When you think of classical architecture, you may envision such structural elements as white columns, rectangular buildings, and balance. If you look around, you will often find classical columns on such structures as banks, schools, front porches, and government buildings. The basis for this building style comes from Greek and Roman temples, going back as far as the sixth century B.C.
The idea of building lasting temples out of stone came to the Greeks through ancient Egypt. The Egyptian influence can be seen in Greek masonry techniques, architectural ornaments, and in the geometric principles that underlay the design of the temples themselves. One of the most recognizable parts of Greek architecture, the column, derives from earlier Egyptian columns. The rectangular design scheme of the Greek temple is also derived from the ancient Egyptian style.
Although Greek temples use the simple form of a rectangle as a basis for their design, the rectangles themselves are far from ordinary. In fact, the rectangles used in Greek architecture oftentimes are golden rectangles, or rectangles whose ratio of side lengths is approximately 1.618034 to 1, otherwise known as the Golden Ratio. For the Greeks, this ratio, which is found in many places in nature, represented harmony, perfection, and beauty. The Greek column is based on another form of natural proportions, those of the human body. The Erechtheion, an Athenian temple honoring the goddess Athena, makes this analogy visible by substituting female figures for its columns.
The Greeks developed architectural standards, known as orders, which are still used today. The two main orders, the Doric and Ionic, can be most easily identified by the type of capital located above the column.
A Doric column appears graceful yet sturdy; it is fluted, meaning it has long vertical grooves running from top to bottom, and narrows gradually towards the top. The Doric capital consists of a flared circular base supporting a plain square tablet. The Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens, is an example of Greek architecture of the Doric order.
By contrast, a column of the Ionic order is much more slender, less tapered, and often taller than a Doric column. Ionic architecture in general was more flexible than the Doric, allowing for more variation. An Ionic capital consists of a graceful double scroll, called a volute, that is wider than the top of the column. The Erechtheion is an example of Ionic architecture.