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Classical architecture

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sebastiano Serlio's canon of the Classical orders, a prime example of classical architectural theory
Sebastiano Serlio's canon of the Classical orders, a prime example of classical architectural theory.

Classical architecture usually denotes architecture which is more or less consciously derived from the principles of Greek and Roman architecture of classical antiquity, or sometimes even more specifically, from the works of Vitruvius.[1][2] Different styles of classical architecture have arguably existed since the Carolingian Renaissance,[3] and prominently since the Italian Renaissance. Although classical styles of architecture can vary greatly, they can in general all be said to draw on a common "vocabulary" of decorative and constructive elements.[4][5][6] In much of the Western world, different classical architectural styles have dominated the history of architecture from the Renaissance until the second world war, though it continues to inform many architects to this day.

The term "classical architecture" also applies to any mode of architecture that has evolved to a highly refined state, such as classical Chinese architecture, or classical Mayan architecture. It can also refer to any architecture that employs classical aesthetic philosophy. The term might be used differently from "traditional" or "vernacular architecture", although it can share underlying axioms with it.

For contemporary buildings following authentic classical principles, the term New Classical Architecture may be used.

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  • The classical orders
  • Classical architecture in modern times: G.S. Smith & F. Terry at TEDxLondonBusinessSchool
  • What is Classic Architecture, more than a column?
  • Classical Architecture: Three Fallacies by Robert Adam
  • Allan Greenberg "Classical Architecture: The Cutting Edge" 10.22.2014


DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Architecture is a language. And you know how when you learn a new vocabulary word, you start to notice it, for the first time, everywhere? Well, the same thing happens with architecture. When you learn a new architectural form, you start to see it everywhere. DR. BETH HARRIS: And that's especially true of the classical orders. Because these are what are, essentially, the building blocks of Western Architecture. And they've been used for 2,500 years. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're basically talking about styles of architecture that the ancient Greeks had developed mostly for their temples. And you're right, that we've continued to use. DR. BETH HARRIS: And we've got several contemporary examples up along the top. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But what's important to remember is that it's just a fancy dressing, really, of a basic, ancient building system. DR. BETH HARRIS: So we've brought in Stonehenge, to illustrate that ancient, building system called post and lintel architecture. This is the most fundamental, most basic, oldest kind of architectural system. The posts are the vertical elements and they support a horizontal element called a lintel. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And you know what? We still use this basic system when we nail two-by-fours together. And that's what the Greeks were doing. But they were doing in a much more sophisticated way. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right. They developed decorative systems. And that's what we're referring to when we use the term classical orders. There are three basic orders, the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian. There's a couple extra, but we're not going to go into those today. But we've listed them here for you, just so you know what they are, the Tuscan and the Composite. So the Doric and Ionic and Corinthian are illustrated, here, in this diagram. First the Doric, and the Ionic, and then, the last two are Corinthian. These are just slight variations of these three orders. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And the Doric is really the most simple. The Ionic, a little bit more complicated. And then, the Corinthian, completely out of control. DR. BETH HARRIS: So let's start with the oldest order, the Doric order. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right, and we think that this order began in the seventh century, on the mainland in Greece. And we're looking at an actual Greek temple that happens to be in Italy. But nevertheless, is just a great example of the Doric in the classical era. DR. BETH HARRIS: Let's start at the top, with the pediment. The pediment isn't, officially, part of the order. But since Greek temples had, at one end or the other, a pediment, we just thought we would name that for you. And that's that triangular space at the very top of the temple. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. These are gabled roofs. Sometimes they would be filled with sculpture. DR. BETH HARRIS: The next area, below the pediment, is actually, officially part of the order. And that's called the entablature. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: OK, so that would be the area from about here to here. DR. BETH HARRIS: And the top part of the entablature is called the frieze. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: OK, so only this part, right here, is known as the frieze. So in other words, this whole section. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right, and in the Doric order, it is decorated in a very specific way, using triglyphs and metopes. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, actually, if you look at the word triglyph, you'll notice that the prefix is tri. Just like tricycle, it means three. And its suffix, glyph, means mark. So a triglyph, literally, means three marks. And you can see patterns of three marks moving all the way across the frieze. DR. BETH HARRIS: And then, in between the triglyphs are spaces that are called metopes. And in ancient Greek architecture, these were often filled with sculpture. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now the triglyphs we don't think are just arbitrary. We think that they probably came from a time when temples were built out of wood. And these would have been the ends of planks that would have functioned as beams in the temple. And they would have, of course, been supported directly over the columns. You'll notice that every other one, at least, is aligned directly over the columns. DR. BETH HARRIS: So as we move down the temple, the next area we come to is the Capital. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And this is a Doric capital. It's very simple. It's got a flare. And then it's got a simple slab on top. DR. BETH HARRIS: So the Doric is the oldest, and most severe, and was associated, according to the ancient Roman architectural historian, Vitruvius, most masculine form. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It is broad, it's not tall, and it feels heavy. DR. BETH HARRIS: It does. As we continue to move down, we come to the area that we commonly call the column but art historians call the shaft. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And if you look closely, you can see that it is not entirely plain. There are, actually, vertical lines that move across the entire surface known as flutes. Now, in the Doric, a flute is very shallow. And really, what it is, is it's a kind of scallop that's been carved out the surface. DR. BETH HARRIS: And what fluting does is, it creates a nice, vertical, decorative pattern along the shaft. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, one of the other defining features of the Doric order is that, at the bottom of the shaft, there is no decorative foot. The shaft of the column goes straight into the floor of the temple. DR. BETH HARRIS: And you can see that really well in the detail on the lower right, where there is no molding there to make a transition. So let's have a look at what these look like in person. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Capitals are up high so we would never see a person next to them. But I think it's easy to not realize just how big they. But I snapped this terrific picture of you at the British Museum next to a capital that actually comes from the most famous Doric temple, on the Acropolis in Athens. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right, the Parthenon. And they really are massive. And this photo is good, also, for seeing-- in this case, a reconstruction-- but giving you a sense of the entablature with that frieze with triglyphs and metopes. And we've got an example, on the right, of a relief sculpture that was for one of the metopes on the Parthenon. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right, so this metope, here, would have actually fit right in one of these squares. DR. BETH HARRIS: Let's talk about one last element that we find in Doric architecture. And that's something called entasis. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, this is a little tricky. Because I think most people assume that a column is straight up and down. That is, the sides of a column are parallel with each other, and the base of a column is just as wide as the area directly below the capitol. But in fact, the ancient Greeks didn't build their temples that way. DR. BETH HARRIS: No. It's fascinating to think about all the ways that the ancient Greeks are thinking about how to make their buildings beautiful, and speak of the realm of the gods. And so, when we look at an ancient Doric temple, we see that the shafts swell a little bit toward the center. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So right about a third of the way down, they would be at their widest. And it would taper, ever so slightly, towards the bottom, and taper much more so as we move up the top. So that the narrowest point of the column shaft would be right at the top. And the widest part would be about one third of the way from the base. DR. BETH HARRIS: And so, the building has a sense of liveliness that I think it wouldn't have if the column was exactly the same width at the top as at the bottom. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Architectural historians have debated why the Greeks bothered to do this. Because this was expensive. This was difficult. It meant that every drum that makes up this column has to be an individual, unique piece. These could not be mass-measured and mass-produced. DR. BETH HARRIS: So you just used the word drum. So the columns are not, actually, carved from one piece of stone. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And if you look very carefully at this photograph, you can just make out the seams between those drums. They would, also, have generally been a hole that would have gone through the center of each of these pieces. So that a piece of wood, sometimes, would actually string them together, almost like beads on a necklace. One of the other things that entasis does is to emphasize the verticality of the temple. Because they get narrower as they go further up, it seems as if the shaft of the column might actually be taller than it really is. Because of course, as things move away from us, they get smaller in scale. DR. BETH HARRIS: So the Greeks are thinking about human perception. They're thinking about how we see, not just an abstract idea of math and geometry, but actually, human experience, which says something about ancient Greek culture. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: One last detail-- the entasis gives the shaft of the column a sense of, almost, elasticity, that it is bearing the weight of the stone above it. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's really fascinating to think about all of these decisions that the Greeks are making as they build. So let's look at the Ionic order, which emerges shortly after the Doric order. Here's another building of the Acropolis, this is the Erechtheion. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is such a different aesthetic. There's such a sense of delicacy here. There is not that sense of mass, that sense of the muscularity of the buildings that we associate with the Doric. DR. BETH HARRIS: And in fact, Vitruvius the ancient Roman architectural historian, saw this as a more feminine order-- it's taller, it's thinner. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, one of the columns from this building in Greece is in the museum in London. We have some good photographs of it. DR. BETH HARRIS: And you can see the distinguishing feature really is at the top, at the capital, where we see these scroll-like shapes, also known as volutes. We also see a slightly different type of fluting. And we also, importantly see a base. Let's move to the Corinthian order. This looks really different and is the most decorative. And the distinguishing feature here is, again, the capital, where we see leaf-like shapes. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: They also have bases. They tend to be taller than the Doric, just like the Ionic. But they are highly decorative. There's a great myth about the origin of the Corinthian capital. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's a kind of fun story. Of course, we have no idea whether this is true. But the story is that there was a young girl who died. And her possessions were placed in a basket and put on top of her grave. Underneath that basket was a acanthus plant that began to grow. And because the heavy basket with the tile on top was on top, the acanthus leaves grew out the side. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, if we look at a Corinthian column, it really does look like that. DR. BETH HARRIS: It looks exactly like that. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so, it's a great myth, whether or not it's true. So the Corinthian order is the most complex. It includes both the scroll, that we would expect to see in the Ionic. DR. BETH HARRIS: The volutes. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. But also these very complex leaf-like forms, which you can just make out here, which is actually from the acanthus leaf. And we have a photograph of an acanthus leaf right down there. DR. BETH HARRIS: And these grow wild so it makes sense. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: What's important to remember is that the ancient Greeks, although they developed these three classical orders, were just the genesis. The Romans took these ideas over. And then, subsequently, people who've looked back to the classical tradition have borrowed from them yet again. And we still do this today. And there you have it. The Greek orders.




