All About Pilasters and Engaged Columns

They may look like columns, but don't be fooled.

detail of renaissance villa with shallow pilasters separating vertical windows - View of the second and third floor of the facade, with angular smooth rustication and Ionic pilasters
Facade Detail of Renaissance-Era Villa Farnese in Italy. Andrea Jemolo/Electa/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images (cropped)

A pilaster is a rectangular support or decorative protrusion that resembles a flat column. Pilasters are architectural details used on building exteriors (usually facades) and also in interior design. The pilaster projects only slightly from the wall, and has a base, a shaft, and a capital like a column. Greek Revival and neoclassical buildings, large and small, often have pilasters.

Pilaster, pronounced pi-LAST-er, is from the French pilastre and Italian pilastro. Both words are derived from the Latin word pila, meaning "pillar."

Use of pilasters, which was more of a Roman convention than Greek, is a design style that continues to influence the way our buildings look even today, from large public buildings to the doorways and fireplaces of many ​homes in America.

The Renaissance Pilaster

facade detail, tops of two composite rectangular pilasters
Detail of Two Pilasters on the Renaissance Era Palazzo dei Banchi, Bologna, Italy. Andrea Jemolo/Archivio Andrea Jemolo/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images (cropped)

The ancient Greeks used columns to support the weight of heavy stone. The thickened walls on either side of a colonnade are referred to as antae (a singular thickened wall is an anta) — more like piers than columns. Ancient Romans improved on Greek construction methods, but kept the antae visually, which became what we know as pilasters. This is why a pilaster is by definition rectangular, because it's really a pillar or pier whose original function was part of a supportive wall. This is also why pilaster-like molding details on either side of a doorway are sometimes called antae.

Popularized During the Renaissance

Late Renaissance architecture is often "in the manner" of Classical architecture from ancient Greece and Rome. Pilasters are in the manner of columns, with shafts, capitals, and bases. A detailed section of the 16th century Palazzo dei Banchi in Bologna, Italy shows Composite capitals. Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola may not be a household name, but he is the Renaissance architect who brought to life the work of Roman architect Vitruvius.

That we tend to couple ancient Greek and Roman architecture and call it Classical is, in part, the result of Vignola's 1563 book Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture. What we know today about columns — the Classical Order of architecture — is largely from his work in the 1500s. Vignola designed the Palazzo dei Banchi from the architecture he observed from ancient Rome.

Pilaster Definitions

"a flat rectangular column attached to the face of a building — usually at the corners — or as a frame at the sides of a doorway." — John Milnes Baker, AIA
"1. An engaged pier or pillar, often with capital and base. 2. Decorative features that imitate engaged piers but are not supporting structures, as a rectangular or semicircular member used in a simulated pillar in entrances and other door openings and fireplace mantels; often contains a base, shaft, capital; may be constructed as a projection of the wall itself." — Dictionary of Architecture and Construction

In architecture and construction, when something is engaged, it is partially attached to or embedded in something else, often meaning that it "sticks out" or protrudes.

Ionic Order Pilasters

detail of large stone facade, arched window surrounded by many statues and two pilasters from the ionic order on each side
Ionic Order Pilasters, c. 1865 Gare du Nord Railway Station in Paris, France. David Forman/Getty Images (cropped)

Compared with the 16th-century composite capitals of Vignola's Palazzo dei Banchi in Bologna, this 19th-century rail station, Gare du Nord (gare means station and nord means north) in Paris, has four gigantic pilasters with Ionic capitals. The scroll volutes are the giveaway detail to identifying its classical order. Designed by Jacques-Ignace Hittorff, the pilasters seem even taller by being fluted (with grooves).

A House Facade With Pilasters

front of white house with gable roof, white chimney on right side, center front door, four evenly spaced pilasters across the side reaching to corner pilasters on each end
American suburban House Incoporating Pilasters Along the Entire Facade. J.Castro/Getty Images (cropped)

American home design is often an eclectic mix of styles. A hipped roof can hint at a French influence, yet the five windows across the facade of this home imply a Georgian Colonial, and the fanlight above the door suggests the Federal or Adams style.

To add a real mix of style, look at the vertical lines interrupting the horizontal siding — pilasters. Pilasters can bring a feeling of grand Classical architecture without the overshadowing (and expense) of freestanding, two-story columns.

