All About Pilasters in Architecture

The Pilaster, Anta, Lesene, and Engaged Column

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
Three Pilasters on the Renaissance-Era Villa Farnese in Italy. Andrea Jemolo/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images (cropped)

A pilaster is a rectangular, vertical wall protrusion that resembles a flat column or half pier. In architecture, pilasters are by definition "engaged," meaning they sticks out from flat surfaces. The pilaster projects only slightly from the wall and has a base, a shaft, and a capital like a column. A lesene is a pilaster shaft or strip without a base or capital. An anta is the post-like strip on either side of a door or on the corner of a building. Pilasters are decorative architectural details most often found on a building's exterior (usually the facade) but also on interior walls of more formal rooms and hallways.  A variety of photos will clarify what pilasters and their variations look like and how they have been used in architecture.

First Century Roman Example

Roman Colosseum at sunrise, three stories of arches and top story of pilasters and rectangular openings
Flavian Amphitheatre. Marco Bottigelli/Getty Images

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. Pilasters are used in homes and public buildings that are considered Classical Revival or neoclassical in style. Even structures such as fireplaces and doorways can appear more formal and elegant — Classical traits — when pilasters are on either side of the opening.

The ready-made pilaster sets available for purchase from The Home Depot or Amazon come from Classical designs from ancient Rome. For example, the exterior facade of the Roman Colosseum uses both engaged columns and pilasters. Also called the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum is a showcase for the Classical orders — the different styles of columns, which eventually became the different style of pilasters — from Tuscan on the first floor, to Ionic on the second, and Corinthian on the third story. The pilasters are at the top level — the attic floor without arches. The Colosseum, completed in about A.D. 80, was built with arches surrounded by engaged columns, all constructed with different stone, tiles, bricks, and cement.  The travertine stone is what gives the structure its yellow hue.

The Renaissance Pilaster

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

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 in ancient Rome.

Interior Pilasters of the 16th Century

interior Corinthian pilasters surround apse of small chapel
Corinthian Order Pilasters, Sant'Andrea del Vignola, c. 1553, Rome. Andrea Jemolo/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.

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, on the 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).

Residential Pilasters

front of white house with hipped roof, black shutters, white chimney on right side, center front door, four evenly spaced pilasters across the facade reaching to corner pilasters on each end
Pilasters Along the Facade of a Suburban Home. 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 house 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 19th Century

marble fireplace with two classical pilasters on either side of the opening and below the mantle
Marble Fireplace, U.S. Custom House, Charleston, South Carolina. Carol M. Highsmith/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. A marble fireplace designed with pilasters sends a message.

Being Engaged

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

A column is round and a pier or post is rectangular. 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. Like pilasters, engaged columns can look out of place if installed incorrectly.

The Dictionary of Architecture and Construction defines a pilaster as  "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."

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.

Antae

illustration of rectangular Roman temple, red roof, two columns between two antae on the corners
Columns in Antis. Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG/Getty Images (cropped)

Pilasters are often called anta (plural antae) when used as decoration on either side of a door. This use comes from ancient Rome.

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.

Combining Columns and Pilasters

detail facade with inscription of their appointed rounds carved above columns, united states post office to the right of pilaster
The Farley Post Office, 1912, New York City. Ben Hider/Getty Images

Public buildings in the United States can use both columns and pilasters in Classical Revival designs. The large Beaux-Arts U.S. Post Office in New York City — Beaux Arts is a derivative Classical style inspired by France — continues its line of grand columns with pilasters in the Classical tradition of anta on either side of a portico's colonnade. The James A. Farley Post Office Building is no longer in the business of delivering mail, but its 1912 grandeur lives on as a major transportation hub in New York City. Like the Paris Gare du Nord, the architecture of the Moynihan Train Hall (Penn Station) may be the best part of the train ride.

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

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. Architect John Milnes Baker, AIA, defines pilaster as "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."

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

  • Baker, John Milnes. American House Styles: A Concise Guide. Norton, 1994, p. 175
  • Harris, Cyril ed. Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. McGraw-Hill, 1975, pp. 361, 183