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The Five Orders Of Architecture

( Originally Published 1912 )



A LAYMAN must be puzzled when writers present "the orders "as the fundamental elements of good architecture. He must wonder by what accidents or for what reason these very conventional arrangements of ornamental design are accepted as of such authority.

Textbooks rarely give any answer to such questions. They lay before their readers little but the details and the appellations of the various parts of the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite orders. They scarcely explain that "the orders" are but the orderly arrangement of the elements of classic architectural design.

Yet the orders have a history and a meaning, and if these conventional forms are far less flexible than the average American builder confidently but ignorantly believes, they are far more so than many books would give one to suppose. The American people knew a good deal about the orders a hundred and fifty years ago, and even through that period in the last century when the temples of Athens were the models for houses and public buildings throughout America. Thereafter they remained forgotten until the Chicago Exhibition introduced them again to a public thirsty for architectural display. Now there is a crying need for restraint or discipline in their use. What, then, are these combinations of architectural forms called the orders?

The most primitive building involves the placing of two posts in position and the spanning of the intervening space with a lintel. It is but a slight step beyond this to imagine an Egyptian easing the harsh angle of post and lintel by binding the spray of the lotus around the top of the post, or the Ionians as finishing the same point of junction with curled volutes, perhaps to imitate shavings or choppings from the wooden post itself, or simply because they found the form agreeable. The story may be true that Callimachus observed how a basket of toys, left at the grave of a child and covered by a tile, had become overgrown by the leaves of the wild acanthus, and that, turning this incident to artistic account, he carved the first Corinthian capital. To such incidents has the origin of the different capitals been attributed, though possibly no other cause need be sought for them than the innate love that man has for grace and beauty. It was an obvious and natural thing to decorate in these ways the simple post and beam construction.

But why do the " orders " persist? What have we in America to do with them ? Why is not some new and original decoration more suited to us and our ways? Well, what new and original decoration? Why use meter in poetry? Hexameters have been in use for ages. Is not the sonnet form too worn a framework to support new ideas? Why not use some new methods of expression? Of course no reason exists why you may not do this if you can find new methods, but your search is likely to be fruitless. In the same way, so long as building remains fundamentally the placing of a lintel on two supports, all the old reasons from which the orders sprang remain in force. The study that was given them by Greeks and Romans and by the great artists of the Renaissance has only added to their authority and made them almost indispensable as a means of expression. They pervade modern building even when no colonnade is visible. The wall of the room in which you sit has a base and a wide wall space and a cornice. Columns and pilasters may be present or may be lacking, but the wall represents them. The base, the wall, and the cornice may be elaborated to a greater or less degree, but the parts are those of an order. The doorways too have an architrave around them which represents the lower part of a door cornice. In its complete state this door finish would also have a frieze and cornice. The old-fashioned, dignified rooms that we like owe their good qualities to a study of proportions that imply a recognition of these facts. Today our minds are often distracted from these main essentials by the thousand petty details and complications that modern life suggest. Still, when we build a twenty-four story office building the best arrangement yet discovered is to divide its vast height into a base of two or three stories, with a lofty plain shaft of many repeated stories over it, the whole being surmounted by a frieze and cornice. This is a division much like that of an order. It is for such reasons that the orders have, for good or bad, come to form the basis of most modern architectural design.

Painters tell the student to draw the human figure, and it is almost an axiom that if he can draw the figure he can draw anything well. It is on somewhat the same principle that the youthful architect is set to master the orders. The painter learns to portray rugged age and stern simplicity. The architect learns the details of the Tuscan and Doric orders. Womanly beauty and the beauties of the Ionic order have some common attributes, and what perfect manhood is to the painter, that Corinthian and Composite details represent to the architect.

It is true that in some very good architecture it is hard to find the influence of the orders. In like manner it may be said that one can write poetry without any very apparent regard for the usual poetical meters. Walt Whitman and Bret Harte have done it, and so perhaps has Kipling. Also, one can paint great pictures with-out being a perfect delineator of the human figure. Turner and Constable and many a landscape painter have done that. Hence among architects there are those who resent or decry the study of the orders. Some do this because they seek something new and fresh and all their own. Of such are the adherents of "L'Art Nouveau" in Paris and a not insignificant class of skillful men in America. But, happily, thus far our public ask with increasing insistence more for what is good than what is fresh or original, especially as results indicate that the nearer work of any style comes to the well-established principles that govern mass and proportion and detail, the better is the result. But besides those architects who seek originality there are others who are akin to those landscape painters who can draw landscapes without much knowledge of the figure. As some painters feel that painstaking academic drawing of the figure crushes out life and interest and that academy drawings become mechanical and pedantic, so this class of architects set most store by honesty and na´vetÚ and quaintness, and count sentiment and poetry higher than skill and knowledge and technique. They urge that these, the more roman-tic qualities, give the same pleasant results in architecture which in painting are derived from the color and joy of the fields and forest and the sea rather than from the study of a model. In short, almost the same objections are made to an extended study of the orders that are often urged against elaborate academic study of the nude.

