Howard Roark explains why the Parthenon is not great architecture and in passing explains that the whole of architectural history has been nothing but a series of copycatting:

"Look," said Roark. "The famous flutings on the famous columns — what are they there for? To hide the joints in wood — when columns were made of wood, only these aren't, they're marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Why?"

Is there any historical truth in his account?

EDIT: Specifically, I wonder if it's true that marble buildings were copies of wooden ones, with structurally irrelevant features included as atavisms from wooden constructions?

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    The answer is "Yes". There is loads of examples of this. But not everything are copies of course. A lot of architecture comes out of trying to break technical limitations. From the Pyramids to the Eiffel tower. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 22:09
  • @LennartRegebro Can you give specific examples, please? Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 22:53
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    @FelixGoldberg: Brunelleschi's dome in Florence perhaps, for one: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Cathedral Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 2:20
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    All of art, if not all of human endeavor, could be dismissed as mostly copying. Its the tweaks that catch on that make things interesting.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 21:54
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    I'd say he's got a technical point in the same way that folks who claim it was the Bombadier of the Enola Gay not Truman who dropped the first Atomic Bomb, have a point. The distinction may be technically true, but isn't particularly useful.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 22:22

1 Answer 1


Renaissance architects absolutely did copy paste from the classical world. As for the two specific points Roark makes about the Parthenon (the triglyphs and column fluting), the short answer is that we can't be sure. I don't know of any evidence on the origins of column fluting, but there's this on the triglyphs:

From A World History of Architecture by Fazio et al, p46:

The origins of the architectural orders remain obscure. Vitruvius maintains that the orders were derived from earlier architecture in wood, a material that we know was once used for temples. In Doric temples, for example, triglyphs have been seen as echoing the protective panels applied to the ends of wooden roof beams, and metopes the infill panels between them. In its stone incarnation, the wooden end grain of the beams was stylized into vertical grooves, and the blank metope panel became a place for sculpture. Recent scholarship questions this derivation, proposing instead that the orders developed from a monumental decorative style using molded terracotta details, with no particular reference to structural features in wood. Even after the walls and columns were built in stone, wooden beams continued to be used for framing the roof, but these have not survived.

Diagram with legend

Recent archaeological work described in Constructing the Ancient World: Architectural Techniques of the Greeks and Romans by Carmelo G Malacrino, on a temple on the island of Naxos which was rebuilt or expanded at least three times over the course of about two centuries (early 8th to mid-6th centuries BCE) speaks to this question. Marble and other stone was introduced incrementally. The 7th century temple had wooden columns sitting on marble bases and "probably" marble capitals. This might be an indication of Naxos growing/getting wealthier, but perhaps also that stone construction involves a great deal of technology in quarrying, transport, dressing, and fixing that was lost with the fall of Minoan and Mycenaean civilisation, and had to be gradually rediscovered. So perhaps timber construction techniques were translated into marble because of piecemeal technological and logistical improvement rather than by stylistic choice or due to a lack of imagination.

To speak to Roark's general point: he is expressing a modernist's disdain for historicist architecture. The idea that appeals to tradition were acceptable/laudable justifications for design until modernism rendered them bunk by insisting that form follow function, is generally accepted (at least, as a neat way to introduce modernism). The purest expression of this sentiment is probably Adolf Loos' essay, "Ornament and Crime" (1913).

Of course, architecture in some periods was more conservative and likely to contain vestigial stuff than others; some vestigial stuff doesn't preclude innovation or pragmatism in other areas; and architects described as modern made and do make appeals to tradition in principle if not in form, or will pick formal precedents from the remote past or other cultures.

For example, modernist architects were kinder to traditional architectural styles which aligned with their minimalist ethic/aesthetic and ideas about modularity. The Japanese Sukiya style is an example. Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School, wrote this to Le Corbusier on a postcard from Kyoto (I believe in 1954):

Dear Corbu, all what we have been fighting for has its parallel in old Japanese culture. This rock garden of Zen-monks in the 13th century—stones and raked white pebbles—could be by Arp or Brancusi—an elating spot of peace. You would be as excited as I am in this 2000 year old space of cultural wisdom! The Japanese house is the best and most modern I know of and truly pre-fabricated. Hoping you are well. Greetings to you and Mme. Yours—Gropius

Even the Parthenon, which Roark uses as an example of narrow appropriation, was to Le Corbusier a "product of selection applied to an established standard" (though his reasons for believing this are barely stated). Photos of the Parthenon were scandalously juxtaposed with those of automobiles in his still influential modernist manifesto, Toward a New Architecture (1923).

Almost all architects, modernist or not, regard the Parthenon as great architecture. Though I do remember reading a pithy quote about how the Greeks, to whom we owe so much philosophy, wasted their ingenuity in the field of architecture on the articulation of column capitals. I wish I could remember who wrote/said it.

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    Welcome and thanks for an illuminating answer. Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 16:21
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    Thank you. I wanted to add that regardless of whether the Parthenon examples are true, it has been the case that architects take time to learn the full potential and implications of new materials and construction techniques. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc might be a good example—writing during and after the Industrial Revolution, he advocated for material honesty and sounds positively modern, but the architectural applications of his theories are strangely married to old assumptions/programs/tastes. Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 16:43
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    Excellent answer! I should point out that Roarke was relying on Vitruvius - but Vitruvius was not necessarily a reliable source. All iron age civilizations built stone columns long before the classical greeks - it Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 18:32
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    Excellent answer! From the perspective of a student of Vitruvius, Roarke is correct. However, from a larger perspective, Vitruvius is probably partially correct - all of the Iron age mediterranean civilizations built stone columns, and the Egyptians started building theirs as early as 23rdC BCE. The wood-on-stone columns discovered at Naxos were built just after the Greek Dark Age, where they were almost certainly echoes of the stone columns of the Mycenaeans and Minoans. Sooo... he's right except he's wrong except he's right. :) Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 18:47
  • Hmm... wish I could find that quote you thought of since I agree with it quite strongly. Instead, all I could find was almost the opposite idea: "The subtile Greek intellect was too often inclined to waste its strength on the useless distinctions of a hair-splitting philosophy or theology which has become to us intolerable and almost incomprehensible..." - Edwin Pears, mostly speaking of the Byzantines rather than the ancients.
    – lly
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 8:28

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