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Greek Architecture - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )

Greek culture naturally owed much to preceding Oriental civilisations, but the Greeks, by reason of their innate artistic sense, so profoundly influenced the development of European art that Greece must be regarded as the veritable source of literary and artistic inspiration, and it has been truly said, " Whate'er we hold of beauty half is hers." Greek architecture stands alone in being accepted as beyond criticism, and therefore as the standard by which all periods of architecture may be tested.


(c. B.C. 3000—B.C. 700)

Minoan and Mycenaean architecture, also known as Pelasgic or Primitive, are rough and massive in character, although it is evident from recent excavations in Crete that the builders of this time had considerable knowledge and skill in domestic architecture. The character of the architecture is now chiefly known from the walls, which are of three kinds of masonry (p. 69 G) : (I) " Cyclopean," i.e. masses of large rough stones piled one on another, with small pieces in the interstices; and the whole bound together with clay mortar ; of this there are examples at Argos, Tiryns, Mycenae, Knossos in Crete, and Athens. (2) Rectangular, i.e. care-fully hewn rectangular blocks in regular courses, but the joints between stones in the same course are not always vertical : there are examples in the entrances and towers at Mycenae, and in the entrance passages in the " tholoi " or beehive tombs. (3) Polygonal, i.e. many-sided blocks, accurately worked so as to fit together, examples of which are found at Mycenae, in the Acropolis wall at Athens, and at Cnidos. Thus all three kinds occur in structures of the " Mycenaean " age, and in out-of-the-way places such as Caria their use survived for centuries. Cyclopean masonry seems to have been the parent of rectangular and polygonal, but it is not definitely known whether rectangular preceded polygonal masonry. Various other features, such as corbels, inclined blocks, and arches, characterise the work of this period. Corbels were fashioned in horizontal courses projecting one beyond the other till the apex was reached, thus producing triangular openings, as above the doorways of the tholos tombs (p. 70 C), corbelled vaults, as OEniadae, Assos, and Tiryns, or dome-shaped roofs, as in the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae (p. 73). Inclined blocks (p. 69 G) sometimes formed triangular-headed openings, as in the sanctuary on Mount Ocha in Euboea, and the ancient shrine of Apollo on Mount Cynthos, Delos. A few examples of Greek arches are extant, viz, a Cyclopean arch at Cnidos, an arch with a key-stone (partially dropped) in Acarnania, and an arched gateway at OEniadae. A water-channel or drain at Athens, which crosses the town from east to west, is partly arcuated and partly roofed with projecting corbels. The barrel vault occurs in subterranean funeral chambers in Macedonia, in the vaulted passages at the theatre at Sicyon, in the tunnel leading to the Stadion at Olympia, and in other places.


(B.C. 700-A.D. 146)

The Hellenic style which followed the Mycenaean is, however, the recognised Greek type of architecture, which was essentially columnar and trabeated (trabs = a beam), and this gave it that simple, straight-forward character in which the constructive system is self-evident, uncomplicated by such devices as are involved in arch, vault, and dome. The general character of early Hellenic architecture is archaic and severe, and Mycenaean influence is apparent ; but a gradual change towards refinement took place, and columns became more graceful and mouldings more refined. Unity of effect in the larger temples was obtained by a single, uniform colonnade which surrounded the naos (p. 92 A), thus forming a strong contrast with the number of courts, halls, and chambers, decreasing in size from the entrance pylons, which composed a typical Egyptian temple. Stability was achieved by a judicious observance of the laws of gravity, as the pressure of the superimposed weight acted vertically, and consequently only needed vertical resistance. Lintels of any great length in stone or marble would not, by reason of the granular nature of this material, withstand pressure from above without support from below, so columns had to be placed close together, and these constructive conditions called for that simplicity of treatment characteristic of the style. The equal distribution of pressure between the stone or marble blocks of walls and columns was effected by rubbing the beds of the blocks to finely fitting surfaces, and so mortar was unnecessary, though metal cramps were sometimes used. There is also evidence that due consideration was given to the nature of the material employed ; for Choisy found in the temples at AEgina and Paestum that stones were laid according to the pressure they had to bear ; thus stone blocks in walls and columns were laid on their natural bed, i.e. as found in the quarry, while for architraves they were placed with the planes of their beds vertical, as they were then better able to withstand the cross-strain, and thus columns could be placed wider apart, or in other words a wider intercolumniation could be obtained.

Greek buildings designed on one constructive principle are naturally characterised by harmony and simplicity. Many refinements were practised in the great period of Greek art, in order to correct optical illusions. The long horizontal lines of such features as stylobates, architraves, and cornices, which, if straight in reality, would appear to sag or drop in the middle of their length, were formed with slightly convex outlines (p. 126 E, F, G). Mr. Penrose discovered that, in the Parthenon, the stylobate has an upward curvature towards its centre of 2.61 ins. on the east and west facades, and of 4.39 ins, on the lateral facades. Vertical features were also inclined inwards towards the top to correct the appearance of falling outwards; thus, in the Parthenon, the axes of the angle columns lean inwards 2.65 ins., and the axes of all the columns, if produced,would meet at a distance of a mile above the ground (p. 126 C). The shafts of the Parthenon columns have an entasis (see Glossary) of about f in. in a height of 34 ft. (p. 126 D), and columns of other temples are similarly treated. Angle columns were not only set closer to the adjacent columns, but were also stouter, as it was found that they appeared thinner against the open sky than those seen against the solid background of the " naos " wall (p. 126 B). Pennethorne points out a further correction in use in an inscription from the Temple of Priene (p. 126 A), where, according to Vitruvius, Bk. VI, chap. ii, the letters at the top of the inscription were increased in size, and the letters at the lower part decreased, so that they might all appear of one size from the point of sight below. Other optical illusions in connection with columns are shown (p. 126 H, j). The finest sculpture completed the most important buildings, and the delicate adjustment and refined treatment, alike of architecture and sculpture, were made possible by the hard, fine grain of the marble. Colour and gilding were also freely applied to architectural features and sculptures, and fragments lately excavated at Athens, Delphi, and elsewhere exhibit traces of the original colouring.

The Greeks developed the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian " Orders of Architecture," and to these the Romans added the Tuscan and Composite, thus completing the " Five Orders of Architecture." An " Order " in Classic architecture consists of the upright column or support, including base and capital, and the horizontal entablature, or part supported. The latter is divided into architrave or lowest part, frieze or middle part, and cornice or upper part. The proportions of column and entablature vary in the different " Orders," as do also mouldings and ornament (p. 116) . The origin and evolution of the different parts of the three Greek Orders are considered under their respective headings in examples (pp. 78, 96, 107) .

Art is generally evolved, according to Mr. J. Addington Symonds, through three stages : (1) the ardent and inspired embodiment of a great idea—this gives strength and grandeur ; (2) the original inspiration tempered by increased knowledge and a clearer appreciation of limitations—the result is symmetry ; (3) the ebbing of inspiration, with elaborated details—this produces a brilliant but somewhat disproportioned style. This process can be traced in all branches of Greek art. In architecture there is the sturdy strength of the Doric Order, the clear-cut beauty of the Ionic, and the florid detail of the Corinthian ; in poetry the rugged grandeur of AEschylus, the exquisite symmetry of Sophocles, and the brilliant innovations of Euripides ; while in sculpture the same changes are expressed in the different styles of Ageladas, Pheidias, and Praxiteles.

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