08 May 2013
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Columns - Today’s Insight into Classical Architecture

Architecturally Correct. What exactly does "Architecturally Correct" mean? We hear that term applied fairly often, particularly with respect to columns and their capitals and bases. The phrase begs the question that there must be a lot of problems with columns that are "incorrect", architecturally speaking of course. And how does one speak "architecturally" anyway? Is there a good Spanish to Architectural translation guide available on Amazon? Are there AIA continuing education credits available for learning this language, neatly packaged in a one hour lunch and learns? Sometimes we wish it was that simple.

Truly Historic Columns. Back to columns, for now. If we were to travel to ancient Greece and Rome and endlessly study the great temples and public buildings as the many great architects have done, we would have engrained into ourselves the incredible sense of proportion and beauty that became known as the Orders of Architecture. All five of these Orders were so closely tied to the stone construction methods of that day that they are now often only referenced in connection with columns and their related pedestals, capitals and bases.

As you can imagine, there were variations among those buildings and differences of opinion arose on the specific measurements and ratios of the Orders of Architecture. Over the centuries, interpretations of the Orders have varied slightly between Palladio, Vignola, William Ware and others, to name just a few of the great interpreters. So who was right? Is there one correct answer here? They are close, but no, variations and differing opinions persist. If you want to learn more, I recommend reading William Ware’s The American Vignola and Marianne Cusato’s Get Your House Right.

Practical Considerations with Today's Columns. But what if I just want a Doric capital and an Attic base with my 10" round, smooth, tapered columns to exactly match up with the wood columns on my 1930's era home? And by the way, these new columns will be in a high moisture area (I'm tired of replacing rotten wood columns), so I'd like them to be made of long-lasting fiberglass or composite materials. This is a really challenging example for the following reasons:

  • Easier to Match Details with Wood. Though wood columns and capitals can be turned to custom specifications, with fiberglass and composites we are limited to the expensive molds already created by the column manufacturers (some are willing to create new molds, but at great expense).

  • Tuscan is Not Always Tuscan. Manufacturers vary greatly in their attention to detail, the variety and quality of molds, and their desire and efforts to adhere to an accepted interpretation of "architecturally correct". This comes back to scale, proportion, crispness of details (edges, shapes, sizes, etc.).

  • Few Good Column Makers. Consolidation in the American column market (most are made in Alabama) has left us with just a few really good options - among those we like are HB&G (formerly known as Henderson, Black & Green), and Turncraft. The reputable old brand Hartmann Sanders is now made by HB&G and the Dixie-Pacific brand is being revived by HB&G. Most other column companies are primarily marketing and sales companies whose private label columns are actually made by one of these manufacturers.

  • Limited Expertise on Columns. Unfortunately, the level of knowledge about columns is fairly limited these days. It's hard to get good answers to column questions and issues. We have found it best to go directly to the manufacturers' technical support for the really tough questions and the limits of their capabilities.

The Perfect Match? So back to our example, was that a Roman Doric or Greek Doric capital that you wanted? We discovered for this project that for the square column (or “pier”) to be installed on the corners (right next to the round columns), the Attic base is available, but not the Doric capital. No worries, fortunately, because we can match the moulding details with PVC materials run through our moulder and installed by the carpenters on-site. One manufacturer's rep simply stated that if you have to match it that close, then just tear out the old columns and replace them all! Gazing at the 25 or so existing columns, many embedded in glass windows and sunrooms, we sadly shook our heads - not an option here.

As Michael Morgan, our Custom Mill Manager, was on-site precisely measuring the existing columns with a profiler for his CAD drawings (when we were considering having new fiberglass molds made for our 20+ custom caps and bases), we openly debated whether the curve of this scotia, the height of this fillet or the shape of that astragal on the neck of the shaft really mattered. To many folks, perhaps not. But for this client and many others - beauty is all in the details, every last one of them. Yes, we eventually found our match – I’ll post pictures once they are installed.

Build to last.__

Tagged as: Columns
Category: Millwork

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