Classical architecture is derived from the architecture of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. With the collapse of the western part of the Roman empire, the architectural traditions of the Roman empire ceased to be practised in large parts of western Europe. In the Byzantine Empire, the ancient ways of building lived on but relatively soon developed into a distinct Byzantine style.[7] The first conscious efforts to bring back the disused language of form of classical antiquity into Western architecture can be traced to the Carolingian Renaissance of the late 8th and 9th centuries. The gatehouse of Lorsch Abbey (c. 800), in present-day Germany thus displays a system of alternating attached columns and arches which could be an almost direct paraphrase of e.g., that of the Colosseum in Rome.[8] Byzantine architecture, just as Romanesque and even to some extent Gothic architecture (with which classical architecture is often posed), can also incorporate classical elements and details but do not to the same degree reflect a conscious effort to draw upon the architectural traditions of antiquity; for example, they do not observe the idea of a systematic order of proportions for pillars. In general, therefore, they are not considered classical archerchitectural styles in a strict sense.[9]

Origins of classical architecture
Caryatids on the Erechtheion, (Athens), an example of a Greek architectural element taken up by later classical architecture.
The fronts of ancient Roman temples like the Maison Carrée in Nîmes have inspired much later classical architecture, e.g. Virginia State Capitol.
Lorsch Abbey gatehouse (Germany), c. 800, an example of the architectural style of the short-lived Carolingian Renaissance, a first classical movement in architecture.


The emphatically classical church façade of Santa Maria Nova, Vicenza (1578–90) was designed by the influential Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio.
The emphatically classical church façade of Santa Maria Nova, Vicenza (1578–90) was designed by the influential Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio.

