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Symbolism and Superstition in Architecture and Design Essay


Architecture, as we know it today, can be defined as a language that exemplifies the attributes of a particular culture or way of societal thinking. In essence, architecture expresses two specific characteristics; in that it has a functional characteristic which is embodied by the usability aspect of architectural projects (i.e. the building serves a specific purpose such as acting as museum, apartment building, library, etc.). It also has symbolic characteristic as embodied by how the form and design elements of a building are meant to connote some type of symbolic message (Sari et al., 2011).

It is this use of symbolism as a part of architectural aesthetics and design that will be focused on in this paper within the context of superstitions from different cultures and how they influence the functional and aesthetic design of architectural works. It is the belief of this paper that superstition in architectural design should only impact aesthetic elements in the design elements and should not impact the functional attributes of an architectural project.

Symbolism and Superstition in Architecture

Before proceeding, it is necessary to delve into the concept of symbolism within architecture and how they are related to cultural superstitions. First, it is important to note that architectural projects, such as buildings, can be considered physical representations of a common cultural agreement involving aesthetics and design choices. For example, one of the most common cultural agreements associated with superstition can be seen in the design of mosques in Islamic culture wherein there is a general superstition surrounding their need to face Mecca.

As a result, the design orientations of mosques for several hundred years have focused on implementing this specific design choice in all current mosques. On the other hand, for a better impression of how superstitions influence design through symbolism, an examination of many of today’s classical cathedrals, such as Notre Dame, can be used as an example. Aside from their spires, cross shaped interior designs and vestibules, one of the most iconic design symbols that are associated with these buildings are their use of gargoyles on their facades. The use of these stone monstrosities was due to the superstitious belief at the time that putting monsters on the surfaces of churches would help to scare demons away.

Another interesting use of symbols in architecture is the use of curved designs in ancient China when it came to various architectural projects. The reasoning behind this design element rose from the belief that ghosts and spirits could only traverse the material world in a straight line. As a result of this belief, many Chinese buildings incorporated curved roof designs in order to keep spirits out. However, this use of curved design elements was not limited to houses, temples and important architectural structures; rather, it was also incorporated into road design.

Symbolism and Superstition in Architecture.

The following is an example of a military road in China that was constructed to move men and materials from one base to another. As it can be seen, the curved design superstition was implemented in such a way that it eschewed logic completely in favor of conforming to a belief system involving spirits. A more logical and cost efficient means of construction would involve merely building the road in a straight line, however, given the potential that such an action may “attract spirits” what was chosen was a totally illogical and wasteful design method.

When taking these aspects of symbolism in architectural design into consideration, it can be seen that each culture has their own unique superstitions and attributes that “bleed into” the manner in which design elements are created. While this creates a unique and definitely interesting variation in the means by which different cultures distinguish themselves on an architectural basis, the fact remains that such elements should not interfere in the functional aspect of the design itself. As evidenced by the Chinese curved line superstition, this can have an adverse effect on functionality which can cause significant issues when it comes to adhering to proper cost effectiveness.

Cultural Superstition in Architectural Design

As explained by Casakin, (2012), if one were to examine aspects of modern day architecture, it would immediately be apparent that many of today’s modern buildings and architectural projects lack the overt symbolism found in architectural design 300 to 500 years ago. What is present is a more functional, ergonomic and standardized method of structural design that focuses more on practicality that on symbolism and superstitious heritage (Casakin, 2012). However, Liu (2008) explains that while cultural superstitions such as the use of gargoyles in Cathedrals and curved roofs in Chinese buildings have become a rarity in modern day buildings, this does not mean that all aspects related to cultural superstitions have been removed.

For example, one of the most common superstitions that pervade building design at the present is the lack of a 13th floor in Western building designs (Liu, 2008). While “technically” the 13 floor does exist, it is renamed as the 14th floor due to connotations regarding the number 13 and bad luck. Fortunately, the practice has become rarer as building designers become less superstitious; however, many modern buildings today such as One Canada Square in Britain still do not use the number 13. On the other side of world, a similar superstition pervades Chinese buildings wherein due to a quirk in the Chinese language the number “4” in the English language sounds like the word for “die” in Chinese. As a result, floors with the number 4 are renamed after the next denomination in the series (i.e. the 4th floor becomes the 5th floor; the 34th floor becomes the 35th floor, etc.).

