, Volume 26, Issue 1, pp 103–111

An architectural history of metaphors


Open Forum

DOI: 10.1007/s00146-010-0280-8

Cite this article as:
Fez-Barringten, B. AI & Soc (2011) 26: 103. doi:10.1007/s00146-010-0280-8


This paper presents a review and an historical perspective on the architectural metaphor. It identifies common characteristics and peculiarities—as they apply to given historical periods—and analyses the similarities and divergences. The review provides a vocabulary, which will facilitate an appreciation of existing and new metaphors.


MetaphorArchitectureArtTraditional or classical artAncient prehistoricModern and contemporary architecture

1 Introduction

History is a metaphor of time, space and reality segmented into subjects and themes. The history of metaphor in architecture is one such reality. “History is philosophy teaching by example” said Thucydides (Strassler 1942) and as Santayana concluded: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana 1905). As a discipline, history remains an important vehicle for understanding and communicating metaphor through the encapsulation and recall of the commonplace and artifacts of its time.

To modern art and architecture, however, history is often deliberately ignored in favor of the new, innovative and contemporary. Furthermore, while the idea of beauty resides in a collective and shifting consensus, aesthetics continues to be one of the commonplaces of metaphor. It is intrinsically and culturally of its time and place but continues to have relevance and utility to and for future generations. In a sense, historians are cultural “voyeurs” in the way in which they seek to compare their own metaphors with others. In either instance, metaphorically, they are “carrying-over” and “transferring” from one time to another by the very act of making metaphors. Each period of architecture marks its own particular contribution and alludes to its predecessors. Contemporary architecture is often more about unseen and implicit metaphors, found less in the structure itself than in the program, elements, technology and social context in which they are built.

Vincent Scully in his introduction to Robert Venturi’s, Complexity and Contradiction, observed that 1966 represented an absolute break with pluralism and initiated the development of what he termed “cataclysmic planning principles”. He remarked that contemporary planners and architects had embraced the idea of destroying the past for the sake of the future. Whilst eminent domain and commercial interests result in benefits for the public, they often do so at a price which neither the public nor the owners can sustain. Removing and replacing one structure for another ipso facto leads to the disappearance forever of the referent past in one particular context.

Architecture’s capacity to make metaphors is not new. From Egyptian monuments to today’s skyscrapers, design history is dominated internally and externally by the reinvention and reinterpretation of classic elements. Monuments which were originally designed for one purpose are often replicated for an entirely different one. Egyptian temples and Moorish palaces have become models for cinemas and Roman and Greek temples have been “re-created” as mausoleums, casinos, churches, banks and civic buildings. In so doing, they have attempted to partake of the attributes of their precursors. They were the amalgamation of all the knowledge, wealth, technology, arts and crafts of their times (Miller 1974). It is also true to say that they stand as a testament to reason and creativity—a specific response to a given set of social, cultural, political and spiritual circumstances.

In psychology, “appreciation” is a general term for processes whereby an experience is brought into relation with an already acquired and familiar conceptual system. The metaphoric works were as sensational as the edifices of the world’s affairs, as monuments were to society’s triumph over evil, nature and adversity. However, in each period, there are exceptions. Compare, for example, merchants’ buildings with mass housing and the failure of mass housing ever to replicate large scale public buildings in their language and vocabulary. Even in ancient Greece and Rome, the adoption of scaled-down versions of temples as dwellings for the affluent with all their applied stucco and false roof lines, rarely emulated classic mansions. Even today’s plethora of global suburban housing and New England “salt shaker” houses continues to express in metaphor the classic (Egyptian, Greek and Roman) ideals.

The commonplace to any one of most of history’s metaphors is the commonplace of the metaphor of them all; their collective metaphor. “Metaphors simply impart their commonplaces” (Boyd 1993).

Whether central or decentralized, publicly perceived architectural metaphors are all about names, titles and the access the work provides for the “reader”. They also symbolize the trade and value of their owners, users and society. At its best, the vocabulary of the parts and whole of the metaphoric work is a reference library and cultural encyclopedia. The freedom of both the creator and reader to “dub and show” is all part of the learning experience of the metaphor (Kuhn 1993). In the metaphoric period of the ‘60s, I coined the term “Pop Arch” to describe the phenomenon of “popular architecture”.

What are the commonalities and differences between one style and another and what does this show us about making and using metaphors? “Like any other work, architecture issues arise from the past—a past which is multi-faceted. There is first the past of the architect himself, his or her background, training, experience and knowledge. There is also the whole history of the subject, for the architect, like every other artist, is brought up in the world of his art. Traditional or classical (non-primitive) art is based on what has gone before. Indeed, the most revolutionary changes are produced by men and women, who have a good acquaintance with the past, and want to avoid its limitations. To put this in metaphoric terms, we can think of innovation and radical change as negative metaphors, where the past participates under a minor or negative sign.” (Weiss 1971). Examples of this can be found in the way Frank Lloyd Wright designed his buildings against the tenets of Louis Sullivan and used long span beams to let in the light and the way in which Queen Maria Theresa of Austria commissioned the court architect, Nicolo Pacassi, to remodel Schoenbrun in a way which would become a model for later palaces—notably Versailles, Fontainebleau and Petit Trianon—and be a counterpoint to the sprawling monumentality of Renaissance palaces which lacked a human scale.

“There is not only a past; there is also a future. No art- and certainly no architecture is produced without some awareness of the future. There is first the plan of the work to be accomplished and the function to perform. Is the object a church, a school, a pavilion, a cage, a roadway, a city?” (Weiss 1971).

Like all impressive government buildings, the treasury exudes the very wealth it aims to protect. A metaphor which translates into money-storage buildings designed to “appear” like and be as impenetrable as any fortress—Fort Knox, Kentucky and the Bank of England being prime examples. Similarly, prisons are often designed as a mirror image of the original function of the fortress. However, instead of repelling and protecting from an external threat, they are used as containers in a way which inverts the original function of the design.

In each pre-modern period, there was a passion to enamor the shelter with images to reflect wealth, might and status. Castles were not just a focus of feudal and military power; they were effective symbols of this to the subject population and rival potentates. Crenellations and ramparts were metaphors in stone and brick of the “fighting machine”—reflected in the monumentality of Castel Sant ‘Angelo, Rome or, perhaps, more impressively still, in the entrapment and manipulation built into the designs of Krak des Chevaliers and the geometric fortresses of Vauban.

Throughout much of art history, artists and architects were concerned with the proportions of the parts of their work. For example, if you were designing a temple, you might want to make the ratio of its height a particular value. In fact, there were not only particular ratios but sometimes entire systems of proportion. Each period is remembered for its metaphors including its geometry and method of proportioning. As proportioning and scale are related, the difference in the metaphor scale between colonial Williamsburg and European castles is marked. The proportions used by Michelangelo in his building facades were reifications of his study of the scale and proportion of the human figure (Hugh 1951).

In fact, we can see a relationship between the metaphors of a period in the abstract quality of an ancient pyramid juxtaposed with contemporary geometric building designs. The dimension of the technical metaphor remarkably subdivides periods but none has changed the paradigm so dramatically as the indoor and stacked plumbing, structural iron and steel, elevators, electricity conduits, mechanical heating systems and air-conditioning found in modern structures.

Prehistoric and ancient architecture is remembered for its cave dwellings and hieroglyphs while the creation and use of metaphors in architecture can be traced back to places like Tel Turlu in present-day Syria. Most early human shelters either took the form of a cave—or as evinced by settlements in the Near East, which date from 4300 to 1100 B.C.—the mandala-shaped ground excavation. The word ‘mandala’ means a circle in Sanskrit, the language of ancient India. It represents wholeness and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself—a cosmic diagram. For some, the metaphor connects to earth energies and the wisdom of nature and for others as a device to capture the images of the countless demons and gods (Gardiner 1974). The mandala was also present in Roman and Etruscan thinking in the form of the Celestial Templum—a spiritual underscoring which dominated all aspects of life.

These are metaphors in that they have two referents which liken themselves to each other and claim a commonplace. The very fact that mandalas are drawn in the form of a circle can lead us to an experience of wholeness when we take time to make them and then wonder what they mean. In the strict use of the mandala, there is a central point or focus within the symbol from which radiates a symmetrical design. This suggests that there is a center within each one of us to which everything is related, by which everything is ordered, and which is in itself a source of energy and power.

