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The orders of architecture

An order, in architecture, is the technical term for a column and its related elements - in particular its top (the capital).

Since Greek architecture provides the pattern of classicism, the differing Greek styles have become standard terms in the vocabulary of architecture. The three orders which feature most frequently in classical buildings are the Doric, the Ionic and the Corinthian.

The Doric, named after the Dorian invaders who dominate most of Greece from the 12th century BC, emerges from the 7th century BC as the standard style of mainland Greece and of the Greek colonies to the west, in southern Italy and Sicily.

A Doric column is sturdy, with a plain round top. This squashes out, like a cushion, to support a larger square slab of stone (the abacus) on which the horizontal beam (the entablature) rests.

The Ionic is named after the region in which it develops - Ionia, on the west coast of Turkey, where there are many rich and powerful Greek colonies. These cities trade with the eastern Mediterranean and are influenced by oriental styles. In Egyptian architecture the tops of columns often have carved decoration, using themes such as palm leaves or lilies.

In Greek architecture the carving at the top of an Ionic column is equally decorative but more formal - looking much like a pair of ram's horns, curling inwards to a point. Extending outside the column, this design provides a single broad load-bearing element - in place of the separate circle and square in the Doric model.

Ionic columns are traditionally thinner for their height than the solid Doric version. From the 5th century in Greek architecture, following the example of the Parthenon, the architects of Doric temples find it convenient to use the Ionic style for interior pillars.

The Ionic design has an intrinsic disadvantage when viewed from an angle, as happens at the corner of a building or in any interior colonnade. Its attractive curves feature only on two of the four sides. A compromise is attempted, placing the design on all four sides; but this results in an awkward jutting corner where the rams' horns meet. A more satisfactory solution is found in the Corinthian order.

The Corinthian capital in Greek architecture is developed late in the 5th century BC, at first only for interior use where the all-round aspect is particularly important. The top of the column is like an inverted bell and its surface is richly carved with acanthus leaves, curling outwards. The ornament is pleasing and consistent from all angles.

A variation on the Corinthian capital, bringing in elements of the Ionic, is sometimes referred to as a separate order under the name of 'composite'. It is a Roman development, unknown until the 1st century AD.

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