20 Different Types of Architectural Columns

Columns are used throughout the world for both decorative and structural purposes. So, there are many different types of columns out there. Read this page for an in-depth view of both classical and modern types of columns.

Architectural columns of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC., USA.

From a sophisticated display of art and culture to more structural uses, columns are a vital structural element of many buildings throughout the world. Columns were used in Ancient Egyptian architecture as early as 2600 BC. Given that columns have been around for millennia and can be found all over the world, there are many different types of columns that have been constructed and in use over those thousands of years. Keep reading for more information regarding the different types of columns in the world, from the more classical columns to those modern columns made and used today.

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The five orders chart - Doric, Ionic and Corinthian Greek columns and Tuscan and Composite Roman columns

Types of Greek Columns

Ancient Greek architecture had many unique features. The features of these structural elements are still used throughout the world in modern structures and buildings. Ancient Greek columns are known for their impeccable detail, balance, and beautiful decoration and art. The ancient Greeks loved construction and buildings. They designed and built many different types of structures, many of which still stand today.

Ancient Greek buildings showed a great sense of and talent for art and design. The ancient Greeks’ passion for beauty and their tireless work ethic are evident in the buildings that still stand today. Their dedication and passion for building stemmed from the fact that they built many structures for the purpose of honoring their gods.

Take a look at some of the different classical orders of columns created by the Greeks:

Greek Orders

Greek columns are classified in three different styles, or orders. These orders include the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These three orders were adopted by the Romans in the 1st century BC. Today, the three orders are still used in architecture around the world, especially in European countries.

The Doric and Ionic orders were said to have originated around the same time as one another. The Ionic order was established in eastern Greece, while the Doric started in the west and mainland of modern-day Greece. Many speculate that these two orders originated as wooden structures, not as stone. Soon after 600 BC, the Doric order seemed to have spread across Greece and even extended into use in Sicily. It’s important to note that the early Greeks were well aware of the use of stone columns in ancient Egyptian architecture. However, in ancient Egypt, columns were mostly used in the interior of buildings. In Greece, these stone columns were primarily used as the dominant feature in exterior structures. This made them exterior columns.

Doric

Doric column diagram

The Doric column type was one of the more simple types of columns created by the Greeks. They were also among the thickest types of columns the Greeks created. The Doric order began in western Greece, and also in the mainland of modern-day Greece. These columns were typically short and heavy, organized with round, plain capitals (tops) and no base. In addition, the Doric order consisted of structures that weren’t tall, even by ancient Greek standards. In fact, structures and buildings that used Doric order columns were among the shortest and thickest of all the orders.

Features

Another feature of a Doric column is its sixteen flutes. These flutes function as channels in the shaft of a Doric columns. Above these channels sits the capital. Above the capital sits a slab called the abacus, which is connected to the Entablature. The Entablature is divided into three horizontal parts: the lower part, also known as the cornice, the upper half, called the architrave, and the frieze. These Doric column features are also divided into further pieces, which we will discuss below.

The cornice is split into three pieces, called the soffit, the corona, and the cymatium. The soffit is the exposed underside of the cornice. The other two pieces, the corona and cymatium, are the most important parts of a cornice.

The frieze consists of triglyphs and metopes. A triglyph is a piece that has three vertical bands with grooves. Metopes sit between two triglyphs, and can have plain or carved reliefs.

The architrave of a Doric column is divided into three pieces, just as a cornice is. These pieces are called the guttae, the regulae, and the taenia.

Ionic

Ionic Greek Column

Ionic Colums in Pompeii.

Eastern Greece is where the Ionic order was first established. The origin of the Ionic order was combined with the Aeolic order. Structures using the Ionic order are known to have fluted pillars and a large base. The echinus of an Ionic column is typically decorated beautifully, with an egg-and-dart motif, a very detailed design. The design of the Ionic column consists of 24 flutes in total, which is four more than the amount of flutes on a Doric column.

Features

The Ionic order of entablature is similar to the Doric order. However, in the Ionic order, the fascia, or flat horizontal protrusions, are added in the architrave. An Ionic column also adds dentils, or tooth-like rectangular block moldings, under the cornice.

Also, the Ionic order of entablature is widely considered to be much more slender and ornate than the entablature of the Doric order, which is considered to be a much more masculine design. An Ionic column has a scroll-shaped ornament sitting at its capital. These scroll-shaped ornaments are an excellent indicator of whether a column is Ionic or not.

