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We are going to start our discussion of 'classical' Greek architecture by first exploring an ancient Greek colony on the western shores of southern Italy, a place called Paestum. First, we will figure out how and why the Greeks set up colonies all around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Greece, as a country, is defined by the Aegean and Ionian Seas and by mountains in the north. A multitude of natural harbors and bays enabled the Greeks to develop maritime interests, in which they are heavily involved to this day. I'm certain you've heard of Aristotle Onassis, one of many 20th century Greek shipping tycoons, who probably became more famous by marrying the widow of President Jack Kennedy (it was suspected that his wealth had a lot to do with that marriage). Their interests in the seas enabled them to develop a culture, which drew inspiration from the varied sources with which they made contact.

In their homeland, the Greeks lived in isolated communities forced by the mountains; this naturally set up barriers or separations and defined political boundaries. This separate independence led to the establishment of city-states known as poleis. Further, the mountainous nature of the land prevented large-scale farming, forcing the Greeks to look beyond their immediate borders for food.

The Bronze Age culture in the Aegean was first centered around the Minoan development in Crete. That Minoan civilization did restructure itself in Mycenae, as explained in SESSION TWO, within the Peloponnesian area of Greece. After the 13th century B.C.E., a major empire developed, headquartered in Mycenae, spreading eastward into the Indus Valley.

On the mainland, the Bronze Age is referred to as “Helladic,” after the Greeks' word for Greece, “Helas,” and has multiple subdivisions of time periods. The last phase of Late Helladic is sometimes dubbed “Sub-Mycenaean.” The end of the Aegean Bronze Age culture came about when other cultures entered the scene - some call them invaders. The Dorians came from the northwest and settled in southern Greece (the Peloponnesus) and the Aegean islands; the Ionians came and settled in the northern Peloponnesus. This apparently brought about an economic and cultural recession in 1100 B.C.E., and became known as the above-mentioned “Sub-Mycenaean Period.” Some recovery developed from the middle of the 11th into the 10th centuries. The beginnings of iron working came about (the “Iron Age”), probably introduced from Cyprus. Colonies began to spread to the northern Aegean and eastward into Asia Minor. From the 10th through the 8th centuries, the Greek population increased dramatically, and urban life became abundant, even to the point of overcrowding. Expansion occurred again, this time to the west as well as the east. Again, the sea helped, as trading posts resulted in the development of colonies, very similar to later Venetian settlements mentioned above in our discussion of Crete (see SESSION TWO).

Things had been so bad after the Mycenaean collapse that even written language had been lost to the Greeks. It reemerged in this period, through contact with the Phoenicians (also seafarers). The epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, came about in this period, probably the 8th century. Although blind, Homer's works were obviously written down for posterity.

In yet another historically defined time, the Early Archaic Period - the 7th century B.C.E. - City-States really flourished, often under tyrannical rule. Existing colonies were doing well, and new ones sprung up, from what is now Marseilles in southern France, to Cyrene in North Africa (Libya). The Levant (Middle East), Egypt and Anatolia (Turkey) also saw Grecian commercial development. Coins seem to have been invented by the Greek traders. In architecture, the Doric and Ionic Orders developed. Transportation on the water was relatively quick, and goods as well as ideas moved.

The Greeks seemed to have an innate sensitivity towards aesthetics, form, rhythm, and music, which manifested itself in drama, sculpture, and architecture. Perhaps their obsession with form limited their architectural concerns primarily to the exterior of their structures. It was not until the Romans developed vaults of all sorts that interior space really began.

The main Grecian architectural form was the megaron, developed through Mycenaean and Cretan origins. The ancient Greeks, bound by a common, albeit mythical heritage, that of being descendants of Hellene, shared cultural developments. The people were adventurous (we can see this by their trade routes and colonization), and inquisitive. Ancestors were respected, but the Greeks loved life. Death and its aftermath were not their primary concern. Contrast this to the Egyptians who had developed early, but crystallized and remained relatively static for 2000 years, many believe because of their obsession with death. Think of the time, effort, and finances (even though slave labor was common) involved in the life of Pharaohs who devoted their entire reigns to building their own tombs (see the Great Pyramids of Gizeh).


Now with principles of design boiled down to the simplest of elements, it was only natural that directions would be established as to what was permissible and acceptable in design. The Greeks took forms from their past, from Cretans, from Dorians and Ionians, and came up with three distinctive "orders" of architectural design; three unique systems, each with their own distinctive proportions and details. These were to be known as the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. We will see examples of each.

The Doric Order is the shortest and heaviest by proportion, with fewer dimensional diameters in height than the other two orders. The Greek Doric Order has no base, and is therefore identifiable from the Roman, which did add a base. The capital is composed of two parts, a square uppermost section, the “abacus,” resting on a pillow-like round section called the “echinus.” This style was used extensively on mainland Greece, throughout Sicily, and in southern Italy.

Absolute classic example of the Doric Order is, of course, the Parthenon, on the Acropolis, in Athens.