Men of this way of thinking, whether painters or architects, may produce delightful work. Not unnaturally their kinship is with mediŠval artists, for it is true that there was during the Middle Ages little recognition of the classic orders, however much the eternal principles that underlie them influenced monk and artisan. The builders of the old stone houses of Somersetshire, of the abbeys and cathedrals of England, or of the still grander churches of France, had no knowing allegiance to the artists of Greece and Rome. Hence, then, mediŠval builders are perhaps the natural masters to a school that would drop all conventions and be guided only by utility, by the suitable and constructive use of materials, and by ornament evolved from native natural forms. At all events to such a school probably Ruskin is a prophet, and it agrees with him when he says, "If it be good work it is not a copy, nor anything done by rule, but a freshly and divinely imagined thing. Five orders ! There is not a side chapel in any Gothic cathedral but it has fifty orders, the worst of them better than the best of the Greek ones, and all new; and a single inventive human soul could create a thousand orders in an hour."

If there is weakness in this position it lies in the fact that the human family in all ages is more bound together than at first appears, and that there is really no such absolute and distinct dividing line between the art of the Middle Ages and of other periods. All art has a historical sequence, and, though the mediŠval architect perhaps did not know it, the base and shaft and capital of the French Gothic churches were evolved in natural sequence from the Corinthian orders of Rome. The introduction of the pointed arch and its logical use in vault and opening brought new elements to architecture with new ornaments, but the art of architecture then as always was a consecutive growth and subject to the same fundamental elements of design as in classical periods. Still, it must be conceded that there was little to remind one of the classic orders in buildings at the close of the Middle Ages. In the lofty moulded pillars of the perpendicular period in England or in the exuberant traceries of French flamboyant work it is difficult to trace close relationship with the colonnades of Rome. There will always be men that find the highest beauty in this period; to whom the picturesque and the poetical will make strong appeal; and who feel most sympathy with building design in which the influence of classic art is the least apparent. To them the orders are not as indispensable objects of study as to others.

The same revival of learning that brought to the modern world the Greek and Roman classic authors brought also the study of classic art. Vitruvius, a Roman architect of about the time of Augustus, was the author of a treatise on architecture as practiced in his day. Interpretations of his instructions and restorations of the buildings he described were favorite labors and pastimes for the architects of the Renaissance. Brunelleschi and Bramante were early students of the ancient work that they found in Rome. Alberti, Scamozzi, Serlio, and Vignola and many others reduced to proportional parts such a scheme for each order as they had individually composed from a study of the then existing antique models and of such classical authors as wrote about architecture. That of Vignola is the most complete and the most studied; but the orders as approved by each of these different artists and by many later ones, such as Sir William Chambers at the end of the last century, are within the reach of every architect.

Mr. Ruskin says that one can "have no conception of the inanities and puerilities of the writers who with the help of Vitruvius reestablished its five orders, determined the proportions of each, and gave the various recipes for sublimity and beauty which have been thenceforward followed to this day." From the dogmatic way in which the authorities of the Renaissance period each stated the exact proportions that every member of every, order should hold to every other it is not surprising that the orders are generally thought to be inflexible and to offer no opportunity for invention or variety. This is surely far from being the case. The order of Serlio differed from that of Alberti, and Palladio's proportions were not those of Scamozzi. If we turn to the ancients, a glance at the orders used in the Doric temples shows how very varied was that order as used by the Greeks, and how sure was its progression from the stumpy columns with wide spreading caps of the temple at Corinth to the perfect order of the Parthenon. That consummate product of Greek art had a constructive scheme of the utmost simplicity. The Athenians applied to it a prodigality of study and refinement that brought every line and contour and ornament to a perfection of Doric beauty. The same gradual progression is true of the Ionic order as in the hands of Greeks it was evolved from the rough forms of Asia Minor to the riper beauty of the Erechtheum. Then when Rome inherited the orders and carried the Corinthian order to that fulfillment of which the Greeks had seen but the early promise, there is all the difference in the world between its calm dignity at the Pantheon, its richness at the temples of Vespasian and Concord and Jupiter, and its glorious opulence at the Temple of the Sun. No invention and no variety ! Even precise and elegant Athens tolerated two different Doric orders and an Ionic order in the PropylŠa, and few buildings are more picturesque or irregular in arrangement than the Erechtheum. Who supposes that there was any lack of variety or invention in Imperial Rome? Truly one can but faintly conceive of the variety and splendor of the cities of Augustus or of Constantine, filled as they were with colonnades and porticos, with vaulted halls and temples and forums of which the varied and marvelous remains left to us are but indications.

