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Classical orders

The Classical orders are ancient styles of classical or Neoclassical building design distinguished by the type of column and entablature (architrave, frieze and cornice) used. There are five recognized orders: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian are Greek; Tuscan and Composite are Roman.

Table of contents
1 Parts of a Column
2 Measurement
3 Greek Orders
4 Roman Orders
5 Original Writings
6 Modernist Approaches

Parts of a Column

A column is divided into a shaft, its base and its capital. In classical buildings the upper horizonal part is called an entablature. This entablure is supported by the column. The entablature is commonly divided into the architrave, the frieze and the cornice. To distinguish between the different Classical orders, the capital is used as the most distinct characteristics.

A complete column and entablature consist of a number of distinct parts. At the bottom there is the stylobate. The stylobate is a flat pavement on which the columns are placed. Out of the stylobate comes the plinth. The plinth is a square block sometimes circular which forms the lowest part of the base. Further up comes the remainder of the base: one or many circular moldings with profiles. Common examples are the torus, the scotia, fillets or bands. The torus is a semi-circular convex molding, while the scotia has a concave profile.

On top of the base, the shaft is placed. The shaft is cylindrical in shape and both long and narrow. It is placed vertically atop the base. The shaft sometimes decorated with fluting. Fluting are vertical grooves. Sometimes the shaft is wider at the bottom than at the top.

The capital comes on top of the shaft. The function of the capitcal is to concentrate the wight of the entablature onto the shaft, but it also serves an aesthetic purpose. The simplest form of the capital is the Doric, consisting of three parts. The necking is the continuation of the shaft, but is vusually seperated by one or many grooves. The echinus lies atop the necking. It is a circular block that bulges outwards towards the top. This is so in order to support the abacus. The abacus is the third part of a Doric capital. It is a square block that supports the entablature which lies above.

The entablature consists of three horitontal layers, all of which are visually separated from each other using moldings or bands. The three layers of the entablature have distinct names: the architrave comes at the bottom, the frieze is in the middle and the cornice lies on the top.


Columns are measured in a ratio. The ratio is the diameter of the shaft at its base compared to the height of the column. As a result, a column can be described as seven diameters high. Sometimes this is given as seven lower diamaters high, in order to make sure which part of the shaft has been measured.

Greek Orders

There are two distinct orders in ancient Greek architecture: Doric and Ionic. These two were adopted by the Romans, as was the Corinthian order. The Corinthian capital, however, was modified by the Romans. The adaption of the Greek orders took place in the 1st century BC. The three ancient Greek orders have since been used in Western architecture, both ancient and modern.

The origin of the Doric and the Ionic order is not different in time. Whilst the Doric order appeared on the shores of the Aegan Sea, the Doric order appeared on the Greek mainland. The Phoenician and Egyptian adapted the Ionic capital. Sometimes the Doric order is mistakingly considered as the earlier order.

Both the Doric and the Ionic order have existed before in wood. The tample of Hera in Olympia is the oldest well-preserved temple of Doric architecure. It was built just after 600 BC. The Doric order later spread across Greece and into Sicily where it was the chief order for monumental architecutre for 800 years.

Doric Order

The Doric order originated on the mainland and western Greece. It is the simplest of the orders, characterized by short, faceted, heavy columns with plain, round capitalss (tops) and no base. With only four to eight diameters in height, the columns are the most squat of all orders. The shaft of the Doric order is channeled with 20 flutes. The capital consists of a necking which is of a simple form. The echinus is convex and the abacus is square.

Above the capital is a square abacus connecting the capital to the entablature. The Entablature is divided into two horizontal registers, the lower part of which is either smooth or divided by horizontal lines. The upper half is distinctive for the Doric order. The frieze of the Doric entablature is divided into triglyphs and metopes. A triglyph is a unit consisting of three vertical bands which are seperated by grooves. Metopes are plain or carved reliefs.

The Greek forms of the Doric order come without an indivudual base. The instead are placed directly on the stylobate. Later forms, however, came with the conventional base consiting of a plinth and a torus. The Roman versions of the Doric order have smaller proportions. As a result the appear lighter than the Greek orders.

Ionic Order

The Ionic order came from eastern Greece. It is distinguished by slender, fluted pillars with a large base and two opposed volutes (also called scrolls) in the echinus of the capital. The echnius itself is decorated with an egg- and- dart motif. The Ionic shaft comes with four more flutes than the Doric counterpart (totalling 24). The Ionic base has two convex moldings called tori which are separated by a scotia.

The Ionic order is also marked by a entasis, a little bulge in the columns. A column of the ionic order is nine lower diameters. The shaft itself is eight diameters high. The architrave of the entablature commonly consists of three stepped bands (fasciae). The frieze comes without the Doric triglyph and metope. Thefrieze sometimes comes with a continuous ornament such as carved figures.

Corinthian Order

The Corinthian order is the most ornate of the Greek orders, characterized by a slender fluted column having an ornate capital decorated with acanthus leaves. It is commonly regarded as the most elegant of the five orders. The most distinc characteristics is the striking capital. The capital of the Corinthian order is carved with two rows of leaves and four scrolls.

The shaft of the Corinthian order has 24 lutes which are sharp- edged. The column is commonly ten diameters high.

Designed by Callimachus, a Greek sculptor of the 5th century BC. The oldest known building to be built according to the Corinthian order is the monumnet of Lysicrates in Athens. It was built in 335 to 334 BC. The Corinthian order was raised to rank by the writing s of the Roman writer Vitruvius in the 1st century BC.

Roman Orders

The Romans adapted all the Greek orders and also developed two orders of their own, basically modification of Greek orders. The Romans also invented the superimposed order. A superimposed order is when successive stories of a building have different oders. The heaviest orders were at the bottom, whilst thelightest came at the top. This means that the Doric order was the order of the ground floor. The Ionic order was used for the middle storey, while the Corinthian or the Composite order was used for the top storey.

The Colossal order was invented by architects in the Renaissance. The Colossal order is charachterized by columns that extend the height of two or more stories.

Tuscan Order

The Tuscan order has a very plain design, with a plain shaft, and a simple capital, base, and frieze. It is a simplified adaption of the Doric order by the Romans. The Tuscan order is characterized by an unfluted shafte and a captial that only consist of an echinus and an abacus. In proportions it is similar to the Doric order, but overall it is significantly plainer. The column is normally seven diameters high. Compared to the other orders, the Tuscan order looks the most solid.

Composite Order

The Composite order is a mixed order, combining the volutes of the Ionic with the leaves of the Corinthian order. Until the Renaissance it was not ranked as a seperate order. Instead it was considered as a late Roman form of the Corinthian order. The column of the Composite order is ten diameters high.

Original Writings

The writings of Vitruvius are the only architectural works by Greek or Roman writers that survived the Middle Age. His handbook De Architecura was written for Roman architects. It was rediscovered in the 15th century. After this discovery Vitruvius was instantly hailed as the authority on classical orders and architecture in general.

Architects of the Renaissance and the Baroque period in Italy based their rules on Vitruvius' writings. What was added was rules for superimposing the classical orders and the exact proportions of the orders down to the most minute detail.

Modernist Approaches

Later the rules of the Renaissance and the Baroque period were disregarded and the original use of the orders was revived, often hailed as the 'correct' use of the orders. Many architects, however, used the Classical orders at their freedom.

In the 20th century the orders have often become ornaments and commonly been regarded as superfluous in modernist architecture. Instead columns of steel and reinforced concrete were used.