To talk about architecture in any meaningful way it is necessary to know some of the terminology. I thought we would start with columns, since I named this blog ‘Pediments and Pilasters’, and pilasters are closely related to columns. Columns are perhaps the most easily identified aspect of classical architecture.
A column consists of three main parts: the base, the shaft and the capital. Certain types of bases, shafts and capitals combine to form particular types of columns. You may have heard of the Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders. Each order consists of a set of particular architectural features that are usually used together, and the order an architect used can be determined from the elements that make up the column and entablature. Today, however, I will just explain the three main parts of the column using this photograph of an Ionic column.
The column base is just that, the base on which the column sits. Not all columns have a base; some sit directly on the stylobate, plinth or foundation. The main part of the column is the shaft. The shaft may be smooth or it may be fluted– that is, it may have vertical grooves extending all or part of the length of the shaft– or it may be decorated with carving. The columns of First Pilgrim United Church are fluted, but the columns of Central Presbyterian Church are unfluted. The columns from the Ontario Legislative Building use a variety of finishing techniques, including low-relief carving, fluting and nothing at all. The column shaft usually tapers towards the top (a curve called entasis) to maintain the column’s elegant proportions.
The shaft is topped off with the capital, a block which visually eases the transition between the shaft and the entablature above it. The capital is one of the key elements that will help you identify what order, or type, the column is. The photo used in our diagram has Ionic capitals. Other capitals which I will also eventually post about are the Doric, Composite and Corinthian capitals.
The columns support the entablature. The entablature for the Ionic and Doric orders is different, but it serves the same purpose: to hold up the beam that holds up the roof. Greek temples used a column-and-lintel (also called post-and-beam) style of building, so the columns surrounding the building supported the beams which spanned the building and held up the roof. Modern architecture doesn’t rely on post-and-beams, so these features are now more decorative than functional. We’ll look at the entablature in more detail when we start to explore the different architectural orders.
As you look around for columns, you will notice that they occur in a wide variety of forms. In an old church or cathedral you may see columns that look like a bundle of smaller, more slender columns called colonnettes. A row of columns in a straight line that supports an entablature, such as in our photo above, is called a colonnade. A row of columns that creates a porch is called a portico, and if that extends around three or four sides of a building or a garden it is called a peristyle. Columns that are attached to a building are said to be engaged and a column that has been ‘flattened’ against a building to become rectangular is called a pilaster. When the row of columns is against a solid wall, it is called a blind colonnade; if the space between columns is filled with windows it becomes a glazed colonnade. One of my favourite buildings, the Landed Banking and Loan Company building in Hamilton, Ontario, is a great example of a glazed colonnade. A colonnade supporting a series of arches is called an arcade— but more about that when we look at arches.
So that, dear reader, is everything you need to know about columns in a nutshell. If you find it all a bit daunting, no worries: there is no quiz and not every entry is going to feature this many technical terms! I have hundreds of photographs of beautiful columns that I plan to share with you over the course of this blog and I hope it will encourage you to look for beautiful columns as you go about your travels.
A note on photos: Click on the photos to enlarge. All photos are from my personal collection. You are welcome to use them for personal, education purposes only (and with appropriate credit). Please do not repost them, publish them or use them for any commercial purposes.