Analysis of Important Themes in Greek Architecture

by ardian

Greek architecture begins with the simple houses of the Dark Age and culminates in the monumental temples of the Classical period and the elaborately planned cities and sanctuaries of the Hellenistic period. As in any time or place, the raw materials available and the technologies developed to utilize them largely determined the nature of the architecture. The principal materials of Greek architecture were wood, used for supports and roof beams; unbaked brick, used for walls, especially of private houses; limestone and marble, used for columns, walls, and upper portions of temples and other public buildings; terracotta (baked clay), used for roof tiles and architectural ornaments; and metals, especially bronze, used for some decorative details. Greek architects of the Archaic and Classical periods used these materials to develop a limited range of building types, each of which served a fixed purpose—religious, civic, domestic, funerary, or recreational.

The principal forms of religious architecture were open-air altars, temples, and treasuries. The altar, the earliest religious structure, always served as the focus of prayer and sacrifices. The temple, which developed in the 8th century BC, housed the statue of a god or goddess to whom the sanctuary was dedicated. The treasury, a small temple-like building, held offerings to gods and goddesses made by city-states and their citizens at sanctuaries such as Olympia and Delphi. Other important public structures were not religious in function. They included the council house, where a governing council met; the law court; the fountain-house, a building where women filled their vases with water from a community fountain; and the stoa, a roofed colonnade or portico, open on one side and often with rooms set along the rear wall. These structures typically lined the principal public gathering place of the city, the agora, an open assembly area or marketplace

Private houses took many forms. Most early dwellings had just one room, in the shape of a rectangle, an oval, or a rectangle with a curved back wall (an apse). Few Greek houses were ever impressive from the outside, because their walls were of relatively flimsy mud-brick or small stones. But when houses expanded into multiple rooms, the interiors could be airy and pleasant, as they were generally organized around a small courtyard. In the Hellenistic period kings and queens had grandiose palaces built at places such as Vergina in Macedonia and Alexandria in Egypt.

The principal forms of funerary architecture were circular earthen mounds covering built tombs, rectangular earthen mounds with masonry facades, and mausoleums (large independent tombs typical of the Late Classical and Hellenistic periods).

Entertainment and recreational activities took place in the open-air theater; the roofed concert hall; the gymnasium, an open field surrounded by rows of columns, where youths met for exercise and intellectual discussion; the wrestling ground; the stadium; and baths. These various building types emerged at different times, but once established, remained fundamental. Like Greek art, Greek architecture consists of essential building types that were enriched and refined over time but rarely abandoned or replaced.

A The Temple

The most characteristic Greek building is the colonnaded stone temple, built to house a cult statue of a god or goddess, that is, a statue to whom people prayed and dedicated gifts. Developed in the Archaic and Classical periods, the typical temple had a rectangular inner structure known as a cella, which was normally divided by two interior rows of columns. The cult statue usually stood at the rear of this room. Most temples faced east, and visitors entered on that side through a colonnaded front porch. The side walls of the cella extended forward onto the porch and two columns stood either between the projecting walls (in antis) or in front of them (prostyle). A back porch gave symmetry to the whole, but was usually cut off from the interior of the cella by a solid wall. Completely surrounding this inner core was a continuous line of columns called a peristyle. The best surviving examples of Greek temples are the Temple of Hephaistos (5th century BC) overlooking the Athenian agora and temples in southern Italy and Sicily from the 6th and 5th centuries.

The origin of the peripteral temple (that is, one surrounded by columns on all sides) is still open to debate. In the Dark Age there was no obvious distinction between a house and a temple. In fact, the dwelling of a community's leader or king probably also served as the focus of religious activity, with sacred objects and the statue of a divinity stored within it. One Dark Age building deserves special mention as a possible predecessor to later temple designs: a 10th-century structure at Lefkandi on the island of Euboea. Archaeological remains show that it was about 45 m (148 ft) long and 10 m (33 ft) wide, with walls made of mud brick set on a base of small stones, and a thatched roof. Its most remarkable feature was an exterior colonnade of wooden posts, which seems to predict the peripteral temples of later eras. But this building was not a temple, and it could not have influenced later architects. It was built over the graves of a hero, his wife, and his horses, and was apparently intentionally destroyed soon after its construction. The Lefkandi hero-shrine is the first monumental structure in the history of Greek architecture, and testifies to the surprising capabilities of Dark Age builders.