Oddly enough, despite the number 13 having no overt negative cultural superstitions in China, building designers opt to not include the number in the floor layout of buildings as well. Other odd cultural superstitions can be seen in building designs in Hong Kong, Singapore and various parts of China where Feng Shui (i.e. a Chinese philosophy of harmonizing humans with the surrounding natural environment) is extensively utilized in order to orient buildings based on what is perceived to be the best in relation to the surrounding mountains, rivers, sea, etc. Feng Shui has become so pervasive in Asian architectural design that it has influenced the orientation of buildings, the placement of windows, the overall shape and structure of buildings and even the placement of columns to a certain degree (How’s the Feng Shui? 1995).

Do note though the current proliferation of skyscrapers designs are not a result of cultural superstitions or any other form of cultural heritage that has been shared in between countries, rather, they are a manifestation of vertical urbanism. In most overpopulated urban centers, free space has become increasingly scarce as urban planners and construction companies attempt to create a balance between the limited space for expansion and the need for convenience and affordability as desired by today’s modern day consumer.

The result is the utilization of the concept of vertical urbanism wherein subsequent construction and expansion maximizes the use of limited space through the creation of high rise condominiums, apartment complexes and various other forms of modern day architecture which have increasingly followed the trend of vertical construction. What this signifies is that when it comes to modern day architecture, it does follow a specific design trend in maximizing space which has aided significantly in minimizing the incorporation of superstition in design elements, however, they do still exist to a certain degree as the next section will show.

Superstitions and Mexican Design

According to the article Great Design Around the World: Mexico (2006), the concept of superstition in architecture is not limited to its spiritual connotations, rather, it extends to formal manifestations as well. This means that when it comes to superstitions in architectural designs, this is not limited to ideas of “warding off spirits” as seen in the case of Catholic gargoyles or the Chinese curved line design, rather, these are meant to manifest cultural symbols as a means of implying a shared message through symbolism (Great Design Around the World: Mexico, 2006). For example, the Edificio Calakmul located in Santa Fe has massive circular window that directly faces the sun.

Once sunlight hits it, the intended effect is to symbolize a rising sun which has considerable spiritual connotations in Mexican superstition involving success, progressiveness and rebirth. Considering the fact that the Edificio Calakmul is considered the latest in Mexico’s “intelligent building” design, it can be stated that the intended purpose of the designer was to connote local superstition regarding the sun and incorporate it in such a way that it became a massive symbol (Great Design Around the World: Mexico, 2006).

It should be noted though that Mexico does share some attributes with Western building designers in that the number 13 is similarly not utilized and is either renamed or skipped over in its entirety when it comes to floor planning. Based on the perspective of Jafarizadeh et al. (2013), superstition in architectural design is actually a manifestation of incorporating familiar symbolism so as to make people feel more “at ease” so to speak since they would recognize signs and symbols that would place them into a more comfortable psychological state (Jafarizadeh et al. 2013).

For example, the use of slanting designs in Mexican architecture is attributed to the Mayans and how a slanting vertical design is meant to symbolize Mexican superstition which correlates the design with mountains and rising from the earth towards the heavens. As such, it was a superstition based on the belief that the design had a distinct correlation with success and strength. Examples of the use of this particular design element can be seen in the Mexican Stock Exchange, the Iglesia de Bosques de las Lomas Church, Torre Insignia and Torre Mayor, and the Plaza Moliere.

