The Hidden Formulas of Architecture

How classical design taught me to ditch measuring and focus on what looks right.

I am a degenerate book collector, possessing far more books than I will ever likely read. Mine is an overflowing library of esoteric knowledge, but I do a lot of oddball stuff like restoring old buildings, and designing furniture. So some of these books come in handy pretty often. And a few of them have been sitting on my desk this week while a work on a project here in town.

I originally started down life’s path studying architecture, and one of the things that–when I was pretty young–was hard to get my head around, were the the classical orders of architecture, which are basically the rules that the ancient Greeks used for designing temples. At most points from the renaissance to the first half of 20th century, they were the heart of any western architectural education.

These days, we have translated these orders into a pattern language for designing “classical” buildings like museums, government buildings, and rich person mansions.

Classicism not withstanding, they’re very useful for understanding how things got the way they are in western architecture. The words, the proportions, and the structural elements that almost all of our buildings use (even the ugly ones!) are in some way informed by this.

(Seriously all of the words; like attic, porch, cornice all come from Greek temples!)

The orders generally look like this:

Greek and Roman Classical Orders. A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method by Banister Fletcher

There are several groupings of them, but the most common set is 5 orders: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan, and Composite.

Vitruvius, a Roman architect, wrote well about this and most of what we know about the orders came from him. But “The Classical Orders of Architecture” by Robert Chitham is one of my favorite more contemporary books that gives all of the proportions and patterns for each of the orders. 

An example of the detail in The Classical Orders of Architecture. By Robert Chitham.

These orders sort of fell out of common usage in the first half of the 20th century but, central to their idea is that they consider the human as a base unit for everything and then use that repeating rhythm to relate every object to it. For the graphic designers in the crowd, there is a lot of “The Grid” in this thinking.

Grid in the three dimensional space. By Josef Müller-Brockmann

The cool thing about them is that they aren’t really based on what we modern folk consider measurements, like feet or inches, but instead, on proportions and ratios. So one of the key ways you start “measuring” is by choosing the width and diameter of your column, and then much of your design is based on ratios from your diameter (there are other ways to do this but this is common and the way Vitruvius did it).

Designers and builders of the classical era did most of their work with a set of dividers (like a big compass) and most of their measuring was a bunch of clever geometry tricks that meant you just basically walked out your design out with these simple tools. This book “By Hand & Eye” by George R. Walker & Jim Tolpin is an incredible overview of this design process. 

More than any other book, this changed the way I design physical things.

Modern buildings–on the other hand–are made out of modern materials; concrete and steel and rigid skeletons. The decorative skin of the building is usually a fiction, nice looking stuff affixed to the boring utilitarian building underneath. So things like classical details are usually adhered after the building is already up. In fact, most of this stuff now lives in the section of Home Depot called “Trim”, because we now use it, as the final details.

And for most of my life that is how I thought of it, the way you “finish” a thing, the little decorative details that help resolve your design.

But last year I came across an amazing book, one of the most useful books I’ve found while restoring old buildings, “Get Your House Right” by Marianne Cusato & Ben Pentreath.

An unbelievably useful book! Full of tips and history and great illustrations.

It’s full of spectacular details that should be common sense. But increasingly this sense is less common, because much of our symbolic design language isn’t rooted in real construction techniques anymore. It’s the decoration that we put on after the building is built, or that serve only a symbolic purpose like shutters. (The authors have some great snarky opinions on modern shutters.)

But with the classical stuff, I’m so used to seeing the traditional entablature of the top of a building, (the fancy finished bits at the top above the columns) in a straight on elevation view that flattens it out into a view that helps you make sense of each of the individual details. It is helpful, but it also encourages a kind of blind sense of rule following, it should look like this and have these proportions cause the greeks said so, and frankly, it does look good so sure, let’s go with it.

A standard elevation based classical breakdown. From the incomparably, awesomely illustrated A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method by Banister Fletcher

But one of my favorite drawings in the “Get Your House Right” was very enlightening. It showed a cutaway drawing of a classical building. And for the first time, I looked at the orders a little differently, suddenly I realized that every part of this system wasn’t just symbolic or representational, but the projection of actual construction materials. This is the foundational model of how they were built at the very beginning, and I’m sure it evolved into more representational stuff quickly but this is where it started.

