“C” is for Column: An Alphabet Soup of Architectural Terms, Part 3

Columns, I think, more than any other architectural element, are the stuff of dreams, glory, and status. Not too surprising, given that most of the columns we see on buildings around us trace their lineage back to Classical architecture, and those innovative Greeks and Romans. Columns are decorative and structural, and when used properly, can transform what may have previously been a staid, chaste, wallflower of a building into a stunning, well-proportioned piece of good design and cultural symbol. On the other hand – columns also have the dubious distinction of being one of the most misappropriated structural members of architecture.

Cardwellton, in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, started off as a single pen log house, around 1786. By 1820, it had a frame addition, and a decade later – a Greek Revival portico with four handsome Ionic columns.

Let’s start with the technical stuff – a column, strictly defined, is a round pillar, that supports a load. I could go on and on about the differences between columns and posts and piers – but suffice to say, a column is round, even though the word columna, from the Latin, means…post.

The majority of columns will be derived from one of the classical orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian (all Greek), and Tuscan and Composite (Roman). Architecture is all about categorizing things!

From Palladio’s drawings of the classical orders. Image from the Buffalo Architecture and History Illustrated Dictionary.

A column has three parts: a base, shaft, and capital, going from the base to the top. Differences in these three parts make a column belong to one order or another. So here’s how I look at columns: the Doric is the plainest and the oldest, but the Romans thought that was too fancy, so they took the Doric order and made it even simpler, which is the Tuscan order.

A portico with Doric columns in Old Washington, Mason County, Kentucky.

The Doric is fluted (carved indentations in the shaft, most properly with 20 flutes), with no base, and a plain capital, sort of shaped like a saucer. The Parthenon in Athens, Greece, has Doric columns.

The Parthenon, under restoration in 2010. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons.

I see many, many houses in Kentucky with Tuscan columns – no fluting, a plain capital, and a plain base.

Tuscan columns on a portico in the Bell Court Historic District, Lexington, Kentucky.

Ionic columns (again, they are Greek) are a little bit more decorative than Doric.

Ionic columns on a portico in Midway, Woodford County, Kentucky.

They are also fluted, have a base, and the most important characteristic to note is the volutes (or spiral scrolls) in the capital (at the top of the column).

A volute, from American Architecture An Illustrated Encyclopedia, by Cyril M. Harris.

The Corinthian and Composite orders likely have the largest fan groups, because they are the fanciest. They are columns with bling.

A portico meant to inspire and intimidate in Covington, Kentucky…complete with Corinthian columns.

The Corinthian (Greek) came first, and the main thing to know about this type of column is acanthus leaves. Well, you don’t have to commit that to memory, but that is what I shout when I see Corinthian columns, because acanthus is a pretty fun word to say. Basically, the capital of the Corinthian column features leaves and flowers beneath (usually) smallish volutes, and the shaft is fluted. Corinthian columns are most slender and ornate of the Greek orders.


Thank goodness Andrea Palladio was so good at drawing…a Corinthian capital, from Palladio’s The Four Books of Architecture.

That leaves the Composite order – once again, the Romans took the Ionic and Corinthian and made their mash-up of a column. There’s not actually all that much difference between the Composite and the Corinthian, except that the volutes are super-sized, and there is a band of egg-and-dart molding between the volutes.

Composite capitals at the University of Virginia.

There you have it: a quick overview of columns. I would love to close this with some images of columns behaving badly (Las Vegas architecture, McMansion columns that should not even exist, columns that look as though they are embarrassed to be associated with the building they’ve been applied to….), but I’ve got some deadlines to meet for my real job, so I’ll leave that for another day.

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  1. David Ames says:

    Again a great piece — I love the historic architecture with a sense of humor that you promote. I haven’t seen any in Kentucky, probably because I haven’t been here very long, but a more vernacular square column of four boards joined together could be seen in Delaware. A cheaper way to get impressive columns on your house.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Thanks David!

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