During the Italian renaissance and with the demise of Gothic style, major efforts were made by architects such as Leon Battista Alberti, Sebastiano Serlio and Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola to revive the language of architecture of first and foremost ancient Rome. This was done in part through the study of the ancient Roman architectural treatise De architectura by Vitruvius, and to some extent by studying the actual remains of ancient Roman buildings in Italy.[10] Nonetheless, the classical architecture of the Renaissance from the outset represents a highly specific interpretation of the classical ideas. In a building like the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence by Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the very earliest Renaissance buildings (built 1419–45), the treatment of the columns for example has no direct antecedent in ancient Roman architecture.[11] During this time period, the study of ancient architecture developed into the architectural theory of classical architecture; somewhat over-simplified, one could say that classical architecture in its variety of forms ever since have been interpretations and elaborations of the architectural rules set down during antiquity.[12]

Most of the styles originating in post-renaissance Europe can be described as classical architecture. This broad use of the term is employed by Sir John Summerson in The Classical Language of Architecture. The elements of classical architecture have been applied in radically different architectural contexts than those for which they were developed, however. For example, Baroque or Rococo architecture are styles which, although classical at root, display an architectural language very much in their own right. During these periods, architectural theory still referred to classical ideas but rather less sincerely than during the Renaissance.[13]

As a reaction to late baroque and rococo forms, architectural theorists from circa 1750 through what became known as Neoclassicism again consciously and earnestly attempted to emulate antiquity, supported by recent developments in Classical archaeology and a desire for an architecture based on clear rules and rationality. Claude Perrault, Marc-Antoine Laugier and Carlo Lodoli were among the first theorists of neoclassicism, while Étienne-Louis Boullée, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Friedrich Gilly and John Soane were among the more radical and influential.[14] Neoclassical architecture held a particularly strong position on the architectural scene c. 1750–1850. The competing neo-Gothic style however rose to popularity during the early 1800s, and the later part the 19th century was characterised by a variety of styles, some of them only slightly or not at all related to classicism (such as Art Nouveau), and eclecticism. Although classical architecture continued to play an important role and for periods of time at least locally dominated the architectural scene, as exemplified by the "Nordic Classicism" during the 1920s, classical architecture in its stricter form never regained its former dominance. With the advent of Modernism during the early 20th century, classical architecture arguably almost completely ceased to be practised.[15]

The Glyptothek in Munich, designed by architect Leon von Klenze and built 1816–30, an example of Neoclassical architecture.
The Glyptothek in Munich, designed by Leo von Klenze and built 1816–30, an example of Neoclassical architecture.


As noted above, classical styles of architecture dominated Western architecture for a very long time, roughly from the Renaissance until the advent of Modernism. That is to say, that classical antiquity at least in theory was considered the prime source of inspiration for architectural endeavours in the West for much of Modern history. Even so, because of liberal, personal or theoretically diverse interpretations of the antique heritage, classicism covers a broad range of styles, some even so to speak cross-referencing, like Neo-Palladian architecture, which draws its inspiration from the works of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio — who himself drew inspiration from ancient Roman architecture.[16] Furthermore, it can even be argued (as noted above) that styles of architecture not typically considered classical, like Gothic, can be said to contain classical elements. Therefore, a simple delineation of the scope of classical architecture is difficult to make.[17] The more or less defining characteristic can still be said to be a reference to ancient Greek or Roman architecture, and the architectural rules or theories that derived from that architecture.


In the grammar of architecture, the word petrification is often used when discussing the development of sacred structures, such as temples, mainly with reference to developments in the Greek world. During the Archaic and early Classical periods (about the 6th and early 5th centuries BC), the architectural forms of the earliest temples had solidified and the Doric emerged as the predominant element. A widely accepted theory in classical studies is that the earliest temple structures were of wood and the great forms, or elements of architectural style, were codified and rather permanent by the time we see the Archaic emergent and established. It was during this period, at different times and places in the Greek world, that the use of dressed and polished stone replaced the wood in these early temples, but the forms and shapes of the old wooden styles were retained, just as if the wooden structures had turned to stone, thus the designation petrification[18] or sometimes "petrified carpentry"[19] for this process.

