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What is an Architectural Column?

The Supreme Court Building features Corinthian capitals.
Doric columns normally have a fluted, tapering shaft.
An Ionic column is characterized by its spiraled scroll design, called volutes.
Corinthian capitals have elaborate carvings, often of leaves.
Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, has Doric columns.
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  • Written By: Kate Monteith
  • Edited By: Jay Garcia
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2014
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An architectural column can be used as a structural component to a building, a decorative element, or both. Columns offer vertical support for arches or balconies, adding a dignified appearance to homes and public buildings. They may be arranged in a colonnade, or to support a gazebo in an English garden. Architectural columns are sometimes installed simply for the purpose of freestanding decoration.

The majestic quality of columns is recognized and appreciated by architecture lovers around the world. An architectural column that is used for support will be made of a sturdy material, such as wood, stone, steel or manufactured synthetic products. Stone columns are often carved from granite or marble. Reinforced steel columns are usually encased in a decorative material to enhance their aesthetic appeal.

The first documented use of an architectural column with decorative elements was more than 5,000 years ago in Egypt. Simple carvings representing bundled reeds embellished the surface of the shaft, opening a new perspective on aesthetics for ancient architects. Over history, architecture has been refined to include many variations on this original column design.

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The ancient Greek architects developed three distinct styles for an architectural column, known as the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders. Doric is the earliest column style, going back to about 600 B.C. A Doric column sits squarely on the floor, with no base. There is usually a simple capital of carved mouldings at the top. Doric columns are characterized by a wide, tapering shaft that may or may not be fluted.

The Ionic order was developed around 400 B.C. The shaft of an Ionic column is usually fluted, and much narrower than its predecessor. The capital of an Ionic column has curving, scroll-like embellishments that look like ram’s horns. Unlike the Doric style, architectural columns of the Ionic order call for a base, generally embellished with simple carved mouldings.

The third order of ancient Greek architectural column is the Corinthian style, which was in popular use beginning around 200 B.C. Corinthian columns are characterized by elaborate decorative carvings of acanthus leaves on the capital. Several layers of gently curling leaves are common. Corinthian columns are the slenderest of the three Greek styles, presenting an architectural column with a pleasing and graceful appearance.

Several sub-styles and variations on column design have emerged from around the world. For instance, the Roman variation on the Doric style is called Roman Doric or Tuscan. Another style, known as the Composit order, draws from elements found in both the Corinthian and Ionic styles. A Solomonic type of column is similar to Corinthian order, but the shaft is twisted in a swirling, serpentine design. Today, practically every culture has discovered the versatility, strength and beauty that reside in an architectural column.

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