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If your architect suggests a Classical order for your new porch columns, there's no need to return a blank stare. It's a good idea. An Order of Architecture is a set of rules or principles for designing buildings - similar to today's building code. Five Classical orders, three Greek and two Roman, comprise the types of columns we use even in today's architecture.
In Western-based architecture, anything called "classical" means it's from the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. A Classical order of architecture is the approach to building design established in Greece and Rome during what we now call the Classical period of architecture, from roughly 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. Greece became a province of Rome in 146 B.C. which is why these two Western civilizations are grouped together as Classical.
During this time period, temples and important public buildings were constructed according to five distinct orders, each using a defined pedestal, type of column (base, shaft, and capital), and a different style entablature above the column. The Classical orders grew in popularity during the Renaissance era when architects such as Giacomo barozzi of Vignola wrote about them and used the design.
"In Architecture the word Order signifies a composition (in the same style) of a pedestal, a column, and an entablature, together with their ornamentation. Order means a perfect and regular disposition of all the parts of a beautiful composition; in a word, order is the opposite of confusion." - Giacomo da Vignola, 1563
Here's a brief overview of what the orders are and how they came to be written down.
The Greek Orders of Architecture
When studying an era-by-era timeline of ancient Greece, the height of Greek civilization was known as Classical Greece, from about 500 B.C. The inventive ancient Greeks developed three architecture orders using three distinct column styles. The earliest known stone column is from the Doric order, named for architecture first seen in the Dorian area of western Greece. Not to be outdone, the builders in the eastern Greece area of Ionia developed their own column style, which is known as the Ionic order. Classical orders are not unique to each area, but they were named for the part of Greece where they were first observed. The most ornate Grecian order, the latest developed and perhaps the most well-known by today's observer is the Corinthian order, first seen in the central area of Greece called Corinth.
The Roman Orders of Architecture
The Classical architecture of ancient Greece influenced the building designs of the Roman Empire. The Greek orders of architecture were continued in Italian architecture, and Roman architects also added their own variations by imitating two Greek column styles. The Tuscan order, first seen in the Tuscany area of Italy, is characterized by its grand simplicity - even more streamlined than the Grecian Doric. The capital and shaft of the Composite order of Roman architecture can be easily confused with the Greek Corinthean column, but the top entablature is much different.
Rediscovering the Classical Orders
The Classical orders of architecture might have become lost to history if it were not for the writings of early scholars and architects. The Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius, who lived during the first century B.C., documented the three Greek orders and the Tuscan order in his famous treatise De Architectura, or Ten Books on Architecture.
Architecture depends on what Vitruvius calls propriety - "that perfection of style which comes when a work is authoritatively constructed on approved principles." That perfection can be prescribed, and the Greeks prescribed certain architectural orders to honor the different Greek gods and goddesses.
"The temples of Minerva, Mars, and Hercules, will be Doric, since the virile strength of these gods makes daintiness entirely inappropriate to their houses. In temples to Venus, Flora, Proserpine, Spring-Water, and the Nymphs, the Corinthian order will be found to have peculiar significance, because these are delicate divinities and so its rather slender outlines, its flowers, leaves, and ornamental volutes will lend propriety where it is due. The construction of temples of the Ionic order to Juno, Diana, Father Bacchus, and the other gods of that kind, will be in keeping with the middle position which they hold; for the building of such will be an appropriate combination of the severity of the Doric and the delicacy of the Corinthian." - Vitruvius, Book I
In Book III, Vitruvius writes prescriptively about symmetry and proportion - how thick the column shafts should be and the proportional heights of columns when arranged for a temple. "All the members which are to be above the capitals of the columns, that is, architraves, friezes, coronae, tympana, gables, and acroteria, should be inclined to the front a twelfth part of their own height… Each column should have twenty-four flutes… " After the specifications, Vitruvius explains why - the visual impact of the specification. Writing specifications for his Emperor to enforce, Vitruvius wrote what many consider the first architecture textbook.
The High Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries renewed interest in Greek and Roman architecture, and this is when Vitruvian beauty was translated - literally and figuratively. More than 1,500 years after Vitruvius wrote De Architectura, it was translated from Latin and Greek into Italian. More importantly, perhaps, the Italian Renaissance architect Giacomo da Vignola wrote an important treatise in which he more thoroughly described all five classical orders of architecture. Published in 1563, Vignola's treatise, The Five Orders of Architecture, became a guide for builders throughout western Europe. The Renaissance masters translated Classical architecture into a new type of architecture, in the manner of Classical designs, just as today's "new classical" or neoclassical styles are not strictly Classical orders of architecture.
Even if the dimensions and proportions are not exactly followed, Classical orders make an architectural statement whenever they are used. How we design our "temples" is not far off from ancient times. Knowing how Vitruvius used columns can inform what columns we use today - even on our porches.
- The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius Pollio, Translated by Morris Hicky Morgan, Harvard University Press, 1914, Book I, Chapter II, Paragraph 5; Book III, Chapter V, paragraphs 13-14
- The Five Orders of Architecture by Giacomo barozzi of Vignola, translated by Tommaso Juglaris and Warren Locke, 1889, p. 5