Architecture of ancient Greece

Architecture of ancient Greece

Architecture was extinct in Greece from the end of the Mycenaean period (about 1200 BC) to the 7th century BC, when urpeppeeban life and prosperity recovered to a point where public building could be undertaken. But since many Greek buildings in the colonization period (8th - 6th century BC), were made of wood or mud-brick or clay, nothing remains of them except for a few ground-plans, and almost no written sources on early architecture or descriptions of these embryonic buildings exist.

Common materials of Greek architecture were wood, used for supports and roof beams; plaster used for sinks and bathtubs unbaked brick used for walls, especially for private homes; limestone and marble, used for columns, walls, and upper portions of temples and public buildings; "terracotta", used for roof tiles and ornaments; and metals, especially bronze, used for decorative details. Architects of the Archaic and Classical periods used these building materials to construct five simple types of buildings: religious, civic, domestic, funerary, or recreational.


Around 600 BC, the wooden columns of the old Temple of Hera at Olympia underwent a material transformation, known as "petrification", in which they were replaced by stone columns. By degrees, other parts of the temple were petrified.

Most of our knowledge of Greek architecture comes from the late archaic period (550 - 500 BC), the Periclean age (450 - 430 BC), and the early to pure classical period (430 - 400 BC). Greek examples are considered alongside Hellenistic and Roman periods (since Roman architecture heavily copied Greek), and late written sources such as Vitruvius (1st century). This results in a strong bias towards temples, the only buildings which survive in numbers.

Like Greek painting and sculpture, Greek Architecture in the first half of classical antiquity was not "art for art's sake" in the modern sense. The architect was a craftsman employed by the state or a wealthy private client. No distinction was made between the architect and the building contractor. The architect designed the building, hired the laborers and craftsmen who built it, and was responsible for both its budget and its timely completion. He did not enjoy any of the lofty status accorded to modern architects of public buildings. Even the names of architects are not known before the 5th century. An architect like Iktinos, who designed the Parthenon, who would today be seen as a genius, was treated in his lifetime as no more than a very valuable master tradesman.

tructure and style of Greek temples

The standard format of Greek public buildings is known from surviving examples such as the Parthenon and the Hephaesteum at Athens, the temple complex at Selinunte (Selinus) and the sanctuaries at Agrigentum. Most buildings were rectangular and made from limestone or tuff, of which Greece has an abundance, and which was cut into large blocks and dressed. Marble was an expensive building material in Greece: high quality marble came only from Mt. Pentelicus in Attica and from a few islands such as Paros, and its transportation in large blocks was difficult. It was used mainly for sculptural decoration, not structurally, except in the very grandest buildings of the Classical period such as the Parthenon.

The basic rectangular plan was surrounded by a colonnaded portico of columns on all four sides ("peripteral" or "peristyle") such as the Parthenon, and occasionally at the front and rear only ("amphiprostyle") as seen in the small Temple of Athena Nike. Some buildings had a projecting head of columns forming the entrance ("prostyle"), while others featured a "pronaos" facade of columns leading on to the cella. The Greeks roofed their buildings with timber beams covered with overlapping terra cotta or occasionally marble tiles. They understood the principles of the masonry arch but made little use of it, and did not put domes on their buildings; these elaborations were left to the Romans.

The low pitch of the gable roofs produced a squat triangular shape at each end of the building, the pediment, which was typically filled with sculptural decoration. Between the roof and the tops of the columns a row of lintels formed the entablature, whose outward-facing surfaces also provided a space for sculptures, known as friezes. The frieze consisted of alternating metopes (holding the sculpture) and triglyphs. No surviving Greek building preserves these sculptures intact, but they can be seen on some modern imitations of Greek structures.

Greek public architecture

The temple was the most common and best-known form of Greek public architecture. The temple did not serve the same function as a modern church, since the altar stood under the open sky in the temenos or sacred fane, often directly before the temple. Temples served as storage places for the treasury associated with the cult of the god in question, as the location of a cult image, and as a place for devotees of the god to leave their votive offerings, such as statues, helmets and weapons. The inner room of the temple, the cella, served mainly as a strongroom and storeroom. It was usually lined by another row of columns.

Other architectural forms used by the Greeks were the tholos or circular temple, of which the best example is the Tholos of Theodorus at Delphi dedicated to the worship of Athena Pronaia; the propylon or porch, forming the entrance to temple sanctuaries (the best-surviving example is the Propylaea on the Acropolis of Athens); the fountain house, a building where women filled their vases with water from a public fountain; and the stoa, a long narrow hall with an open colonnade on one side, which was used to house rows of shops in the agoras (commercial centers) of Greek towns. A completely restored stoa, the Stoa of Attalus, can be seen in Athens. Greek towns of substantial size also had a palaestra or a gymnasium, the social centre for male citizens. These peripterally enclosed space open to the sky were used for athletic contests and exercise. Greek towns also needed at least one bouleuterion or council chamber, a large public building which served as a court house and as a meeting place for the town council (boule). Because the Greeks did not use arches or domes, they could not construct buildings with large interior spaces. The bouleuterion thus had rows of internal columns to hold the roof up ("hypostyle"). No examples of these buildings survive.