The earliest Greek temples looked like large one-room houses. Clay models and remains from a number of 8th-century BC sites indicate that most were rectangular or horseshoe-shaped, with wooden posts or pillars set in a porch at the front ends of the cella walls. But the Temple of Hera (8th century BC) on the island of Sámos was different. It was barnlike, long and narrow, with a single row of columns running down the middle of the cella. Sometime after its initial construction (possibly still during the 8th century BC), a continuous colonnade was added around the cella, making this the earliest truly peripteral temple in Greece. Hereafter, the exterior colonnade became the principal distinguishing feature of most Greek temples.

The first monumental temples of stone were built in the 7th century BC, possibly in emulation of the massive buildings in Egypt that the Greeks would have seen or heard about. Also because of Egyptian influence, the Greeks began to carve monumental stone statues at this time. Another factor leading to greater use of stone may have been the invention of heavy terracotta roof tiles, which needed more support than wood and mud brick could offer. The Temple of Poseidon at Isthmia (early 7th century BC) had a tile roof and was one of the first temples to use cut stone for its walls (its columns were still of wood).

B Architectural Orders

By the end of the 7th century BC, two major architectural styles, or orders, emerged that dominated Greek architecture for centuries: Doric and Ionic. The Doric order developed on the Greek mainland and in southern Italy and Sicily, while the Ionic order developed a little later than the Doric order, in Ionia and on some of the Greek islands. In addition to Doric and Ionic, a third order, the Aeolic, developed in northwestern Asia Minor, but died out by the end of the Archaic period, and a fourth, the Corinthian, emerged late in the 5th century BC.

No matter what order it belonged to, a temple facade was made up of three main parts, the steps, the columns, and the entablature (the part that rested on the columns). Each of these parts also had three parts. There were three steps leading into the temple, the topmost of which was called the stylobate, and each column typically consisted of a base, shaft, and capital. The entablature consisted of an architrave (plain horizontal beam resting on the columns), a frieze, which corresponded to the beams supporting the ceiling, and a cornice, a set of decorative moldings that overhung the parts below.

B1 Doric Order

The Doric order was the simplest and sturdiest of the three orders. Its tapering columns rest directly on the stylobate. Doric columns have no base. Shallow parallel grooves called flutes rise from the bottom to the top of the shaft and emphasize its function as a vertical support. Sharp ridges divide the flutes. At the top of the shaft a fluted ring called the necking provides a transition to the column’s capital. The Doric capital consists of a rounded, cushionlike element called the echinus, and a horizontal square element called the abacus, which bears the load of the building above.

The Doric architrave is a plain beam left undecorated so as not to disguise its function. Above it, the Doric frieze consists of alternating triglyphs and metopes. Triglyphs are thick grooved panels that help support the weight of the structure above. Metopes are thinner panels that do no work in holding up the temple and hence invite decoration in the form of painting or sculpture.

Overhanging the parts below is the decorative cornice molding. Like an eave it helps keep rainwater clear of the building. Above the horizontal cornice a low, pitched roof rises to produce a triangular pediment at either end of the temple. Sculpture fills the pediments of many Doric temples. The simplicity of the Doric order clearly emphasizes the structural function of each part. Originally, paint also enlivened its surfaces. Architectural elements (especially in the entablature) were often painted deep red, yellow-gold, white, or blue.

The oldest well-preserved Doric temple is the Temple of Hera at Olympia (590? BC), although there were temples built earlier in the Doric style. The proportions of this early temple are significant. With 6 columns across the front and back and 16 on each side (counting the corner columns twice), the temple has a ratio of length to width of nearly three to one. As time passed, Greek architects felt these proportions were too elongated. They progressively reduced the temple’s length relative to its width, until by the mid-5th century the ratio was slightly more than two to one. The Parthenon in Athens (447-432 BC), for example, has 17 columns on its sides and 8 on its ends.

