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Entasis: Definition, Architecture & Architects

Instructor: Richard Reid
What is entasis? This strange sounding word describes an ancient architectural style that emphasized curvature as a key aesthetic. In this lesson we will learn the history of entasis, where it was developed, and key buildings that utilized the style.

Definition and Overview

Entasis is an architectural style that features curvature of columns, doorways, supports, or walls. The style emphasizes a convex curve shape, meaning that the body of the structure appears to bulge or bend outwards. A widely accepted view about the purpose of entasis is that the style was designed to prevent against a potential optical illusion common in very early large buildings and monuments. Without the convex curving entasis provides, a structure with many columns appears to the naked eye to 'buckle' or bow and thus gives an illusion of weakness. Paradoxically, then, curving columns or supports actually give an illusion of straightness. As we will discover below, however, some modern scholars offer another perspective.

An example of Greek columns using entasis
Hera Temple

Interestingly, entasis seems to have been independently developed all around the world relatively early in human history. Perhaps the first use of entasis was on the grand Egyptian pyramids at Giza. The pyramids have a noticeable convex slope that gives the viewer a sense of depth and scale.

The early Mesopotamians in the Near East also used entasis styles in the construction of their famous ziggurat temples. Ziggurats are constructed without any perpendicular angles, as all of their sides are slightly curved to help provide a sense that the ziggurat rose out from the ground and was a natural part of the landscape.

The technique was later used by Greek and Roman architects in the construction of columns that adorn some of the most famous buildings in Europe. Builders in the Chinese, Incan, and Aztec empires also developed the technique for supporting doors and trusses, demonstrating that the concept had appeal wherever it was discovered.

Architecture Demonstrating Entasis

Perhaps the most famous structure that relied extensively on entasis was the Parthenon. The Parthenon was constructed in 431 BCE on the top of a hill overlooking Athens, then the capital of the Delian League or Athenian Empire. The structure of the temple was supported by dozens of large columns. Visitors today still flock in the millions to see this architectural marvel.

The Parthenon on top of the Acropolis in Athens
Parthenon

The Parthenon was designed to be the worldly seat for Athena, the patron deity and protector of the city. Naturally, this meant that the structure had to be solid and strong both architecturally and aesthetically. As previously mentioned, entasis provided an illusion of straightness that counteracted the human eye's tendency to see many straight objects with a concave curve or 'buckle.' However, some scholars today suggest that the Greeks used entasis to additionally provide structural strength and stability to large columns, as in the construction of the Parthenon.

Both Greek and Roman columns had a significantly larger 'bulge' toward the bottom, which likely lent stability to the heavy task of supporting thousands of pounds of stone. Unfortunately, the architects of the Parthenon and many other famous works that used entasis did not leave detailed records of why they chose to utilize the style. As a result, we have frustratingly few first-hand accounts as to the initial development and popularization of entasis.

Another example of Greek entasis in columns
Doric Columns

Many other societies used entasis in ingenious ways as well. The people of the Incan Empire (located in modern-day Peru) are known as some of history's greatest builders. Their long roads carving through thousands of miles of mountains still impress modern tourists. Their most famous building, however, is Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu was built as a summer estate for the Incan king Pachacuti (1438-1472 CE).

The estate is perhaps most famous for its elevation, as the entire complex sits majestically at the peak of a mountain almost 8,000 feet above sea level. It is one of the few cities that was not destroyed by the Spanish invaders in the 1500s and, as a result, is one of the best preserved examples of Incan architecture, culture, and history.

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