It should also be noted that there are also certain religious superstitions at work within Mexico’s architecture industry wherein there is a considerable pervasiveness in the implementation of cross shapes (Arcos Bosques), arches (Torre Arcos Bosques) and curved designs (Plaza de Residencias) which Jafarizadeh et al. (2013) described as manifestation of religious superstition meant to create a level of protection for buildings by creating a correlation between religious symbolism and protection against the elements. What this shows is that superstition has a considerable degree of influence in the design and creation of Mexican architecture as evidenced by the various examples that have been shown in this paper. Jafarizadeh et al. (2013) explains that that level of integration into architectural works is often a result of societal predilections towards belief in superstitions and oral traditions resulting in their integration into many aspects of modern day society.

Influencing Design

It is the opinion of this paper that influences in design as a result of superstitions from different cultures should primarily be isolated to aesthetics rather than anything related to the functional application of the design itself. For example, when it comes to superstitions involving numerology and its application in floor plan development, it simply does not make logical sense to continue the practice based on what a culture perceives as “bad luck”. While it may be true that societal preconceptions do have a considerable degree of influence when it comes to design inspiration, the fact remains that architects need to focus on the facts and not on the basis of some form of belief that has no real world bearing whatsoever.

For example, when examining the case of the Chinese superstition involving curved lines and ghosts and the samples given, it becomes immediately obvious its application as an aesthetic design attribute is perfectly fine, however, once it actively interferes in the functional purpose of an architectural project then it cannot be considered a viable design element. It becomes wasteful, inefficient and actually detracts from the building as a whole. The work of Erzen (2011) explains that the development of architectural styles and methods of innovation in the various regions of the world is often the result of responses to the natural environment (Erzen, 2011).

This does not limit itself to aesthetic differences in design as seen in the opposing design elements of buildings from Japan as compared to those within Europe but instead encompasses unique architectural manifestations of internal and external innovative differences that impact not only the look of the building but the way in which it functions as a living environment (Agudo 2010). This can have long term influences on the development of architecture within a region and as such can be considered a means by which architectural development responds to the natural environment (Agudo 2010).

Within the context of superstition and architectural design, it can be seen that the design elements utilized are not a result of adapting to conditions within a local environment; rather, they are merely a manifestation of shared beliefs that were originally meant as a means of explaining natural processes but have been proven false as a result of scientific investigation. Taking this into consideration, it can be stated that the impact of superstitions from different cultures on architectural design should be limited primarily to aesthetic design elements meant to encapsulate the unique cultural attributes of a particular country. However, this should be limited to aesthetic appeal rather than consist of integral design aspects. Unfortunately, as seen in the case of Mexico and other countries, superstition and symbolism continues to be an ongoing trend despite the inherent dangers utilizing design elements based on superstition has on the structural integrity of the buildings themselves.

Reference List

Agudo, M 2010, ‘Late-Antique and Early Medieval Hispanic Churches and the Archaeology of Architecture: Revisions and Reinterpretation of Constructions, Chronologies and Contexts’, Medieval Archaeology, vol. 54, no. 1, pp. 1-33.

Casakin, H 2012, ‘An empirical assessment of metaphor use in the design studio: analysis, reflection and restructuring of architectural design’, International Journal Of Technology & Design Education, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 329-344.

Erzen, J 2011, ‘Reading Mosques: Meaning and Architecture in Islam’, Journal Of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 125-131.

‘Great Design Around the World: Mexico’ 2006, Architectural Digest, vol. 63, no. 5, p. 180, ‘How’s the Feng Shui’?’ 1995, News For You, vol. 43, no. 16, p. 3.

Jafarizadeh, R, Homaipour, H, Bakhtiyari, A, & Miremadi, A 2013, ‘The Overview of Cultural Dimensional Impact on Iranian Architectural Design in Foreign Project: A Case Study’, International Business & Management, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 31-35.

Liu, Q 2008, ‘The Art of Placement’, China Today, vol. 57, no. 3, pp. 28-31.

Sari, R, Şen, D, Al, S, Candaş Kahya, N, & Sağsöz, A 2011, ‘The effects of traditions, customs and beliefs on architectural design: The example of Turkey’, International Journal Of Academic Research, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 780-792.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Symbolism and Superstition in Architecture and Design'. 9 June.

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