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20 Different Types of Architectural Columns


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

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

Columns were used in Ancient Egyptian architecture in as early as 2600 BC. From a sophisticated display of art to their structural uses, columns are a vital piece to many buildings and structures throughout the world. But given that columns have been around for centuries, there are many types that have been constructed over the years. Keep reading for more information regarding the different types of columns in the world, including classical types to those made 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 has many unique qualities that are still used throughout the world in modern civilization. These columns are known for their impeccable detail, balance, and beautiful art. Greeks loved building. They designed and built many different types of structures, which many of them are still standing today. These Greek buildings had a great sense of art and design, and their passion and work-ethic are still evident in these buildings today. Their dedication and passion for building are mostly due to the fact that they built many structures for their gods. Take a look at some of the different types of columns created by the Greeks:

Greek Orders

Greek columns are classified in three different styles, or orders. These orders include Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These orders were adopted by the Romans, and this adoption took place in the 1st century BC. Today, these three orders are still used in architecture around the world, especially in European culture. The Doric and Ionic orders were said to have originated around the same time. Ionic order was established in eastern Greece, while the Doric started the west and mainland. Many say that these two orders originated as wooden structures. And soon after 600 BC, the Doric order seemed to have spread across Greece and into Sicily. It’s also important to note that early Greeks were well aware of the use of stone columns in Ancient Egyptian architecture, but these were mostly used in the interior of buildings. In Greece, these stone columns were primarily used as a dominant feature in exteriors.

Doric

Doric column diagram

These column types were one of the more simple types created by the Greeks. However, they were also among the thickest they created. The Doric order began in western Greece and also in the mainland. These columns were typically short, heavy, and organized with round, plain capitals (tops) and no base. In addition, it’s important to know that the Doric order consisted of structures that weren’t very tall. In fact, they were the shortest and thickest among all of the orders.

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Features

Another feature of Doric columns involves the 16 flutes that are channels in the shaft of these structures. Above these channels sits the capital, and above that sits that slab called the abacus, which is connected to the Entablature. The Entablature is divided into three horizontal parts: the lower part, the upper half, and the frieze. This frieze consists of triglyphs and metopes. A triglyph is a piece that has three vertical bands that have grooves. Metopes sit between two triglyphs and have plain or carved reliefs.

Ionic

Ionic Greek Column

Ionic Colums in Pompeii.

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

Features

As we move down the piece of these Ionic structures, the base includes two complex moldings called tori, and these are separated by a scotia. A curved tapering in the column shaft helps to design the entasis, and an Ionic column is nine times the size of its lower diameter. It’s also important to note that the shaft is eight diameters high, being much taller than the stout Doric counterpart.

Corinthian Order

Corinthian Greek Column

Being the most ornate Greek order, Corinthian order was the order used to please the gods the most. These 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 the impeccable design and insane amount of detail, many believe that the Corinthian order was the most elegant out of the three. Similar to the Ionic order, the shaft on Corinthian structures has 24 flutes, and the column is typically 10 diameters high.

History

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Vintage Old Justice Courthouse Columns

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

Types of Buildings

Greeks used these orders in nearly every building that was built. Among the most popular buildings were temples, which consisted of a simple design that had rows of columns surrounding the structure. The frieze, which was a decorative panel above the columns, had a lot of detail and art included. The pediment was also a prominent feature, which is a triangular area above the frieze. These were used in temples that were made to be the home of statues of ancient gods and goddesses, and were located in an inner chamber inside the temples.

The Parthenon is the most popular type of temple in Ancient Greece, which is located in the city of Athens. It was built for the goddess, Atena, and was built using the Doric order. The building had 46 columns on the outside, all of which were six feet in diameter and 34 feet tall. The statue of Athena was housed inside in large gold and ivory.

Aside from temples, the Greeks constructed a wide variety of other buildings. Large theaters were some of the more popular, which could hold over 10,000 people. Greeks also used the formation of the land to help construct these buildings appropriately. Theaters are a good example of this, which were built on the side of hills designed to help with the acoustics. This allows everyone to hear during the events in these buildings. Covered walkways, called stoas, were also frequently built, which were used by merchants for selling goods and they were also used for 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 we still use today. Having adopted all the Greek orders, the Roman orders also developed two orders of their own: the Tuscan order and Composite order. Although these were based on Greek orders, Romans added some modifications to them. However, the Romans didn’t officially change the name of their renditions of the orders until after the Renaissance, which is when they coined the names Tuscan and Composite. These were the most ornate of the orders. The Superposed order and Colossal order were two other orders developed by the Romans, which added to their versatility and decorative abilities.

Superposed Order

Profile of the Roman Coliseum

This order involves a building that has a variety of different style types. Under this construction, the heaviest orders are at the bottom, while the lighter orders are near the top. That being said, the Doric order is typically at the bottom of the structure, while the Ionic is in the middle, and the Corinthian or Composite order 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 of this structure type is the Colosseum in Rome. Later on, in the 19th century, the Superposed order made its way into the architecture of the Renaissance and Baroque.

Colossal

Temple Olympian Zeus Columns

The Colossal order, also known as a Giant order, is an order where the columns extend two or more stories. 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, Mantua, designed by Leon Battista Alberti is one of the more popular forms of Colossal order, and the St Mark’s Church in Aberdeen is another one.

