Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
Architecture is generally thought to be a creative field where form is derived by sudden inspiration: the memory of something beautiful seen in the past, an interpretation of something that catches one’s attention in the present, or any other source of inspiration.
While architectural design is a creative endeavor that comes primarily from the imagination of its creator, certain principles of order can be used to create a more cohesive design. These 6 ordering principles include axis, symmetry, hierarchy, datum, rhythm, repetition, and transformation.
When experiencing forms and spaces in a building, you can be assured that at least one, if not all of these ordering principles were employed by the building designer. These principles form part of a larger order of architectural composition seen in most buildings throughout the world.
The challenge as a designer is to implement these principles to maintain a level of compositional order, while at the same time avoiding excessive monotony. A balance between order and variety is necessary. The best designers strike the perfect balance between the two. That should be your goal as well.
An axis is one of the most elemental forms of composition used in architecture. Defined by two points in space, an axis forms a linear condition about which other forms and spaces can be organized.
For an axial composition to work, it’s important that the two elements at each end be significant forms or space. This can be achieved through the use of scale, height or even color.
An axis can also be emphasized by the edges along its length. For example, a street surrounded on each side with a dense pattern of buildings or other planar elements. It can also be defined by a linear composition on the ground such as a linear pool of water or hedgerow.
Symmetry has historically been one of the most widely used principles in architectural design. The balance of elements used in a symmetrical composition feels very natural and comforting to the human eye.
Symmetry exists abundantly in nature, and no better example of that is the human body. While not perfectly symmetrical, the human body is balanced in composition.
In the same manner, symmetry can be achieved in buildings even when the elements are not identical, but rather complementary to one another. Of course, exact symmetry can also be employed in design, and often is.
There are two types of symmetry: bilateral where equivalent elements are arranged on opposite sides of an axis. Or radial, where elements radiate from a central point. An example of this would be the wheel of a bicycle with spokes.
Hierarchy in architecture implies that there are certain elements of a building, whether form or space, that are more important than others. This may be driven by a design decision or it may simply be functional.
For a building to have a hierarchy, there must be at least one space or design form that is of greater importance visually or functionally. There can be more than one, but all other spaces or forms must be secondary or tertiary in importance.
For a space or form to be articulated as being more significant than others, it must be either of a different scale (size), unique in shape, or located strategically to elicit special attention.
A datum in architecture is an organizing element around which other elements are built around. It can be a linear datum, such as an axis, or it can be circular or even amorphous in shape.
What makes it a datum is the fact that it organizes an otherwise random pattern of forms through its regularity and continuous form. Visual continuity is necessary to establish a datum.
A datum must also have sufficient size and regularity to successfully assemble other parts around its shape. Its ultimate purpose is to assemble, organize, and clarify an otherwise irregular composition of forms.
While rhythm is typically associated with music in the form of pulses or melodic musical beats, in design it involves visual movement created by recurring patterns at regular or irregular intervals.
Rhythm can, and sometimes does, involve physical movement. However, in architecture, it primarily involves the progression of forms that cause the eye to follow a carefully orchestrated pattern of design.
Often structural elements are used to create rhythm. An example of this would be a colonnade or the beams and columns of a building structure. Windows and doors can similarly be laid out to create rhythm
Transformation is perhaps the principle that most deeply captures the process of architectural design. It can also be the most difficult of the six principles to grasp by those who are not trained in the field of design.
It’s based on the notion that forms, often derived from the past or things found in nature or other sources, can be transformed into something different through a process of form manipulation.
Often designers begin with a prototype or model form that they then begin to analyze and synthesize. Through the process of exploration, often involving trial and error, a final form is achieved which has evolved from the original form but still shares some root characteristics.
As a creative endeavor, architecture is a field that is constantly evolving. It represents not only the vision of the designer but is also a reflection of the time period and the cultural norms of the time.
Despite this, the ordering principles that we have discussed have been used throughout time and in different parts of the world. They are in a sense, universal concepts that are inherent to design.
As a designer, you must strike a balance, however, between free creativity and the principles of order. Free-form design without order creates chaos. However, excessive organizational rigidity creates monotony and boredom. It is somewhere between these two that architecture exists.
The principles outlined in this article are derived from the illustrative works by Francis D.K. Ching. If you would like to read more on the topic and see the graphic illustrations that have made the book a classic among students of Architecture through the years, check out Architecture: Form, Space, and Order.
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