The history of the Temple of Hera also hints at the use of wood in early Greek architecture. Although the surviving remains are of limestone, the original columns were of wood and were replaced by stone over a period of centuries as the wood decayed. Many elements of the Doric order may owe their form to wooden prototypes. The three grooves of the triglyphs suggest protective strips attached to the ends of wooden beams. Guttae, which decorate the undersides of the triglyphs, resemble wooden pegs.

Just as the plan of the Greek temple underwent progressive refinement through the centuries, so the Doric order continued to be revised by generations of architects. Whereas at first Doric columns were only about four times as high as their width at the base, by 450 BC the columns were about five and a half or six times as high as their width at the base. This change in proportion, coupled with similar changes to make the entablature look lighter, relieved the massiveness of the oldest buildings and effectively combined grace with strength. The early Doric echinus tended to spread out from the top of the shaft in a soft, rather bulbous curve. Later its curving profile was straightened and strengthened. Each detail of the Doric order received similar attention until, through centuries of experimentation, the order culminated in its most refined example, the Parthenon.

B2 Ionic Order

The Ionic order is distinguished from the Doric primarily by its column and frieze. The Ionic column rests on an elaborate curving base rather than directly on the stylobate. The column shaft usually has deeper flutes and is more slender than the Doric. The height-to-base ratio of early Ionic columns was 8 to 1, compared with a ratio between 4 to 1 and 6 to 1 for Doric columns. The typical Ionic capital has two spiral volutes, elements that resemble partly unrolled scrolls. These straddle a small band at the top of the shaft, usually carved with an elaborate decorative pattern. The Ionic capital looks different from the sides than from the front or back. This difference caused problems in columns that stood at the corners, where volutes had to slant at a 45-degree angle so that their spiral pattern would look the same from the front of the temple as from the sides.

The Ionic architrave, unlike the plain Doric architrave, consists of three narrow bands. The frieze above it is often decorated with sculpture and is continuous, not divided into triglyphs and metopes as in the Doric order. Multiple rows of moldings decorate the Ionic cornice. They are generally carved in more intricate patterns than in Doric entablatures, and may include a row of square “teeth” called dentils.

Over all, Ionic is a more ornamental and graceful style than Doric, but it lacks the clarity and power of the Doric style. As a result, ancient critics regarded the Doric order as masculine and the Ionic as feminine. Even so, architects used the Ionic order not only for small, delicate buildings such as the Treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi (525? BC), but also for more monumental structures. In fact, the first colossal Greek temples were Ionic—the Temple of Hera on the island of Sámos and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (both under construction by about 560 BC). Both featured double rows of Ionic columns, and were gigantic—the temple at Ephesus measured 112 m (366 ft) in length, with columns some 18 m (60 ft) tall. Although Doric and Ionic are often considered mutually exclusive regional styles, some buildings combined features of both orders.

B3 Corinthian Order

The Corinthian order resembles Ionic in most aspects, but Corinthian columns have tall capitals shaped like an upside-down bell and are covered with rows of acanthus leaves and small vinelike spirals called helixes. The first known Corinthian column stood alone inside the cella of the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae (429?-405? BC). Indeed, the Corinthian order was at first used only for columns inside buildings—it did not appear externally until the 4th century BC. Its use in exterior temple colonnades did not become widespread until Roman times.

C The Acropolis

In many ways the Doric and Ionic orders both reached their zenith in the late-5th-century buildings on the Acropolis in Athens. Athenians used both Doric and Ionic styles in many of their buildings, possibly because although Athens was in mainland Greece, where the Doric order was more prevalent, Athenians had settled Ionia.

