Classical architecture is rooted in the building styles of Ancient Greece and Rome, particularly from the 5th century BCE in Greece to the 3rd century CE in Rome. This architectural style is predominantly marked by the use of materials like marble, a strong emphasis on symmetry, rectangular window designs, and the prominent use of columns.
Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer from the 1st century BCE, believed that architects should be skilled in various areas such as drawing, geometry, lighting, and philosophy. He thought that architecture was a science that could be understood through logical thinking, and it should reflect nature. This included the idea of perfect balance and proportion in buildings, as well as in the human body. His principles inspired Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing, the Vitruvian Man.
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1490
This concept of proportionality is deeply connected to the golden ratio, a mathematical ratio often found in nature, including the human form. Architects from the classical era used this ratio to design buildings with pleasing and balanced shapes, creating a sense of harmony and beauty.
Columns play a central role in classical architecture. The specific design patterns of these columns help classify the building’s style. There are different types of column designs, including Doric, Ionic, Composite, Corinthian, and Tuscan.
An illustration from Encyclopédie vol. 18, showcasing the Classical orders, including (from left to right) the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Modern Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite columns.
Classical structures often show a strong sense of balance and symmetry. They might have porches with triangular tops, called pediments, and the main entrance is typically centered. Materials like brick, concrete, and marble were commonly used in these buildings. Windows, usually rectangular in shape, were placed symmetrically and often had a double-hung design.
The Colosseum stands as one of the most remarkable achievements in Classical architecture and engineering. Construction began around 70 CE under the direction of Roman Emperor Vespasian and was completed a decade later by his successor, Titus. Initially called the Flavian Amphitheater, this immense building was constructed using materials such as brick-faced concrete, volcanic rock, and travertine limestone. It had the capacity to hold roughly 50,000 to 80,000 spectators. The Colosseum served multiple purposes, hosting not only gladiatorial fights but also reenactments of battles and mythological stories, executions, animal hunts, and other public events.
Colosseum. Rome, Italy.
While the Colosseum represents a key architectural marvel in ancient Rome, another significant structure of the Classical era is the Parthenon in Greece. Constructed between 447-432 BCE, it became the centerpiece of the Athenian Acropolis. Greek architects Iktinos and Callicrates dedicated the Parthenon to the gods who guided them to victory during the Persian invasion of Hellenic lands.
The Parthenon is considered the peak of the Doric order and remains the most vital building of the Classical period in Greece that still stands today. Its primary purpose was to house the magnificent statue of Athena, the Goddess of War and daughter of Zeus. Interestingly, unlike modern buildings, all temples in Greece were intended to be admired from the outside. Onlookers were not meant to enter the temple but could glimpse the interior statues through the open doors, adding an air of mystique and reverence to these sacred sites.
The Parthenon. Athens, Greece.
Another noteworthy structure that echoes the brilliance of classical architecture is the Maison Carrée. Built between 16-20 BCE, this temple stands as one of the most well-preserved examples from the Roman Empire and played a significant role in shaping the Classical Revival era. The Maison Carrée is particularly interesting as it closely follows Vitruvian architecture, being almost an exact copy of his Tuscan-style Roman temple. Despite its name meaning “square house,” the temple is rectangular and features 33 Corinthian-style columns.
Maison Carrée. Nîmes, southern France.
The Renaissance period marked a reawakening and celebration of classical architecture, inspiring the construction of iconic structures like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The echo of this influence resounds even in contemporary times, shaping modern architectural styles such as Neoclassicism.
Words of wisdom
“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.” —Frank Gehry
“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” —Richard Feynmann
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” —Aristotle
“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” —Søren Kierkegaard