get Your custom quote

Classic Design: The Language of Architectural Columns, Translated

For the Art History majors among you, please feel free to skip ahead--you already know all about Greek architecture and math and the ubiquitous acanthus leaf. But for the rest of us--who don't know our Corinthian from our plinth--here's a translation of the language of architectural columns, so that you can talk to your carpenter about why your preference is for a Doric capital and an Ionic shaft.

Let's start at the beginning, which is a quick primer in ancient classical architecture. The earliest columns were in Egypt, not Greece. Way back during the Iron Age (2600 BC), the Egyptian architect Imhotep made columns out of single stone cylinders, and carved them to mimic bundles of reeds. Fast forward a thousand years, and the Great Hypostyle Hall of Kamak was built, which featured 134 columns in 16 rows--and some were close to 80 feet tall. The Persian (modern Iran) king Xerxes oversaw the construction of the Hall of Hundred Columns, or Throne Hall in Persepolis. This was a bit of a vanity project, but bits still survive today--columns soaring to a hundred feet--all built with ancient methods--no cranes!

As the cultural capitals moved North, the Greeks got in the game, and their adaptations of the Persian, Egyptian, and Minoan columns defined architectural columns with design and language still used today.

First, what exactly is an architectural column? In short, it's a series of vertical shafts that hold up the roof--so they're functional, which make them architectural rather than decorative. Today, columns are primarily decorative as there are more modern ways to support the roof. The math involved in designing the early, functional columns is amazingly complex--clearly those Greeks excelled at applied calculus.

Now that you know a bit of the history, here's the vocabulary.

The Basics

Column originates from the Greek kolophon, which means the hill where a temple was built. The Latin word is columna, which refers to an elongated shape, more slim and vertical--think spinal column or newspaper column.

There are three classical styles in Greek architecture--Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian. Because math is math, the structure and proportions of the styles are the same, only the details differ but they do build upon earlier designs.


These are the oldest and simplest of the classical columns; the earliest ones did not rest on a base but rather the foundation of the building. Modern Doric columns are fluted.


The defining element of an Ionic column are the volute, or scrolls at the top, and the column is fluted like the Doric but has different proportions.


These are the fancy ones--the acanthus carvings are prominent on Corinthian columns, and they, too, are fluted but slimmer. Here's a fun fact--all three designs are represented in the Roman Colosseum, and the Doric order is considered masculine since they hold the most weight; Corinthian columns are considered the feminine order since they are at the top and hold the least weight in that building.

The Components


The foundation, or base, of a column is the plinth. Early Doric columns did not rest on a plinth, but that has been the standard for thousands of years since.


The column itself, the vertical that rises from the foundation. It can be stone or wood, carved or smooth.


The top of the shaft that would support the roof, capitals range from simple blocks to elaborately decorated.


The entablature is a series of architectural elements that combine with columns to create the Classical Order in architecture. There are three components of the entablature.


The architrave is a horizontal piece that rests atop the capital. In modern parlance, you might hear the mouldings above doors or windows referred to as architraves. Lintel and epistyle mean the same thing.


The frieze (pronounced freeze) is the horizontal band in the middle of the entablature. It's usually wide, and has been called the advertising space--ornate carvings demonstrate wealth, the US Supreme Court building features the Court motto on the frieze.


The cornice band crowns the column structure, and as such, can be as ornamental as the taste and budget of the homeowner allows. The roof, finally, rests on the cornice.

Now that you've mastered the nomenclature of the classical columns, you can decide which style suits you and your home the best, and rest assured that Worthington Millwork can assist you in your home's classical enhancements.