Greek Architecture


Table Summary

Summary of Greek Architecture
Archaic age
ca. 800-500 BC
Classical age
ca. 500-330 BC
Hellenistic age
ca. 330 BC-0
megaron > peripteral temple Athens Acropolis (Parthenon, Propylaea, Erechtheum) Alexandria (Library, Lighthouse)
Doric and Ionic orders Corinthian order

General Features

The foremost type of ancient Greek architecture is the temple; other monumental buildings (e.g. palaces, civic halls) were generally modelled on temple design. A Greek temple typically served as the home of a deity statue, before which ceremonies were conducted by priests. Like most cultures throughout history, however, the general population of ancient Greece did not congregate inside temples for religious services.3

Until the Archaic period, the Greeks typically constructed monumental buildings from wooden timbers and clay bricks (like the Aegeans before them). Throughout the Archaic period, these materials were superseded by stone, of which the supreme type was marble. Lesser varieties of stone were often enhanced with a veneer of marble dust.2

The Etruscan civilization (ca. 800 BC-0) of central Italy also erected large-scale architecture, in a style based strongly on that of the Greeks (see reconstruction of an Etruscan temple). Ruins of Etruscan cities (see examples) are scant, however, as the Etruscans (like the Aegeans) built mainly with wood and clay, which deteriorates swiftly. The Etruscans made early advances in arched construction, which were absorbed by the Romans.3,16

Main Article

Archaic Age

ca. 800-500 BC

The Archaic age (see History of Greek Europe) was the formative period of Greek architecture, during which the typical layouts, proportions, and decorative elements of the Greek temple were established.

The earliest Greek temple design was essentially a rectangular building with a portico (covered porch with columns) fitted to the entrance. This plan was based on the Mycenaean megaron (see Aegean Architecture). Eventually, in order to achieve symmetrical design, a second portico was added to the opposite end of the building; this was merely a decorative porch (a "false portico") as it lacked an entrance.H128,2,6,13

Basic Layout of a Megaron-based Temple
Exterior of a Megaron-based Temple

As illustrated above, the roof of a Greek temple has a shallow slope. This results in a low, wide triangular gable at the top of each portico. Each gable is called a pediment.

The standard Greek temple design emerged via embellishment of the megaron plan. Most crucially, the eaves were extended and supported with a line of columns all the way around the building.3 A line of columns that surrounds a building is called a peristyle; a building with a peristyle is described as peripteral.

Basic Layout of a Standard Greek Temple
Exterior of a Standard Greek Temple
Well-preserved Example of the Standard Greek Temple Design

A line of columns, known as a colonnade, usually supports the roof of a building or covered walkway. In the latter case, the term "colonnade" is sometimes extended to mean the entire structure. (Likewise, the term arcade may denote a series of arches, or a walkway with a roof supported by arches.)

The peripteral design is practical as well as aesthetic. A peripteral building is inherently surrounded by a covered walkway, thus providing shelter to visitors and passers-by. When a public square is surrounded by peripteral buildings (as was typical in ancient Greece and Rome), the perimeter of the square is lined with sheltered walkways.

Naturally, architects embellished on the standard temple plan in various ways. For instance, an opulent effect was sometimes achieved by adding a second peristyle around the first; this is known as a double peristyle. And while most Greek buildings featured only one story, multi-story designs were not uncommon. Circular versions of the temple plan also developed; a circular Greek temple-style building is known as a tholos.

Various Greek Temple Designs
Modern Example of a Double Peristyle
Restored Two-story Ancient Greek Building
Circular Greek Temple Architecture

With the basic layout established, two distinct styles of Greek temple emerged: the simple Doric order and the relatively elaborate Ionic order (see Classical Orders).1 Elements of both orders were sometimes mixed in the same building.