The Athenian Acropolis is a natural limestone hill that in the Bronze Age was fortified for the city’s defense and in the Archaic period was transformed into a major religious sanctuary. In 480 BC the Persians destroyed the Archaic temples and monuments on the Acropolis, and for decades there was no major construction there. After the Persian Wars ended in 479 BC, Athenian democracy blossomed, its power expanded abroad, and Athens entered a period of great prosperity under the leadership of Pericles. Determined to make Athens the cultural leader of Greece, Pericles undertook one of the more remarkable building campaigns in history, especially considering that the total population of Athens may have numbered no more than 300,000 people.

The campaign centered on the Acropolis and began with the Parthenon (447-432 BC). The Parthenon’s architects were Ictinus and Callicrates, and the temple they designed was unusually large, about 31 by 70 m (102 by 230 ft). Eight columns marked the front and rear facades, and 17 columns ran along each side. The cella had two rooms, east and west, each accessible from a porch. In the larger, eastern room stood a statue of Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin), her flesh covered in ivory, her drapery and armor in solid gold. Made by the sculptor Phidias, she stood nearly 12 meters (40 ft) tall.

The Parthenon was built as a monument to the goddess Athena and to Athens, and testifies to the Athenians' desire to create a monument of unparalleled beauty. The columns were slender and elegant, with a height 5.5 times their diameter. The harmonious proportional relationship of each part to the whole was determined through mathematical formulas. The temple is richly adorned with sculpture—two pediments filled with statues, 92 carved metopes, numerous sculpted roof-ornaments, and a continuous Ionic frieze atop the cella walls of this otherwise Doric building.

The most impressive features of the Parthenon’s design are its many optical refinements. Some scholars believe that architects in ancient Greece made subtle adjustments in their designs to overcome optical illusions that they believed would mar the perfection of their buildings. For example, a long horizontal line, such as the stylobate, appears to sag when many vertical lines (the columns) rest on top of it. To correct for this sag in the middle, the Parthenon’s architects gave the stylobate and other major horizontal lines a slight upward curve. Because of a similar optical illusion, a perfectly straight column may appear to curve inward. To correct for this, architects added a slight swelling in the taper of the columns. Another adjustment was a slight inward tilt of the columns. The corner columns were made slightly thicker than the others to prevent them from seeming spindly when seen against the backdrop of the sky, rather than the building. While such refinements had been used on earlier buildings, what was new was the Parthenon's subtle and vibrant combination of them all.

The Parthenon was only one of the monuments in Pericles’s building program for the Acropolis. On the north side stood an Ionic temple known as the Erechtheum. Among its many sacred objects, the Erechtheum housed the Athenians’ most sacred statue, an ancient wooden image of Athena Polias (the name for Athena as goddess of the city). The Erechtheum was begun in the 430s or 420s and was mostly complete by 405 BC. It is laid out in an unusual asymmetrical plan. A six-columned porch on the eastern facade is mirrored by six engaged Ionic columns on the western facade, which has no porch. Columned porches on the north and south sides are not centered, but are placed toward the western end of the building. The northern porch is larger than that on the south, and awkwardly extends beyond the west side of the building. The southern porch, sometimes called the Porch of the Maidens, has six marble maidens called caryatids that support the entablature in place of columns. The irregular plan of the Erechtheum can probably be explained by a need for it to incorporate several sacred places of worship already on the site.

The Propylaea (437-432 BC) was a monumental structure that served as the main gateway to the Acropolis on its steep western approach. Like the Parthenon, the Propylaea combines the Doric and Ionic orders. Its west and east facades are Doric and recall the proportions of the Parthenon, while Ionic columns line a taller central passageway between them. The architect Mnesicles designed asymmetrical wings to the north and south of the Propylaea’s central block. Perched on a small outcropping just to the southwest of the Propylaea is the Temple of Athena Nike (420s BC), a tiny, elegant, Ionic structure with a richly sculpted frieze and two (mostly lost) pediments.

AeroBubbles commented, on January 11, 2009 at 8:16 p.m.:

This is a word-for-word copy of the MSN Encarta article by J.M. Hurwit, A.B., M.A., Ph.D.. It can be found at:

Rating: Whole StarEmpty StarEmpty StarEmpty StarEmpty Star
Please, login to comment
Email Watch

Copyright © 2003-2022 University Press Inc. All Rights Reserved