REFERENCING buildings -issues for design -15

Post 649 -by Gautam Shah


10165726954_471e29c4c0_zBuildings are nominally referenced by way of orientation, alignment, linkages, front-back placement, ground-line (gravity) or datum, framing, etc. Such references site a building location, set a direction, form relationships with surrounding elements, confirm the flow of energies like gravity, magnetism etc. and with it generate the sense of horizontal (parallel to the flow of energy) and vertical (towards-against the flow of energy). In this sense Referencing achieves a sense of balance, stability, steadfastness, belonging, scale, proportion and comparison.



Referencing is recognition of relationship between objects and persons in the context of the environment or the surroundings. Such recognition is a basal instinct. We mainly visually discern the size, direction, distance of objects and comparative details of objects, but these experiences are reinforced through other sensorial references like hearing, smell, touch, tastes etc. We also experience referential effects of energy like gravity, magnetism, electricity, etc.

Tomb Mausoleum India Taj Mahal Agra ArchitectureSt_Peter's_Square,_Vatican_City_-_April_2007

Reference, derives from Middle English referren, from Middle French référer, from Latin referre, formed from the prefix ‘re and ferre’. Other derived words carry the sense of link-to, connect to, to carry back, to deliver, consult, an allusion, signs, indication, mention.


References can take on many forms, including: real and measurable, ephemeral like a thought, metaphysical like an allegory, sensory experience, manifestation of energy, a geometrical pattern, crypto-graphical conversions, or a part of a sequence or order.

640px-LuccaPillarsIn architecture references occur explicitly, subtly and metaphorically. Explicit references are superfluous or add-ons like enrichments, embellishments, stylized forms, with little relevance to functionality. Explicit references denote an overwhelming urge to make the ‘form follows the function’. Subtle references in built forms are innate, with deep rooted cultural connections like customs. The logic is integral in the social fabric, and no justifications are offered or expected. Subtle references in architecture have restricted relevance, available only connoisseurs, experts or practicing colleagues in the field. Subtle references require perception of a whole entity, as available in abstracted orthographic presentations such as plans, sections, elevations. Subtle references often connect to things or incidences that are in different time and space. Metaphoric references relate to abstracted representations. The layers of abstractions or coding are many and their trace complicated, so a metaphor seems to stand alone. Metaphoric references become a language of variegated forms. It is a pattern in its own entirety, like an alphabet where original phones or images have very remote connections.



References have hierarchical structure where parts and components of the entity itself mutually relate, and also associate with other objects in the same or different time and space. Metaphoric expressions in architecture link expressions in other fields, or allude to such thoughts and concepts.

640px-Bourges_Cathedral_exterior_016Architectural references are formed intentionally, accidentally or unknowingly. Intentional references are part of the design creation process, so could be as justification for something that is uncommon. Accidental references are realization on a hind site. These actualize after drawing documentation, graphical representation, scaled-model making or through actual execution. Architectural references unknowingly become relevant, in some other context, because such effects were not perceived, or some unknown connection emerges through other media.


Kodungallur-RD-11Nov11Architectural references are explored to reinforce or dilute a concept, and focus or divert from a composition. References are used to enforce or negate the essential elements of a style or theme. Just as enforcement occurs through repetition, highlight, scaling or linkages, negation needs occlusion, elimination of details and restraint. Holistic compositions though have singular but very emphatic expression, whereas assemblies formed by single person or organization have some basic consistency, with noticeable reference.

640px-IMG_4404_-_Milano_-_Casa_degli_Omenoni_-_Barbari-telamoni_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall'Orto_20-jan_2007Reference in architecture is often literal, and so easily perceptible, like representation of birds, animals, objects, etc. The process of revelation however is made little more complex due to several layers of conversion or negotiations. Grotesque forms, humanoids, demons, devils, beasts, monsters are such conversions, where each representation becomes more complex with age and graphics making technologies. Yet robots remained replicas of humans or animals with head, eyes, hand and legs for several decades. Martians or aliens are still humanoids.

5287484698_4e967f272f_zFor architectural forms, the domineering factor has been the gravity, and the related sense of horizontality versus verticality. Gravity is part of our being conditioning all our creations, and it has taken years to move away from the gravity related prevalence, in conception of outer space modules. Gravity refers to stability, and anything wider at the base is safer and permanent and so monumental. Similarly, any reverse position is challenging and so celestial. For the same reason Ground-line or Horizon becomes very important base line for a building to relate to. Real or notional reference to ground-line is always assuring.