Finally, every Greek town had a theatre. These were used for both public meetings as well as dramatic performances. The theatre was usually set in a hillside outside the town, and had rows of tiered seating set in a semi-circle around the central performance area, the orchestra. Behind the orchestra was a low building called the skene, which served as a store-room, a dressing-room, and also as a backdrop to the action taking place in the orchestra. A number of Greek theatres survive almost intact, the best known being at Epidaurus.

Domestic architecture

In the 5th and 4th centuries BC two standard plans became commonplace in the Greek world. Typical houses in Olynthus during this time period and the 2nd century houses on Delos had the small rooms of the home arranged in a rectangle plan around a colonnaded interior courtyard. A second house plan was found in Priene which also focused on an interior courtyard but it had much different floorplan. Instead of a collection of small rooms, the primary living area consisted of a large rectangular hall that led to a columned porch. Opening off the sides of the courtyard were small rooms for servants, storage, and cooking. Houses in the Hellenistic period became much more diverse. For example, houses of wealthy people might have featured marble thresholds, columns and doorways; mosaic floors depicting scenes of humans or animals; and plastered walls modeled to look much like fine stonework.

Orders of Greek architecture

There were two main styles (or "orders") of early Greek architecture, the Doric and the Ionic. These names were used by the Greeks themselves, and reflected their belief that the styles descended from the Dorian and Ionian Greeks of the Dark Ages, but this is unlikely to be true. The Doric style was used in mainland Greece and spread from there to the Greek colonies in Italy. The Ionic style was used in the cities of Ionia (now the west coast of Turkey) and some of the Aegean islands. The Doric style was more formal and austere, the Ionic was more relaxed and decorative. The more ornate Corinthian style was a later development of the Ionic. These styles are best known through the three orders of column capitals, but there are differences in most points of design and decoration between the orders.

Most surviving Greek buildings, such as the Parthenon and the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, are Doric. The Erechtheum and the small temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis are Ionic however. The Ionic order became dominant in the Hellenistic period, since its more decorative style suited the aesthetic of the period better than the more restrained Doric. Records show that the evolution of the Ionic order was resisted by many Greek States, as they claimed it represented the dominance of Athens. Some of the best surviving Hellenistic buildings, such as the Library of Celsus, can be seen in Turkey, at cities such as Ephesus and Pergamum. But in the greatest of Hellenistic cities, Alexandria in Egypt, almost nothing survives.

Roof tiles

The earliest finds of roof tiles in archaic Greece are documented from a very restricted area around Corinth (Greece), where fired tiles began to replace thatched roofs at two temples of Apollo and Poseidon between 700-650 BC. [Orjan Wikander, p.285] Spreading rapidly, roof tiles were within fifty years in evidence for a large number of sites around the Eastern Mediterranean, including Mainland Greece, Western Asia Minor, Southern and Central Italy. [Orjan Wikander, p.286] Early roof tiles showed an S-shape, with the pan and cover tile forming one piece. They were rather bulky, weighing around 30 kg apiece. [William Rostoker; Elizabeth Gebhard, p. 212] Being more expensive and labour-intensive to produce than thatchet, their introduction has been explained with their greatly enhanced fire resistance which gave desired protection to the costly temples. [Orjan Wikander, p.289]

The spread of the roof tile technique has to be viewed in connection with the simultaneous rise of monumental architecture in Archaic Greece. Only stone walls, which were replacing the earlier mudbrick and wood walls, were strong enough to support the weight of a tiled roof. [Marilyn Y. Goldberg, p.309] As a side-effect, it has been assumed that the new stone and tile construction also ushered in the end of 'Chinese roof' ("Knickdach") construction in Greek architecture, as they made the need for an extended roof as rain protection for the mudbrick walls obsolete. [Marilyn Y. Goldberg, p.305]

See also

* Greek temple
* Byzantine Architecture
* Greek technology



* "Greek architecture" Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1965
* "Greece: From Mycenae to the Parthenon", Henri Stierlin, TASCHEN, 2004Re-invention of roof tiles
* Marilyn Y. Goldberg, “Greek Temples and Chinese Roofs,” "American Journal of Archaeology", Vol. 87, No. 3. (Jul., 1983), pp. 305-310
* Orjan Wikander, “Archaic Roof Tiles the First Generations,” "Hesperia", Vol. 59, No. 1. (Jan. - Mar., 1990), pp. 285-290
* William Rostoker; Elizabeth Gebhard, “The Reproduction of Rooftiles for the Archaic Temple of Poseidon at Isthmia, Greece,” "Journal of Field Archaeology", Vol. 8, No. 2. (Summer, 1981), pp. 211-2

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