We are told that the Greek was the great artist and the Roman the great constructor. Roman carving was from the hands of Greeks, and Vitruvius in his treatise on architecture says he de-rived the greatest assistance from the writings of Grecian architects upon architecture. Still the Corinthian order was never developed until it came under Roman influence, and then Roman conquest spread it throughout Greece itself. It does not greatly matter whether this was done by true Romans or by Greeks under Roman influence. These great artists may have lacked the pure Athenian refinement, yet, in the presence of the mighty remains of their work which we even now find in Rome, one cannot but recognize that they were supreme in their use of the orders. By means of them they obtained perhaps the most majestic and overpowering architectural effects that the world has ever seen.

If in the works of antiquity the proportions of the orders varied greatly, even greater variety was prevalent during the whole Renaissance period. The orders then were adorned with arabesques and carving. Besides being applied to buildings they entered into the design of altars, wainscots, and furniture of every kind. Passed on from age to age and through various countries these conventional forms have come by devious paths to modern days. The artists of the time of Francis I, finding them habitually used in the Italy they invaded, grafted them in a playful manner on the mediŠval stock of France. Later in England Elizabethan and Jacobean work showed a similar combination of classic detail on a picturesque body. Then in the more formal periods between the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XVI in France and under the guidance of Sir Christopher Wren and Sir William Chambers in England, the purer use of the orders obtained. Thus by degrees they reached us and appeared in the White House at Washington, in the New York City Hall, and in King's Chapel and the State House in Boston, as charming echoes from the courts of Louis XVI and of Queen Anne and the Georges.

In the modern world the ╔cole des Beaux Arts has been the nursery where the study of the orders has been most fostered. Nothing can exceed the grace and dignity with which they were used by the French masters of that school in the first half of the last century. It is sometimes questioned whether Parisian " taste " holds now to the standards of the past, but the principles that govern the use of the orders and the making of a plan still are taught better in France than elsewhere.

When the American student returns from his studies in a Parisian atelier and uses the orders in his monumental work, he finds almost as many questions confronting him as if he were using something fresh instead of a convention two thousand years old. Shall his order be light or heavy? Shall he make his pilasters without entasis and flute them as at the Pantheon, or make them plain and with an entasis as at the Temple of Mars; or shall he disregard the advice of the wise and give them both flutings and an entasis? Then, how can he correct the bow-legged look on the face, and how adjust the flutings on the return? If the pilaster has no entasis, where shall the entasis that the column does have be taken up in the pilaster? What proportions of the many that are possible shall be given to the modillions? Shall the capital be modeled on the bell prescribed by Vitruvius, or will the horns then be too protruding, and shall he study it after some other Classical or Renaissance type? Shall he place in the corner of a room a little fraction of a pilaster as a respond, or shall he adjust the whole scheme to give. large pilasters in the corners? Perhaps, in protest against the malformed orders he sees all around him, he may vow to follow closely Vignola, and then, in attempting to give a colonial air to some design in wood, he may find, perhaps too late, that the essence of such work lies in attenuated orders and slender details. Surely the use of the orders offers questions enough to puzzle over, questions that involve the nicest taste and clearest judgment and widest experience. They are questions that are perhaps best likened to those that must trouble the writer of a sonnet as he brings his lines into the accepted form.

Perhaps the chief objection to be found with such a general use of the orders as is now prevalent in monumental work is a certain uniformity in the design of clever people. Depending as the orders do on very delicate distinctions and selections, the personal and individual touch is not apparent to most eyes. At present, for instance, in a competition for a great government building it is almost impossible to attribute any special design to its author. All the designs have one pervading spirit. Thirty years ago the work of the designer was more interesting and picturesque in intention than it is today, but it lacked in skill and knowledge. Today it often lacks in interest, though carried out with consummate technique.

We are not going to lose the orders. They are with us to stay, just as much as the poetical framework of the sonnet, which they so much resemble. They will not be used everywhere. We must remember that there are ballads and lyrics to be written as well as sonnets and epics. Burns was a poet as well as Keats, and Millet a painter as well as Ingres. Charming and poetical designs are possible which show little affiliation with classical traditions, though we may believe that in some degree such beauty as these have rests on the same fundamental principles from which the orders have been evolved as convenient and long-accepted epitomes. But in modern monumental work majestic colonnades and porticoes will probably be the most usual means of expressing these fundamental principles. It will be long before a better means of giving grandeur and stateliness to a building will be found than can be obtained by the skillful and intelligent use of a noble order.



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