Learn about the building blocks of Western architecture and its roots in Greece’s Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders.
Defining Greek Architecture
Classical Greek architecture, also referred to as Ancient Greek architecture, is a style and form that originated with Greek-speaking people, not only from mainland Greece but also from the Peloponnese and the Aegean Islands, and later Greek colonies in Italy and Anatolia.
Classical Greek architecture existed for nearly 1000 years, dating from approximately 900 BCE to 100 CE. The oldest remaining example of Classical Greek architecture is from roughly 700 BCE and is the South Stoa, a part of the Sanctuary of Hera on the island of Samos.
Today, Ancient Greek architecture is known best for its temples and public buildings, often built on high ground with careful considerations as to light, elegance, and the surrounding landscape. There are 3 distinct orders of Greek architecture: the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.
History & Overview of Greek Architecture
Today, most examples of Ancient Greek architecture are in complete ruins: while some buildings are partially intact, others are now little more than errant stones and toppled columns.
Pieces of Ancient Greek edifices have also been removed from their original locations and are displayed in museums around the world. Sculptural elements have been particularly prized, and the Elgin Marbles, otherwise known as the Parthenon Marbles, are a particularly famous example. These marbles, which include a number of panels carved in bas-relief, a sculptural style in which the elements are carved into a flat surface that bonds the pieces to a solid background, are now – somewhat controversially – housed in the British Museum in London.
Most remaining Ancient Greek structures were buildings of significance, including temples, theaters, and public squares or ‘agoras.’ This is because only the most important buildings were made of stone. Homes, markets, and other day-to-day buildings were made of wood; none of these buildings now remain.
Feature: Post & Lintel
A key feature of Classical Greek architecture is the post-and-lintel form, sometimes also called a ‘trabeated’ form, which is composed of upright beams with a supporting horizontal beam across the top. Post-and-lintel is one of the oldest forms of construction and can be found in structures from Britain’s Stonehenge to ancient Egyptian temples. The post-and lintel system is also used in all types of construction from simple wooden homes to awe-inspiring marble temples.
In Grecian architecture, many of the ancient temples, including the Parthenon, utilize a post-and-lintel system that consists of massive stone columns and cross-beam lintels, also called architraves, that support other architectural elements. When the posts and lintels are constructed in a repeated form, as is common in Greek architecture, they create a ‘colonnade,’ or a row of columns set at regular intervals usually designed to support the base of a roof structure.
Feature: Entablature & Tympanum
In much Greek architecture, posts and lintels are used to support the entablature: a horizontal structural element that encircles the entire building. This has a number of important design features and is where most of the sculptural elements of a building would have been located.
Above the architrave, or lintel, which serves as the first ‘stage’ of the entablature is a 2nd horizontal stage called the ‘frieze.’ The frieze is a major decorative element of a building and, in ancient Greek structures, it often featured a bas-relief sculpture. Above the frieze, and making up the top band of the entablature, is the cornice, or decorative crown molding.
Often, the entablature supports a triangular structure called a pediment that would have supported a building’s roof. The ‘tympanum’ is a large triangular space within the pediment that often displays significant sculptural decoration.
The Doric Order
Classical Greek Architecture is generally divided into 3 orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, reflecting the regional origins of the styles. Although there are a number of differences between the orders, the 3 are popularly distinguished by their different styles of capitals – the topmost part of a column.
Doric is the oldest of the 3 Classical Greek orders, and its capital is easily recognized by its simplicity. Doric capitals are the least adorned of the 3 styles and have 2 parts: a funnel-like circular form under a square cushion. Doric columns are often fluted with ridges and do not have any additional adornment on the base.
The Doric style also differentiates itself in its friezes. In architecture, a frieze is a broad horizontal band that runs the exterior of a building. While Ionic and Corinthian friezes display continuous bands, Doric friezes are divided into separate rectangles called ‘metopes’ by repeating groove designs known as ‘triglyphs.’ The triglyphs break up the frieze into individual metopes that display independent sculptural images or scenes.
The Ionic Order
The ancient Greek Ionic order is best known for its scroll-like column capitals. Structurally, these capitals are very similar to the Doric. Both have a tapered, round portion topped by a square cushion; however, unlike the Doric order, each element of an Ionic capital is decorated. The lower section of the capital often has a repeating design, and the square top displays one of the Ionic order’s most defining features: a horizontal band that scrolls under to either side. These spirals, also called ‘volutes,’ are designed to evoke a nautilus shell or ram’s horn.
Ionic columns have bases, often made of 2 convex moldings. Another unique element of Ionic style is ‘caryatids’, sculptures of draped female figures that were sometimes used instead of columns for a portion of a structure. According to Vitruvius, these figures represented the women of Caryae, who were doomed to hard labor by the Persians when they sided with Greece during a time of political upheaval. The most famous caryatids can be seen at the Erechtheion, or Temple of Athena, on the Acropolis.
The Corinthian Order
The Corinthian order of Classical Greek architecture is the only one of the 3 orders that does not have its origins in wooden architecture. While both Ionic and Doric stone structures have stylistic holdovers from wood construction, Corinthian does not have the same constraints. It is also the youngest of the 3 orders, growing out of the Ionic order around 500 BCE.
Corinthian capitals are distinct from Ionic and Doric styles in both form and decoration. The capitals are taller (taking up a 1/10 of the column’s height), and do not have the 2-part structure of the other orders. Instead, Corinthian capitals are designed after a ‘krater,’ a type of bell-shaped mixing bowl, and are decorated with leaves and tendrils. The most common decoration on Corinthian capitals is a double row of acanthus leaves.
Key Location: Parthenon
The Parthenon in Athens, Greece, is one of the most famous ancient structures in the world today, and millions of people visit it each year. The structure is a largely intact set of ruins that once served as a temple to the Greek goddess Athena, whom the residents of Athens considered their patron.
Along with the Erechtheion, the Parthenon is located on the Acropolis of Athens, an ancient citadel that overlooks the rest of the city. Although the word ‘acropolis’ is a generic term that means ‘highest point in the city,’ the Acropolis of Athens is often referred to simply as ‘The Acropolis.’
The Parthenon was constructed from 447 BCE to 432 BCE, and is built in the Doric order. The decorative reliefs on its frieze and tympanum were removed by the Earl of Elgin in 1800, during the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
Key Location: Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Temple of Olympian Zeus, also called the Olympieion, is arguably the most famous example of Corinthian design. Located in Athens, this temple was intended to be the largest temple in the world. Now only a portion of it remains intact, with just 16 of the original 104 columns still standing, at a massive 55 ft height each.
Construction on the Temple of Olympian Zeus began in the 6th century BCE, and it was originally designed to be completed in the Doric order. However, the project was soon halted and remained incomplete until the rule of the Roman emperor Hadrian who finished the construction in the 2nd century CE. In the interim, the design for the temple shifted from Doric to Corinthian, which was favored by the Romans.
The temple remains include trademark Corinthian elements, including column capitals featuring double rows of acanthus leaves.