What is a Pilaster? Like an Anta or Engaged Column?

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When is a column not a column?

Detail of composite order pilasters from the 16th century Palazzo dei Banchi by Renaissance architect Vignola
Detail of composite order pilasters from the 16th century Palazzo dei Banchi by Renaissance architect Vignola. Photo by Andrea Jemolo/Archivio Andrea Jemolo/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images/Hulton Fine Art Collection/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.

Popularized During the Renaissance:

Shown on this page is a detailed section of the 16th century Palazzo dei Banchi in Bologna, Italy. 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 this Palazzo from the architecture he observed from ancient Rome. His 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.  Pilaster strips with capitals can be found surrounding many front doors of Cape Cod houses.

Word Origin:

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

When is a column not a column? When it's a pilaster.

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.

Learn More:

  • Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, Dover
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Ionic pilasters of Paris Gare du Nord

The Ionic pilasters of Gare du Nord Railway Station completed c. 1865 in Paris, France
The Ionic pilasters of Gare du Nord Railway Station completed c. 1865 in Paris, France. Photo by David Forman/Photolibrary Collection/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 = station; nord = 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.

Use in a Sentence:

"The fluted pilaster, so prevalent in Burgundy and Provence, is not Byzantine--in fact, it is seldom, if ever, used in Byzantine architecture." - Frederick Moore Simpson, A History of Architectural Development (1909), p. 204.

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A House Facade with Pilasters

American suburban house, white with black shutters, with interesting pilasters along the facade
American suburban house with interesting pilasters along the facade. Photo by J.Castro/Moment Mobile Collection/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 implies 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 can bring a feeling of grand Classical architecture without the overshadowing (and expense) of freestanding, two-story columns.

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16th century Sant'Andrea del Vignola

Corinthian pilasters inside the 16th century Sant'Andrea del Vignola
Corinthian pilasters inside the 16th century Sant'Andrea del Vignola. Photo by Andrea Jemolo / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images/Hulton Fine Art Collection/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 Via Flaminia in Rome, Italy. This small Roman Catholic church is also known as Sant'Andrea del Vignola, after its architect.

 

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19th Century Marble Fireplace

Pilaster on the marble fireplace of the US Custom House in Charleston, South Carolina
Pilaster on the marble fireplace of the US Custom House in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images

Constructed between 1853 and 1879, the US 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 to architecture of any scale. Along with materials that imbue majesty, like marble, pilasters bring Classical values to interior spaces.

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Federal Style Exterior Door c. 1800

Federal style exterior door c. 1800, with pilasters visually supporting an open pediment disrupted by a fanlight over the red door
Federal style exterior door c. 1800, with pilasters visually supporting an open pediment disrupted by a fanlight over the red door. Photo by kickstand/E+ Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

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

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Pilasters versus Engaged Columns

Engaged columns of an exterior door in London
Engaged columns of an exterior door in London. Photo by Justin Horrocks/E+ Collection/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? That's called an engaged column. Other names are applied or attached column, as those are synonyms for "engaged."

For a wonderfully clear explanation, see Get Your House Right: Engaged Columns and Pilasters by Marianne Cusato, Richard Sammons and Ben Pentreath, The Town Paper, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 2004. Explore the use of pilasters through the ages in the following pages.

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Roman Decoration

Facade of the Roman Colosseum from the 1st century AD
Facade of the Roman Colosseum from the 1st century AD. Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images

The pilaster sets we can 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.

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Columns and Pilasters in Grand Scale Architecture

Columns and Pilasters of the Farley Post Office in New York City
Columns and Pilasters of the Farley Post Office in New York City. Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images Entertainment Collection/Getty Images

Public buildings in the United States use both columns and pilasters in Classical Revival designs. Like the East Entrance to the US Supreme Court Building, this large US 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.

This building, the Farley USPO, will become Moynihan Station, the new "Penn Station" for the Northeast Corridor. Like the Paris Gare du Nord, the architecture may be the best part of the train ride.

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Bring Elegance to an Entryway

Front doorway of a house in Racine, Wisconsin
Front doorway of a house in Racine, Wisconsin. Photo by J.Castro/Moment Mobile Collection/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.

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