One can only surmise from the evidence and findings that, for example, one cave housed a tribe and within there were some who hovered together to secure for themselves one personal space (Brown 1991). To be “claimed”, perhaps this place in the cave had to be identified, secured and addressed. Continuing the example, when this same group went and found its own cave—as did so many others—they may also have needed to be identified, secured and defended. Each time a metaphor talks about one thing (the tribe) in terms of another (the sign, the contour or location of the cave). Roaming away from the cave to the grasslands, rivers and lakes, these same people dug holes in the ground to copy and “reproduce” the cave in the ground, they made metaphors of their cave and the mandalas. Each time something they can do with their hands (techné) and their thoughts (concept); both the primary constituents of metaphor (Gordon 1971).

In time, the vertical side of the ground replaced the cave’s walls. They considered new concepts as being characterized in terms of old ones (plus logical conjunctives) by the circular mandala form; the metaphor-building clarified their location, status and value. Virtually every known spiritual and religious system asserts the reality of such an inner center (Pylyshyn 1993). “The Romans worshiped it as the genius within. The Greeks called it the inner daemon (a subordinate deity, as the genius of a place or a person’s attendant spirit). Christian religions speak about the soul and the Christ within. In psychology they speak of the higher self” (Lakoff 1993).

The Neolithic peoples of the Near and Middle East were great builders, utilizing mud-brick to construct houses and villages. At Çatal Höyük, in present-day Turkey, houses were plastered and painted with elaborate scenes of humans and animals. The advent of the city itself was a metaphor to the power, position and potential of the society. It was totally urban and metaphoric. Since everyone participated in their design and construction, its metaphors were both implicit and explicit. Metaphorically, this was the hand-technology era depending on what man could etch out of nature’s rock, soils and trees (Ching et al. 2006).

The scale of habitable metaphors is the intrinsic relation between the human figure and his surroundings as measured, proportioned and sensed and nowhere is this more dramatically represented than by Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man (Lakoff 1993).

The two referents of the metaphor are the geometrical proportions of the ideal human figure with scale as the commonplace. As the human figure is to the space so is the volume (height, width and depth) of the space. A huge volume would dwarf the figure while a small volume could exaggerate the size of the man. Both classical and contemporary designs take advantage of scale as a design tool and itself the apparent metaphor.

During the Napoleonic period, the symbolic pyramids, pottery and temples of Ancient Egypt were to lead to the “empire” style and later still, the “Biedermeier” furniture style. Metaphorically, the pyramids are a mystery as we can see the referent of the current context but we cannot be absolutely sure of the referent metaphor. “The founding and ordering of the city and her most important buildings (the palace or temple) were often executed by priests or even the ruler himself and the construction was accompanied by rituals intended to enter human activity into continued divine benediction” (Copplestone 1963).

Contrast this metaphor to contemporary metaphors involving, for example, Fortune 500 corporate images, a new town or a real estate development, commercial retail chains and public housing or public works projects. The Egyptian example kept tight control on the overt conceptual metaphor and used the buildings as a manifestation of the state in stone.

Metaphors are often signs and monuments to spiritual beings in an effort to say “as they, so are we’; or “as we are, so are they”. In twenty-first century democracies, or would-be democracies, such divination reminds people to distrust metaphors and metaphoric thinking, supposing they allude to un-popular metaphors of religiosity, anarchy and despotism. For example, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, there is neglect of Ottoman-era monuments because they represent an epoch of oppression. In a similar respect, present-day Germany and Italy are often ambivalent about what to do with the architectural vestiges of the Nazis and Fascism such as the EUR, Prora or the Nuremburg parade ground.

Contemporary architecture is more about the unseen and implicit metaphors where the metaphor is between elements and factors of program, building technology and social context; it is less about the gestalt and more about its component parts. It is more the essence of architecture—the making of metaphors—than that an overview of the apparent historical metaphor. Yet, today, in synthetic urbanisms, metaphors attract and provide scenarios of metaphoric lifestyles providing all the mainstay commonplaces. Ancient architecture was characterized by the tension between the divine and mortal world, even in cities, where metaphor markings contained sacred space over the outside wilderness of nature. Of these, the most famous was the first city of Babylon built around 600 B.C. in Lower Mesopotamia, which is famed for its hanging gardens and ziggurat. It was amongst the first urbanizations where urbanizations occurred between 4000 and 3500 B.C. (Sundell 2008).

