The Influence of Ancient Greek Architecture
Ancient Greece is often considered the cradle of the western world. Its art, literature, political thought, and even its very language have influenced western society for thousands of years, and continue to influence us today.
One very obvious area of influence is architecture: Just look at the downtown of nearly any major city in the U.S., or many of the great cities of Europe. Ancient Greek influence is lurking within the facades of buildings as varied as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Prado Museum in Madrid, and Downing College, Cambridge University, in Cambridge, England.
Read on to learn about the basic elements of ancient Greek architecture, as well as how those elements influenced Roman architecture in ancient times and Neoclassical architecture, Federal style, Georgian Revival, and Beaux-Arts style architecture over the past several hundred years.
Ancient Greek Architecture
When we think of ancient Greek architecture, we are generally referring to temple architecture (or other public buildings, rather than residential). Ancient Greek temples featured proportional design, columns, friezes, and pediments, usually decorated with sculpture in relief. These elements give ancient Greek architecture its distinctive character.
Scholars of ancient Greek architecture generally refer to three Orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The differences among these are primarily in the shapes of the columns and decoration of the frieze. The Doric Order features columns with no base and a simple capital, and a frieze characterized by alternating triglyphs and metopes. The Ionic Order includes columns with bases, scrolled capitals, and a solid frieze (either sculpted or left plain). The Corinthian Order features slender columns topped with elaborate capitals shaped like stylized acanthus leaves, ornately-sculpted friezes, and decorative moldings.
Ancient Greek Architectural Terms
comprises the architrave, frieze, and cornice
the beam that rests across the columns
the band above the architrave; in the Doric order broken up into triglyphs and metopes, as in the illustration
the projecting area below the pediment, usually consisting of several bands of molding
carved panel on a Doric frieze suggesting the ends of beams
panel on a Doric frieze sculpted in relief
the triangular section above the frieze; usually filled with relief sculpture
a method of sculpting where figures are partially or completely attached to the stone behind them
Another Ancient Greek architectural style that heavily influenced later architecture is the colonnade. A colonnade is a row of columns supporting an entablature (and usually a roof). It can be attached to a building (as in a portico) or free-standing.
In Ancient Greece, stoae (long covered colonnades) were open for use as public gathering spaces. They were much longer than they were deep, and were open on three sides, with the back walled in. A good example is the Stoa of Attalos in the Athenian agora (marketplace), which was reconstructed in the 1950s.
Greek Influence on Roman Architecture
The Romans were tremendous builders, engineers, and architects in their own right, but in the course of conquering the western world, they were heavily influenced aesthetically by the Greeks. The prodigious use of the Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian Orders is the most obvious example.
One common type of building found in the forum of any Roman city was the basilica, a hall used for transacting business and legal matters. It developed from the Greek stoa, but was usually fully enclosed rather than enclosed on one side. The hall contained colonnades on the inside, which helped to organize and divide the interior space.
Neoclassical architecture comprises a group of related architectural styles popular from the late 18th century through the mid-19th century. Though some of the elements of neoclassicism are clearly Roman, such as domes, Greek influence is heavy in certain styles, such as Greek Revival and Federal Style.
Neoclassicism was extremely popular in America, but you can find beautiful examples of neoclassical architecture all over Europe, as well. One famous example is the former Irish Houses of Parliament building, built in the 18th century.
In the early years of the U.S., the founders of the country decided to model important buildings on the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome. This style (prevalent between about 1780 and 1830) is called Federal style. The influence of Ancient Greek architecture is apparent in the use of columns and colonnades. Thomas Jefferson was an architect during the Federal period, and he designed not only his own home, Monticello, but the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in this style.
Greek Revival architecture became so widespread in the U.S. in the middle of the 19th century that it became known as the national style, and it was used extensively in houses and smaller public buildings of that time. This style generally featured the Doric Order in larger buildings, and simpler Doric columns topped with a small pediment (without a frieze) in houses.
The first major public building built in this style was the Second Bank of the United States, built in Philadelphia between 1819 and 1824. The architect used the Doric Order as a model, but without sculptural decoration. This plainer look became fairly common.
Beaux-Arts Architecture in America
Finally we get to the most recent architectural style to be heavily influenced by the ancient Greeks: Beaux-Arts architecture, particularly in the U.S. (Elsewhere, Beaux-Arts style includes more Baroque and Rococo elements.) This style is lush with decorative elements, but you can still see the Greek influence in the use of the classical architectural orders and the use of marble as a building material.
Some examples of Greek-influenced Beaux-Arts style are the New York Stock Exchange, the former Penn Station, and Low Library at Columbia University, all in New York City.
Biers, William R. The Archaeology of Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.
Curl, James S. Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Wentworth, Bruce. "Greek Revival." Ask the Architect.org. http://www.askthearchitect.org/architectural-styles/greek-revival-houses-architecture (accessed May 10, 2012).
Questions & Answers
Are you telling us that the Greeks influenced modern architecture with, mainly, their columns?
That is undoubtedly the easiest visual link to spot! The use of columns as both decorative and functional has been the hallmark of Greek architectural influence for thousands of years. But don't forget other items like decorative friezes and overall harmony of proportion, which are also important.