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Classical architecture has had long-reaching impacts on Western building styles. In this lesson, we’ll explore some of the definitive traits of Classical architecture and see what distinguishes this style.

Classical Architecture

When the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan began developing some of America’s first skyscrapers, he was working basically without precedent.

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There weren’t a lot of other skyscrapers to look at, so it was hard to know how to make an aesthetically pleasing structure of this type. So what did he do? He looked at temples from ancient Greece. Greek temples are a great deal shorter than skyscrapers, but Sullivan had good reasons for doing this. The artistic forms of ancient Greece and Rome, which we call the Classical civilizations, set the foundations for Western aesthetics that define our tastes in music, art, and architecture to this day.

So let’s get to know Classical architecture a little bit better. Its legacy may play a larger role in your life than you realize.

Evaluating a Structure

The ancient Greeks built a lot.

The ancient Romans built even more. Obviously, we’re not going to have time to discuss all of it, but we can talk about the defining features of Classical architecture, starting with the criteria for a great structure. Architecture was one of the most important arts to the Classical civilizations, and it was tightly protected through strict rules. The most basic set of these rules is the three components necessary for a great structure as outlined by the Roman architect Vitruvius.

The Vitruvian Triad, as outlined by the Roman architect Vitruvius, defines the three elements of great architecture: solidness, usefulness, and beauty, or venustas, utilitas and firmitas in Latin. Keep those in mind as we move forward.

The Overall Aesthetic

Combined, Vitruvius’ three components created a unique aesthetic that defines Classical architecture. At its most basic, the Classical aesthetic is defined by symmetry, rational order, and calm logic. Architecture is meant to inspire boldness, but also humility, contemplation, and intellect; qualities prized by the Classical civilizations.So, how do you make a building feel logical? In a word: math.

The Greeks believed that perfection could be represented through mathematic equations, which were then translated into architectural forms. Every element of a structure exists in direct mathematical relationship to the other parts. The foundation for this was the golden ratio, in which the ratio between two objects is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two, a ratio of 1.

618.Yes, this sounds complex, but the golden ratio is found consistently throughout nature, and even throughout you. Yes, many parts of your body relate to each other through the golden ratio. In fact, the equations used to judge the height, width, and depth of a Classical structure were based on the golden ratio within the human form.

A mathematically ideal human body was the basic unit on which Classical architecture was proportioned.

Architectural Elements

Now that we’ve gotten the math out of the way, let’s talk about the actual elements of a Classical structure. Perhaps most iconic of all is the column.

A column is a support structure that holds the weight of the ceiling. Columns are very important parts of Classical structures, especially in the façade, or front. This was, visually, the most important part of the building, and was often filled with reliefs and statues.The Greeks built almost exclusively in vertical columns and flat roofs, but the Romans took architecture one step further. By using arches, they reduced the number of support columns and allowed for more spacious interiors. The arch is one element of Classical architecture that is uniquely Roman, not Greek. Roman architects used strong materials that were lighter than stone, like concrete, to create large arches and domes that dispersed weight and reduced the need for interior support structures.

Architectural Orders

By now, it should be pretty apparent that the Greeks and Romans took architecture very seriously, and didn’t leave any of it to chance. Everything was carefully planned, and as a result, architectural styles remained fairly consistent over long periods of time. In fact, all Classical architecture is traditionally grouped into one of three architectural orders, as defined by Vitruvius, Rome’s most important architect. These orders are defined purely by aesthetics.

Remember, all buildings had to be solid, useful, and beautiful. Since the façade is where emphasis was placed, we see difference between the orders in the columns and the entablature, the structure above the columns, at the front of the temple.The oldest order is the Doric order. Doric temples featured columns with no base, and simple, convex capitals, or top pieces. Above the columns was a horizontal band called a frieze, covered in alternating patterns of triglyphs and metopes (flat, smooth stone). This pattern is believed to represent the wooden beams of Greek temples used prior to the development of stone architecture.The next Classical order is the Ionic order.

Ionic temples had taller columns, which featured a small bulge called the entasis. The entasis served as an optical illusion, making the columns look straight and not as if they get narrower near the top, the way your eye would naturally perceive it. Ionic capitals feature four scrolls, one at each corner, and the entire column sits on a circular base.

The final Classical order is the Corinthian order. Corinthian columns also feature the entasis and sit on a base. The capital of the Corinthian column is the most ornate, with flowers and leaves protruding in every direction. You will occasionally see composite orders that combine elements of each, notably the Tuscan and Composite styles, but only the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian were formally recognized as the Classical styles by Vitruvius.

The aesthetic they help produce has defined our conceptions about architectural beauty to this day.

Lesson Summary

The Classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome took architecture very seriously. According to the Roman architect Vitruvius, all structures must be solid, useful, and beautiful, a combination called the Vitruvian Triad.

This was achieved mathematically with the golden ratio, ubiquitously found throughout nature. The golden ratios of the human body were the basis for the ideal proportions of a Classical temple. Classical architecture can be divided into three main architectural orders, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, each of which is primarily characterized by a different façade, the visual emphasis of Classical structures. These styles may have been created millennia ago, but they form the basis for Western concepts of architectural beauty. It’s a legacy that is literally surrounding you to this day.

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