Its historic successor, Baghdad, was the first city where its citizens surrendered (primary definition of Islam) their rights to a “straight easement” to create straight streets off the walled houses and properties (Hakim 1958). If ever a city had a metaphoric commonplace, it was to be found in the “straight street”. Perhaps, this is the first sign of a city when its citizens surrender their rights of space and yield right of ways and easements so that the whole may function (Akbar 1988). The oldest civilization we know is Sumer—located in the far south of present-day Iraq. Around 6,000 years ago, the Sumerians built the world’s first city—Uruk—and thus introduced urban civilization to the world. Located at the confluence of the two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, it is now the present-day location of Basra. It was urban because it had infrastructure which included water, sewers, roads and law and order. Metaphorically, the city was a reification of authority and consensus, represented by the widespread use of “seals” which point to a rudimentary form of government (Schmidt 1964).

As metaphors, these seals were the precursor to the crudest form of writing (cuneiform or Akkadian script) which was developed for the purpose of record keeping and to bear witness to the sale of goods.

“The Epic of Gilgamesh”, which was written in Sumerian, around 4,500 years ago describes how Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk, set out on a quest for knowledge and immortality… and how in the end he found them through architecture (Schmidt 1964). The Sumerians believed that only by building could a king honor his gods and obtain immortality. To the Sumerian kings, who stamped their names in the bricks of their buildings so they would forever live in the memory of man; city building—architecture—was divine. With trade and the inevitable storage of wealth in mind, the Uruk period was to set the standard that we now find in the later third millennium and beyond (Schmidt 1964).

The expansion of this civilization, predicated on sedentarism and large agricultural surpluses, heralded the development of a trading network based on the exchange of goods and products and led to the importation of raw materials (metals, timber, stone, precious stones and exotic oils etc.) not found in the alluvial plains of the south. Through tribute to local rulers, coercion, plunder and reciprocal trade relations, Uruk expanded its influence throughout the region. The result was an explosion in pomp, pageantry and ostentatious wealth, which was expressed in the city itself, it replication and as a metaphor of those commonalities and differences (Jeziorski 1993).

“The architect, be he priest or king, was not the sole important figure; he was merely part of a continuing tradition” (Hitchcock 1977). Indeed, these master builders made the kind of metaphors that communicated overtly and left no doubt as to their intent or meaning. The Egyptian pyramids of the Old and Middle Kingdoms were early examples of implicit metaphors designed not for mere mortals but for the gods; it is no accident that they were built well away from population centers. On the other hand, the pharaoh’s wealth and the appreciation for receiving more wealth from his subjects and other protectorates were exemplified by open treasuries and lavish decorations exhibiting the wealth (Pylyshyn 1993). Such is the way public metaphors and monuments are created as an aggregate of a common idea by one culture and society.

In geometry, one form of pyramid is a polyhedron formed by connecting a polygonal base and a point, called the apex. The pyramid is an elegant metaphor where each base edge and apex forms a triangle. It is a conic solid with a polygonal base. The other, a tetrahedron, has a three rather than the four side base (Nuttgens 1983). The pyramids are claimed to have many “secrets”. The mystery of the referent in this case is exaggerated because it is out of our current context and remains unknown. The Great Pyramid (Cheops) is said to contain the metaphor of the “Golden Ratio”. Buckminster Fuller extended the geometry of the triangle to form the geodesic dome, which he later explained derives a universal structure seen in the stars (Fuller 1975). The metaphor of the pyramid’s technology depended on nature but was conditioned by the mechanics of pulleys, cables and the invention of the wheel.

Architectural metaphors are composed of both conceptual and technical metaphors as art involves a craft. Much of the Egyptian temple architecture (post and lintel) had African antecedents which originated in the Sudan. This exemplifies the conceptual system, the metaphors it entails and the role of cross-cultural fertilization.

“Metaphorical understanding is grounded in non-metaphorical understanding.” (Lakoff 1993) Our primary experiences operate within a natural framework which includes physical laws such as gravity, plasticity, liquidity and climate etc. and all contribute to our metaphorical understanding where the conceptual commonality accepts the strange.

“Mesoamerican architecture is the set of architectural traditions produced by pre-Columbian cultures and civilizations of Mesoamerican traditions which are best known in the form of public, ceremonial and urban monumental buildings and structures” (Fletcher and Cruickshank 1976). Where cities were formed, they are characterized by politico-religious complexes surrounded by agricultural settlements. This cultural area included some of the most complex and advanced cultures of the Americas, including the Olmec, Teotihuacan, the Maya and the Aztec (Carrasco and Kirchhoff 2008).

