Ancient Greek Architecture: Dorian, Ionic & Corinthian

Ancient Greek Architecture
Of all the ancient architectural styles, Greek architecture has proven to be the most enduring. Sure, the Egyptians built some impressive structures, and the Romans pulled off some amazing feats of engineering. But you don’t see us building pyramids anymore – at least, nowhere but Vegas – and even Roman engineering marvels incorporated Greek form and style.

Greek architecture is more than just impressive, it is timeless. You don’t have to dig in ruins to find Greek architecture; it’s all around you. Don’t believe me? Go visit a civic structure, city hall, a theatre, a bank, a library, a museum. Or, if you’re really ambitious, head to DC (or any Western capitol for that matter). What do you see? Columns, columns, columns, columns, columns. In short, if you want a Westerner to think something is important, put columns on it – and not just any columns, Greek columns.


Orders of Greek Columns

Greek columns come in three varieties, or orders: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. All three share the same fluted column, or drum. Where they differ is at the top, what is called the capital of the column. And what better place to learn about column capitals than at our nation’s capitol? For of all the world’s cities, none is more indebted to classical Greek architecture than Washington, DC.

Let us start with the Lincoln Memorial. Look at those lovely columns. These are columns of the Doric order. They’re the simplest of the Greek columns, with a tapered disc supporting a square top.

Now let’s skip along to the Jefferson Memorial. See those little curlies at the top? That tells us that these are columns of the Ionic order.

Let us end our tour at the Capitol Building itself. See that fancy filigree at the top of the columns? It sort of looks like a very symmetrical plant tried to grow at the top? This is a column of the Corinthian order. Corinthian columns come in many forms, each more ornate than the last, but they all share the same undeniably leafy quality.

There; now you know the three orders of Greek columns and can impress or annoy your friends by pointing them out as you walk around town. Yet there was more to Greek architecture than just columns. The Greeks built breathtaking temples, as well as treasuries, stadiums and theatres.

Your basic Greek temple is a roofed rectangle surrounded by columns. That’s me in front of a particularly old Greek temple in Corinth. What sort of columns are those? That’s right, Doric. Well done.


pediment entablature metopes triglyp hfrieze

Inside the temple was a smaller enclosure called a naos lined with its own columns. This was the holiest place of the temple and usually housed an idol of the deity for whom the temple was built. Sometimes the Greeks would switch up column styles within the naos, putting the hefty Doric on the outside and the delicate Ionic or Corinthian within.


Perhaps the most famous Greek temple is the Parthenon.


The Athenians began building this temple to Athena in 447 BCE and did not complete it until 15 years later. Like all Greek city-states, the Athenians built their most impressive temples atop the highest point in town, called the acropolis (literally ‘high city’). The Parthenon had all the elements of a Greek temple: the columns and entablature, the pediment full of sculptures. It even had the extra features: metopes depicting a battle between Centaurs and Lapiths, the second row of columns with their accompanying frieze depicting a civic procession of Athenians in exquisite detail, and, within, the naos, recreated here by the fine folks at Nashville’s Centennial Park: big idol of Athena, delicate Ionic columns on the inside.

Yet these images cannot convey the overall effect of this building. You simply have to be there. Standing among the columns, you see the clever tricks of the eye Greek architects used to make the Parthenon tower imposingly. You can see how they tapered the columns at the top to make the building seem taller, a trick they called entasis. As you examine more closely, you notice that there is not a single right angle or straight line in the entire Parthenon. Yet the mind expects right angles, it expects straight lines. By taking advantage of the mind’s expectations, the Greek architects could make the Parthenon appear even larger than it actually was. The overall effect is one of airy grandeur.