Before the development of modern architecture, what did a government or institution do when it wanted to project an image of power, dignity, and reliability? It used the classical orders in its buildings.
The classical orders are the three different styles of columns that were created in Ancient Greece over 2,000 years ago.
How do you spot them? You look at the top of the column.
The first is the Doric order. With a square top, it is the simplest of the three. The best example of Ancient Greek Doric is considered to be the Parthenon, built between 447BC and 438BC on the Acropolis hill in Athens, to honor the goddess who gave the city its name, Athena.
The Parthenon, detail
Here is a much more recent Doric structure, in which the simplicity of the Doric matches the modest character of the figure it honors — The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., built between 1914 and 1922:
The second is the Ionic order. With spirals at the top, it is rounder than the Doric. The best example of the Ancient Greek Ionic is also to be found on the Acropolis in Athens — The Erechtheion, built between 421BC and 406BC:
The Erechtheion, detail
In 1801 Lord Elgin, a British diplomat in need of money, had his men take a statue from the Erechtheion, along with other parts of the Parthenon. Elgin then sold these pieces to the British Museum, whose building ironically features the same style as the Erechtheion:
The British Museum, London, this part built 1825-1852
The third is the Corinthian order. With sculpted leaves and tiny spirals as decoration at the top, it is the most ornate of the three. A great example of Ancient Greek Corinthian can be seen at the bottom of the Acropolis in Athens — The Olympieion, also known as the Temple of Olympian Zeus, built between 174BC and 131AD:
Temple of Olympian Zeus, detail
More recent examples of the Corinthian order include the United States Capitol, built between 1793 and the 1900s:
The US Capitol actually features all three classical orders, in different parts.
A few other column styles exist, but they are all based on the three classical orders. The square Doric, round Ionic, and leafy Corinthian from Ancient Greece have now been in use for over 2,000 years, and they can be seen in the architecture of government buildings, religious buildings, courts of law, museums, universities, opera houses and more, all around the world.
So when you see a column, look at the top, and you’ll spot the style.