Hey, Ionic Columns! What are you doing on Lathrop Hall?

In recent literature, scholars have begun to link the Greek Classical style to white supremacy. In Dr. Lyra Monterio’s article, she argues that the architectural heritage of white columns is rooted in white settler colonialism and white supremacy. However, Monterio is missing key points as to why the Greek Classical orders took off in the first place and how their meaning evolved throughout various Renaissances in Europe. We must understand why and how these columns came about in history in order to understand their function on college campuses today.

How do we understand the original function of Greek columns?  


Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders labeled

The Greeks did not intend for their columns to transcend time. Initially, their main function was to support the roof of massive monuments and to add a decorative element to temples. Most of what we know comes from Vitruvius, a Roman writer and architect of the 1st century BC. He wrote that the Doric order “obtained its proportion, its strength, and its beauty, from the human figure,” emphasizing the column’s origins which stemmed from aesthetic beauty derived from the human body. The Ionic order was notable for its graceful, “feminine” proportions, and it is no coincidence that they were used for temples dedicated to goddesses, such as the Temple of Hera at Samos and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Lastly, the Greeks did not regard the Corinthian as an order — Vitruvius elevated the status of the Corinthian order by scribing the story of its origins and noting its “the graceful elegant appearance of a virgin,” emphasizing its aesthetic purpose. 

Temple of Hera at Samos
Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

Thus, Vitruvius was a major contributor to the Greek orders’ fame in Rome. In his account, he noted that “Architecture depends on fitness (ordinatio) and arrangement (dispositio), […] it also depends on proportion, uniformity, consistency, and economy.” To the Romans, the orders came to represent an expression of beauty and logic that stems from the human body itself, not from an ideology concerning race. Additionally, the Romans took it upon themselves to create two more orders (Tuscan and Composite, not named until the Italian Renaissance) that reinforced the Roman connection to Greek aesthetics. 

Greek vs Roman orders

How did the meaning of the columns evolve to additionally represent status and power?

Alberti on Vitruvius

During the Italian Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti, an Italian architect and writer, published a treatise on architecture in the mid 15th century called De re Aedificatoria. In this treatise, Alberti’s reverence for Roman and Greek architecture was inspired by the writings of Vitruvius, and most of the models and plans in this treatise were patterned after the models and plans in Vitrivuis’ works, emphasizing the Vitruvian trinity of architectural building: “firmitas, utilitas, venustas (strength, functionality, and beauty).” He distinguished himself as the architectural advisor to powerful merchants in Italy during the Renaissance, which led to an additional meaning of the columns: power, wealth, and cultural legitimacy opposite the Catholic Church. In Italy, powerful merchant families, such as the Medici family, sponsored the building of private chapels and homes to rival the gothic-style buildings of the Catholic Church. One of the consequences of Alberti’s translation of Vitruvius, and thus the implementation of columns, was that wealthy Italian merchants could prove that they had cultural legitimacy and authority independent of the Church — as if to say, ‘the Romans didn’t have the Church, and look at how powerful they were! We can be that as well.’ Columns began popping up in many buildings owned by merchants, and as a response, the Giant order (Colossal order) was invented by architects during the Renaissance, employed in many major Mannerist and Baroque architecture such as the Basilica of Sant’Andrea, Mantua in Italy.

Basilica of Sant’Andrea, Mantua displaying Colossal order

Stuart and Revett on the Neoclassical Revolution

While Alberti never actually visited Greece to see the Greek orders in person, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett visited Greece from 1748-1755 just as the Neoclassical revolution began in Europe. After their return and publication of their book, Europe’s fascination grew. Wealthy patrons in England employed him to design and modify their country houses to look more Neoclassical. He also designed and decorated lavish townhouses for 18th century wealthy Londoners, for example, the Lichfield House at 15 St. James’s Square, London

Plan for Lichfield House exterior by James Stuart

So, why are there four Ionic columns on Lathrop Hall?

Writers like Vitruvius, Alberti, Stuart and Revett have molded the narrative around Greek and Roman columns in architecture. Through their writings, we see that the meaning and functions of the columns do not stem from racist ideologies — they represent the Greek aesthetics of beauty, logic, order, along with the idea of power, status, and wealth separate from religion. That is why we see the four ionic columns on Lathrop Hall — they represent academic prosperity on college campuses, and the wealth of knowledge obtained by their students. If you are looking for more information about how past structures and cities, like Persepolis, are strikingly similar to universities, check out Taylor West’s article, in which she notes how the function of cities relates to the function of private colleges, just as how the meaning of Greek columns relates to the function of academic buildings on college campuses. 

The Ionic columns of Lathrop Hall, Colgate

Hi! My name is Amanda Faust, and I am a sophomore from Short Hills, NJ. I am a molecular biology major and an art history minor. Recently, I have become very interested in how modern-day architecture reflects the past, so that is why I have decided to research the following topic. 

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments