What sort of factors had to be considered by Greek architects in designing a temple? Discuss with reference to at least two you have studied.

It is important to emphasise at the outset that temple architects did not have very much scope for innovation: they worked to a traditional, established design. There was only gradual, minor modification. Perhaps the most startling innovation occurred in the 7th century B.C., when temples began to be built in stone.

An initial consideration was location: this could be predetermined by an earlier structure e.g. in the case of the Parthenon, or by other considerations e.g. the Erechtheion. Dimensions were laid out on site, determining the foundations, which could be built up if necessary e.g. the south side of the Parthenon. The platform would determine the spacing and dimensions of the columns, including their height, according to the proportions ofthe time e.g. the relatively short columns ofthe temple of Zeus at Olympia (1:4.75), compared with those of the Parthenon or Aphaia temple. The height of the cella wall was determined by that of the colonnade, which could not be read in advance from a scaled plan.

In this way, the architect worked to a well established pattern. This is also illustrated by the temples of Hephaistos (in the agora at Athens), Poseidon (at Sounion) and Ares (at Acharnai). All three were probably built by the same architect: all three vary slightly in dimensions but not in proportions and basic design. They all conform to the same procedures but are not taken from a single predetermined plan.

Another factor which limited innovation was the principle of construction: vertical supports and horizontal beams. In turn, this is linked to the materials used: stone and timber. Architrave blocks had to be supported at each end by a column, and the roof depended on wooden beams resting on the entablature, cella walls and internal colonnades. These factors restricted the dimensions of temples. The Parthenon has architrave slabs 4.5m long spanning the columns. To facilitate construction, it was common to use a series of blocks, back to back, to form the architrave (three were used for the Parthenon architraves). However, most architraves were much smaller than those of the Parthenon. These considerations, therefore, imposed restrictions on the architect with regard to the spacing of the columns and, again, major innovation was discouraged.

Massive wooden beams were needed to support the roof. There was a limit to the size of timber available (12m in general). This also placed restrictions on the width of the cella.

All these factors meant that architects were limited to minor, subtle refinements to the traditional design. Examples of these are the windows in the east porch of the Parthenon and Erechtheion, and the particularly subtle entasis of the Parthenon (not to mention the significant ratio of 9:4).

Within the limitations of the traditional design, architects could design temples of varying scale. Cost was a major consideration here. The Parthenon (30.88 by 69.50m) is clearly much larger than the more typical 13.70 by 31.70m of the Hephaisteion. Tribute from her allies enabled Athens to build on such a lavish scale. Similarly, the temple of Zeus at Olympia was built to impress(27.68 by 64.12m), although it was outshone by the Parthenon no doubt a factor considered by the architects.

Clearly, we must not forget the basic function of temples as houses for the cult statues. The Parthenon and temple of Zeus housed particularly large cult figures, and this will have been a factor in the dimensions of the cella in each case.

Other factors affecting the scope of the architect include the availability of a skilled labour force no problem for the Athenians. The order (Doric/Ionic) had to be decided, but this was not a major design feature. Similarly, the 'triglyph problem' had been resolved by the Classical Period.

Construct a conclusion which draws attention to the important factors limiting the scope of the architect while pointing out that a wide range of subtle variation was possible, even if all Greek temples look alike to the untrained eye.

NB: if you want to include a good example of the problems which could occur when an architect departed from the tried and tested design, mention the Erechtheion: this can be seen as a collection of boxes rather than a coherently planned building. The same building could, of course, also be used to illustrate the considerations of location.

more essay plans