Greek Architecture: History and Mechanics
Throughout history, there have been several significant architectural movements. The last, and perhaps most enduring movement is that of Classic Greece. Although for centuries, the architecture of ancient Greece has been admired, mimicked, and replicated, its beginnings are somewhat surprising to one unfamiliar with the history of the region. It is important to understand the history and mechanics of Classic Greek architecture in order to fully appreciate its form, function, and beauty. “Ancient Greek architects strove for the precision and excellence of workmanship that are the hallmarks of Greek art in general. The formulas they invented as early as the sixth century B.C. have influenced the architecture of the past two millennia” (metmuseum.org).
“The first inhabitants of the Greek peninsula, who are believed to be Neolithic, built very primitive and basic structures. The houses were mainly built with a circular, oval, apsidal, or rectangular shape They used mud bricks and stones in the mud with reeds or brush to help build the house. Most of the houses had one room, there were very rarely two” (thinkquest.org). These simple homes are the primary foundation for the Grecian style of architecture. Though Neolithic in nature, the first Architects laid the basic foundations for all architecture to follow in Greece and the rest of the world. The shapes of these early homes carry through all the way from the Ionic to the Corinthian order.
“The next group of settlers were the Minoan architects. Their towns were mostly residential with little or no temples and public places. Unlike earlier people, their houses were private and had many roomsto separate rooms, they would use only pillars” (thinkquest.org). These new people introduced several different aspects to the foundation of Grecian architecture, namely, the openness of the houses and rooms. It is this culture, which is mostly accredited with introducing the mechanics of the ancient Grecian forms of architecture.
“The first advanced culture in Greece, and indeed in all of Europe, was created by a people referred to today as the Minoans. Their civilization flourished from about 2200 to 1450 B.C. on Crete, the large island located about one hundred miles southeast of the Greek mainland” (Nardo, 12). The Minoans are credited with founding the architecture that ancient Greece is now so famous for. One of the most famous examples of Minoan architecture is “the palace at Knossos, their chief city, located near the northern coast of the island, was five stories high and consisted of hundreds of interconnected rooms” (Nardo, 12). Nardo states “there is evidence that these were highly sophisticated buildings with modern-style plumbing features, such as flush toilets and clay pipes carrying hot and cold water. As many as thirty to fifty thousand people lived in the palace at Knossos and in the city that surrounded it. And there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of Minoan cities and towns on Crete and the islands of the Aegean Sea, the inlet of the Mediterranean Sea bordering eastern Greece” (Nardo, 12).
“Because the Minoans kept few records and no histories, their culture had been largely forgotten by the time of the classical Greeks. Yet a few vague memories of Minoan days remained, passed on by word of mouth over the course of many centuries” (Nardo, 13). It is this little bit of information that was orally passed down which became the foundation for the classical Greek style, when combined with the Egyptian influences to come.
“Greek Life was dominated by religion and so it is not surprising that the temples of ancient Greece were the biggest and most beautiful. They also had a political purpose as they were often built to celebrate civic power and pride, or offer thanksgiving to the patron deity of a city for success in war” (ancientgreece.com). The main purpose for the temples was to house and protect the statues of the gods and goddesses the temples were built to honor. While the temples were a place of worship, and the people of Greece were expected to honor and worship the gods and goddesses, until the age of Alexander the Great, only trained priests and priestesses were allowed access to the temples (ancientgreece.com). While the first temples were simple in both design and execution, as time went on, both design and function became more intricate. By the reign of Alexander the Great, when common citizens were allowed access to the temples, the architectural style had evolved so much that the temple was a place of beauty as well as a place of form and function.
The beautiful arches that Greek architecture has become so well known for were really not intended to be part of the decoration of the buildings. Used for support purposes only, the arches were either holding up the ceiling or holding up the floor. Ironically, those structural frames would withstand the tests of time and come to be one of the identifying factors of ancient Grecian architecture.
“When the Greeks ventured into Egypt and saw the soaring structures of the royal cities of the Nile Valley, they grasped the concept of monumental architecture and gigantic sculpture. It was not architectural design so much as the material and scale – the imposing dimensions carried out in stone – that they eagerly emulated. Before the Greeks came into contact with Egyptian culture, the basic plan of the Greek temple had been well established – a rectangle, with columns along the front, sides, and back and usually in double rows down the interior of the main room, which housed a cult image” (Time, 60).
The Greeks didn’t so much alter the style of their architecture as a result of Egyptian exposure, as they did the way in which they constructed their buildings. By the year 600 B.C., the Greeks began to build using only stone. The main reason for this is that they had a ready supply of both limestone and marble, and sufficient slave labor to mine both. Soon, building with wood, as they had been up to this point, was an extinct idea. It is from this transition that the three major orders of Greek architecture evolved.
“The Greeks developed three architectural systems, called orders, each with their own distinctive proportions and detailing” (ancientgreece.com). The three styles, or orders, are the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The three distinctive styles are referred to as orders because they display proportionate, ordered, and coordinated parts. It has been assumed that their initial forms may have had symbolic meaning. The main difference between the three orders is the column style. However, “the architectural order governed not only the column, but also the relationships among all the components of architecture. As a result, every piece of a Greek building is integral to its overall structure” (metmuseum.org). All the pieces of Greek buildings are important to not only their beauty, but their form and function as well.
The Doric order evolved on the Western shores of Greece. “Doric architecture was known for being used by the Spartans” (thinkquest.org). “The Doric style is rather sturdy, and its top (the capitol), is plain. This style was used in mainland Greece and the colonies in southern Italy and Sicily” (ancientgreece.com). The Doric column has a dish-shaped top (capital) and no base. The Doric style is most evident in the Parthenon. The Parthenon is a temple of Athena Parthenos, the Virgin Goddess of wisdom, built on the Acropolis in Athens. The Parthenon was built in the 5th century B.C. and is the largest building on top of the Acropolis. Made entirely of pentelic marble, it was surrounded by freestanding columns. The Parthenon is the most important and characteristic monument of the ancient Greek civilization’s Doric order. Though it employs mainly the Doric order, it has evidence of the Ionic order as well, specifically on the walls of the cella” (ancientgreece.com).
The Ionic order evolved in Ionia, on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea. “The Ionic style is thinner and more elegant. Its capital is decorated with a scroll-like design (a volute). This style was found in eastern Greece and the islands” (ancientgreece.com). “In the Ionic order of architecture, bases support the columns, which have more vertical flutes than those of the Doric order. Ionic capitals have two volutes that rest atop a band of palm-leaf ornaments. The abacus is narrow and the entablature, unlike that of the Doric order, usually consists of three simple horizontal bands” (metmuseum.org). Perhaps the most recognized example of the Ionic order is the Temple of Athena Nike, built around 420 B.C.
The Corinthian order was not commonly used in Greece, but instead in the Roman world. This style was the dominant style found in Roman temples. The Corinthian style’s capital is very elaborate and decorated with acanthus leaves. This style is also the youngest of the three, not having come to full development until mid-4th century B.C. The elegance of this order is common among the Roman temples, but was not so popular within the Greek world at the time. Known for its ornate-ness, the Temple of Zeus at Athens is the most famous example of the Corinthian style.
The work of the architects and builders was mostly done by slaves. Slave labor was a necessity to those building large temples and other buildings. It is estimated that out of the 270, 000 people in Athens, 80,000 of them were slaves (Nardo, 57). Though most people disagreed with the practice of slavery even at this time, they knew that bodies were needed in order for the temples and buildings to be erected. The temples on the Acropolis were all rebuilt using slave labor very similar to the slave labor used in Egypt to construct the pyramids. Slaves were not bought and sold in classical Greece as they were later in the western world. Greek slaves were captured when one city-state conquered another.
In 449 B.C., Pericles suggested that in order to bring pride and beauty to the city of Athens, the temples on the Acropolis, which had been destroyed by the Persians, should be rebuilt. The Acropolis, or “high city,” was a fortress built on a hill in Athens, Greece. The Acropolis contains some of the world’s most famous structures built in the classical Greek architectural style.
The Parthenon, the Propylaea, and the Erechtheum are among those housed on the Acropolis, and were constructed during the “Golden Age” of Athens – 5th century B.C. – under Pericles. The new Parthenon, temple to Athena is the largest building on the Acropolis. The first habitation remains on the Acropolis date from the Neolithic period. Throughout the centuries, the site of the Acropolis was used and reused as either a place of worship, or a residential area, or the last line of defense against an invading army (ancientgreece.com).
Although for centuries, the architecture of ancient Greece has been admired, mimicked, and replicated, its beginnings are somewhat surprising to one unfamiliar with the history of the region. It is important to understand the history and mechanics of Greek architecture in order to fully appreciate it. The ancient Greeks were very well known for their beautiful temples. They were able to devise several different ways to create beautiful buildings and implement those designs. The ancient Greeks set the architectural foundations for the rest of the world with their three orders. The three styles, or orders, are the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The three distinctive styles are referred to as orders because they display proportionate, ordered, and coordinated parts. The Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders serve a functional purpose, as well as lend so much beauty to structures. “All the world’s culture culminated in Greece, and Greece in Athens, all Athens in its Acropolis, all the Acropolis in the Parthenon” (Nardo, 61).
“Architecture in Ancient Greece.” Ancient Greece. 11 October 2004. .
Greek Architecture. 11 October 2004. .
Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Architecture in Ancient Greece.” 12 October 2004. .
Nardo, Don. Ancient Greece. California: Lucent Books, 1994.
Time Life Books, eds. Greece: Temples, Tombs, & Treasures. Virginia: Time Life, 1994.