“Mesoamerican architecture is mostly noted for its pyramids which are the largest such structures outside of Ancient Egypt” (Fletcher and Cruickshank 1976). They are not unlike the Greek or Roman cities formed on a single axis off which are symmetrically placed buildings such as temples, markets, baths, halls and ball courts.

A German ethnologist, Paul Kirchhoff, defined the Mesoamerican zone as a cultural area based on a suite of interrelated cultural similarities brought about by millennia of inter- and intra-regional interaction (Carrasco and Kirchhoff 2008). These included agriculture (specifically a reliance on the cultivation of maize), the use of two different calendars (a 260-day ritual calendar and a 365-day calendar based on the solar year), a base 20 (vigesimal) number system, pictographic and hieroglyphic writing systems, the practice of various forms of sacrifice, and a complex of shared ideological concepts (Carrasco and Kirchhoff 2008).

The Saudi Arabians use the Hydra calendar, which subdivides 12 months into 30-day intervals and is annually adjusted by the appearance of the moon. What is most striking throughout Saudi Arabia is the way city grids are orientated toward Mecca. And if they were not the qiblah and its minbar of the mosque is built off the grid of its context to face the Kaaba in Mecca. There are many other details of Saudi Arabian architecture that provides insights into the way many of the ancient metaphors were designed.

For western culture ancient Greece still resonates. Greek and Roman metaphors were based on their orders of architecture including their metaphoric columns, entablatures, statues and sculptures (Fletcher and Cruickshank 1976). Each of these referred to something else; the column was a tree and capitals defined one order from another (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian) and the entablatures contained depictions of deities and heroes. The architecture and urbanism of Greece and Rome were very different from those of the Egyptians or Persians in the way they reflected society. Whereas religion to the Egyptians and Persians was the domain of the ruling class alone, by the time of the Greeks, religion had moved from the temple-palace compound and become the property of the “polis” or people. The conceptual metaphor embodied in Greek civic life was represented by the open space of the “agora” framed by the stoa, public buildings and temples.

“Though divine wisdom still presided over human affairs, the living rituals of ancient civilizations had become inscribed in space, in the paths that wound toward the acropolis for example. Each place had its own nature, set within a world refracted through myth, thus temples were sited atop mountains all the better to touch the heavens” (Fletcher and Cruickshank 1976).

The Greeks metaphorically transformed the Egyptian post and lintel from wood to stone. The same technology that had earlier been invented by the Egyptians was now adapted and used for stone and statues which became columns and gable ends (entablatures), and which were decorated with the carved relief of the people’s government.

These were “analogical transfers”, where instructive metaphors created an analogy between a-to-be-learned-system (target domain) and a familiar systems (metaphoric domain) (Mayer 1993). Later, not unlike classical Gothic, modern architecture liked to express truths in its building systems, materials, us of light and air and by bringing nature into the building’s environment. Modern architecture went a step further, ridding buildings of the irrelevant and cliched design and decorative elements found in classical architecture and “fossilized” by the Beaux Artes movement.

In modern and Eastern architecture, the equipoise achieved by the axiom of “unity, symmetry and balance” was replaced by “asymmetrical tensional relationships” between “dominant, subdominant and tertiary” forms. The Bauhaus, for example, found the metaphor in all the arts, the commonalties in designing architecture, jewelry, furniture and clothes.

The metaphoric unity of Roman architecture is expressed in the new—found realization of theory derived from practice and embodied spatially. This is expressed in the fora, such as the Forum Iulium, which was begun under Julius Caesar, where public participation is increasingly removed from the performance of rituals and represented in the decor of the architecture. This was to reach its fullest development later in the public square—where buildings present themselves through their facades which in turn define the space.

As the Romans chose representations (metaphors) of sanctity over actual sacred spaces to participate in society, so the communicative nature of space was opened to human manipulation. An unintended consequence of this was a model for social concern and accommodation (public baths, toilets, markets, parks, recreation areas, crafts, etc.).

The Romans widely employed, and further developed the arch, vault and dome. Their innovative use of concrete and brick facilitated the construction of many public buildings of often unprecedented size throughout the empire (Fletcher and Cruickshank 1976).

Through the metaphors of law and order, civic pride was reflected in designs that exemplified unity, symmetry and balance. Like the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans built monuments as sign metaphors to publicly express consensus toward gods, persons and events. Temples were built to Venus and Apollo as well as the courts of justice and senate (Fletcher and Cruickshank 1996). The architecture metaphors were the representation residue of the consensus and righteousness of society.

