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Kathryn Murdock, has a B.A. in Ancient Civilizations and Cultures. She conducts history classes & workshops in libraries & museums in the San Francisco Bay Area.

You can reach Kathryn at (415) 728-5027.

History Through Architecture

By Kathryn Murdock

I'll bet that on your house you have some triglyphs, and perhaps a shaft. If not on your house - then on the house next door or down the street. These are Greek terms describing architectural designs which are still widely used in and on buildings today. Why are we still using stuff that the ancient Greeks used? Because they did it right. They got things in proportion - simply, elegantly, and for the most part soundly useful. Ancient Greek architecture was a reflection of their culture and societal values. The Greeks valued art and beauty based on a pleasing balance and proportion of form. The design of Greek temples with the use of different design styles - reflected most obviously in the capitals or the decorated tops of the supporting columns - has influenced architecture from the Renaissance to modern times.

The three styles or orders of Greek architecture are: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian:

Doric: The Doric order is plain and sturdy looking. It was developed by the Dorian tribes on the Greek mainland who were heavily influenced by buildings at Mycenae and Crete. The greatest example of Doric order is the Parthenon which was built around 440.

Ionic: The Ionic order was more ornate than Doric. Created by the Ionians, a Greek tribe that was influenced by Egypt and Assyria, the fluting on the columns was more pronounced, with opposing spirals at the tops of the columns. The best example of the Ionic style is the Erechtheum, built about 460 on the Athens Acropolis.

Corinthian: The Corinthian order was built to be sturdier than the Ionic order. It was also more decorative with elaborate leaf designs at the top of the columns. This was the style that most influenced Roman architecture.

The Romans were very important to architecture as they perfected the arch with its all important keystone. The keystone gave strength and allowed stresses not otherwise possible. With their engineering brilliance they gave us aqueducts, the Pantheon (the largest centrally unsupported brick building in the world until very recently), and buttressing. Without the Roman architectural advances - Gothic architecture would have come along much later. The Romans laid the groundwork in stress management and in the use of buttressing to alleviate the natural inclination of stone walls to lean.

Why then are the Greeks still the ones to which we owe the architectural debt? Well, some people feel we just haven't found any better way to say beauty, elegance, importance, and truth through architectural design.

A trip to the library to look at pictures of Greek and Roman architecture will help you to understand why some people might feel this way. A wonderful book called Then & Now by Stefania Perring and Dominic Perring helps you to view ancient buildings brought back to life through see-through reconstructions. Not only does it contain pictures of the Acropolis and the Roman Coliseum, but Machu Picchu, Pompeii, and other fabled sites.

Activity: Build your own Greek temple!

Plaster of Paris
Cardboard tubes for molds
A sculpting tool (be creative with kitchen utensils and other tools at home)
Scraps of plywood to build the base and steps
Cardboard (like on the back of a writing pad or tablet)

Make columns by pouring plaster of paris into the cardboard mold. When they are set use the sculpting tools to make the flutes in the shafts of the columns.

For Doric columns you can make the capitals (the square tops of the columns) by making molds with portions of small milk cartons - and then sculpting them into shape. Attach to column top with glue.

For Ionic columns you can achieve the scrolled effect by sculpting (perhaps a little difficult) or you may want to use paper that you can roll into scroll shape and then attach to the top of the column with glue.

For Corinthian columns you can make paper leaves and attach them with glue - or if you have lots of patience carve them into the column tops.

Roofs for the temples can be made from plain cardboard. Look at the illustration for the names of the different parts and ideas for how to build it. The stylabate or 3-stepped base of the temple can be made with plywood. Cover all in plaster of paris. When dry draw your own frieze (a decorative picture) and paint your temple. A more realistic effect is achieved if you use natural earth-toned paints (even marbling). Don't forget to look at pictures in books from the library to give you ideas before you get started - and take a little "tour" through your neighborhood to discover Greek architectural designs. You'll be amazed!