Have you ever seen a work of architecture made up of a series of columns? It’s called a colonnade. In the same sense, a balustrade is a series of balusters. A baluster, also called spindle, is a molded shaft that supports a railing, generally on a balcony, a staircase, or a porch. It’s a decorative vertical brace placed between an upper and lower horizontal railing. While it appears to be a minor architectural feature, it became a functional and decorative element that steals the scene at various points throughout history.
The purposes of balusters include support, safety, and beauty. The rails of balusters called balustrades is historically a decorative extension of a classic Greek colonnade on a smaller size. These vertical, vase-like posts or legs can be made of stone, wood, iron, or other materials. Balusters are spaced evenly and can be added indoors or outdoors.
Shape of Balusters
The shape of balusters usually blends in with the existing architectural style of a house or a building. Its design can range from plain to something highly ornamental.
Baluster is a shape, which came from the Latin and Greek words for wild pomegranate flower. Since pomegranates are ancient fruits native to the Mediterranean, Middle East, Asia, and India, you can find this shape in these places. When ancient civilizations decorated their architecture with objects inspired from nature – like the top of Corinthian column decorated with acanthus leaves – having a shapely baluster was a great choice at the time.
The baluster shape that we call today is seen in pottery, jugs, and wall carvings in many parts of the world. The potter’s wheel was invented around 3,500 BC, so shapely baluster vases and water jugs were produced easily, but the baluster wasn’t used in architecture until thousands of years later during the Renaissance period.
Balustrade is a total feature made of individual balusters. When you line up a series of balusters, they form one complete balustrade. While the most common form of decorative balusters is the one with a rounded bottom and tapered top, there are so many designs and components that can make up a balustrade.
Besides balusters, the other components of balustrades include a horizontal lintel-like structure that is the handrail. The secondary horizontal element that sits below balusters is the foot rail. Finally, let’s talk about banisters. A banister is a balustrade found attached to a staircase. There’s no difference between the words “banister” and a “balustrade,” except, of course, the term “banister” is more often used to those installed in staircases.
History of Balustrade
The balustrade has been featured in Broadway, in Shakespearean plays – and it has even had pretty substantial supporting roles in Hollywood. This architectural element adds a dramatic aesthetic for scenes like a well-dressed woman holding the railing as she gracefully descends a set of stairs, or someone crying for true love atop a balcony. This might only be a minor architectural feature, but throughout history, the balustrade has been a focal point and decorative element that stole the show.
Balusters and balustrades were first found to appear between the 13th and 7th century BC due to the ancient bas-reliefs and sculptural murals that depict Assyrian palaces. That’s how old it is. But many believe that their ancestor is the colonnade, which is ancient Greek and Roman ensembles of columns to add structural support and visual harmony to their buildings.
In China, the balustrade had a role. Dynastic China’s early architecture depicts balustrades as part of terraces, which were built to support the rest of the building. Balustrades were often found in terraces, but by the 10th century, these elements were found in private gardens. By that time, both marble and wooden balustrades can be found in private gardens. These balustrades were quite detailed, as they were seen depicting motifs of flying phoenixes or dragons. Others featured lotus flowers and pomegranate, which can also be found in their gardens.
Fast forward to the Italian Renaissance during the 14th to 16th centuries. During the medieval era, the architects have turned away from classical architecture, but the new minds at the time sought to revive the style. They became fascinated by the rational, geometric designs by ancient, and it emulated their architectural ideas. They copied some of the moves by the Classical masters and put columns in everything. They also innovated and improved those forms, transforming them massive colonnade into such smaller balustrade to suit indoor balconies here in the house.
Starting from the Renaissance period, the classical stone balustrades became popular. It usually features balusters with short stems and a base, an abacus (a square slab), and either one or two bulbs with rings, along with convex and concave moldings in between.
Today’s balusters can be constructed from wood, concrete, stone, plaster, cast iron, or other metal, glass, and plastics. It can be turned (like, for instance, shaped on a lathe) or rectangular. Any decorative patterned cutout or grille between railings are called balusters.
Preservation of Balustrades
Old, exterior balustrades are more susceptible to deterioration and decay than interior balustrades. While balustrades and railings are initially made for safety and practicality, they are also highly visible, decorative elements. Unfortunately, balusters and balustrades are frequently covered, altered, removed, or completely demolished and replaced even though it can still be repaired. Since many stone balustrades are part of historic buildings and historic architecture, preservationists and architectural historians advise to preserve and maintain them as much as possible. They advise that replacement must only be a last resort.
Proper design, installation, manufacturing, and regular maintenance are the keys to preserving balustrades. Cast stone balustrades, especially those in exterior parts of the home, will have moisture problems if not installed and designed properly and if not inspected routinely. Balusters come in different shapes and sizes, and the thickness and quality of the baluster’s neck can affect its integrity. It’s better to have it installed by a contractor with experience in ornamental and custom work, rather than a pre-cast concrete company that manufacturers stock structural items.
Wooden balustrades are also prone to decay for some reason: the butt joints and the exposed end grain from the manufacturing process are prone to moisture, which can ruin the wood. Regular inspection and maintenance of a wooden balustrade are the keys to preserving it. It must have properly caulked, tight joints, and sloping surfaces that repel water.
Famous Balusters and Balustrades
While balusters and balustrades are not the focal points of a structure, many beautiful and memorable examples of these architectural elements exist, including:
- Gardens at the Palace of Versailles – Designed by a landscape architect, Andre Le Nôtre, the gardens at the Palace of Versailles are architectural-style gardens with lots of paving, stone, water features, while the borders are edged with open balustrades. Beautiful balustrades also abound in the roof of the palace.
- Castle of Vélez Blanco – This 16th-century Spanish castle was designed during the Italian Renaissance style. It features an intricate marble balustrade with a second-floor walkway overlooking the courtyard.
- Temple of Athena Nike – This structure in Athens depicts the goddess Athena Nike on the relief frieze of the balustrade, which was built by architect Kallikrates from 427 to 425 BC.
4. Balcony from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – In theater, no Romeo and Juliet set are complete without the famous balcony with balustrades. Juliet stood there, but what kept her from falling off was a balustrade.