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What is a Plinth in Architecture?

What is a Plinth in Architecture?
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  • 0:03 Plinth: Definition
  • 0:35 Use of Plinths
  • 2:05 Function of a Plinth
  • 2:55 Aesthetics of Plinths
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

A plinth is a very important part of many structures and architectural compositions, yet we rarely notice it. In this video, we'll explore the function and role of a major piece of under-appreciated architecture.

Plinth: Definition

When something's important, we tend to raise it off the ground. There's something nearly universal about this in human cultures; we try to visually separate the things we make from the earth itself. What allows us to do this?

A plinth is a base or platform that's used to support something else above the ground. The plinth is one of the most underappreciated, and yet most important, elements of architecture found around the world and used throughout history.

Ironically, the one thing we can't actually put on a pedestal (because it is one) is the thing that may most deserve it.

Uses of Plinths

The concept of a plinth is pretty basic: create a base or platform, then put whatever you're building on top of it. You may not think there are too many ways to mess with that basic formula, and to a degree you're right. Still, when we talk about plinths, there are three main uses.

1. The base for a pedestal. This type of plinth is not so much a matter of architecture as it is a matter of art (or at least the display of art). Most pedestals have a wide base that supports them and whatever they're holding; that's the plinth.

Incidentally, the bottom part of a piece of furniture that actually touches the floor is sometimes called a plinth as well. That would make your chair a glorified pedestal, and you sitting in it a work of art. There's your ego boost for the day.

2. The base for a column. All three Classical orders of columns (including Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian) are traditionally placed on top of plinths. However, there use is not limited to Classical or even Western architecture. Columns and similar support structures in Asia, Africa, and the Americas often contained a plinth or plinth-like base.

3. The bases for much larger structures. In fact, many houses and other buildings are built on very large plinths that serve as the bottom-most structure supporting that edifice. Look around your city or neighborhood: there's a good chance that some structures are resting on massive bases of stone, concrete, or other strong materials.

Function of a Plinth

At this point, you must be wondering - what's the point of the plinth? Everyone uses them, but why? A plinth actually serves the most important structural function of dispersing and distributing the weight of the structure above it.

This is why so many columns are found on plinths. Columns support the weight of a structure, but all this weight presses straight down on the column. The plinth distributes that weight outwards, dispersing it more evenly through the ground or floor.

That's the most important function of a plinth; however, it can also be used to physically separate structures like houses from the ground. This is especially important if the ground is not solid, stable, or dry. For example, many homes in damp or flood-prone areas are built on plinths for protection from water damage.

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