India’s urban civilization is traceable to Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, now in Pakistan. Over time, the ancient Indian art of construction blended with Greek styles and spread to Central Asia. India’s metaphors are represented in the distinctive design of temples and colorful Hindu art which incorporated statues, appliqués, pilasters and columns of the many aspects of their deities including Rama, Saraswati, Hanuman, Ganesha, Devi and many others (Copplestone 1963). They were both metaphor of their contextual consensus while being analogies of their foreign political, social and commercial alliances.

In Chinese architecture, pagodas, Buddha and the Great Wall are the three distinctive metaphors of China. One example, the use of yellow roof tiles—the imperial color—can still be seen adorning most of the buildings within Beijing’s Forbidden City. The Temple of Heaven, however, uses blue roof tiles to symbolize the sky. The roofs are almost invariably supported by brackets, a feature shared only with the largest of religious buildings. The wooden columns of the buildings as well as the surface of the walls tend to be red in color” (Ching et al. 2006). In the age of science, colors are used to induce certain emotional conditions and achieve effective spatial designs. However, out of context, their ancient metaphoric significance is often forgotten.

Ancient Japanese architecture is best exemplified by the metaphoric tea house, a construction of bamboo and paper. “Two new forms of architecture were developed in medieval Japan in response to the militaristic climate of the times: the castle, a defensive structure built to house a feudal lord and his soldiers in times of trouble; and the shoin, a reception hall and private study area designed to reflect the relationships of lord and vassal within a feudal society” (Ching et al. 2006). Most notable is the Japanese tea house which is “place” but not “function” oriented. Any function can occur in any area and areas may or may not be separated by sliding paper partitions. Operation and circulation metaphor are to the context of the designed landscape which is the architect’s version of a kind of paradise. Western architecture’s sighting of castles, estates and private residences learns from this metaphor and relates occupants to context through topography, surroundings, aspect (re. prevailing winds, sun-rise and sunset) and other bio-climatic factors. In the background was origami (the art of folding paper) which has recently been adapted by mathematicians to design buildings, sculptures and furniture made part of the (conditions, operations, ideals and goals) program. Such systems potentially can result in such buildings as those recently designed for the Emirates, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Islamic architecture, as evinced by the Bedouin tent, is concerned with the environment (the desert) and arrayed with the tribal metaphors, emblems, colors, banners and carpets (Fez-Barringten 1993). “Each color and combination of colors is distinctive to the family and “domain” of the tribe. Some distinctive structures in Islamic architecture are mosques, tombs, palaces and forts, although Islamic architects have, of course, also applied their distinctive design precepts to domestic architecture.” Like the retail mall of today, the Arabian souk is a metaphor of their culture, craft and artistic technology. The architecture of the souk emulates the Bedouin tents and makeshift gatherings of traders. Arab homes are surrounded by walls and windows clad with mashrabia for privacy particularly for the family and its women. There is a separate area of the home for the family and the visitor with separate entrances.

Most so-called Arab architecture is exemplified by asymmetrical placement of windows opening and decoration. The metaphor of ambulatories and public passages is a history of surrender and intervention between neighbors and tribes as they collected in cities like Babylon. Frei Otto’s design for the Munich Olympic stadia in the 1970s, which used canvas and cables on a massive scale, is a direct descendent of a system first used in Arab tents.

Africa’s architectural technical legacy is its post and lintel construction where horizontal, diagonal and vertical elements are attached at their intersecting joints with hemp forming the outlines of what was later transferred down the Nile (the northern section of the river flows almost entirely through desert, from Sudan into Egypt) to be the technological metaphor for Egyptian palaces. These were transferred by the Sudanese to Egypt along with abundant labor, wood and colorful pigments to decorate the buildings. These tied joints were later reflected in the capitals and brackets of Greek architecture.

Medieval architecture was dominated by palaces and castles surrounded by walls where the court lived within and the serfs lived without. The serfs’ houses were mud, thatch and timber copies of the castle technology as poor subordinate–human relations to those inside the wall. This metaphor was inherited from earliest Egypt and lasted till the French Revolution (and is even found in big New World cities like New Amsterdam). The metaphoric-castle vocabulary of the time designed the great halls, plates to eat off (since they were made of metal or “plate”) and furniture which was not movable.

It is the Renaissance where Europeans finally developed movables (moebles). The medieval world had few movables aside from trunks which housed their belongings as they had to be ready when raided to escape in an instant. So they sat on the cases and soon these evolved into furniture with legs and arms, etc. All of these had metaphoric decorations of animals and natural pallets and trees.

