From Parthenon to Modern Movement

The Parthenon has had a chequered career, from its beginnings as a magnificent example of classical Greek architecture in the fifth century B.C.E., to its bombing and partial destruction by the Venetians during an assault of the Acropolis in 1687. Restored to some semblance of its former glory, it remains the starting point for understanding the importance of order in architecture.

The Blue Guide to Greece, the standard art historical and archaeological text for sophisticated travelers, describes the Parthenon as a peerless example of classical Greek architecture. Pericles ordered the construction of the Parthenon at the Acropolis after the defeat of the Persians in 448 B.C.E. Construction began the following year under the direction of the sculptor Pheidias, who hired the architect Iktinos to design a temple to Athena Polias, the guardian goddess of Athens. The Parthenon was dedicated in 338 B.C.E.

Three outstanding features of the temple are the optical refinements the architect introduced, the careful symmetry and proportioning of the edifice, and the use of the Doric order. All three had an impact on the development of subsequent architecture.

Greek Mathematics, Order and Proportion

To correct for visual distortion from a distance, Iktinos thickened the corner columns so that they appear more substantial. Horizontal elements such as the platform of the temple read as being straight from afar, but are in fact curved. Lines that appear vertical, like the regularly-spaced columns around the perimeter of the temple, are slightly inclined. These elements were designed with a mathematical precision that distinguished classical Greek architecture.

John Summerson in his book The Classical Language of Architecture, published in 1963, states that the underlying purpose of classical architecture is to establish harmony throughout a structure. This harmony can be created through the use of one or more of the orders of architecture, or by repeating simple ratios relating various building elements. Together, these constitute a classical language or the “Latin of architecture.”

An order, as Summerson explains, is “the ‘column-and-superstructure’ unit of a temple colonnade.” At the Parthenon, the Doric order of columns was used. The ancient Greeks recognized three orders, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Repetition of a particular order, or combination of orders, creates a rhythm in the façade of a building and contributes to a harmonious visual effect.

The simple ratios to which Summerson refers were developed to relate columns to entablature, and building height to width. The architect of the Parthenon seems to have had an intuitive understanding of how to design so that visitors would sense this harmonious relationship of the parts. Later generations of Greek architects would learn to apply a geometric principle called the golden ratio as a way of systematically relating the parts of a building.

Harmony in Architecture and the Modern Movement

The Parthenon established in western architecture the concept of harmonious relationships. The ancient Greeks developed a rational procedure for controlling the design of a building and perfecting the relationships between parts. Their example would in turn influence classical Roman architecture.

After centuries of neglect, Renaissance architects re-established the classical language of architecture as the sine qua non way of building design. The idea of a classical language of architecture fell out of favour with the advent of Modernism, but has never been completely lost. A modernist like Le Corbusier espoused tracés regulateurs, or lines of control, in his early designs. He refined these in his later architecture under the term Modular. We have the Parthenon to thank for setting a building precedent that has rarely been surpassed for sophistication and harmony.