Once upon a time, one of our far-flung ancestors took a medium-sized wooden pole, stood it on end and threw a hide or leaned some pine boughs against it and screamed, "Eureka! I've discovered the column" - or something like that.
From that momentous occasion on, man has used this principal structural element in architecture. In fact, its prominence seems to have eclipsed all other structural systems and, I believe, has also received the most attention in decoration.The Egyptians took the most available source of material - stones - and stacked them vertically and called the result a column. To say that they simply stacked stones is an understatement. They were masters at the ornate in carving these columns, often patterning them after trees, reeds and their honored dead.
The Greeks also stacked stones for their columns and added refinement. This classicism of stonework was to the Greeks an art that was the essence of their architecture.
The Romans copied the Greeks, added a few of their own designs and took shortcuts in their construction procedures. The Romans also used brick in their column making.
Wood became a principal source for structures in Christian architecture, with wood carving being a prominent part of column design.
The gothic, Renaissance, rococco and other periods continued to use stone, wood and brick in their columns. It wasn't until the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of cast iron for columns in 1790 that this time-honored structure began to take on new expressions.
Today the column is primarily executed in high-strength steel and reinforced concrete. We often think of it as a structural element only, but those with a sensitivity to the visual treat the column as an art piece as well. Some exceptional examples that you can see in Salt Lake include:
-The Tabernacle on Temple Square. These massive stone columns add a visual excitement by their repetition, rich coloring and size.
-The State Capitol is a structure with magnificent columns. Most are round, turned stone of either granite or marble. These columns are in the classical vernacular, highly refined and superbly crafted. The major columns both inside and outside are of significant size - as much as three stories high - and are compactly and uniformly spaced in a non-fluted Corinthian style. The interior staircases have marble balustrades (miniature columns that hold up the handrail) beautifully executed in polished and robust forms that sparkle under the skylights.
-The clustered column concept is superbly used in the entries of the City-County Building. The nine clustered (three wide, three deep) columns that define the portico and support the porches above the east and west entries resemble a compact grove of trees that defines the entry in a unique way.
-On the corner of State Street and Second North (East Capitol Street) is a red-brick home with a large wooden porch facing south. The porch is supported by wooden columns that are both square and round with a very simple capital and base. The columns and associated wood structures are made richer by the painted blue-gray field and brick-red trim.
-Governors Plaza on South Temple is also a building of columns, exposed rectangular concrete columns in a uniform grid pattern that represents a contemporary interpretation of the column and its associated structures. These columns are within the window/wall plane that restricts their freedom.
-One of my favorite column expressions is on the west side of Seventh East at 130 South. The ground floor or base columns are massive, over-scaled for their required loading, bulbous but very nicely proportioned like a stout Olympic weight lifter squatting under the load. Overhead, in contrast to the lower columns, is a cluster of very light and airy columns that support the roof. These upper columns seem to be pleasantly holding their weight with little strain and fanfare. In contrast and together they are wonderful.
As you move throughout the city you will notice columns of every imaginable sort: stone, brick, wood, steel, wrought iron, carved, turned, bent and on and on. Much of our contemporary architectural work ignores this tried and true art. Virtually all of our buildings have within them columns of a sort, but today we have a tendency to bury, not express, these structural elements that have been honored and embellished by man from the beginning of time.