This is the 15 th article of 20 topics series on ISSUES for DESIGN


Post 527  by Gautam Shah



We may conceive a building in complete disregard of its location, as a holistic form, but sooner or later it has to be grounded. The site formats a building form in size, scale, shape and linkages to the surroundings. The siting, however, demands a building to match its topography. It needs an environmental confirmation through placement that includes the alignment, contextual positioning, climatic appropriateness, and access modalities. The orientation defines how the form is perceived through various sensual faculties. The sensual faculties are highly directional and that makes orienting a building an exercise in angle, level (datum) and bearing.

Open Hand monument Chandigarh

Grounding a building makes it an inevitable entity for the location. A holistic form is subjectively conceived and its only bearing is the specificity of a building. It is a conceptual but a transient entity till it is justified on several counts. The form gets a ‘make-over’ with realities of Siting, Placement and Orientation.

Hadrian's Wall west of Housesteads


SITING a building to a very extensive land, substantially occurs on the basis of impressions of first encounter or visit. The land reveals itself primarily from the direction one enters it, and secondarily due to the engaging features beyond its territory. For small urban lots, partly developed plots for landscape design or built spaces such as for interior design, all reveal something how these are connected through the cuts, gaps and openings. These not only stretch the extent of the realm but endow a unique spatial character.

Pan Am Building NewYork

PLACEMENT of a form or conceptual entity onto the site needs alignment and accommodation of the boundaries or edges. The irregularities of the site edges are possibly historical effects that require functional and visual adjustments. The site boundaries or the edges are formed of many neighbouring properties. For contextual positioning, one may confirm the scale, size, shape, and style, or go against it, but it must confirm to the larger discipline of the urban setting. As soon as placement of the conceptual form on to the site emerges, the macro climatic appropriateness becomes relevant. For urban locations the wind directions, dust turbulence, a solar ingress etc., are substantially altered by local conditions. For interior design the glare from glazing of neighbouring buildings, visibility of shop fronts against solar reflections, varying light-shadow on openings and open spaces must be checked.

New housing development area Luanda

A site offers certain Access modalities. These modes define quality of experience to the built-form or an interior form. The modalities are defined by depth, elevation and angle of access. All these can be changed to gain new insights to the site. Sites have had downward, upward, straight, skewed, direct or long-winded entries. The shortening or extension of time and distance is used to add or reduce the introductory interlude to the site.

National Mall Lincoln Memorial

ORIENTATION relates to directional functions of the environment and selective sensorial perception of the designed entity. Orientation works as linear connection to a real or metaphysical thing. Strong presence of an object at a distance creates a point to which things are directed, such as trees, mountains, valleys, chimneys, lighthouses, towers, pylons, forts, etc. Such strong elements in smaller or interior spaces are created to ‘hold inescapable attention’ such as searchlight, throbbing or pulsar lights, signages, brilliant colours, high pitch sounds etc. The environment effects such as solar radiation and breeze are highly directed, which in turn make illumination and climatic comfort a location specific matter. Buildings are not only opened or closed but the form is transgressed inward or outward to manage the gains or losses of it. Projections, galleries, cutouts, chowks, are such transgressions that stretch or shrink the building.

Assisi St Francis Perugia Basilica Of St Francis

Orientation also relates to cardinal points N. S. E. and W. with the solar inclination, magnetic forces and spiritual beliefs. Indian traditional building design canons prescribe rules for placing architectural elements and functions in various corners. Orientation helps to connect the sensorial faculties to stimulative aspects of form. We orient or directionally connect ourselves to sources sounds, visual stimulation, tastes and odours. Spatial arrangements use such linear connections of orientation for creating relationships through proportions, scaling, series, hierarchy etc. Patterns, textures and grains are strongly directional and so used for creating oriented layouts. Other means of the directionality are angles, contours and slopes. Stairs, escalators, elevators, corridors, long passages, boulevards, avenues, walkways, parapets, are all linear elements that establish oriented links.

Paternoster Square



Post 509  by Gautam Shah


Visit to a place, known or unknown, initiates a process of site familiarization. The first encounter with a land, building or any built space, is inspirational and very causative. The place begins to reveal itself in a new format, because the mood of the visitor is different and preceding encounters with other spaces have been different. To some extent the environmental conditions are varied. A prime realization at conscious or subconscious level occurs, How did one enter the place?, and that persists to colour all later experiences. It may, however, change once other features of the place are realized. A place is intentionally revisited from different angles, levels of elevations and in varied diurnal and seasonal environmental conditions, to recognize all its expressions.

Ciudadela Jaca Vista Aerea

A designer visits a place with a purpose and curiosity to learn its size, scale, proportions, a set of perspectives, visual scapes or frames, various visual linkages to close and distant elements, directions (North, South, East, West), contours or gradients, wind movements, solar inclinations, etc. Indirectly, however, one also becomes aware of the North, magnetic and other energy fields, reflected sounds and energies at the place. These experiences, some measurable and others of subjective ‘feelings’ build up identities of the place. When spatial activities are anchored or aligned to such identities, the new pattern of place occupation gets a natural justification. Orientation is judgmental as much as it is a rational process.

Federal Triangle Washington

To orient is to establish a real or ethereal connection with elements of the place. Orientation creates a “fit” that may not be immediately apparent or to others. Very often such “fits” are intended to inspire or compel others to such new possibilities of siting. The prime orientations have been cardinal directions and the rising Sun. Latin word oriens, orientum, mean the rising sun. The word cardinal derives from cardo, cardin, meaning pivotal, serving as a hinge. Muslims orient to Mecca as the pivotal point and hinge around it wherever in the world they are located or move. The rising sun’s rays were welcome to lit the interior’s deep spaces of temples and cathedrals, but as soon as large sized glass windows became possible the orientation was reversed to back lit, God.

La Torre desde Montparnasse, París, Francia, Eiffel Tower surroundings Flicker image by Juanedc

Buildings on open territories are bridged to far off land marks. For Chandigarh the secretariat building was the focus, which had a backdrop of far-off range of hills. Delhi was established with Raiseena hills as the orientation for President’s house (then Viceroy’s mansion). All important landmarks are placed with appropriate siting parameters or intended to be the focal point. Orientation is often considered a tool for taking maximum advantage of the solar radiation. This in turn may sacrifice other directions related factors such as view, noise ingress, privacy besides natural illumination and wind.

Site Compulsions for Flatiron Building in New York City. Wikipedia Pic by user: Lorax

Orientation is closely related to the shape and size of the place. The sub units within it are aligned to some greater system of exteriors or interiors which endow form characteristics. Buildings in city core areas have very little freedom of form and orientation. Similarly highly “formal” shapes ignore the ‘functional orientation’.

Talladega Superspeedway

Orientation is like a hyperlink, offering an axial connectivity. The axial nature provides very intensive relationship between the source and the object. The link can be extended, both in space and time. It could be straight to be very intensive, go diagonal for extended effect and move zigzag for high diffusion. All three forms are used in built spaces. Formal buildings like a parliament, halls, palaces have very straight linkage. Public spaces like exhibitions, party venues, etc. take a diagonal connection to extend the reach within the site. But zoos, museums, malls, etc. offer a leisurely layout with zigzag movement orientation.

Tarazona Vista

Stairs, escalators walkaways and other concentrated movement facilities use orientation for intensive and diversionary movement. Square stairs have landings for predictable change of orientation. Curved and winding stairs, break the monotony of highly directional movement. Spiral stairs make a person so busy that perception of orientation becomes delusive. Large spirals like Guggenheim Museum create orientation free occupation. Escalators offer free mechanized movement, but are directional like square stairs. Glass bubble elevators in lobbies though open, are designed for vertical movement. Mechanized walkways on airports and road crossings become boring due to consistent directional orientation. Water slides and roller coasters offer experience multi directional orientations. Free fall, flying scooters, buggy jumping and para-gliding offer spatial experience different from downward gravity pull.

Demon Roller Coaster Wikipedia Pic by Author Jonrev at en.wikipedia

The perception of orientation is formed by several sensory faculties. Body fluids and ears recognize any change in the direction of gravity (pull). Visual clues like the source of natural illumination provide location of Sun. Remembering the mode of arrival helps in reestablishing the place in space. Remembering or recollecting the surroundings for odours and sounds helps in location establishment. Many have instinctive capacity of recognizing the North, without the visual clues. One can sense the presence of opening or a crevice through movement of air such as breeze, moisture level and the temperature.