METAPHOR -Issues for Design -11

Post 623 –by Gautam Shah



Metaphors in design occur in many different forms. These are of statements main two classes, explicit or implicit in nature. The explicit statement, has a holistic form, a direct representation or substantially analogical one. But architectural forms, except for abstract monuments and sculptural structures, need to be used as interior spaces. These requirements force the forms to be functional. The form here becomes an analogical metaphor. For architectural metaphors of explicit type, ‘A is used in place of B’, but such transportation cannot be without enhancing the scale. Architectural structures are far larger than things that they represent. This is, however, done by maintaining same context, endowing same functionality, or keeping semblance of size, scale, proportion and other sensorial qualities. The explicit metaphor could be personal interpretation of the creator, or by the perceiver. It is an identity equalization with something known, comparable or a conventional element.


Longaberger HQ in Newark Ohio > Wikipedia image by Derek Jensen (Tysto

Architecture also connotes composition of multiple elements. These architectonic elements remain modest in scale to be within the range of perception. Modest scaling also allows the elements to be abstracted more effectively. As an implicit presentation, the abstracted architectural metaphors need no corresponding equalization, confirmation, or functionality. The implicit metaphors in architecture (and other expressions like arts, etc.) derive from an assortment of experiences, and so their roots need not and cannot be traced. These implicit metaphors as abstract images are placed with known vocabulary of the distance, orientation, juxtaposition, scale, etc.

Crazy hill of San Francisco

Crazy hills San Fransisco > Flickr image by Hakan Dahlstrom


The word Metaphor derives from metapherin, metaphorá, metaphero (Greek) = to transfer, metaphora (Latin)= carrying over, 16th C métaphore (Old French), and from –meta =after, with, across & –phero =to bear or to carry. A word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing, and is used to designate another. A metaphor is transferring meaning from one object or saying to another. Metaphor is analogical bridge to something that is ‘distanced, not of this space or time’.

Metaphor relies on association, comparison or resemblance. ‘A metaphor expresses the unfamiliar (the tenor) in terms of the familiar (the vehicle)’. Metaphor is like a carrier for clarity, to enhance clarity of a concept by going beyond the concrete or real world association. To take an expression metaphorically is a way to take it figuratively, to reinterpret it and to construe it in a manner that departs from, but remains informed.


When we consider a building, built-form, structure or architecture as abstract tenure then some need to justify it by borrowing or implanting few realistic attributes. Architecture employs ground and figure to denote, respectively the tenor and the vehicle (cognitive linguistics uses the terms, target and source respectively). Newer architectures have metaphors, justified by a fairly explicit statement. Compared to these other traditional creations (where the form has been oft repeated) have an implicit declaration, and for that reasons are taken for granted. Architectural metaphors are intentionally made implicit, when one is afraid of alluding to attributes. This happens when one wants to distance from highly styled or overused elements.


Remains of Rummu quarry immersed in water -Part of Music Video > representing loneliness-desolation > Wikipedia image by Janno Kusman as flickr user jannok

A metaphor is not language, it is an idea expressed by language, an idea that in its turn functions as a symbol to express something’. –Susanne Langer.


The form of a Church as a cross, Hindu Temple as a Mandala, Garbha-Griha (the inner chamber of a Hindu temple) as the womb, dualities of Janus, loads over head or shoulder of Atlantis, all are holistic metaphors, but shrouded into years of interpretations. Decorative motifs, grotesque forms, contrived architectonic elements, abstract human or animal forms, are symbolic, yet distinctly functional elements in limited sense. Wide-base structures like Pyramid, Eiffel Tower, Electric Pylons, and tapering column structures like Pylons. Obelisks, Pillars, Stambha, are gravity compliant entities, long-lasting and so stable. Intervening elements in buildings like Verandahs, vestibules, corridors, passages, denote metaphoric links or connections between out side and inside.