In France during the Gothic period, technologically the flying buttress and use of the point rather than the vaulted arch revolutionized large spans and building design. When considering buildings rather than tents, the Indian, Persian and Arabians also adopted this analogous pointed arch motif. For politico-religious reasons (i.e., the Crusades), the use of the image of the cross found in the vaulting and domes of the Romanesque and other Christian structures was banned. The cathedrals in Chartres and Notre Dame, Paris, exemplified this technology. The most famous element was the “flying buttress” used to transmit the horizontal force of a vaulted ceiling through the walls and across an intervening space to a counterweight outside the building. As a result, the buttress seemingly flies through the air, and hence is described as “flying”. Thus, the pointed arch (the thrust of the supports crossed each other at the apex) and the long spans within gave Gothic architecture its distinctive metaphoric image.

Renaissance architecture was based on the rediscovery of Roman ruins and the revival of ancient literature which brought both an intellectual and political flowering throughout Europe. Starting in Florence and other Italian city states, it later spread via France to the whole of Europe. Perspective drawing and other artistic devices flourished including building, furniture and household decorative items.

Metaphorical new representations of the horizon, evidenced in the expanses of space opened up in Renaissance painting, helped shape new humanist thought (Nuttgens 1983) and the way buildings were conceived and designed.

Baroque architecture was characterized by free and sculptural use of the classical orders and ornament, by forms in elevation and plan suggesting movement—and by dramatic effect in which architecture, painting, sculpture and the decorative arts often worked to combined effect (bursting, dynamic, forward) which all announced a rebirth of human culture and artist-made three-dimensional sculptural paintings. The key to understanding its arts and architecture was that it was a metaphor of coming to life and motion. It was all extravagantly ornate, florid and convoluted in character and style. Forms burst through their stayed forms purposefully depicting freedom, joy and vibrancy (as evinced by broken pediments and Bernini’s sculptures). The metaphor was from the parts to the whole and from the whole to the parts (Zarefsky 2005).

When kingdoms created iconic buildings, the architect and artisans took their cues from the reigning monarch. They converted these verbal instructions into habitable iconic cognitions, places to store and represent their wealth and places to defend their domains. The referents were clearly monetarily valued as in “more is better” with security and privacy. With the introduction of civil codes, architecture was now also concerned about the health, safety and welfare of the general public. In certain modern pluralistic societies, the free reign of ideas and opinions as to contexts and their meanings are diverse (Rumelhart 1991). Works of architecture’s whole and the parts had congruence where they shared the same architectural vocabulary with respect to their building systems, materials and design philosophy.

When US cities first developed, they aped European models for retail and commercial premises. Even the metaphor of extending roof heights with ‘false work’ to be taller than their neighbors is still found today in international building design. The Duomo in Milan is an important example of city-wide and public metaphor where many artisans were employed to carve the statues and gargoyles on its facades. Each carving was a metaphor and the collection of them all communicated the unity of passion and adherence to the church. This exemplified the interaction view of metaphor where metaphors work by applying to the principle (literal) subject of the metaphor to a system of “associated implications” characteristic of the metaphorical secondary subject. These implications were typically provided by the received general beliefs or values that are widely shared within a culture about the secondary subject: “In this case the success of the metaphor rests on its success in conveying to the reader some quieter defined respects of similarity or analogy between the principle and secondary subject.” (Boyd 1993).