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 by the Romans. The design is very plain, with a simple shaft, capital, frieze, and base. This order was designed from the ideas of the Doric order, which was made by the Greeks. An unfluted shaft and simple capital help to characterize the Tuscan order and the capital consists of an echinus and abacus. This structure is typically smaller than the Doric builds, but it is still very plain compared to its counterparts. These columns are typically seven diameters high, and these structures are said to be the strongest and most solid of the many Roman columns.

Composite

Composite columns

The Composite order consists of a blend of different orders, which combines the volutes of the Ionic and the leaves of the Corinthian order. Up until the Renaissance, this order wasn’t classified as its own type of order. Instead, this order was considered a Corinthian order being of late Roman form. Composite orders consist of structures that are ten diameters high.

Doric Columns

Originally established by the Greeks, Doric columns were widely used by Romans. They made modifications to this order to suit their own style and tastes. However, the biggest difference between Roman columns and Greek columns is that Roman columns were focused on decoration, where the Greeks mostly used theirs to add support for their buildings. And given how Doric columns were some of the plainest ones out there, these were the last type used by the Romans.

Ionic

The scrolls of the Ionic order is what gives them their unique appearance. Originally created by the Asiatic Greeks, these were used in mainland Greece dung the 5th century. Being taller than Doric columns, Ionic structures include an entasis, which is a curvature on the surface that is used solely for decorative art. The Colosseum in Rome (the 2nd level) and the Basilica Palladiana are two famous structures that utilize Ionic form.

Corinthian

The Corinthian style used by the Romans was extremely fancy and had many elegant qualities. Some of the most prominent features of the Corinthian order include acanthus leaves, foliage, and various types of flowers. The world Corinthian got its name from the city of Corinth in Greece. Out of all of the column types, the Corinthian style is by far the most decorative. And similar to the Ionic order, Corinthian types also have an entasis. Given their artistic qualities and gorgeous elegance, ancient Romans used these columns quite often.

Types of Egyptian Columns

Egyptian columns show a lot of resemblance to Greek and Roman columns, but they include their own styles and unique qualities. When we think of Egyptian architecture, we might think about the pyramids and the form of Lotus and Papyrus style columns, but there are many other Egyptian columns to consider.  A big difference of Egyptian columns compared to Greek columns is that Egyptians based these columns off of the appearance of plants. In fact, many of their columns resemble tree trunks or stems. As Egyptian builders became more knowledgeable and experienced with building, they began to experience with other various 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 forms of columns to help build their structures. Take a look at some of the different Egyptian columns out there:

Fluted Column

Egyptianesque Columns

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

Palmiform

Columns at the temple of Horus, Edfu.

This was another early type of column used in Egypt and was one of the earliest styles widely used in Egyptian temple architecture. A popular example of this type of column is found in the 5th Dynasty pyramid mortuary complex of Unas. However, after that period, these columns became less popular. The best examples of these forms are 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.

These columns consist of several variations of the form. Some of these columns have circular shafts, which resemble a single plant, and others have ribbed shafts that represent a plant that has multiple stems. For the capitals, these are usually closed buds or they open in a wide form. The bases that were decorated with triangular patterns help make up these Papyriform columns, and these types were used primarily during the New Kingdom. These designs represented stylized stem sheaths. However, it’s important to note that these columns are not free-standing on their own, but rather 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, their popularity was short-lived. In addition, the style seemed to never be used again later on. This 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.

Tent Pole Columns

Tent pole columns

The known forms of this type of columns are made out of brick and stone, though the brick type seemed to be the rarest. Some of the only known examples of these types of columns are found in the Festival Temple of Tuthmosis III at Karnak. The 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 made out of 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

This column style was a blend of different variations of Egypiatin column architecture. While some of these columns took the shape of a floral column or pillar, others were circular or square shafts. However, all of these structures 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 for this project. One of which represented the heraldic plant of northern Egypt, Papyrus, and the other resembled the symbolic plant of southern Egypt, the Lotus. These symbols are strategically placed on the northern and southern sides of the hall, and this symbolic placement was common throughout Egyptian architecture. These types of columns were rare, but their forms appeared more often in the Graeco-Raman period.

Composite Columns

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

These columns were primarily used during the Graeco-Raman period. These columns consisted of an extension of the Campaniform column decorations that included designs that resembled flowers and other real or imagined plants. Composite columns were extremely stylistic and were very decorative. And given their artistic qualities and impeccable detail, there were various forms of these columns. In fact, many of them become so stylized, they couldn’t even be recognized. As this column style evolved over the years, they started to look very different once they made their way into Greece and Rome.

Hathoric Columns

Hathoric columns in Dendera Temple.

Although plant-style columns were the most popular types in Egypt, no-plant style columns were also constructed in different variations. Hathoric columns were one of the more popular types, and they most likely originated during the Middle Kingdom period. The most well-known trait of Hathoric columns is their capital, which is shaped like the cow-headed goddess, Hathor. The shaft of these columns was typically simple and round. The most popular examples of these 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 type of column, and these are typically a part of another architectural structure. Many say that these originated in the Middle Kingdom, and they also state that the structures were based on a statue of the god, Osiris, which is on the front surface of the pillar.

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 ago, they are still an important part of architecture today. But while many of the same styles and forms are used in contemporary columns, we 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, and these elements have made buildings stronger than ever before. Given the brute strength of steel, this material allows us to create large structures and extremely heavy buildings. These columns will continue to get more sophisticated and strong, so we should expect to see more advanced types of columns being introduced in the decades to come.