The Ionic Order is taller and thinner, with a greater number of diameters dimensionally making up its height. It is, therefore, more graceful, some say elegant. It has a base. Its capital is identifiable by scrolls facing forward, very much like horns of a ram; properly executed corner columns will have scrolls facing out in two directions. This style was constructed in eastern Greece, western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), and through the Aegean islands.

The Temple of Nike is an example of the earliest Ionic construction on the Acropolis, which begun about 427 B.C.E.

The Corinthian Order was proportioned similarly to the graceful Ionic, but did not appear that much through the Grecian world. It, too, has a base, and its capital is composed primarily of acanthus leaf simulations shown here.

A word of caution. There are designers today who still employ these particular Orders, who follow so-called "classical" design, albeit more than 2000 years removed, and bastardized a multitude of times along the way. They would do well to consider the dictum: “remember the past, imagine the future,” when it comes to designing in the 21st century. The style dubbed “Post Modernism” recalled the past as a ploy in the United States, mainly in the '70s and '80s, but continues. Bernard Tschumi described it as a style rife with "metaphors of irony.” It has been declared dead a number of times, "the end of a bad dream,” Tschumi once said but, unfortunately, it lives on. It was mostly a United States syndrome, because some architects in this country seemed to lack the ability to continue in the direction that Modern architecture indicated. Cries of sterility and "son of Seagram" arose (see the Seagram Building in New York City, by Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson). Seagram was a masterpiece, but its ineffectual copycat wannabes are not. "We live in a democracy, and therefore pluralism in architectural design is proper,” was another rallying excuse for creating anything at all. Yet, in Europe, modernism advanced most dramatically, and excitingly. See, for instance, works in the 70s by Gottfried Bohm, Hans Scharoun, and Hans Hollein. The United States, as described by Zaha Hadid: “...felt it had no culture, and so tried to emulate the cultures of others.” Hadid claims there is a rich culture here, and there is no need to copy that of others.

For those insisting on continually resurrecting architecture of the past, let us consider for a moment what some Classical scholars have come up with regarding the origin of the Greek capital. Their suggestions, stated as absolutes, involve the pre-history hunting parties who went out to slay their enemies. Victorious tribes decapitated those enemies and proudly carried the heads back to their chieftain's home. The HBO series Rome talks about just this sort of activity. The heads were then impaled on stakes lined up in rows in front of those homes. Thus, claim these historians, was born the concept of columns and their capitals. Especially if such barbarism were true, even more reason never to simulate or emulate such designs. Yet, there are universities in the United States, which continue to practice the copying, and re-creation of the Greek Orders. Some claim they do so for reasons of enabling restoration architects-to-be to carry out their goals. Others do it because for them anything 'classical' is good. Unfortunately, it is easier to copy a style than to create something new and lasting in its time and place, and with given materials and methods of construction.

Everything we study in this course had its moment, its time and place, its reason for being. The specific designs we study are no longer valid given modern technology, materials, and needs. We will see the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, France, a 1st century C.E. Roman structure. Thomas Jefferson copied it for his design of the Capitol of Virginia, in Richmond. The original was a single story space, a pagan Roman temple. The copy is a State House for elected representatives of a democratic society. The Capitol building in Richmond required two floors, and suffers from the transition. Jefferson's design necessarily inserted windows on both floors, lost the half columns of the original, which were reduced to flatter pilasters, and the entire effect could be considered an unfortunate attempt at adapting a design from the past for a completely different function.

A lesson to be learned here, and one to be repeated throughout this course, is that we should find principles of the past, apply them where and when applicable, but we should not copy the details or styles. It is important to know why things are the way they are, where designs and styles originated. We do need to know about our past; it gives substance to our present, and can perhaps guide us into the future. Look for the principles!


The primary structural form employed by the Greeks was the post and lintel, first in wood; them emulated in stone for posterity. Please refer to notes above in "Elements of Construction" for a detailed explanation of this basic structural principle.

Cretan and Mycenaean forms were continued, featuring wood beams resting on rather bulbous wood capitals, which really seemed to function more as brackets, diminishing the span required between the uprights (posts/columns). These beams ran from post to post, with smaller crossbeams placed on top of those to support the ceiling. Angled beams created the sloping roofs, which allowed those roofs to shed rainwater. Wooden pegs held all of this wooden construction together. Tiles covered the roof.

Basic Greek design involved three major elements:

1. Everything was clearly expressed

2. Construction was logical

3. Details were refined

These characteristics also defined Greek life and thinking in general. The post and lintel was deemed logical, or so historians write. We will get into arch development below (see Roman Architecture), which supposedly the Greeks felt to be illogical, not comprehendible by everyday people. Since the Greeks did use arches in the construction of mechanical systems (sewers, etc.), they were aware of arches, but just might have been too conservative to use arches in actual buildings. There does not seem to be any evidence that the Hellenic Greeks (prior to the time of Alexander the Great) used any arches in major construction. Logic might have been the reason; but then again, it might have just been an excuse. See observations on the barrel vault of the "Krpte" at Olympia above.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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