Corinthian Order

Corinthian Greek Column

The most ornate of the Greek orders, the Corinthian order was the order most often used to please the ancient Greek gods. Corinthian columns were focused on a slender, fluted design, with an ornate capital at the top of the structure. These capitals were decorated with two rows of acanthus leaves and four scrolls. Given their impeccable design, and immense and intricate detail, many consider the Corinthian order to be the most elegant out of the three Greek orders of entablature. Similar to the Ionic order, the shaft on Corinthian structures has 24 flutes. A Corinthian column is typically 10 meters high.

History

Vintage Old Justice Courthouse Columns

Vitruvius, a Roman writer, credited the invention of the Corinthian order to the Greek sculptor Callimachus. To the best of modern knowledge, the oldest building constructed using this order was the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, Greece, which was built from 335 to 334 BC.

Types of Buildings

The ancient Greeks used these three orders in nearly every building that they built. Temples were among the most popular buildings built by ancient Greeks. These temples consisted of a simple design with rows of exterior columns surrounding the structure. The frieze, a decorative panel above the columns, had a much detail and art included in its design. The pediment, a triangular area above the frieze, was also a prominent feature in ancient Greek columns. Columns were used in temples, which were meant to be the home of the ancient gods and goddesses. The statues of these deities were located in an inner chamber inside their temple.

The Parthenon is an example of the most popular type of temple in Ancient Greece. This iconic sctruture is located in the city of Athens. It was built for the goddess Athena using the Doric order in its design. Athena’s Parthenon had 46 exterior columns, all of which were six feet in diameter and 34 feet tall. A statue of Athena was housed inside in large gold and ivory structure.

Ancient Greeks constructed a wide variety of other buildings that were not temples, as well. Large theaters were some of the more popular structures. These ancient theaters could sometimes hold over 10,000 people. Ancient Greeks also used the formation of the land to help construct their buildings appropriately.

Theaters are a perfect example of this ingenious use of the land surrounding an intended structure. Ancient Greek theaters were almost always built into the side of hills, to help with the acoustics so that everyone in a theater could hear what was going on during the events that took place in these buildings. Covered walkways, called stoas, were also frequently built. Stoas were used by merchants for selling goods, and were also used to host public meetings. Additional public buildings that were popular included gymnasiums, council buildings, and sports stadiums.

Types of Roman Columns

Roman columns are also important pieces of architecture that are still in use today. After having adopted all the Greek orders, the Roman orders also developed two orders of their own: the Tuscan order and Composite order. Although these two were based on Greek orders, Romans added some modifications to them to make them their own. However, the Romans didn’t officially change the name of their renditions of the orders. Indeed, the names of the Roman orders were not changed until after the Renaissance. This is when the names Tuscan and Composite were coined.  They were also the most ornate of the orders. The Superposed order and Colossal order were two other orders developed by the Romans. These orders added to the versatility and decorative abilities of the Roman columns.

Superposed Order

Profile of the Roman Coliseum

This order involves a building built in a variety of different styles. While under construction, the heaviest orders are built at the bottom, while the lighter orders are built near the top of a structure. That said, the Doric order is typically located at the bottom of a structure, while the Ionic can be found in the middle, and the Corinthian or Composite order is typically found at the top. The rules of the Superposed order were developed by ancient Greeks, but this order was heavily used by the Romans. The most famous building of this structure type is the Colosseum in Rome. Later, the Superposed order made its way into the architecture of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Colossal

Temple Olympian Zeus Columns

The Colossal order, also known as a Giant order, is an order where the columns stand at two or more stories tall. This order was invented by architects in the Renaissance, and many of their buildings were constructed with this form of architecture. The Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, Italy, was designed by Leon Battista Alberti. This Basilica uses one of the more popular forms of Colossal order. St. Mark’s Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, is another great example of the use of Colossal columns.

Tuscan

Artificial ruins of the Tuscan order small stone temple.

The Tuscan order is one of the more simple and least intricate types of columns created by the Romans. The design of a Tuscan column is very plain, with a simple shaft, capital, frieze, and base. The design of the Tuscan order was inspired by that of the Doric order created by the ancient Greeks, who predated the ancient Romans. The unfluted shaft and simple capital help to characterize the Tuscan order. The capital of a Tuscan column consists of an echinus and abacus. This structure is typically smaller than the Doric builds, and is quite plain compared to its Greek and Roman counterparts. Tuscan columns typically stand at seven meters high. These structures are said to be the strongest and most solid of the ancient Roman columns.

Composite

Composite columns

The Composite order consists of a blend of different orders. A composite column combines the volutes (the characteristic scrolls) of the Ionic column and the leaves of the Corinthian column. Until the Renaissance, this order wasn’t classified as its own type of entablature. Instead, the Composite order was considered a subtype of the Corinthian order. Composite orders consist of structures that stand at ten meters high.

Doric Columns

Originally established by the Greeks, Doric columns were also widely used by the ancient Romans. Ancient Romans made modifications to this order to suit their own style and tastes. The biggest difference between Roman Doric columns and Greek Doric columns is that the Roman columns focused on decoration, where the Greeks mostly used their Doric columns to add support to their buildings. Given how Doric columns were some of the plainest orders of entablature, these were the last type used by the Romans.

Ionic

The scrolls of the Ionic order are what give them their unique appearance. Originally created by the Asiatic Greeks, Ionic columns were used in mainland Greece during the 5th century. Taller than Doric columns, Ionic columns include an entasis, a curvature on the column surface that is used solely for decorative purposes. The second level of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy, and the Basilica Palladiana in Vicenza, Italy, are two famous structures that also utilize the Roman Ionic form.

Corinthian

The Corinthian style used by the Romans was ostentatious, yet also had many elegant qualities. Some of the most prominent features of the Corinthian order include decorations of acanthus leaves, foliage, and various types of flowers. The word “Corinthian” can from the name of the ancient city of Corinth in Greece. Of all of the column types, the Corinthian style is by far the most decorative. Similar to the Ionic order, Corinthian columns also have an entasis. Given their artistic qualities and gorgeous elegance, ancient Romans used Corinthian columns quite often.

Types of Egyptian Columns

Egyptian columns show a much resemblance to Greek and Roman columns, but they include their own styles and unique qualities. When people think of Egyptian architecture, they might think about the pyramids and the form of Lotus and Papyrus style columns, but there are also many other Egyptian columns to consider. A big difference between Egyptian columns and Greek columns is the fact that Egyptians based the designs and decorations on their columns off the appearance of local plants. For example, many ancient Egyptian columns resemble tree trunks or stems.

As Egyptian builders became more knowledgeable and experienced with building, they began to experience with other forms of columns. That’s why there are so many types of columns built by Egyptians; they would frequently blend together ideas and use various types of architectural columns to help build and support their structures.

Take a look at some of the different Egyptian columns out there:

Fluted Column

Egyptianesque Columns

The first form of the fluted column was built in the Step Pyramid enclosure of Djoser, but the New Kingdom brought new forms that made the fluted type become less and less popular. The idea of a fluted column is to resemble bundled reeds and plant stems. These columns are extremely old, and they are actually believed to be the very first columns made from stone in the entire world.

Palmiform

Columns at the temple of Horus, Edfu.

The palmiform column was another early type of column used in Egypt. These were one of the earliest styles widely used in the  architecture of Egyptian temples. A popular example of this type of column is found in the Fifth Dynasty pyramid mortuary complex of Unas. However, after that period, these columns fell out of fashion and out of use. The best examples of the palmiform column can be found at the Taharga temple in Kawa in Upper Nubia, and in some temples that date all the way back to the Graeco-Roman Period.

Papyriform

Papyriform columns and statue of Ramesses II in the temple of Luxor.

Papyriform columns can be found in several different variations. Some of these columns have circular shafts that resemble a single plant, while others have ribbed shafts that represent a papyrus plant with multiple stems. Papyriform column capitals are usually a design of closed buds, or open in a wide form. The bases of papyriform columns are decorated with triangular patterns.

This type of column was used primarily during the New Kingdom era in ancient Egypt. The designs of the papyriform order represented stylized stem sheaths. However, it’s important to not that these columns are not free-standing, or able to stand on their own. Rather, they are incorporated with other structures.

Coniform Columns

Philae Temple in Egypt.

After this type of column was used in the contribution of Djoser’s Step Pyramid enclosure wall, the popularity of the Coneiform column was short-lived. Additionally, the style seemed to never be used again in a revival of any kind later on. The Coneiform style consists of a fluted shaft with a capital that resembles the branches of a conifer tree. These are simple columns, but their thickness and tree-like abilities made them very useful in building.

Tent Pole Columns

Tent pole columns

The known forms of tent pole columns are made out of brick or stone, though the brick type seems to be the rarer of the two. Some of the only known examples of these types of columns are found in the Festival Temple of Tuthmosis III at Karnak. Tent pole columns were designed to represent wooden poles, which were used to support light structures like tents, shrines, kiosks, and ship cabins. No one really knows why this column design was invented, but they do relate it to the earliest of Egypt’s structures, which were made from wood. In fact, some say that the exact columns in Tuthmosis III’s temple were modeled from the actual wooden poles of his military tent.

Campaniform Columns

Campaniform column

The campaniform column style was a blend of different variations of Egyptian column architecture. While some of these columns took the shape of a floral column or pillar, others had circular or square shafts. However, all of the campaniform columns seemed to have a flower-shaped capital.

The most popular examples of these columns are found in the Hall of Annals of Tuthmosis III at Karnak. Two types of columns were used in the construction of this building. One of the column architecture styles represented the heraldic plant of northern Egypt, papyrus, while the other resembled the symbolic plant of southern Egypt, the lotus. These symbols were strategically placed on the northern and southern sides of the hall. Symbolic placement was common throughout Egyptian architecture. Both of these types of columns were rare, but their forms appeared more often in the Graeco-Raman period than any other.

Composite Columns

Composite Columns in Karnak temple, Thebes of Egypt in Luxor.

Composite columns were primarily used during the Graeco-Raman period. These columns consisted of an extension of the Campaniform column decorations, and included designs that resembled flowers and other real or imagined plants. Composite columns were extremely stylistic and quite decorative. Given their artistic qualities and impeccable detail, there were various forms of composite columns. In fact, many composite columns become so stylized, they couldn’t even be recognized as what they were. This column style evolved over the years, and began to look very different once it made its way into Greece and Rome and use by the residents in those places.

Hathoric Columns

Hathoric columns in Dendera Temple.

Although plant-style columns were the most popular types in Egypt, non-plant style columns were also constructed in different variations. Hathoric columns were one of the more popular types of non-plant columns. These columns most likely originated during the Middle Kingdom period in ancient Egypt. The most well-known trait of Hathoric columns is their capital, which is shaped like the cow-headed goddess, Hathor. She also gives the column its name. The shaft of Hathoric columns was typically simple and round. The most popular examples of Hathoric columns are found at the Temple of Nefertari at Abu Simbel and within the Hypostyle hall of the Ptolemaic (Greek) temple at Dendera.

Osiride

Osiride Pillars at the Karnak Temple Complex.

Osiride pillars are another style of column architecture. They are typically a part of another architectural structure, so they are not structural columns. Many say that these pillars originated during the period of the Middle Kingdom. They also state that Osiride pillars were based on a statue of the god, Osiris, who appears on the front surface of the column.

Contemporary Columns

Long tunnel columns.

Columns are still used widely today for many different purposes. While many of these are less decorative and less meaningful than they were centuries and millennia ago, columns are still an important part of architecture today. But while many of the same styles and forms are used in contemporary columns, builders have introduced new materials to make these columns larger, stronger, and more effective at holding weight for long periods of time. Steel, iron, and concrete are some of the more popular materials that have been added to the construction of columns since the Greek and Roman periods The addition of these materials have made buildings stronger than ever before. The brute strength of steel allows builders to create large structures and extremely heavy buildings. Columns will continue to get more sophisticated and strong as time goes by, so humans should expect to see more advanced types of columns introduced in the decades to come.

Frequently Asked Questions about Architectural Columns

What are the different types of columns?

This is a question with a multitude of answers. There were three ancient cultures that used columns widely: the people of ancient Greece, the ancient Romans, and the ancient Egyptians.

There are three different types of Greek columns: the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The types of Roman columns include the same orders as those of ancient Greece. The others are the superposed order, composite, colossal, and Tuscan columns. The types of Egyptian columns are the fluted column, the palmiform column, the campaniform column, corniform columns, composite columns, Hathoric columns, and Osiride columns.

What are modern columns made from?

Modern columns can be made from an variety of different materials. There are steel columns, iron columns, and concrete columns, among other contemporary column materials.

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