Classical Age

ca. 500-330 BC

Throughout the Archaic and Classical periods, the cultural heart of Greece was Athens. The principal site of Classical architecture is the Athens Acropolis, an elevated plateau at the centre of the city, reserved for its most sacred buildings. (The acropolis was a standard feature of Greek city-states.) Following the razing of the Acropolis by the Persians during the Persian Wars (ca. 500-450 BC), the most celebrated of all Greek structures were erected on this plateau.6

The most famous building in the Doric order, and indeed the crowning work of all Greek architecture, is the Parthenon. This temple originally housed an enormous statue of Athena, patron deity of Athens.3 (A full-scale replica of the Parthenon, though made of concrete rather than marble, is found in Nashville.)

Athens Acropolis
The Parthenon
Nashville Parthenon
Interior of the Nashville Parthenon

The entrance to the Acropolis is spanned by a magnificent gateway known as the Propylaea. This type of structure, essentially a classical temple that lacks front and rear walls, may be termed a classical gateway. The classical gateway experienced a revival across Europe during the Neoclassical period, the most famous example being the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

The Propylaea
Reconstruction of the Propylaea
Brandenburg Gate

The Ionic order flourished principally in Asia Minor; in mainland Greece, Doric reigned supreme (though many Doric buildings, including the Parthenon and Propylaea, borrow Ionic elements).2 Nonetheless, the Athens Acropolis also contains the foremost work of Ionic architecture: the Erechtheum. This temple features an unusual design, with multiple statue chambers and three entrances; each entrance has its own porch, one of which is the famous Porch of the Caryatids. (A "caryatid" is a column sculpted into a female figure; the male equivalent is an "atlantid".)

The Erechtheum
The Erechtheum
Porch of the Caryatids

The Classical age also witnessed the development of the Corinthian order (a derivative of the Ionic order; see Classical Orders), though it was rarely used prior to the Roman age.3,6

Other Building Types

Along with temples, the Greek temple design was used (and, to varying degrees, reshaped) by Archaic and Classical architects for other monumental structures, including administrative buildings, commercial halls, libraries, tombs, and monuments.

Ruins of an Ancient Greek Administrative Building
Restored Ancient Greek Commercial Hall
Ancient Greek Monument

Another important form of Greek architecture was venue seating, installed in such places as theatres (open-air structures for dramatic performance), odeons (smaller, roofed structures for musical performance), and hippodromes (horse tracks; see example). By constructing the stage (of a theatre or odeon) or track (of a hippodrome) at the base of a natural incline, wooden or stone benches could be installed in ascending rows upon the incline.5 (Venues with continuous seating all the way around the performance area would not be erected until Roman times.)

Ruins of an Ancient Greek Theatre
Partly Restored Ruins of an Ancient Greek Odeon

Hellenistic Age

ca. 330 BC-0

With the Macedonian embrace of Greek ways and the vast conquests of Alexander, the Hellenistic age witnessed a rapid diffusion of Greek culture, southward across Egypt and eastward across Southwest and Central Asia (see History of Greek Europe). Greek architecture filled many cities throughout these regions (some of which exceeded any Greek city-state in size), including Seleucia (Iraq), Pergamum (Turkey), Antioch (Turkey), and Alexandria (Egypt). The variety of Greek architecture expanded during this period (due to local cultural influences and the sheer amount of construction), as did size (thanks to advances in engineering).3,6

Overall, Hellenistic architecture is remembered for its unprecedented quantity, diversity, and scale. Alexandria, the cultural capital (and largest city) of the Hellenistic age (see reconstruction), erected the two most famous Hellenistic buildings: the Library of Alexandria (see reconstruction) and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Unfortunately, neither has survived.

Lighthouse of Alexandria
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5 - "Stadium", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2009.
6 - "Greek Art and Architecture: Architecture", Encarta. Accessed May 2009.
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8 - "History of Europe: Greeks, Romans, and barbarians » Greeks", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
9 - "Erechtheum", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2009.
10 - "Greek Art and Architecture: A Historical Overview", Encarta. Accessed May 2009.
11 - "Agora", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2009.
12 - "Choragic Monument (architecture)", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
13 - "Architecture", World Book Encyclopedia. Accessed January 2010.
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