For more than 26 centuries the Classical Orders have been the basis of Western architecture. Sometimes their influence has been less obvious, at others it has been forceful and dominant. Now, in the 21st century, some say they are irrelevant but how can that be, what has suddenly changed after 2,600 years of relevance? Classical architecture is the architecture of humanism and civilization and so long as these values have relevance so do the Orders.
The most obvious characteristic of Classical architecture is the use of columns, which since the early Renaissance have been systematized into five Orders:
Tuscan, the most elemental and simple.
Doric, the next strongest, often seen as masculine.
Ionic, graceful with the added refinement of volute capitals.
Corinthian, the most slender and decorated …
…and Composite, highly decorated, reserved for the showy buildings.
Every great treatise on architecture includes a plate showing how the Five Orders compare.
Because each of the Orders has recognizable features critics assume that all an architect has to do is to lift the details of whatever chosen Order out of a book and add it to the set of construction drawings. It cannot be done! The great Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens knew this and wrote (of using the Doric Order);-
“To be right you have to take it and design it…..You cannot copy: you find if you do you are caught, a mess remains…..It means hard labour, hard thinking, over every line in all three dimensions and in every joint; and no stone can be allowed to slide. If you tackle it in this way, the Orders belong to you and every stroke, being mentally handled, must become endowed with such poetry and artistry as God has given you. You alter one feature (which you have to, always), then every other feature has to sympathize and undergo some care and invention.”
The Orders are not a set of hard and fast rules, on the contrary they are liberating, they are like the words and grammar of a language allowing meaningful communication.