Who invented the classical temple?

Architectural historian employs modern tools to defend Greek heritage

October 28, 2022

A 3-by-8-inch 3D-printed building model was tested in a cutting-edge wind tunnel in the Hessert Laboratory for Aerospace Research on Notre Dame’s campus, thousands of miles and several millennia from the ancient Greek building the model represents.

Rather than evaluating the turbulence caused by a new turbine or wing design, the engineers were measuring wind loads to determine the structural stability of an ancient building that Alessandro Pierattini considers the precursor of classical architecture — the Toumba building at Lefkandi.

Professor Alessandro Pierattini stands in front of three large Roman columns in a hallway. On the right are green doors with triangular glass panes
Architectural historian Alessandro Pierattini stands in the Walsh Family Hall of Architecture.

“The most characteristic feature of the Greek temple is its columns; there is a central structure surrounded by columns on all four sides.”- Alessandro Pierattini

Pierattini, an architectural historian, created a research team called the Interdisciplinary Study of Historical Architecture (ISHA) Lab to prove that the Toumba building is in fact the earliest known structure in Greece that led centuries later to the prominent columns of the classical Greek temple.

To picture this iconic style, think of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and its central shrine and statue with a row of columns all around it. The Lincoln Memorial is modeled after the famous Parthenon ruins in Athens, Greece.

“The Greek temple is one of the most enduring and influential icons in many disciplines of the humanities — in archaeology, art, history, architectural history,” Pierattini said. “The most characteristic feature of the Greek temple is its columns; there is a central structure surrounded by columns on all four sides.”

But why test a model of the Toumba building for wind loads and stability?

Pierattini said there has been a long-standing question of who invented the idea of building a temple with columns all around it — what is called the peristyle that characterizes classical architecture. Some have hypothesized that the Greeks learned the concept from similar temples in Egypt thousands of years earlier.

An illustration of a small building with dotted lines flowing over the roof to show wind movement.
Schematic showing the wind load analysis principle on a model of the Toumba building at Lefkandi.

But Pierattini’s mentor, Oxford and Edinburgh architectural historian Jim Coulton, in 1993 drew a reconstruction based on the ruins of a large building at Lefkandi on the Greek island of Euboea. While few traces remained of the wood and thatch building discovered in the 1980s, Coulton used evidence of post holes around the perimeter to establish it as the earliest-known local antecedent of the peristyle of later Greek temples.

At more than 160 feet long and 45 feet wide, the structure is 10 times larger than other known buildings from this period. Archaeologists believe it was used as a wealthy couple’s home before becoming their burial site, including jewelry and sacrificed horses.

Because the Toumba building dates back to the 10th century B.C., experts believe it could not have been copied from Egyptian temples. While there is evidence of contact between the earlier Bronze Age Egyptians and Greeks, none is found during what was called the Greek Dark Age between 1100 B.C. and a period of growth starting in the eighth century B.C.

Ruins of the Toumba building at Lefkandi show postholes and remaining walls.
Pompilos/Wikimedia Commons/CC by SA 3.0

Scholars widely accepted that this gap proved that the Greeks did not copy the peristyle from Egypt. The Toumba building was the missing link proving the Greeks developed the classical style on their own.

Until 2015. That’s when architectural historian Georg Herdt published a study questioning the evidence of a peristyle based on a structural analysis of the Toumba building. Herdt determined that the interior posts could not have supported the height Coulton calculated, and that the exterior posts could have been from a surrounding fence.

A debate has divided the field since.

“If it was not the first-known peripteral building, then the question is still open: Who invented the peristyle?” Pierattini said. “It really changes the importance this building has to the whole of Greek archaeology and history.”

Aerospace engineers Gianluca Blois and Mitsugu Hasegawa stand together in front of the wind tunnel discussing wind tunnel analysis results.
Aerospace engineers Gianluca Blois and Mitsugu Hasegawa discuss wind tunnel analysis results.

Two years ago, Pierattini put together the ISHA Lab to resolve this debate. It includes aerospace research professor Gianluca Blois; structural engineering professors James Alleman, Yahya Kurama and Brad Weldon; and Dimitrios Fytanidis, an external collaborator from the University of Illinois and Argonne National Laboratory.

The team re-evaluated Herdt’s structural analysis, which did not include wind loads.

“We adopted what is called a finite element structural analysis software, which is the one that engineers use in modern applications,” Pierattini said. “And we include the wind in our model to evaluate the structural behavior of this building.”

3D printed models of the Toumba building. They are black and about 8 inches long and a few inches tall.
3D-printed models of the Toumba building at Lefkandi by Adam Heet (Hesburgh Libraries).

Using a 3D-printed scaled model of the building with the taller roof supported by the peristyle, Blois and colleagues Hirotaka Sakaue and Mitsugu Hasegawa generated experimental data in a Hessert Lab wind tunnel, increasing the speeds at different angles to determine the push and pull factors from wind around the model. Fytanidis plugged this experimental data into a numerical model to determine what wind loads the building could withstand.

Then the structural engineers assessed the structural behavior of different variables — such as whether the wooden posts were latched together with ropes and whether the walls were wood or adobe bricks. They developed different estimates, from worst- to best-case scenarios.

Architectural ground plan illustration of Toumba building
Plate 38 from M.R. Popham, P.G. Calligas, L.H. Sackett, J. Coulton and H.W. Catling (1993), Lefkandi II.2, The Annual of the British School at Athens. Suppl. Vol. 23, pp. 1-101

“Surprisingly, even by modern standards, this building was really well designed. It was certainly stable even to relatively strong winds.”- Alessandro Pierattini

“It was fascinating,” Blois said. “I’ve been involved in fundamental research, where it’s just about understanding the physics. We also do a lot of applied research, where someone wants to manufacture something. You give me 10 different shapes and I’ll tell you which one performs the best. Our research looks into the future.”

“But it’s very unusual for engineers to look at something that has implications for history. Looking backward felt different, although we use the exact same rigor and the same approach.”

While the Toumba building with a peristyle and high roof would not withstand hurricane winds, it was remarkably strong.

A green laser reveals the Toumba model inside a wind tunnel. You can see the wind tunnel fan in the background.
A laser sheet reveals the air flow around the Toumba model inside a wind tunnel.

“Considering both wind and the load of the roof, it turned out to be more than stable,” Pierattini said. “Surprisingly, even by modern standards, this building was really well designed. It was certainly stable even to relatively strong winds. So, our experimental and numerical data demonstrated this building does deserve its place in every book of Greek architecture.”

Pierattini believes the structural data backs up what Coulton proposed about the alignment of the postholes. The outer and inner postholes form straight lines that suggest peristyle connections.

The ISHA team presented preliminary data to an international group of experts in an online colloquium in May. Pierattini said more refined data will be presented at a future meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, and he is working on an article he hopes to publish next year in the peer-reviewed Annual of the British School at Athens, a top journal from Cambridge University.

“I’m the author so I’m obviously biased, but I think this will answer the question of whether this is the first-known peripteral building in Greek history, once it is published,” Pierattini said. “It’s also interesting because we need to develop a common interdisciplinary language between architects, physicists and engineers. I imagine it will be very visual.”

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