Classical Greek & Roman Architecture

Classical Greek & Roman Architecture

  • Posted on: May 8, 2014

I have a love of design for the built environment. I love the creation of something to be lived in, the discovery of how individuals interact with places, the art of merging the built environment with the natural environment, the transformational aspect of the construction process whereby creative ideas are converted into physical structures, and the opportunity to be a part of creating something beautiful.

And I am grateful for the opportunity to be involved in designing and building places. I like the word “places”, because it speaks to both the built object and the human purpose behind that object, the reason for it having been built. For example, a house is a structure, built to be a person’s home. There is something fundamentally rewarding to me to be involved in the design and construction of a custom home, because of that concept of place. I love the beauty of the completed structure and the way everything was designed along the way to make it “your” home. It’s conceptual and intimate in one sense, and in another sense tangible and public.

As a result, I also enjoy architectural history. I enjoy the casual study of architectural styles, the concepts underpinning those styles and the evolution of a style and from one style to another. Occasionally someone asks me about a particular architectural style and I attempt to give them my best explanation of some of the defining elements of that style, perhaps some notable examples, and why those things mattered. Mind you, this is a hobby of mine (I’m a devotee, not a scholarly expert). Not to mention, I can’t always remember all of the details that ought to be included in such explanations… Nonetheless, to my surprise these conversations often cause the inquirer to be fascinated by some aspect of the story.

So, I am inspired to write a series of articles – for a general audience – sharing with you some basic information about various architectural styles and a bit of the history behind them. My hope is that, like the conversations I’ve had with others, you too may find something fascinating in these articles. I begin today with an introduction to ancient architecture, which in many ways laid the foundation for architectural styles that we might see around us today.

Ancient architecture, at least from a western perspective, is perhaps most recognizable in the classical Greek and Roman forms. The Greeks developed an architectural style noted for its symmetry, the use of the column as a supportive element and a beam (the “entablature”) across the top of the column that added mass and supported a roof structure. These elements sound very basic, but the Greeks refined them with great attention to the details – the patterns in the symmetry, the shape of the columns, the details carved into the entablature, the pitch of the roof structure and the embellishments at the gable ends of the roof structure (called the “pediment”). This involved trial and error, advanced mathematics, engineering and art.

Greek Column Styles

Doric

Doric

 

Ionic

Ionic

Corinthian

Corinthian

“The Doric style is rather sturdy and its top (the capital) is plain. This style was used in mainland Greece and the colonies in southern Italy and Sicily. The Ionic style is thinner and more elegant. Its capital is decorated with a scroll-like design (a volute). This style was found in eastern Greece and the islands. The Corinthian style is seldom used in the Greek world, but often seen on Roman temples. Its capital is very elaborate and decorated with acanthus leaves.” (Source: www.ancientgreece.com)

The elements of Greek column styles are an example of this level of detail, and illustrate the merger of science and art. The proportions of a column, its width to height ratio, the curvature and taper of the column, the base and cap – all were carefully designed and defined so as to be pleasing to the eye. It’s stunning when you begin to grasp the degree to which the Greek’s paid attention to these details. The Parthenon structure is a great example. The following description, from one of the resources linked at the end of this article, aptly describes these details.

“The fact that there are no absolute straight lines on the Parthenon bestows a subtle organic character to an obvious geometric structure. The columns of the peristyle [Author’s Note: The peristyle is the row of columns surrounding the structure] taper on a slight arc as they reach the top of the building giving the impression that they are swollen from entasis (tension) – as if they were burdened by the weight of the roof; a subtle feature that allots anthropomorphic metaphors to other wise inanimate objects.

“The architects of the Parthenon appear to be excellent scholars of visual illusion, an attribute undoubtedly sharpened by years of architectural refinement and observation of the natural world. They designed the columns that appear at the corners of the temple to be 1/40th (about 6 cm) larger in diameter than all the other columns, while they made the space around them smaller than the rest of the columns by about 25 cm. The reason for this slight adaptation of the corner columns is due to the fact that they are set against the bright sky, which would make them appear a little thinner and a little further apart than the columns set against the darker background of the building wall.” (Source: www.ancient-greece.org)

Greek architecture was (and is) beautiful to the eye. The Greeks created a visual and spatial experience of the built environment that was inspiring to them, and I would argue, to us even today. You can see this in the photo of the Parthenon below (a portion of which is still standing in Athens).

Parthenon Athens, Greece

Parthenon

Curiously, a full-scale replica of the Parthenon was built in Nashville, TN. I’ve include a photo (below) too help you envision what the fully intact Parthenon looked like.

Nashville Parthenon

 

The Romans came next and, while using some of the principles and techniques of Greek architecture, developed their own style. The Romans learned how to shape three-dimensional surfaces (it seems they loved curves). They too used columns as supports, in some cases taking directly from the Greek column design and in other instances reinterpreting the elements of the column. And they expanded the use of supporting wall structures. Roman structures often included curved walls, creating spaces that were more than rectilinear. And the beam atop walls openings and columns was transformed from a horizontal beam to the Roman arch.

The Romans did not invent the arch. Primitive cultures, and the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks all used the arch. But the Romans greatly advanced the engineering of the arch, enabling them to use it on a grand scale.

So, the Roman arch was an engineering breakthrough, as well as an aesthetic change. The Romans figured out how to construct arches to support extreme weight loads bearing down upon the arch. Utilizing arches, they found that they could lighten the structure and at the same time achieve superior strength. Thus the arch featured prominently in all sorts of Roman structures – in palaces, government buildings and public works, including their ingenious aqueducts.

Roman Aqueduct, Pont du Gard, France

Aqueduct

The Romans carried this same work of discovery, design and engineering to their ceilings and roof structures. The Romans developed barrel vault ceilings, essentially a continuous series of arches that formed a ceiling structure for a rectangular space.

Roman Barrel Vault Design Illustration

BarrelSketch

Barrel Vault Ceilings at the Basilica Nova, Rome, Italy

BasilicaNova

 

And the Romans extended the arch concept further, creating large scale domed structures. Domes were spherical roof structures that could support and transfer their entire weight and downward forces to the walls upon which they sat. They were like a series of arches rotated around a central axis. I imagine, to the Romans these domes must have seemed to defy gravity (as it were, since Galileo and Newton didn’t come along until the 16th and 17th Centuries). Following are a few examples of famous Roman “places” that illustrate these architectural elements.

The Colosseum, Rome, Italy

Colosseum

Interior of the Pantheon, Rome, Italy

PantheonInterior

Architectural Sketch of the Pantheon, Rome, Italy

PantheonSection

(Author’s Note: This sketch also shows the attention given to the proportion of the design. The main space in the building is a circle, both in floor plan view and, as the red line indicates, that same circle fits exactly vertically in the space. In other words a sphere would have fit perfectly within the space. This was no accident.)

Another Roman architectural advancement was in the use of concrete. The Pantheon represents the pinnacle of their concrete engineering. Its walls are constructed of concrete formed around internal brick arches (which increased structural strength and allowed for voids in the walls that reduced overall weight). The dome is made almost entirely of concrete, with brickwork in a few special areas including the ring around the “oculus”, the hole in the middle of the domed roof. No reinforcement (metal rods) is embedded in the concrete – unheard of in today’s construction methods. As they worked up, the Romans modified the composition of the concrete, changing the aggregate and cement, to create progressively lighter concrete. There are three distinct layers of concrete in the structure, the lightest layer used for the dome. This helped reduce the loads and forces bearing down on the walls and foundation. There was no dome structure equal to the Pantheon at the time of its completion in A. D 125, and no dome structure even approached its proportions until the building of Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence, Italy some 1,300 years later in 1436. Amazingly, by Brunelleschi’s time the Romans’ knowledge of concrete engineering had been lost and he had to resort to heavy brickwork to construct that dome. The Pantheon stands fully intact today, nearly 1,900 years later, as both an engineering marvel and object of beauty.

Rendering of the Roman Forum, Rome, Italy

RomanForum

(Author’s Note: The Forum is a ruin now. I have selected this rendering, which shows the Forum as it is believed to have originally appeared. Columns, arches, domes, symmetry…the works!)

It’s noteworthy that while the Romans clearly created their own architectural style, they also borrowed from the Greek style. For example, notice in both the Pantheon interior and the Roman Forum, the Corinthian (Greek) columns and the continued emphasis on symmetry in the rhythm of the columns and arches. These are thoroughly Roman structures, inclusive of Greek elements. This is an ancient example of how one architectural style borrows elements from another – something we see throughout the timeline of architectural history.

I would like to say something about ancient Eastern architecture too, but I must admit that I simply have not studied it enough to offer much insight. Suffice to say that ancient Eastern architecture also influenced, and continues to influence architectural styles that proceeded it. Case in point, one of the resource articles below, “The Arch in Architecture and History”, points to the use of the arch in ancient middle-eastern architecture, long before the Greek and Roman periods. I will try to point out these contributions, as I am aware of them, in future articles.

Well, enough of all of that for now. I hope you enjoyed some aspect of this. Feel free to comment. Until I pick the story up later – when I will move forward many centuries in time, I leave you with some resource materials in case you’d like to learn more.

Ross


Resources:

If I have really peaked your interest (Architectural History Nerd awards for you), you might like one or more of these related articles/resources.

1. Wikipedia has a very detailed and good article describing the elements of Greek architecture. Link.

2. Detailed article on Greek architecture – explanation of styles, examples, etc. Link.

3. Another article on Greek architecture, focusing a bit more on the methods and artisan work involved in the construction of Greek structures. Link.

4. An excellent article on the Parthenon (Athens, Greece), explaining the details (in great detail) and the reasons behind those details…lots of details. Link.

5. A fun little article on roman aqueducts: “Who Knew Plumbing Could Be So Beautiful?” Link.

6. An interesting article on the history of the arch; light reading, really. Link.

7. For those interested in concrete, a detailed article on the construction of the Pantheon and analysis of why it’s still standing. Link.

4 Comments

  1. Doug Spaly · May 14, 2014

    Hey Ross-
    I like your history review, very cool. I wish I was still working with lots of Buyer’s that I could send your way but the students I rent to are not looking to build any houses yet. I would like to get you out this summer to look at my apartment building to see if you have any ideas on improving it and keeping the historical charm.
    Talk to you soon,
    Doug Spaly

  2. Sam Williamson · May 14, 2014

    Ross,

    Great fun reading this. Thanks.

    I especially enjoyed your mixture of science and art, function and beauty.

    My wife and I spent a couple weeks in Rome last summer. We got to see the Parthenon and many other sites, but I wish I’d had you as a tour guide.

    Thanks again for your perspective.

    Sam

  3. Mark Freier · May 16, 2014

    Ross,

    Thank you for insightful writing of some of the “basic information” you are gleaning from architecture. You provided enough detail for me as a lay person to peak my interest.

    And…because I studied ancient history it reminded me again how much influence in the area of building, space, design, etc. had their genesis in Greece and Rome and impacts design thinking today.

  4. Pete Emhoff · May 22, 2014

    Hey Ross, I love this! I agree Mark…your passion for design, your writing style, and your use of “basic information” made this article interesting and engaging. Thank you for Daring Greatly.