The Uses and Abuses of Classical Columns

The architectural column is a powerful and visually arresting design element, which explains its growing popularity with builders and designers. The Bad News: With growing popularity comes increasing examples of clumsy handling and mis-application. The Good News: There are greater numbers of books and design courses that show how to incorporate classical columns into compositions that are as refined as the columns themselves.

By Clem Labine

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The column is like an architectural exclamation point! Each column of the five classical orders each has its own style and personality that imparts character and tectonic expression to a wide variety of building types. And through the miracles of modern manufacturing technology, architecturally correct classical columns are widely available today in a vast array of materials and sizes. The large number of suppliers and ready availability of well-proportioned classical columns is the best evidence possible that there is a growing interest in classicism and classical architecture across the U.S. At the same time, sadly, the off-the-shelf availability of columns makes it very easy for contractors, builders, and designers to merely slap columns onto buildings like so much costume jewelry.

What A Column Is Not

A classical column is not a decorative ornament, nor is it an attractive stand-alone embellishment like an ornate bronze door handle. Rather, a classical column is part of an architectural order. (The five generally recognized orders are: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan, and Composite.) Although the column (and especially its capital) is the most readily recognized component of each order, it is merely a component. In fact, one can create a fully classical building without a single column in sight through the use of classical planning, proportions, and non-column elements.

The canonical orders are architectural systems, with a carefully refined set of relationships that have evolved over the centuries. Each architectural order is the result of careful deployment and arrangement of all the order’s components, from the largest column to the smallest molding, according to a range of generally accepted principles. Contrary to popular belief, there is no single set of formulas or ratios that can be automatically applied to each order. Instead, there is a range of proportions and relationships that can only be fully understood, and skillfully manipulated, after considerable study and practice.

Architectural Column

MONUMENTAL COLUMNS HANDLED MONUMENTALLY WELL. The eight massive Corinthian columns at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., are among the largest interior columns in the world: 75 ft. high and 8 ft. in dia., the columns have a brick core (over 70,000 bricks each!) covered with stucco. 

The building was completed in 1887 to a design by civil engineer and U.S. Army General Montgomery C. Meigs (who also served as Quartermaster General of the Union armies throughout the Civil War). Originally called the Pension Building, it was erected to serve the needs of Union Civil War veterans. 

When the building underwent recent restoration, John Canning Painting & Conservation Studios were selected to restore the faux-marble finish on the eight monumental columns. Using paint, glazes, and traditional marbleizing methods, Canning’s artists executed the job while the building remained “open for business.” 

Working around special-event schedules, the work was completed within six weeks by artists who also took the time to educate the Museum’s docents on the techniques used to replicate the look of turned marble. (Photo: Robert Benson)

What A Column Is

Even though it is merely one of numerous components of an architectural order, the fact remains that the column is the most conspicuous element of each order; most people look to the column capital for quick identification of a classical order.

And, in truth, columns are the “stars” of the orders because of the way they stand out. (Some observers have called the Doric Order the most perfectly balanced order because the relatively modest Doric column doesn’t automatically focus all of the viewer’s attention on the column capital — as is frequently the case with the Ionic and Corinthian.) Because of their starring role, when a designer uses columns, it’s critical that (1) the column be architecturally correct; and (2) the column be set into an architecturally appropriate context.

An architecturally correct column is one that has the general modeling and proportions evolved over centuries of use in the Greco-Roman world. A true classical column is an anthropomorphic shape, often referred to as an analog of the human form, with a clearly defined head and foot: If you mount a Corinthian column upside down, the result looks absurd even to the most untrained observer. This need for specific vertical orientation is what differentiates the column from a post: A post can be turned end-for-end without anyone being the wiser.

A crucial part of the modeling of the classical column is its entasis, the subtle curvature that causes the column to swell at the bottom, as if to express the load that it is bearing. The lack of entasis on extruded aluminum “columns” is why they look so lifeless in place. Because of the extrusion technology used in their manufacture, extruded aluminum “columns” have a uniform diameter throughout their length. An extruded aluminum “column” is actually a post, because the shaft can be turned upside down and — without entasis — it will look exactly the same.

Columns with Personality 

Without belaboring the point, it should be noted in passing that authors and designers since the Renaissance have been taking the anthropomorphic shapes of classical columns and assigning them “personalities.” The Doric and Tuscan shapes are often thought of as sturdy and muscular, and as such Doric columns are frequently assigned the “heavy lifting” job at the bottom level when orders are stacked, or when there is a visually heavy load to be borne. The Ionic column, being the slenderest of the classical columns, is thought to be the most feminine, with the sensuous curves of the Ionic volute being a highly stylized representation of flowing hair. The Corinthian column is seen as the most sophisticated and dignified of the orders, and thus is often found in major public buildings like banks and courthouses.