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Early civilizations
     The contribution of Greece
     Greek architecture in the colonies
     The Parthenon
     The Greek theatre

The east
Rock-cut architecture
Early Christian churches
Middle Ages
15th - 16th century
17th - 18th century
19th century
To be completed

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The contribution of Greece: 7th - 5th century BC

No place or period has been so influential in the history of architecture as Greece in the 7th to 5th centuries BC. Here there emerge the various elements of the classical style which will recur at many periods of later history - delicately fluted columns, with shaped tops or 'capitals', supporting horizontal lintels (usually made up of two layers, architrave below and frieze above), and at the front of the building a triangular pediment, often decorated with sculpture, to conceal the shallow pointed roof behind.

Parts of this package go back hundreds of years (ultimately to the temples of Egypt), but the delicacy and balance is the achievement of the Greeks.


The pillar and capital are familiar in Greece from prehistoric times. They feature together, for example, in the sculpture above the Lion Gate at Mycenae, from the 13th century BC.

As late as the mid-7th century the pillars in Greek temples are still invariably of wood. But their capitals already divide into the distinct patterns which will become known as Doric and Ionic, the central pair in the classical Orders of architecture. Doric, the style of mainland Greece, follows the design featured on the Lion Gate at Mycenae. Ionic, developing in the Greek colonies of Asia Minor, is more influenced by eastern traditions.


The gradual substitution of stone columns for wooden ones begins in about 620 BC. This applies both to newly built temples and to the replacement of decayed wooden columns in existing buildings. The temple to Hera at Olympia becomes famous for its long process of change; one of the original oak columns is seen still in place, in an otherwise stone building, by a visitor in the 2nd century AD.

The architects of the earliest stone temples insure against collapse by using massively thick columns set rather close together. It is not until late in the 6th century that the defining elegance of the Greek temple begins to emerge.


Greek architecture in the colonies: 6th - 5th century BC

Many of the most impressive buildings from this early period are outside the Greek mainland. Between about 530 and 460 the people of Paestum, a Greek colony in southern Italy, build three great temples. All three survive, providing a powerful image of the sturdy confidence already achieved in the Doric style.

The famous optical tricks of Greek architecture are already in use: the gradual swelling of a column from top and bottom to its central point to avoid its seeming wasp-waisted (technically called entasis) and a similar gentle rise in floor level to the centre of the supporting platform, so that the row of columns does not appear to sag.


The last of the temples of Paestum, dating from about 460 BC, coincides with the greatest period of Greek architecture. In the mid-5th century the Greeks in Sicily build magnificent temples at Segesta, Selinus (now Selinunte), Agrigentum and Syracuse. At Syracuse the shrine to Athena is now the city's cathedral.

But the summit of Greek architectural achievement comes at this time with the rebuilding of Athens.


The Parthenon: 447-438 BC

The destruction of Athens by the Persians in 480 BC has reduced the acropolis to a pile of debris. The Athenians rapidly build new retaining walls and fill the gaps with the rubble (later providing archaeologists with a rich haul of broken ornament and statuary). But reconstruction of the buildings on the summit, and in particular of the great temple to Pallas Athene (known as the Parthenon because the goddess is parthenos, a virgin), is delayed until a brief interval of peace in the middle of the century.

The Parthenon is to be of great size and dignity (it will house a vast new statue of Athena by the sculptor Phidias). The architect chosen for this important task is Ictinos. The building takes only nine years (447-438).


Ictinos brings together differing strands to create the outstanding achievement of the Greek style. The basic design of the Parthenon is Doric, the style of Athens and the rest of the Greek mainland. But Doric temples are severe, with little ornament. Ictinos borrows from the Ionic tradition two elements which suit his purpose.

Inside the building he uses Ionic columns. Thinner than the Doric version, they are less obtrusive; they later become normal for the interiors of Doric temples. More dramatically, Ictinos adopts the Ionic theme of exterior decoration. He enlivens his frieze and pediment with the sculptures which in themselves are another pinnacle of Greek achievement.


The Greek theatre: 4th century BC

An exclusively Greek contribution to architectural history is the raked auditorium for watching theatrical performances (appropriately, since the Greeks are also the inventors of theatre as a literary form).

The masterpieces of Greek drama date from the 5th century BC. At that time, in Athens, the audience sit on the bare hillside to watch performances on a temporary wooden stage. In the 4th century a stone auditorium is built on the site, and there is still a theatre there today - the theatre of Dionysus. However this is a Roman reconstruction from the time of Nero. By then the shape of the stage is a semi-circle.


In the first Greek theatres the stage is a full circle, in keeping with the circular dance - the choros - from which the theatrical performance has evolved. This stage is called the orchestra (orchester, a dancer), because it is the place where the chorus sing and dance.

Epidaurus, built in about 340 BC, provides the best example of a classical Greek theatre. In the centre of the orchestra is the stone base on which an altar stood, reflecting the religious aspect of theatre in Greece. The rising tiers of seats, separated by aisles, provide the pattern for the closest part of the auditorium to the stage in nearly all subsequent theatres - where these seats are still sometimes called the orchestra stalls.


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