Colonnades echo throughout our history, lasting through the architectural eras despite the ever changing styles. Interestingly enough, this concept and structure can be found in several ancient cultures around the world! What exactly is their purpose in architecture? Here we delve into its functional purpose and its use as a design tool.
Colonnades are simply a long row of columns carrying one slab atop it. This can stand independently (as a plaza, arcaded walk) or as a part of the structure, attached to the building (as a porch, portico). Its beginnings are often seen in ancient temples and civic structures, partly being the reason we see them in our government buildings today.
What It Is & What It’s Not
A column is a vertical carrying structure. Several columns lined in a row is a colonnade. Often, colonnades are described as “a series of columns carrying one entablature.” An entablature is the horizontal carrying structure (like our floor slab or ceiling) however the entablature usually refers to the Ancient Greek part of the temple, in between the pediment (triangular top part with the sculpted relief) and above the columns. (1)
Arches connecting two columns on top and repeated continuously form an arcade. We see these often in marketplaces, cloisters or famously, the Roman aqueduct. (2)
When placed in front of a building’s entrance, the colonnade is called a “Portico”. This is also called the “porch”, a small roofed area with a few columns before entering. Adding many rows of colonnades makes a deeper portico. A colonnade surrounding an open-air courtyard is called “peristyle.” (3)
We discuss atriums and peristyles deeper in this article, which is a whole other discussion: [LINK to “Peristyle in Architecture Explained”]
Its Structural Function
It is the simplest form of construction, also known as “post and lintel”. Simply described, it is two vertical elements carrying one horizontal element. So extend this further to adding more vertical posts, and you have a colonnade.
Image from Post and lintel – Wikipedia
The innovation of post and lintel construction allowed builders to build larger and use stronger, heavier materials for buildings. This sparked a transition from wooden construction to stone and with the Romans later on, concrete. (4)
Historically, the Egyptians, Indians, Chinese — cultures all across the world have interlaced their temples with colonnades as they often served a structural purpose in carrying the roof load above while compartmentalizing inner spaces. (5)
Its Use in Space Planning & Circulation
Colonnades delineate the boundary between public space and private space. The Parthenon and other Greek temples were beautifully designed to have the colonnade surrounding the building perimeter. This gives outsiders a glimpse of the god’s shrine within, without having to enter the building itself. In contrast to Egyptian temples, columns were placed inside as internal passages and cast at a colossal scale to make one feel insignificant or humbled upon entering (a tactic still used in civic buildings today). (6)
Imagine a giant worshiping chamber with solid walls with the sacred relic in the center. This may feel like being in a sarcophagus, about to be the second attraction yourself! In Egyptian temples, an inner colonnade serves as a hallway to separate circulation for those who just need to pass through. (7) At the same time, the colonnade frames the entrance and exits, making the space easier to navigate, visually pleasing to the eye and overall experience.
In climates that don’t need to seal off spaces from snow or sandstorms, colonnades allow natural light and ventilation to flow into a space rather than a solid wall, as seen in Greek temples. Spaced in regular intervals, the columns act as a giant sun shade or louver to break the sunlight’s heat, which can also create beautiful shadow play with the patterns it casts.
Colonnades also serve as a transition space for two types of space functions. For example, in an arcaded covered walkway with shops on one side and the street on the other, the shaded walkway could be where people are choosing among the cafes to dine in, or waiting safely to hail a cab — a mediating or buffer space in between two busy functions that also aids or augments the functions of these two.
In Commercial Spaces
A colonnaded area could also serve as an outdoor extension for the shops while peaking public interest with a chance to see what’s through those columns. Early forms of colonnades in public buildings are the Greek Agora (market), stoa (covered walkway) and Roman forum (market). (1) This is also a great tactic in enticing market-goers to take refuge under the shaded walk and perhaps buy a thing or two while waiting.
Image from Banister Fletcher’s “History of Architecture”
In Residential Spaces
In homes, colonnades can be a shaded walkway around the courtyard, or balcony on the upper floors. These spaces can help tremendously in reducing heat gain or heat loss. Serving as a buffer for thermal control, colonnades act as the mediating space in between being indoors and being outdoors.
Again the shadow patterns these colonnades cast can create a dynamic, dramatic interior without any additional cost. They are also a great design solution to letting natural light filter indoors, without the heat gain and in effect, lowering electricity bills! (4)
Image from Home – (adventurouslifetravel.net)
In Public Spaces
Colonnades can be built into the structures as the samples above, or freestanding in defining an outdoor space such as a courtyard or plaza. Take St. Peter’s Square, in the Vatican City, is a famous plaza designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini — a space defined by the colonnade alone. (1)
Image from “A Global History of Architecture” by Francis D.K. Ching
In the floor plan image above, notice how the open space is completely defined by the colonnade and no solid walls at all. This gives the space its open, permeable character, welcoming all people to come. Partnered with Bernini’s concept of the shape resembling “open arms”, the form and use of columns over walls, really strengthened the idea that everyone is welcome to this place.