The Tectonics of the Orders. Or a detailed view of how the “styles” came from real stuff. Marianne Cusato

Each part, the upper curve or the Cyma, it’s really the gutter, the flat face below that, the Architrave, is really the beam that holds every thing up, the Triglyphs and Dentils that repeat horizontally all across the frieze, are actually the exposed roof joint ends or rafter tails. Suddenly this wasn’t just decoration, but a way to communicate how to build within a cultural language. Thats what’s so amazing about this book (and I really can’t recommend it enough) it shows you how to align your details with the reasons that they existed in the first place.

Any of you that are architects might be saying "yeah, duh, that is literally what the orders are", but the way I was taught the orders, was very much about proportions and rhythm and never got into the construction details. And for what ever reason for me, understanding how these buildings were built originally totally clicked in some part of my brain to fully internalize this thinking. And there are plenty of architects that aren’t taught about the orders anymore; they are a stuffy, old, rigid, vernacular “style” that has no place in today's buildings – or so the thinking goes.

I think the reason that it gets glossed over in our teaching is that this *isn’t* how we build buildings any more, and we *do* just treat this stuff as a decorative pattern language. So it begs the question, does it ever matter? 

Well, I think it does. Part of me wants to be the sort of designer and builder that thinks buildings should be honest, that decoration is pointless and why would we decorate add things that serve no purpose. But our buildings are full of symbolic details, and no matter how honest we are, golden ratio windows, 6’8” doorways, a 4/12 roof pitch, could be a lot of other random numbers, but we use these over and over because they look right. Looking right doesn’t mean that it is right, it just means that it is a cultural symbol that we are used to, that says, “house” or “normal looking roof” to us. When we ignore these patterns we enter McMansion Hell.

This shiz is fugly. Kate Wagner/McMansion Hell.

My sense is that the orders and classical architecture matter because we’ve had 3000 years of them being a major part of our design language, which makes them easy to read, easy to understand. And even if it is just decoration, they help us process a building, to understand our surroundings, and even as a familiar set of rules we can break in interesting ways.

But most of all the classical orders are important because they’re like a liberal education. They may not be directly useful in life and you may never design something that looks like a Greek temple, but they train you how to think about things. They train you to think about the relationships between objects, to consider proportion, and purpose of your design. Even if you never design a classical building the orders are a great base education for designing anything.

But for all of this formal thinking, it *is* all based on a 3000 year old Greek construction technique and religious symbolism, and it’s a pretty singular style. It’s widely speculated that is is largely inspired by Egyptian building. There are also incredible ritualized languages for Asian temple architecture with almost endless depth and detail (holy crap don’t get me started on Japanese temple carpentry!). Or African architecture (check out Mali below, that’s mud!) that operates with a totally different set of patterns. Or meso-american architecture that had another approach and set of tools.

Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali

Ultimately, Greek classical orders just came down to us because the Romans were kinda insecure about their cultural legacy, and riffed on it, made it their own, and spread it all over the world. And then even that might have died if it weren’t for the humanists in the renaissance like Palladio who dug the classical approach out of mouldering books in forgotten abbeys. And from there, Palladio inspired many, but importantly Thomas Jefferson and George Washington who tried very hard to make the American visual language Palladian, or Vitruvian, or fundamentally “Classical”.

So there we go, not everything should be classical–or god-forbid traditional–but there is room to understand the tools that got us here. They still have a role to play in understanding our built inheritance and can inform everything we build even if it isn’t traditional. I think of it like understanding typography; the language, rules and patterns that inform typography are largely based on the limitations and tools from movable type printing presses 400 years ago, yet we have found countless ways to remix and create fresh interpretations of type and design.

I started writing this just because I really wanted to recommend that people read “Get Your House Right” and “By Hand & Eye” (you should!) but I couldn’t seem to help myself, and wrote a lecture. The orders are kinda stuffy, but they have changed the way I see and design buildings.