greek temples had it in 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 Right, these are gabled roofs. Sometimes they would be filled with sculpture. The next area below the pediment is, actually, officially part of the order, and that's called the entablature. Okay, so that would be the area from about here to here. And the top part of the entablature is called a frieze. Okay, so only this part right here is known as the frieze, so this whole section. Right, and in the Doric order it is decorated in a very specific way, using triglyphs and metopes. Now, actually, if you look at the word "Triglyph", you notice that the prefix is "tri", just like "tricycle", it means "three", and the 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. And then in-between the triglyphs are spaces that are called metopes. And in ancient Greek architecture these were often filled with sculpture. Now, the triglyphs, we don't think they're 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. So if we move down the temple, the next area we come to is the capital. And this is a Doric capital. It's very simple. It's got a flare, and the it's got a simple slab on top. So the Doric is the oldest, most severe, and was associated, according to the ancient Roman architectural historian, Vitruvius, with masculine form. It is broad, it's not tall, and it feels heavy. 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. And if you look closely, you can see that it's 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 a kind of scallop that's been carved out of the surface. And what fluting does, is it creates a nice vertical decorative pattern along the shaft. 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. And you can see that really well in the detail on the lower right, where there's no molding there to make a transition. So let's have a look at what these look like in person. Capitals are up high, so we would never see a person next to them, but I think it's easy to not realise just how big they are. 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 of Athens. 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 of the Parthenon. Right, so this metope here would have actually fit right in one of these squares. Let's talk about one last element that we find in Doric architecture, and that's something called entasis. 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 the column is just as wide as the area directly below the capital. But in fact the ancient Greeks didn't build their temples that way. No, it's fascinating to think about all the ways that the ancient 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 centre. 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 to the top. So that the narrowest point of the column shaft would be right at the top, and the widest part would be about a third of the way from the base. 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. 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, had to be an individual, unique piece. These could not be mass measured and mass produced. Right, so you just used a drum. So the columns are not actually carved from one piece of stone. And if you look very carefully at this photograph, you can just make out the scenes between those drums. There would also have generally been a hole that would have gone through the centre 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 emphasise 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. 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. One last detail. The entasis gives the shaft of the column a sense of almost elasticity, that it is burying the weight of the stone above it. 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 on the Acropolis. This is the Erechtheion. 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. And in fact Vitruvius, the ancient Roman architectural historian, saw this as a more feminine order. It's taller, it's thinner... Now one of the columns from this building in Greece is in the Museum in Lonodon. We have some good photographs of it And you can see the distinguishing 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. They also have bases, they tent 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. 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 an acanthus plant that began to grow, and because the heavy basket with the tile on top was on top, the acanthus leaves grew out to the side. Well, if we look at the Corinthian column, it really does look like that. It looks exactly like that. 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... The volutes. 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 here. And these grow wild, so it makes sense. 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.