Its Overall Design Effect as a Design Element
It is no wonder we associate formalness and regality with colonnades. Having its roots in temple architecture, colonnades were used as a way of creating a procession, or dignified pathway. It is a way of highlighting a certain walkway and giving it importance. Government Buildings are often built in the Neoclassical Style (reviving Classical Greek and Roman elements) as a symbol of democracy, power and timelessness. This is why we associate buildings with elements such as Greek/Roman capitals, pediments and colonnades with such formality and luxury. (8)
Colonnades also have a great way of tying buildings together into one unified complex. As Sir Christopher Wren did with the Royal Hospital for Seamen, Greenwich, there were insufficient funds to construct all the buildings at once. Wren geniusly used colonnades as a way to wrap the entire perimeter, making the building complex appear complete on the outside, when in fact the buildings inside were filled in later on when the budget grew. (9)
Image from Colonnades | RIBAJ
Whether in regular intervals or accented every few columns, colonnades provide this design principle of rhythm. Having a regular pattern helps our eyes become at ease in making sense of our surroundings and giving it a natural order. This also gives us a sense of movement, stimulating our eyes leading somewhere as opposed to a stagnant and plain surface. (9)
Colonnades at a deeper level
Just because it’s difficult to talk about colonnades and not mention these details history has left us, here’s a bit more on this design strategy.
The Ancient Greeks developed this further by giving proper names and classifications to the way columns were laid out. Just in case it peaks your interest to know (though only historians and those reviewing for the board exam need this in detail).
The Greeks were perfectionists and actually very good at sculpting the built environment to meet the imperfections, or perception of the human eye.
Greek colonnades were classified according to the spacing in between columns as well as the number of columns that front their temple (taken from “A Global History of Architecture” by Francis D.K. Ching:
• Henostyle: one column
• Distyle: two columns
• Tristyle: three columns
• Tetrastyle: four columns
• Pentastyle: five columns
• Hexastyle: six columns
• Heptastyle: seven columns
• Octastyle: eight columns
• Enneastyle: nine columns
• Decastyle: ten columns
They also had terminologies for the way these are laid out around the inner chamber or “columniation”:
• Peripteral: one row of columns
• Dipteral: two rows of columns
• Tripteral: three rows of columns
• Pseudodipteral: suggesting a dipteral colonnade, but without the inner colonnade (7)
Image from List of Ancient Greek temples – Wikiwand
So for example, the Parthenon above is an example of an Octastyle Peripteral temple, as classified by its colonnade.
Old Tricks to New Dogs
Are colonnades obsolete?
Modern architecture can view colonnades as “traditional looking” or taking up too much floor space. However this leaves us with endlessly blank walls, streets without shaded walks for pedestrians, — no mystery, no purpose, no intrigue — no design.
An insightful concept by architect Thomas Heatherwick (of Heatherwick Studios U.K.) regarding architecture in the pandemic is, “Form Follows Function, but emotion is also a function. This is what we forgot to address in our designs leaving us feeling lonely.” Drama, space, grandeur may cost much more but we can’t help flock to places that give us life, or places we feel have thought put into it.
Colonnade wrapped facades not only buffer the inner building, (acting as a protective skin from weather) but as a transitory space, they also provide better public life. Colonnades are free of use to the public and make street life more enjoyable being a shaded outdoor place to meet others.
A beautiful aspect of colonnades is that it is present in all cultures, all religions and works in nearly all climates. It’s a rare piece of beauty and ingenuity that each culture discovered themselves and made their own.
- Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2016, August 19). colonnade. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/colonnade-architecture
- Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2011, September 27). arcade. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/arcade
- Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2010, December 27). portico. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/portico-architecture
- Ancient Colonnade: Definition & Overview. (2014, November 25). Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/ancient-colonnade-definition-lesson-quiz.html.
- Fletcher, B., & Musgrove, J. (1975). Sir Banister Fletcher’s a history of architecture.
- McMahon Last Modified Date: February 09, M. (2022, February 9). What is a colonnade? What is a Colonnade? Retrieved February 2022, from https://www.wise-geek.com/what-is-a-colonnade.htm
- Ching, F. D., Jarzombek, M. M., & Prakash, V. (2017). A global history of architecture. John Wiley & Sons.
- *. (2020, December 18). Architectural elements: Colonnades then and now. Portella. Retrieved February 2022, from https://portella.com/blog/architectural-elements-colonnades-then-and-now/
- Nathaniel Furman, A., & Dr. Jessop, L. (2014, November 6). Seven colonnades. RIBAJ. Retrieved February 2022, from https://www.ribaj.com/culture/colonnades