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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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Just So Stories on architecture’s origins


During the construction of a corniche road near Nice, in France, in the later 20th Century, a site was uncovered which appeared, from its marks and scrapings on the ground, to indicate a very ancient hand at work.   From the positioning and relationship of stones and fragmentary traces which suggested man-made shapes, archaeologists reconstructed ‘the earliest known buildings in the archaeological record,’ and named the place Terra Amata.

Dating it to 300,000 years ago, the 20th Edition of Banister Fletcher’s History of Architecture (second edition, 2004) from which I quoted just now, went on to describs it with some precision.   “Excavation revealed traces of oval huts ranging from 8 m (26 ft) to 15 m (49 ft) in length and 4 m (13 ft) to nearly 6 m (19 ft) in width, built on sandy beaches close to what had been the shoreline. The hut walls were made of stakes about 75 mm (3 in) in diameter, set as a palisade in the sand and braced on the outside by a ring of stones. A line of stout posts, each about 300 mm (12 in) in diameter, was set up along the long axis of each hut, but evidence of the shape of the roof has not survived. The floor of each hut consisted of a thick bed of organic matter and ash. Each hut had a central hearth and these are among the oldest yet discovered anywhere in the world. The fireplaces were either pebble-paved surfaces or shallow pits between 300 mm (1 ft) and 600 mm (2 ft) in diameter, scraped out of the sand. Both types of hearth were protected from draughts by small pebble windscreens. Archaeologists have differentiated other areas within the huts as tool-manufacturing workshops. The huts are believed to have been rebuilt annually on the same sites by nomadic hunters who habitually visited Terra Amata in the spring.”

In a cave not far away, at Le Lazaret, the same text tells us, there was found “an early example of a lean-to, about 12 m x 4 m (39 ft x 13 ft), erected against one wall of a cave and defined at the base by rows of stones, and possibly post supports. A skin curtain and roof may have been draped over the posts, and the lean-to may have had two compartments separated by an internal partition, each with an entrance on the long side. The larger of the two compartments contained two hearths.”   This one is dated a hundred and fifty thousand years after the first, that is at only 150,000 years ago.

Spiro Kostof, in his History of Architecture (second edition, 1995), illustrated the former, earlier site with the same beautiful reconstruction drawing used in Fletcher.  But also, in Kostof’s vivid descriptive words, it grows into architecture. The rings of pebbles indicate a sense of ordering, of spatial differentiation and place making: there is the place for the hearth and for working; place for the midden and a carefully cleaned space for sleeping.  The saplings used as palisade were tied together at a ridge as a protective “joined hands”.   Thus Kostof evokes that archetypal post-Edenic image of architecture, as Adam and Eve’s arms cover their heads, sheltering their nakedness from God’s eye.   The bases, Kostof continues, were braced with a string of large stones around the outside, and two or more poles under the ridge on the central axis.

Though he admits no one has worked out how they were held together, he goes on to tell us that they dug with fire-hardened spears and cut with flint or limestone hand axes. These 20 huts by the beach, though inhabited over the years, were left by their nomadic builders to decay each autumn; and then, Kostof tells us, in the late spring of each year, they were reconstructed with new saplings. Here is imaged the embryo of architectural place making and spatial formation.  And all this, even more excitingly, he dates to a hundred millennia earlier than Banister Fletcher’s History, to 400,000 years ago.


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Today archaeologists are more wary.  Certainly very ancient flint tools were found at both these and other similar (they are called Acheulean) sites on the French Mediterranean coast.  But it is equally likely that the found configurations of stones resulted from soil creep, from their being naturally deposited by the flow of a stream, or by another natural process.

As archaeologist Richard G Klein says of the Grotte du Lazaret, “It is by no means certain that the stones were brought into the cave and placed by people, and natural processes or a reason for their placement not involving a structure may explain their presence.”   And of Terra Amata, he concludes that “as with other sites of possible human shelters, the evidence is more conjectural than compelling.”  And finally “the evidence for housing in the archaeological record prior to the arrival of modern humans 50,000 years ago is slim.”

Of course, most of us architectural historians are only the most amateur of archaeologists and, unable to interrogate the evidence ourselves, we must trust the best expertise.  But upon that we cannot help but develop stories about an architecture, easily swept up by our enthusiasm.    While that enthusiasm in a fine historian such as Kostof may be aiming purely to develop an understanding of the formation and ritual occupation of places, others might well have agendas beyond the material itself.

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In 2001, India’s science and technology minister announced the finding of a ‘cultural complex’ in the Gulf of Khambat (formerly Cambay) resembling the major cities of the great Indus Valley Civilisation, with regular geometric patterns representing a granary, a great bath and a citadel. Later that year, the same team dredged and recovered a block of wood dated to 9,500 BCE, or five millennia before the Indus Valley Civilisation. In 2006 the same Indian National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) also dredged up the world’s earliest-known pottery remains, scientifically dated to 31,000 BCE.

However, this primal, sunken city was being given little credence just a few years later.

–            Marine geologists are sceptical of the interpretations of the NIOT scientists, arguing that the “geometric patterns” interpreted to be submerged structures are artefacts of the sonar imaging process itself.  The linear patterns interpreted to be the foundations and walls might represent nothing more than naturally-occurring fracturing and jointing.

–            There is a no evidence that the piece of wood is associated with the geometric patterns seen in sonar images or with any human action. It is quite common to find pieces of wood, which are thousands of years old, eroded from older natural sediments and incorporated into modern ones.

–            The optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of the items identified as “pottery” produced ages virtually identical to OSL dates from associated sediments. That suggests that the “pottery” was never fired and actually consists of pieces of naturally cemented sediments. The extremely old samples, as many other “artefacts” recovered from the Gulf of Khambat, may rather be not man-made artefacts but concretions, nodules, and related objects of natural origin.

So this Indian architectural historical research, if fascinating is widely discredited.   The Indus Valley civilization, we must not forget, was centred in what today is neighbouring Pakistan.

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A final example: an ancient culture known today as Jiroft lived in present-day Iran from the 3rd Millennium before our era.  Recent research to uncover an unknown “civilization” in Iran’s Kerman Province stresses, in the words of the head of the Jiroft excavation team, the goal to ascertain “whether or not the civilization that lived here is older than that of Mesopotamia”.

That is, older than that in what today is neighbouring Iraq.

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The past can only be seen through the present.  This first post in what I hope will be an interesting set of not entirely idle musings on architecture, therefore, begins by way of a warning: caveat lector.


Capsule 101                1 February 2014

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Encapsulating architecture

The point of these posts is to offer snippets – capsules – of tales about architecture and its history… And to allow anyone, on the chance that someone actually sees and reads it, to add your response.

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