Greek Architecture refers to the built structures constructed between 900-27 BC across the Greek Empire, which included regions such as the Aegean Islands, parts of Italy, and Turkey, in addition to the mainland. The style has significantly influenced the  Renaissance and Neoclassical art and architecture movements, and its principles have been used in mainstream architecture in the west as recently as the 20th century,  where architects have held the style in great reverence.  It has even influenced modern architecture buildings such as the Wainwright Building by Louis Sullivan, which is based on the anatomy of a classical Greek column.

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View of the Famous Acropolis in Greece ©Scott E. Barbour/Getty Images
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Wainwright Building in Chicago by Louis Sullivan ©Tom Bastin/Flickr

The key to the evergreen appeal of the architecture style is in its ‘logic and order’, which exudes harmony and beauty in the buildings. The aim was to achieve and portray the Greek Principle of ‘Arete’, which means ‘achieving one’s complete potential.’

Sculpture is an inseparable part of Greek Architecture. The importance given to the visual aspect of the buildings would make them pieces of grand sculptures themselves. There are, therefore, two major ways to talk about sculpture in this context- a) Architecture as Sculpture, and b) Sculpture in Ornamentation. 

Greek Architecture As Sculpture
In addition to being functional with their designs, it would be safe to say that the Greeks were very precise in their aesthetic. They used mathematical calculations to determine the scale and proportion of the buildings that would make them visually appealing. Ancient Greek Architecture devised the well-known architectural orders, each of them having separate specific rules that determine the proportions, shapes, and details in buildings, in addition to the relationship between various elements of a column. The most well-known were the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders, along with the lesser-known Tuscan and Composite orders.

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The Five Architectural Orders ©Merriam-Webster, Inc.
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Anatomy of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian Orders ©www.utexas.edu

The Doric order is more austere and simple in comparison to the more ornamented and detailed Ionic and Corinthian orders. Some examples of the kind of rules stipulated by these orders are – “height of a column should be five-and-a-half times its width” (Doric order), and “height of a column should be nine times its width” (Ionic order). Ionic and Corinthian columns would have bases, unlike the Doric Columns, which did not have any. The Ionic/Corinthian columns have highly ornamented capitals, which are certainly their defining feature. The Corinthian order was used mostly inside the buildings, especially in the ‘Cella’, which would house the statue of the God/Goddess. 

A well-known example of the Doric style in Greek Architecture would be the Parthenon, the famous ancient Greek temple dedicated to Athena, the Goddess of War. At the same time, the edifice intended to consecrate the power of the ruling administration. Although monumental in scale, some very discrete details have been incorporated into the design that results in amplifying its overall beauty and visual appeal. For example, the columns are wider in the middle than at the top or bottom. This prevents the appearance of slenderness in the middle.  Also, the temple’s sides are lower in comparison to the center to prevent optical ‘sagging’ that would otherwise be perceived had the structure been straight.

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The Parthenon ©Steve Swayne on Flickr Via Wikimedia Commons

An example of the Ionic style would be the Erechtheion, also located on the acropolis, a temple dedicated to the Gods Athena and Poseidon. It is much more slender and highly ornamented. It uses columns in the form of statues of maidens, otherwise known as the ‘caryatids’ that give the building a unique appearance, further blurring the boundary between building and sculpture. Besides, the Tuscan order is a further evolution of the Doric, and Composite, that of the Corinthian order.

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The Erechtheion ©Jebulon via Wikimedia Commons

 

Sculpture In Ornamentation

The ability of the Greeks to accurately capture the scale and proportion of the human figure has been matched by very few others. In tandem with their ideal of excellence and perfection, their sculptures reflected the perfect human body by focussing on their poise and relative proportions. These figures, primarily made with materials such as stone and bronze, are well-known all around the world such as Venus De Milo and Discobolus of Myron.

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Discobolus of Myron ©Matthias Kabel via Wikimedia Commons

In Greek Architecture, the temple’s columns support horizontal structures known as the ‘entablature’ and the ‘pediments’.  The ‘entablature’ was further divided into three parts, the middle one of which known as the ‘frieze’, consisted of relief sculptures. The triangular space contained within the pediment also consisted of relief sculptures. These exude the finesse of the free-standing sculptures and would depict stories of cultural importance. They would portray stories from mythology, the life of the people, and their pursuits.  Some of the larger free-standing sculptures were also housed in the temples, such as the lost Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon, made of gold and ivory, and the lost statue of Zeus, previously housed at the temple at Olympia. Both the statues are believed to have been over forty feet high. 

As Greek architecture and art became more refined, the art became ever more inseparable from the architecture. They are not only a testament to Greek values of excellence, but also to the power that the rulers enjoyed at the time.

References

Sana Gupta
Author

Sana Gupta has always beeninterested in too many things for her own good. Having studied architecture has only aggravated her desire to explore life through the lens of philosophy, spirituality, sociology, and psychology. Music helps her relax and writing helps her make thought-connections.

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