Adi Niwas -First residence of Gandhi in Sewagram, Maharashtra India  as Ashram > Wikipedia image by Muk.Khan


Sabarmati Ashram of Gandhi at Ahmedabad India > Wikipedia image by Nichalp

 Ashram is a form of Hermitage, a place for ‘Spartan’, celibate or ascetic life. The image relates to minimum space, a cell, in Buddhist stupa or monastery. Gandhi established several ones like Phoenix Ashram at Durban in South Africa, Sabarmati Ashram at Ahmedabad in India, Sevagram Ashram Wardha Maharashtra, India. All these had few common features Verandah and sloped roofs. When architect Charles Correa was designing a Gandhi Memorial at Sabarmati, the theme of the verandah and sloped roofs emerged metaphorically.


Gandhi Memorial at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad by Charles Correa > Wikipedia image by Hardik jadeja

The architectural form, which is explicit in the initial stages, evolves inconsistently over the ages, but with several orders of conversions, the form and its meaning, both become implicit expressions. It is like pictorial language Hieroglyphics where the objects expressed one thing in terms of another, but with transformations make their interpretations sometimes easier, but mostly difficult.


Buckminster Fuller’s House Dymaxion  built by Butler brothers Kansas city > Wikipedia image by Daderot

Architects have used different expressions to show their process of form perception. But there is a wide deviation of between perception and conception of the form. These metaphoric quotes are naturally out of the context of time and space. 1. A house is a machine for living in -Corbusier. 2. It is not the right angle that attracts me, nor the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. What attracts me is the free and sensual curve -the curve that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuous course of its rivers, in the body of the beloved woman.- Oscar Niemeyer. 3. Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising and buildings should reflect that. –Frank Gehry


HSBC Hong Kong HQ building by Norman Foster > Wikipedia image by WiNG

Can metaphors be used to widen experiences that are otherwise mainly visual? Modern gadgets like Remote controls, switch-gears, driving wheels or mobiles beyond visual experience now offer sounds, vibrations, warmth, presence or absence of gravity, pressure-feel of acceleration-deceleration to reinforce or alter the cognitive experience. As designers, ‘we can influence perception by stimulating the viewer’s five senses to invoke broader conceptual associations’.


Cornell University Campus Doha Qatar > Wikipedia image by vobios

A metaphor is ‘used to draw a comparison between two distinct objects, whereas a symbol is used a stand-in for a much more complex, and generally more abstract, idea’. Symbols carry a wide range of concepts through their own compositions. Symbols also carry different meaning across generations, and culturally mean different things to different people. Any attempt to derive a meaning through their surviving trace of the context does not work. One may not bother about interpreting the meaning of a symbol as it could have turned very abstract, but a metaphor to remain relevant must be very explicit or supported by ‘explanations’.


 To create Modern day metaphors, one of the most useful tools has been digital morphing. It allows the scaling and merging with the existing conditions by selective stretching, inflating, shrinking etc. These are attempted, more in films and other visual mediums, than in architecture. Architects try to liberate their creations by adopting Deconstructivism. Games have adopted the technology more cautiously.


Architecture im Video game -Minecraft > Pixabay free image by allinonemovie

The American aesthetician Kendall Walton calls (modern audio-video) games, ‘generators of fictional or make-believe content. The game is governed by complex, tacit, mutually understood rules or norms, principles of generation, that render what’s fictional in the game, what players of it are supposed to imagine in playing it, a fixed function of the actual states and behaviours of various things and people they perceive, manipulate, and otherwise interact with as they play it’.



Screen shot from computer game ‘The whispered World’ > Wikipedia image : Attribution: Daedalic Entertainment GmbH

The Props, as Walton calls them, or enriched interfaces, are here means of imagination deriving their instrumental value or interest from the intrinsic value or interest of the fictional content they help generate. Some games, though allow manipulation of such interfaces such as change of the stadium in cricket or football game or war zones, culture and technological standards of warriors, climate conditions of the scenario. Modern day drafting tools that allow the ‘form generations’, also allow surface sensuality manipulations. Some degree of ‘form reformationis allowed though tied to the wire framing or connected point networks. The freedom to transgress or fly-out beyond, without the umbilical interface will arrive someday.


Ballistic Arcade developed by GRIN and Triotech Amusement > Wikipedia image attribution: Triotech Amusement ( )


This is the 11 th article of 20 topics series on ISSUES for DESIGN

2 thoughts on “METAPHOR -Issues for Design -11

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