A Good Look at Architectural Columns

Architectural Column Beginnings

In the milinnia-long history of temples, palaces, monuments and capitals from empires to county seats, architectural columns have been given special significance beyond most ordinary building components.  Even a drawing of a column can suggest “architecture”, as in the logo for the AIA, the American Institute of Architects.  But as an architectural element, some would say the column was perfected in the 5th century B.C..  Since then, architectural columns have proven to be surprisingly adaptable to the designs and demands of every century since.  Today’s columns can be manufactured to the most exacting classical dimensions, or to an original new design combining components in a way never seen before.

The Makeup of the Architectural Column

The basic function of architectural columns are to bear and distribute weight through compression, but many columns today are purely decorative, and some are free-standing structures in their own right.  As you would expect over thousands of years of use, study and refinement, every small subcomponent of the column has own its name and variation, from the abacus to the cincture.  These variations are the key to recognizing the classical order of architectural columns, but they are also what makes the design of contemporary columns so customizable, as the size, number and style of many of these components can be “mixed and matched” in almost limitless ways.

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 Column Parts

The Capital.  The topmost section of the column. The many different profiles of a column’s capital, ranging from very simple to highly ornate, are key identifiers of its order. Depending on the style, the capital may have several “layers” of molding, including the flat abacus slab, the convex disc echinus, and a small convex molding closest to the shaft, called the astragal.  In modern columns, this is usually referred to as the bead. A wide range of capitals is available in modern columns, either as part of standard styles, or separately as decorative capitals or custom designs. A standard cast column capital can be “cut at the bead” and replaced with a decorative capital.

The Shaft.  The vertical element of architectural columns, are most often cylindrical but can sometimes be square or octagonal. Shafts can be smooth or shaped with the vertical hollow grooves called flutes. The number and profile of flutes for each classical architectural order is carefully defined, but can be customized in modern columns. Square shafts are available with recessed panels in various sizes, shapes and panel molding styles. In many ancient columns, the shaft was composed of separate drum-shaped pieces, fitted together with engineering skill that would be difficult to achieve today, and relatively resilient to seismic forces. Modern shafts are most often hollow, and can enclose structural supports, or equipment such as wiring and drainage spouts.

The Base.  In some of the oldest architectural columns, including the Egyptian and the early Doric in Greece, the columns have no separate base but are placed directly on the floor or pavement. Most columns have a rectangular or square base molding, the lowest part of which is called the plinth. The base molding can be quite varied, including the semi-circular torus shape, and the ring shape called the cincture, which can also sometimes be found at the top of the column. These are also elements that may be customized, or used with different styles of capitals, in coordinated sets or new combinations.

The Pilaster.  Although not strictly speaking a part of architectural columns, pilasters are ornamental elements that give the appearance of flattened columns and often appear directly behind, or sometimes on the sides of a doorway or window. Like architectural columns, pilasters can be plain or fluted, and in the style of the classical orders.

Entasis

The shafts of almost all ancient architectural columns—and the majority of modern ones as well—are slightly wider in the middle than at the base or capital, creating the subtle bulging curve known as entasis. Evidence of the use of entasis can be found in Egyptian pyramids, but the principle was brought to a high level of refinement in early Greek temples. The most splendid and famous example of entasis is its use in the Parthenon in Athens, completed in 438 BC.

The many reasons for using entasis have been studied and debated for centuries. It has a load-bearing function, and is thought to also correct optical illusions that would make a completely straight tall column appear to bow inward. But its basic appeal, as it always has been, is in its enhancing beauty to the building, giving an impression that the columns are making a graceful, muscular movement to lift the roof.

The Classic Order of Columns

The definitive statement of how these components look and function, organized into five classic architectural orders, is in a book written by Giacomo Barozzi de Vignola and published in 1562. Vignola presented detailed examples and measurements of ancient buildings to illustrate the precise profiles, details and dimensions of the orders he characterized as Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan and Composite.

The orders are characterized by their elements, the details of their ornamentation, and perhaps most of all by their proportions. For example, the classic dimensions of column height vary by order, and are calculated as a ratio between the diameter of the shaft’s base to the height of the column – Tuscan column being seven diameters high, a Doric column eight, an Ionic column nine, and the slenderer Corinthian and Composite columns at ten diameters high.

orders
Doric.  Considered the oldest, the Doric order is often characterized by smooth, round capitals, but they are fluted in many of the most famous examples, like the Parthenon.

Ionic.The Greek Ionic column is distinguished by a slender shaft with 24 flutes, a large base (the tallest base of the three classic Greek orders) with two convex moldings, and a capital usually with two opposing scrolls, also called volutes.  Scamozzi develop a four-sided Ionic capital with diagonal volutes, often used with other orders, and still serves as the inspiration for many modern column capitals.

Corinthian.  Named for the fabled columns and colonnades of ancient Cornith, the columns in this order are the slenderest and most ornae of the classic orders.  A slender fluted column is topped by a capital traditionally decorated with two rows of acanthus leaves and four scrolls.  Columns in this style can be found inside and outside many buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington DC – the US Capitol, the Supreme Court Building, the Library of Congress, and the Senate and Congress Office Buildings.

Tuscan.  Compared to other orders, the simple, stout Tuscan has the most solid appearance.  The Tuscan order is the Romans’ simplified adaptation of the old Doric order.  Tuscan columns have plain design and are generally the simplest of capitals and bases.

Composite.  The Composite order typically combines the scrolls of the Ionic with the leaves of the Corinthian.  In the Renaissance systems it began to be ranked as a separate order, and had been considered as a late Roman variation of the Corinthian.

Today

Technically, there is little to prevent architects today from devising their own new architectural columns and orders.  Computer aided milling can execute almost any original design.  But there is also no necessity, since the components of existing orders can be replicated, adapted, mixed and matched.  These old or new styles can be manufactured in traditional materials like wood or in advanced new composites of fiberglass, resins and polymers.  It is still possible to find architectural columns being manufactured to classic standards, sometimes with hand craftsmanship, but also with a wide range of new possibilities and combinations.

Today, all types of architectural columns lend qualities of history, grace and dignity to their buildings.