Classical Architecture: Characteristics & Elements

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  • 0:03 Classical Architecture
  • 0:48 Evaluating Structure
  • 1:36 The Overall Aesthetic
  • 2:53 Architectural Elements
  • 3:49 Architectural Orders
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Classical architecture has had long-reaching impacts on Western building styles. In this lesson, we'll explore some of the definitive traits of Classical architecture and see what distinguishes this style.

Classical Architecture

When the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan began developing some of America's first skyscrapers, he was working basically without precedent. There weren't a lot of other skyscrapers to look at, so it was hard to know how to make an aesthetically pleasing structure of this type. So what did he do? He looked at temples from ancient Greece. Greek temples are a great deal shorter than skyscrapers, but Sullivan had good reasons for doing this. The artistic forms of ancient Greece and Rome, which we call the Classical civilizations, set the foundations for Western aesthetics that define our tastes in music, art, and architecture to this day. So let's get to know Classical architecture a little bit better. Its legacy may play a larger role in your life than you realize.

Evaluating a Structure

The ancient Greeks built a lot. The ancient Romans built even more. Obviously, we're not going to have time to discuss all of it, but we can talk about the defining features of Classical architecture, starting with the criteria for a great structure. Architecture was one of the most important arts to the Classical civilizations, and it was tightly protected through strict rules. The most basic set of these rules is the three components necessary for a great structure as outlined by the Roman architect Vitruvius. The Vitruvian Triad, as outlined by the Roman architect Vitruvius, defines the three elements of great architecture: solidness, usefulness, and beauty, or venustas, utilitas and firmitas in Latin. Keep those in mind as we move forward.

The Overall Aesthetic

Combined, Vitruvius' three components created a unique aesthetic that defines Classical architecture. At its most basic, the Classical aesthetic is defined by symmetry, rational order, and calm logic. Architecture is meant to inspire boldness, but also humility, contemplation, and intellect; qualities prized by the Classical civilizations.

So, how do you make a building feel logical? In a word: math. The Greeks believed that perfection could be represented through mathematic equations, which were then translated into architectural forms. Every element of a structure exists in direct mathematical relationship to the other parts. The foundation for this was the golden ratio, in which the ratio between two objects is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two, a ratio of 1.618.

Yes, this sounds complex, but the golden ratio is found consistently throughout nature, and even throughout you. Yes, many parts of your body relate to each other through the golden ratio. In fact, the equations used to judge the height, width, and depth of a Classical structure were based on the golden ratio within the human form. A mathematically ideal human body was the basic unit on which Classical architecture was proportioned.

Architectural Elements

Now that we've gotten the math out of the way, let's talk about the actual elements of a Classical structure. Perhaps most iconic of all is the column. A column is a support structure that holds the weight of the ceiling. Columns are very important parts of Classical structures, especially in the façade, or front. This was, visually, the most important part of the building, and was often filled with reliefs and statues.

The Greeks built almost exclusively in vertical columns and flat roofs, but the Romans took architecture one step further. By using arches, they reduced the number of support columns and allowed for more spacious interiors. The arch is one element of Classical architecture that is uniquely Roman, not Greek. Roman architects used strong materials that were lighter than stone, like concrete, to create large arches and domes that dispersed weight and reduced the need for interior support structures.

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