Interior Pilasters of the 16th Century

interior Corinthian pilasters surround apse of small chapel
Corinthian Pilasters Inside the 16th century Sant'Andrea del Vignola. Andrea Jemolo/Electa/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images (cropped)

Renaissance architect Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola used pilasters inside and out. Here we see Corinthian pilasters inside the 16th-century Sant'Andrea in Rome, Italy. This small Roman Catholic church is also known as Sant'Andrea del Vignola, after its architect.

Interior Pilasters of the 19th Century

marble fireplace with two classical pilasters on either side of the opening and below the mantle
A Marble Fireplace in the U.S. Custom House, Charleston, South Carolina. Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

Constructed between 1853 and 1879, the U.S. Custom House in Charleston, South Carolina is described as Classical Revival architecture. Corinthian columns and pilasters dominate the building, yet the marble fireplace seen here is bordered by pilasters of the Ionic order.

Interior use of pilasters brings a gravitas or dignity to architecture of any scale. Along with materials that portray majesty, like marble, pilasters bring Classical values — like the Greco-Roman traditions of fairness, honesty, and justice — to interior spaces.

Federal Style Exterior Door c. 1800

front door detail, open pediment, fanlight window, pilaster on either side of red door
Federal Style Exterior Door c. 1800. kickstand/Getty Images (cropped)

A beautiful fanlight pushes into the open pediment of this Federal-style doorway, impressive with fluted pilasters completing the Classical framework.

Pilasters Versus Engaged Columns

facade detail, doorway to left of two front windows, white door with fanlight, pediment, and rounded columns protruding from doorway
Engaged Columns Surround London Doorway. Justin Horrocks/Getty Images

So what is it called when part of a column protrudes from a building, in the manner of a rectangular pilaster but rounded like a column? It's an engaged column. Other names are applied or attached column, as those are synonyms for "engaged."

An engaged column is NOT simply half-a-column.

Columns and Pilasters Together

first level half-columns, second level engaged columns, and third level pilaster on the facade of the ancient ruins of the Roman Colosseum
Facade of the Roman Colosseum, 1st Century AD. Art Media Print Collector/Getty Images

The pilaster sets available for purchase from The Home Depot or Amazon derive from designs of the 1st century AD. Here is the exterior facade of the Roman Colosseum, showing use of both engaged columns and pilasters.

Columns and Pilasters in Public Buildings

detail facade, of their appointed rounds carved above columns, united states post office to the right of pilaster
Columns and Pilasters of the Farley Post Office in New York City. Ben Hider/Getty Images

Public buildings in the United States use both columns and pilasters in Classical Revival designs. This large Beaux-Arts U.S. Post Office in New York City continues its line of grand columns with pilasters — in the Greek tradition of anta on either side of a portico's colonnade. The James A. Farley Post Office Building is being preserved and adapted to be reused as the new "Penn Station" for rail travel. Like the Paris Gare du Nord, the architecture of the Moynihan Train Hall may be the best part of the train ride.

The East Entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC is another stunning example of columns and pilasters being used in combination to create a dignified entryway.

Antae Elegance

detail of white doorway in a brick home near white birch tree
Front Doorway of a House in Racine, Wisconsin. J.Castro/Getty Images (cropped)

Pilasters are often called anta (plural antae) when used as decoration on either side of a door.

A debatable alternative to the beauty of wood or stone is the use of polymer kits to add architectural details to a home. Companies like Fypon and Builders Edge create polyurethane materials from molds much the same way 19th-century entrepreneurs cast iron into Classical shapes. Although these products are generally verboten in historic districts, they are widely used by developers and do-it-yourselfers of visually upscale properties.

One wonders if the Renaissance master architects would embrace plastics if they were alive today.

Sources

  • American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 175
  • Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw- Hill, 1975, pp. 361, 183
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Craven, Jackie. "All About Pilasters and Engaged Columns." ThoughtCo, Oct. 24, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-pilaster-engaged-column-4045117. Craven, Jackie. (2017, October 24). All About Pilasters and Engaged Columns. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-pilaster-engaged-column-4045117 Craven, Jackie. "All About Pilasters and Engaged Columns." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-pilaster-engaged-column-4045117 (accessed November 19, 2017).