Isn’t it odd that so many a building in old downtowns look almost the same? As if the architects before us have had just a recipe: mix 6 columns, top with a pediment (that is the triangle above the columns), sprinkle with sculptures and … ready is the building!

Take a look at these famous three and answer the questions:

all columns

Columns? Yep!

Pediments? Yep!

Mini and maxi-figures sculpted in relief? Yep!

It seems that disregarding historical time and geography, some architectural elements are the same. A bit boring, isn’t it?

Yet, we know that there is More to these columns Than Meets The Eye. Otherwise why would we care to visit old cities?

Adorned with leaves, shells, women busts, men torsos, straight lines, and twists, the columns between which we dash into a museum, a university, or an old mansion, do not grab our interest more than a second. It’s time for you to pause 60 seconds in front of this map:

The Columns’ Epidemic

harta coloane

In black you see some of the places where archaeologists found stand alone columns: Totem poles sculpted by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Irminsul pillars raised by the Germanic tribes, Huabiao columns built by the Chinese, and Obelisks created by the Ancient Egyptians. These had no structural purpose and apparently no practical use.

“So much work for no direct benefit”, we would mutter nowadays. It’s really hard for us to imagine that people put more work into a column used for spiritual and ceremonial purposes than into their own dwellings. It sounds nice in our utilitarian-oriented, consumerist-driven time to be so concerned with spirituality, but I bet you hated to carry heavy stones for an obelisk while living in precarious conditions. Enjoy then our time’s individual freedom!

In blue you see renown places where columns have been invented with a structural goal in mind: to allow for a wider and safer span of the roof. The post-and-beam (in wood) or post-and-lintel (in stone) is a building system in which the horizontal element (called lintel, beam, architrave) helps spread the load of the roof on the vertical elements (called columns, posts, pillars).

The Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, Ancient Chinese, Inca and Maya temples show ample spaces covered by this building system. This logic is still in use today, just the materials changed. Instead of heavy stone we use reinforced concrete. And the symbolic power of the column is fading away.

In red you see how columns’ epidemic starts in Renaissance Florence, swiftly spreads over Europe and stretches across the Atlantic into North and South America.

How did it begin? In Florence (What a beautiful root’s name: flower!), as in whole Italy, the Gothic architecture has never been trendy. No wonder people disliked it, for they lived surrounded by Roman ruins which display a different aesthetic logic than the Gothic constructions. Roman buildings rely on balance, order and horizontal lines to create splendor, whereas Gothic buildings craft vertical tensions to amaze us.

Drawings of the Roman columns began to be published and to circulate in Europe. Vielen Dank Herr Gutenberg for inventing the printing press! Italian architects (see Sebastiano Serlio: A Peek into Renaissance) were invited to advise the royal courts. The French kings rapidly aligned to the new trend, followed by the whole European elite, so that in an incredibly short time (no internet and phones helped them to spread the news), the Italian column-based facades became as fashionable as the Italian high end cars today.

Much ado about a column! People died building obelisks in ancient times, prayed at totems, sacrificed in column-surrounded temples, paid a lot to have Italian masters building their palaces to show the world their prestige. There’s more dreaming than practical use into a column. Next time you’re close to a column touch it and enjoy the stories it whispers. Now your ears are able to detect them.