Encompassing architecture : Orientation


One of the first tasks of architecture is to offer an armature that aids alignment of our selves to the world that surrounds us. To help us orient ourselves, to mediate between our life and the great outside, architecture can be an anchor to prevent our being tossed randomly or drowned. In our incredibly dynamic world, the sun rises and sets over a different horizon each day, each precise arc repeated, in a great cycle, every year. Every night, the amazing complexity of sparkle in the dark sky is configured slightly differently; the extraordinary moon displays a syncopated pattern as it appears and disappears at different points in the heavens and simultaneously its very shape grows and withers with the days. As we live with the complexity of the overlaying of these dynamic, multi-rhythmic cycles, architecture has provided a frame to fix our giddy spinning. A safe, steady marker. Outlasting human lifespan, it holds us safely between before and after.

Through numberless millennia, our species knew – in ways we find incomprehensible today – how to live with that dance of the heavens. And so from architecture’s earliest times the exact orientation of those buildings which were of value to a society became of great significance. The location of north and south, then east and west, defined with ever greater precision, ensured that constructions that mattered would align with these markers.


Settlements small and large were aligned with their axes north-south (often the major ones) and east-west (often the minor ones) – it defined the towns in the 3rd Millennium BCE from the Yellow to the Indus river valleys, and long before the Romans did the same.

The great individual structures of lasting social value were similarly aligned.  Their sides were set normal to the cardinal points with great precision at the pyramids at Giza, their corners set facing the cardinal points at the temples of Sumer. Rectilinear sides facing the cardinal points were almost ubiquitous, indicating a sacredness from south-western and central America to east Asia. All this before the development of the magnetic compass – an advance which, according to Joseph Needham, was made in China for the purposes of feng-shui: to help ensure the favourable and resonant forming of new places within the greater landscape and the cosmos beyond.

Typically, to pick examples from a myriad possibilities, Buddhist stupas, including the great one at Sanchi, the circle inscribed in the square, had a gate facing each cardinal point and the temple of Borobudur had its similarly mandala-like symmetry precisely aligned to the cosmic order; the rectilinear slab (or ‘mastaba’) tombs of Egypt and the palaces-ancestor-temple-tombs of China were all so aligned, usually stressing the north-south axis.


Borabadur stupa

At the Mayan holy city of Teotihuacan the arrangement of the numerous platforms along the Avenue of the Dead was described by John Lundquist as “connected more with the universe through the cosmic orientation than with each other as parts of a more traditional architectural arrangement.” Temples and pyramids built along the axis (Avenue of the Dead) were oriented astronomically to the Pleiades, the four cardinal directions, and the surrounding mountains. While the central pyramidal structure, the Pyramid of the Sun, was built over a cave which had been a sacred spot from before time began (it figures in the Mayan creation account, the Popul Vuh). This cave was lit by the sun, each year only once, at the summer solstice.

More than north-south, it is the east-west axis which more closely mimics the sun’s path, and so we see this axis universally echoing the cycle of dawn to dusk as birth (or life) to death. This force is exemplified from the most simple caves of Yangshao peoples, deep in today’s Ninxia Hui autonomous region of China, with their horizontal cave entrances all facing east, to the great temples on India’s southern east coast (nearing the equator), facing the sun rising over the vast ocean horizon to hit the temple door.

Orientation to catch the sun developed in different places to articulate differing cultural forms and belief systems. Clearly the further from the equator, the more extreme the sun path variation. And linking the northerly location of Stonehenge with its first builders’ presumed greater concerns with moon paths before the later focus on the sun, produced the complex alignments but basically facing north-easterly, as do all the other similar land-marks long predating Stonehenge’s great remaining stone circles.

The magical points of change, the equinox and the solstice, are universal markers in joining our lives to the cosmos. For a very few days in midwinter, at New Grange, on Brú na Bóinne in Ireland, the sun creeps through its long, narrow tunnel deep into this great earthen mound until, in the early morning of the winter solstice, it comes in nearly horizontal through the window carefully placed over the entrance, along the passage rising to the core, and for 15 minutes it uncannily illuminates the deeply hidden chamber floor. Thus (on a sunny day) are the human and greater worlds connected, by this architectural construction now over five thousand years old.

The Modhera temple, built by Bhimder I more than three millennia later and shortly before the Normans colonised southern Britain, is a Gujarati masterpiece. At dawn on the equinox, the sun penetrates and falls directly on the Surya deity. 300 years earlier, across the world at Palenque, the Maya celebrated their ruler and the sun together at the winter solstice. As the sun, in mid-afternoon, slowly disappears behind the ridge where Lord Pacal’s tomb stands, a long shadow hits the temple on the opposite ridge. The sun then dips into the underworld until, two hours later, its dying beam reappears to spotlight a carved frieze of the ascension of the new ruler. At the moment of death it announces the sun’s birth.

