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Pillars in Architecture: Overview & Function | What is a Pillar?

Instructor: Logan Etheredge

Logan has tutored for English, Writing, History, and Gender Studies courses at a University level for four years. She has a Bachelors from the University of Richmond and has previously worked at Fortune 5 company, assisting in the revision and previewing of written products. In her free time, she enjoys playing with her cat and studying languages.

Learn about pillars. Understand what a pillar is, see a comparison between pillar vs. column, identify their characteristics, and learn how pillars are built. Updated: 09/19/2022

What is a Pillar?

A pillar is any isolated, vertical structure used in architecture or construction to serve an aesthetic or structural purpose in a building. They are often referred to as a pier, column, or post and can be built from a wide array of materials, including wood, stone, or bricks. In architecture, it is frequently used for aesthetic purposes but always has a stabilizing or structural purpose in load-bearing and weight distribution. Pillars can stand alone or be grouped.

Most people are familiar with what a pillar looks like. In modern society, pillars are one of the most commonly used structures in architecture, construction, and infrastructure. Pillars are used in famous buildings such as the White House in Washington, DC; they are used in common structures such as bridges and highways; they are used in construction to temporarily uphold roofs and other heavy materials while a structure is being built. Despite how common pillars are, they have a unique history in ancient human architecture. Their wide range of uses and practicality make them one of the most well-known forms of architecture today.

An example of pillars-in-progress being built out of concrete

Photograph of concrete pillars under construction

Pillars in Architecture

In architecture, pillars have a wide variety of uses.

  • As a large solid structure, pillars provide firm support for another larger structure.
  • Pillars distribute the weight from a roof or ceiling and support heavy loads.
  • In construction, they often serve to make buildings more attractive and are used to exhibit freestanding monuments.

Pillars have been commonly used for thousands of years, with records of pillars used in ancient Egypt as early as 2700 BCE. Pillars are considered one of the earliest forms of human construction and have been identified by archaeologists as one of the oldest cross-cultural ways that humans across the globe developed reliable structures and shelter. All significant Iron Age civilizations used pillars in some capacity. In ancient history, pillars were usually made of stone or other rock materials. Many archaeologists credit ancient Egypt for the emergence of decorative pillars. In ancient Egypt, pillars were often carved with organic designs, including reeds and other crops. Other ancient civilizations, including Persia and Persepolis, are known for their elaborate pillars and decorative columns.

Pillars are commonly employed in modern architecture and construction and can be used internally or externally. Pillars are often outdoors and can bridge the outside to the inside of the building by supporting an open-air roof on a patio or providing support for coverage in an outdoor venue.

Pillar vs. Column

A column in architecture is a structural and aesthetic piece that supports the weight of a ceiling. It is often rounded and consists of three parts, the base, the shaft, and the capital.

Columns distribute weight through compression and are one of the oldest forms of architecture. There are five primary types of columns:

  1. Doric
  2. Ionic
  3. Corinthian
  4. Tuscan
  5. Composite

Different cultures, such as the Romans and the Greeks, have their own types of these styles. Traditionally, columns were made of wood, stone, or marble. Modernly, columns can be made of many materials, such as PVC, fiberglass, or concrete.

While the words "pillar" and "column" are often used interchangeably, there are key differences between the two. Unlike a pillar, a column can be constructed with masonry or steel and can occupy a wide variety of shapes, such as rectangular, square, circular, and more. In addition, a pillar is a technical term used in structural engineering and architecture. While it can be decorative and functional, the term itself is highly specific and refers to the structural support element. All pillars can be called columns, but not all columns can be pillars; this is because all pillars must serve a structural purpose, while columns can serve purely aesthetic purposes. For example, pillars that support bridges over bodies of water or overhead highways are not columns, while many event venues, such as outdoor wedding locations and banquet halls, use columns to decorate the space and add a certain aesthetic to the location.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are some examples of pillars?

A pier, column, or post are three examples of a pillar. They are often constructed out of wood, steel, or bricks. All pillars are columns, but not all columns are pillars.

What makes something a pillar?

A pillar is a vertical structure that has a weight-bearing function in construction and architecture. It must contribute to supporting weight in a building or structre.

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