This careful preservation of the primitive wooden appearance in the stone fabric of the newer buildings was scrupulously observed and this suggests that it may have been dictated by religion rather than aesthetics, although the exact reasons are now lost in the mists of antiquity. And not everyone within the great reach of Mediterranean civilization made this transition. The Etruscans in Italy were, from their earliest period, greatly influenced by their contact with Greek culture and religion, but they retained their wooden temples (with some exceptions) until their culture was completely absorbed into the Roman world, with the great wooden Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol in Rome itself being a good example. Nor was it the lack of knowledge of stone working on their part that prevented them from making the transition from timber to dressed stone.

See also


  1. ^ Fleming, John; Honour, Hugh; Pevsner, Nikolaus (1986). Dictionary of architecture (3 ed.). Penguin Books Ltd. p. 76. ISBN 0-14-051013-3. 
  2. ^ Watkin, David (2005). A History of Western Architecture (4 ed.). Watson-Guptill Publications. pp. 6–8. ISBN 0-8230-2277-3. 
  3. ^ Fleming, John; Honour, Hugh; Pevsner, Nikolaus (1986). Dictionary of architecture (3 ed.). Penguin Books Ltd. p. 76. ISBN 0-14-051013-3. 
  4. ^ Fleming, John; Honour, Hugh; Pevsner, Nikolaus (1986). Dictionary of architecture (3 ed.). Penguin Books Ltd. p. 76. ISBN 0-14-051013-3. 
  5. ^ Watkin, David (2005). A History of Western Architecture (4 ed.). Watson-Guptill Publications. pp. 6–8. ISBN 0-8230-2277-3. 
  6. ^ Summerson, John (1980). The Classical Language of Architecture. Thames and Hudson Ltd. pp. 7–8. ISBN 0-500-20177-3. 
  7. ^ Adam, Robert (1992). Classical Architecture. Viking. p. 16. 
  8. ^ Pevsner, Nikolaus (1964). An Outline of European Architecture (7 ed.). Penguin Books Ltd. pp. 45–47. 
  9. ^ Summerson, John (1980). The Classical Language of Architecture. Thames and Hudson Ltd. pp. 7–8. ISBN 0-500-20177-3. 
  10. ^ Summerson, John (1980). The Classical Language of Architecture. Thames and Hudson Ltd. pp. 7–8. ISBN 0-500-20177-3. 
  11. ^ Pevsner, Nikolaus (1964). An Outline of European Architecture (7 ed.). Penguin Books Ltd. pp. 177–178. 
  12. ^ Evers, Bernd; Thoenes, Christof (2011). Architectural Theory from the Renaissance to the Present. 1. Taschen. pp. 6–19. ISBN 978-3-8365-3198-6. 
  13. ^ Fleming, John; Honour, Hugh; Pevsner, Nikolaus (1986). Dictionary of architecture (3 ed.). Penguin Books Ltd. p. 76. ISBN 0-14-051013-3. 
  14. ^ Fleming, John; Honour, Hugh; Pevsner, Nikolaus (1986). Dictionary of architecture (3 ed.). Penguin Books Ltd. p. 76. ISBN 0-14-051013-3. 
  15. ^ Summerson, John (1980). The Classical Language of Architecture. Thames and Hudson Ltd. p. 114. ISBN 0-500-20177-3. 
  16. ^ Fleming, John; Honour, Hugh; Pevsner, Nikolaus (1986). Dictionary of architecture (3 ed.). Penguin Books Ltd. p. 234. ISBN 0-14-051013-3. 
  17. ^ Summerson, John (1980). The Classical Language of Architecture. Thames and Hudson Ltd. pp. 7–8. ISBN 0-500-20177-3. 
  18. ^ Gagarin, Michael. The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Greece and Rome. Vol. 1. Oxford [u.a.: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010. 210. ISBN 0195170725
  19. ^ Watkin, David. A history of Western architecture. 4th ed. London: Laurence King, 2005. 25. ISBN 1856694593

Further reading

This page was last edited on 8 January 2018, at 14:41.
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