At their centre of Uaxactun, north of Tikal, three small temples aligned north-south stand across a courtyard from a pyramid facing east. From the pyramid steps, the sun rose directly over the central temple on the equinoxes, over then southernmost at winter solstice and the northernmost at summer solstice. On the opposite side of the world, at the early 12th Century CE Angkor Wat, the sun rose directly aligned over the topmost tower precisely at the entrance to the west on equinox and solstice; altogether 22 positions within the temple were used to observe sun and moon. Thus were world and cosmos bound together.


Plan of the Bayon, Angkor Thom with north to the top. The above observations on the Angkor temples are from late 20th Century scientific studies quoted by John Lundquist, The Temple, London, 1993

However deeply buried, this urge will not entirely disappear. In the Utah desert, west of the Great Salt Lake and somewhere near N 40º 48.439 and W 114º 01.266, in the early 1970s Nancy Holt (wife of land artist Robert Smithson) carefully placed a cross with an empty centre, made of four 18’ long concrete drain pipes laid out in the desert. The 9’ diameter tubes (she called them ‘sun tunnels’) are precisely aligned with the sunrise and sunset of the summer and winter solstices. They are also pierced by holes of varying size, corresponding with the pattern of selected celestial constellations: one pipe each for Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn. Its sense of both majesty and banality leave a memorable mark from the 20th Century.

Architecture as a sundial, however, might rather differently align with a man-made anniversary. The Great Temple at Abu Simbel was dedicated to the sungods Amun-Re and Re Harakhti, as well as to Ptah and the deified king Ramesses II himself. The great hall and then vestibule lead to the sanctuary where, on a black back wall, are four seated figures: Re Harakhti, the deified king Ramesses, and the gods Amun-Re and Ptah. Twice a year, on October 20 (the day of the jubilee celebrating the king’s thirty year rule) and February 20, the rays of the sun pass down its long axis, penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the figures on the back wall, – except for the statue of Ptah, the god connected with the Underworld, who always remained in the dark. This image of the king was enhanced and revitalized by the energy of the solar star, and the deified Ramesses could take his place next to Amun-Re and Re Harakhti.

Back over three millennia and again to the early 1970s, the competition winning design for Northamptonshire County Offices in England, by Dixon Jones Cross and Gold, was in the form of a pure pyramid, appearing unbroken but its skin punctured by deep light wells and a winter garden cut into each face, outside the air-conditioned envelope. (The design goal was to upset the uniform banality of late-Modern standardised office provision.) One key shaft through the pyramid was so aligned that the chief accountant’s desk would be lit by direct sunlight only in mid-morning on the first day of the UK financial year, 6th April. This final ‘touch of humour’, Jeremy Dixon told me, very nearly lost them the competition. But could that unease have subconsciously touched a very ancient nerve here, when the archetypal importance of such a gesture was being treated ironically in this proposal?

Another generation on and Daniel Libeskind wins the competition to design ‘Freedom Tower’ on the site of Yamasaki’s banal twin blocks for the World Trade Center. This contains the ‘Wedge of Light’ so oriented that no shadow will be cast on the site of the destroyed towers on the anniversary of their destruction. “Each year on September 11 between the hours of 8.46am when the first airplane hit, and 10.28am, when the second tower collapsed,” he explains, “the sun will shine without shadow, in perpetual tribute to altruism and courage.”
Pompous and kitsch? Or is the architect grappling with these archetypal memories of when such connections were meaningful?

Relaxing from such cardinal precision, the European mediaeval cathedral developed an iconography of orientation, presuming an axis from ‘westwork’ to ‘east end’ even if often not topographically followed, and the Buddhist shrine similarly also faces east, as that was the way The Buddha faced in meditation under his bhodi tree. The mihrab in a Muslim mosque, however, should face one point on earth wherever it is constructed, and that is towards the Ka’bah in Makkah on the Arabian peninsula (The Ka’bah’s GPS coordinates are 21°25’24”N, 39°49’24”E.)

When the Umayyad Arabs from Damascus were expelled and set themselves up as el-Andalus far to the west, on the Iberian peninsula (Andalusia), the Mihrab in their great mosque of Cordoba faced south. It aimed towards the spiritual Makkah, for thus had all the mosques they knew in the Levant; rather than south east, towards its literal location.
Today we have a different obsession with orientation. In most places around the world, for a Muslim to orientate correctly when praying, the aim towards Makkah suffices. However, within the Sacred Mosque, worshippers pray in concentric circles radiating outwards around the Ka’bah. The focus is in the middle of the Ka’bah, but to take a GPS reading from within or on top or it is forbidden, and an estimate must be made from various positions around the Ka’bah.


On the axis of Angkor Wat
(photo: John McKean)

Capsule 102

8 February 2014

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