How Greek Temples Correct Visual Distortion

Ancient Greek architects counteracted the deformity that comes with visual perspective. Objects appear smaller as they are farther away, and as Greek temples were “buildings in which merits and faults usually last forever” 1 it was important that all parts be seen in their correct size.An ideal building would be seen as a whole object, with parts that fit perfectly. Unless it displays correct proportions, “there can be no principles in the design of any temple; that is, if there is no precise relation between its members.” 2

Greek and Roman builders sought to “counteract the ocular deception by an adjustment of proportions.” 3 Objects farther away were enlarged so that they matched the objects around them. Architects adjusted proportions so that the temple would appear correct when viewed a distance six times the height of a column. This precise viewing distance related the viewer to the architecture and made him part of it.

Tilt to Fix Perspective

The Roman architect Vitruvius said that all parts above the column of a Doric building should be tilted downward so that they would appear to be vertical when viewed from below. If viewed from afar, these tilted elements would appear flush.

Tilt to Fix Perspective
View Correctly From A Certain Distance
Incline Columns Inward
Curved Floor
Column Spacing
Column Shafts Swell Out
Column Spacing
Golden Mean

“All the members which are to be above the capitals of the columns, that is, architraves, friezes, coronae, tympana, gables, and acroteria, should be inclined to the front a twelfth part of their own height, for the reason that when we stand in front of them, if two lines are drawn from the eye, one reaching to the bottom of the building and the other to the top, that which reaches to the top will be the longer. Hence, as the line of sight to the upper part is the longer, it makes that part look as if it were leaning back. But when the members are inclined to the front, as described above, they will seem to the beholder to be plumb and perpendicular.” 4


View Correctly From A Certain Distance

Why a tilt of 1/12? The roof eave overhang was usually about 1/12th the height of the column (for example, the Temple of Athena at Priene). This was deliberately the same proportion as the entablature tilt, so that it would relate each element of the entablature with the columns below.

If we form an equilateral triangle from the tilt of the columns and overhang, we discover that this plane appears flush to someone standing back six times the height of the columns. This point of the triangle will be at eye height, just the right point from which to view the building. To someone standing at this distance, the roof eave will appear the same distance away as the base of the column.

It also creates an angle of ten degrees. The numbers six and ten, Vitruvius said, are the best numbers to use because they are related to most other numbers.

The Parthenon has columns of 10.45m height and the overhang is less than 1m. It will therefore be viewed with perfect proportions at a distance of about 60m or 200ft.

This provided precise points on the surrounding topography that related to the building, engaged the landscape, and makes the viewer an active participant. An important function of these buildings was to relate of the human body with the temple, finding the “calculated proportions that could be applied to the human body and temples alike.” 6 “Since nature has designed the human body so that its members are duly proportioned to the frame as a whole, it appears that the ancients had good reason for their rule, that in perfect buildings the different members must be in exact symmetrical relations to the whole general scheme.” 5

Temples don’t just reference the viewer’s body and the outlaying topography- it directly interacts with them, giving explanation for the design of the body and finding its place in the natural landscape.

Incline Columns Inward


The facade elements are tilted outward, but the columns are actually tilted inward. This emphasizes their ability to hold up the ceiling. Vertical columns under the heavy weight of the entablature appear like they are about to tip over toward the viewer, but an inward tilt to the columns make them look more stable when viewed from below. This gives “the whole building an appearance of greater strength.” 7

In this case Greek architects did not seek to counteract perspective distortion but to use it to their advantage. This “imposing effect of high relief” suggests structural stability, something more important than strict proportion. This inclination is very subtle; on the Parthenon the columns lean inward just 2 3/8 inches. The tilted axis of these columns converge 1 1/2 miles into the sky. 7

Curved Floor

The stylobate floor of the Parthenon is curved upward. A perfectly flat floor would appear to sag inward. The face of the earth is curved and the hill on which the Parthenon stands is curved, therefore viewers instinctively expect a slight curvature to all horizontal planes. Straight edges look off.

“This horizontal curvature actually begins not in the stylobate, but below the stylobate in the foundations. But the curvature is most noticeable in the stylobate, which directly receives the downward thrust of the column drums.” 8

The curve reaches 2 3/8 inches on the end facades and 4 5/16 inches on the long facades, a radius of 3 1/2 miles. 7

Column Spacing


In perspective, the distance between columns normally appear smaller as they proceed toward a vanishing point in the distance. But the Parthenon has more robust columns and greater spacing between them at the ends. When viewed from a distance the spacing and size appear equal.

Along with proportions, this also makes the structure appear more stable. “Hence in the Parthenon, the spacing between each corner column and the column next to it is less than the space between other columns, and this gives a feeling of extra support at points of extra stress.” 9

Column Shafts Swell Out


The shafts of the columns swell slightly outward. This counteracts a feeling of slenderness that results from visual perspective, much as with the case of the curved floor. A swollen column appears more robust and strong than a straight shaft.

Vitruvius prescribed different “proportionate enlargements” depending on the height of the columns. Taller columns require greater enlargement because perspective causes more distortion on them, he reasons. 10

Golden Proportion


The Golden proportion relates parts of an object. It allows the brain to distinguish size and distances of objects in perspective and thus recognize them as parts of a whole body. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Greeks and Romans use this proportion extensively.

The increase in distance between the columns follows the golden proportion, so that the gap between columns is proportionate to the width of the column shafts. This proportion of positive and negative space allows the viewer’s brain to recognize the columns as part of the entire edifice, so that “the temple, viewed from a distance, compresses into an all but impenetrable volume that stands out in bold relief against its surroundings.” 11

In the Parthenon, the stylobates and metopes follow the same golden proportions as the columns. This gives the collonade a golden proportion of 3 columns versus 4 columns and the entire width of the facade a golden proportion. Golden proportion also dictates the column height versus the entablature, the same relationship of elements behind the outward tilt of the facade. The elements within the entablature, which tilt outward 1/12th all have golden proportions amongst themselves.

The golden mean was utilized together with clever ocular corrections to give a sense of wholeness, relationship of parts. This scene of wholeness was achieved from certain views within the outlaying landscape, relating the viewer to the building and to the overall site. The viewer is thus engaged in the architecture.

© Benjamin Blankenbehler 2014


^Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture Book III, Chapter 1, v. 4, 1 A.D.

^Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture Book III, Chapter 1, v. 1, 1 A.D.

^Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture Book III, Chapter 3, v. 11, 1 A.D.

^Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture Book III, Chapter 5, v. 13, 1 A.D.

^Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture Book III, Chapter 1, v. 1, 4 A.D.

^Ian Jenkins, Greek Architecture and Its Sculpture, Harvard University Press, 2006, p. 27

^William Bell Dinsmoor, The Architecture of Ancient Greece, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, 1950, p. 165

^Vincent J. Bruno, The Parthenon, W. W. Norton & Company, 1974, p. 76

^Thomas Greer & Gavin Lewis, A Brief History of the Western World, Cengage Learning, 2004, p. 91

^see Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture Book III, Chapter 3, v. 12, 1 A.D. for exact proportions. Accompanying image by Fra Giocondo.

^Bernard Leupen, Design and Analysis, 010 Publishers, 1997, p. 103