Remarkably, the architectural beneficiary of free enterprise, democracy and the sovereignty of the individual was Art Nouveau. This style (or Jugendstil—youth art), which began in Paris and Munich, was exemplified by its metaphorical signs of leaves, vines and nature reminiscent of the tree-like forms of Gothic tracery and arches. Art Nouveau encompasses a hierarchy of scales in design architecture; interior design; decorative arts including jewelry, furniture, textiles, household silver and other utensils, lighting and the full range of visual arts. In some ways, it was a precursor to the Bauhaus—where modern architecture really got its start—by eclipsing the eclecticism and rigidity of the Beaux Artes movement. The metaphors of contemporary and modern architecture were their abstract, cubist and form-centered designs. They strove to be impersonal, general and metaphorically dead. Not to belabor the socio-political, design went on a competitive rampage between citizens, but within the vernacular of the available materials, technology and design theory. Bauhaus was also committed to achieve high-quality design through machine-made mass production. Modern architecture theory was applied to both public and private enterprise producing public works and privately owned public buildings. The use of structural iron and steel and steel-reinforced concrete changed the look, size and scale of building-types, especially the office building which now, through the developments of elevators, could grow skyward. Stadia, transport terminals and factories could be covered with long span steel beams, cables and folded plates (some derived from origami). This exercised the “analogical transfer theory” where instructive metaphors create an analogy between a-to-be-learned-system (target domain) and a familiar system. (Mayer 1993) Technically, not unlike classical Gothic, modern architecture wanted to express the truth about buildings. It revealed building systems, materials, reflected a more open lifestyle, used light and air to bring nature into the built environment and rid architecture of some of the design clichés inherited from classicism and the Beaux Artes movement. For equipoise—“unity, symmetry and balance”—were replaced by “asymmetrical tensional relationships” between, “dominant, subdominant and tertiary” forms. Through science and engineering, architecture could now exploit new media and develop new design metaphors. The Bauhaus found the metaphor in all the arts, the commonalties in making jewelry, furniture, architecture, interior design, decoration, lighting and industrial design: even fine art, music and poetry. It exponents believed that principles of design were readily transferable from one techne to another.

“Functionalism”, including “modern architecture”, was a term given to a number of building styles with similar characteristics; primarily, the simplification of form and the elimination of ornament that first arose around 1900. By the 1940s and for several decades later, these styles had been consolidated and identified as the “International Style” and became the preferred choice for institutional and corporate buildings. The exact characteristics and origins of modern architecture are still open to interpretation and debate. However, it was certainly affected by the instrumentalization/industrialization of architecture as argued under the maxim “form follows function” (Bonham 1980). A disappointment to the purist was that the mainstays of ancient metaphors were still alive and well including the commonplaces of domain, identity, security, status, power, protection and shelter. The unleashing of a global real estate boom in the last 30 years has lead to a flowering of metaphoric and iconic building types across the world from the major cities of the US and Europe to the new centers of the Gulf and Far East.

Futurist architecture was a metaphoric term alluding to the past compared with a later period (Watkin 2005). While it claimed to sever such ties and present something new, in fact it talked about the future in terms of its present. It was a metaphor which tried to make the strange (future) familiar by talking about one time in terms of the other (Gordon 1971).

“Futurist architecture began as an early-twentieth century form of architecture characterized by anti-historicism (where historicism is a theory that history is determined by immutable laws and not by human agency) and long horizontal lines suggesting speed, motion and urgency. Technology and even violence were among the themes of the Futurists”. The epic film, “The Shape of Things to Come”, based on the novel by Wells (1933), was one of its important achievements. All of this was eclipsed by contemporary science fiction movie-making technologies and concepts using artificial intelligence, time travel, supernatural and spiritual manifestations.

Expressionist architecture style was characterized by an early-modernist adoption of novel materials, formal innovation and very unusual massing; sometimes inspired by natural biomorphic forms or sometimes by the new technical possibilities offered by the mass production of brick, steel and especially glass. Morris Lapidus’ Fountainbleu and Eden Roc Hotels are other such fine examples (Curtis 1987).

Post-modern architecture was an international style whose first examples were cited as being from the 1950s, and which continues to influence present-day architecture. (Jencks 1993) Post-modernity in architecture is generally considered to herald the return of “wit, ornament and reference” to architecture in response to the formalism of the International Style of modernism. As with many cultural movements, some of post-modernism’s most pronounced and visible ideas can be seen in architecture (Pevsner 1991). Metaphorically combining both technical and conceptual metaphors, the art of building with mass produced machine technology; where the parts, fasteners and attachments are all cataloged and internationally available. Even the parts and main structural components are pre-engineered and manufactured off-site. The metaphors of the period are combinations of mini-metaphors made into mega-metaphors; and, made relevant by social, political and cultural metaphors manifest in programs and on-site charettes (any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem). Programs include the wishes, needs and necessities of owners, users and public authorities. The functional and formalized shapes and spaces of the modernist movement were replaced by unapologetic contrary esthetics (as deconstructivism’s stimulating unpredictability and controlled chaos). Serendipitously, styles collided, forms were adopted (for their own sake), and new ways of viewing familiar styles and spaces abounded.


I would like to acknowledge the contribution of E R Hart of Glasgow, Scotland (UK), in editing this article.

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