Modifying Elements Of Architecture

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It is impossible to convey fully in drawing, but the architecture of these steps consists in more than just their visible form. They are in the Generalife, near the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The place shown in the drawing stimulates nearly all the senses: the deep greens of the leaves, the colours of the flowers and the patterns of light and shade stimulate the sight; there is the sound of moving water in nearby fountains; the smell of warm vegetation, and the perfume of oranges and bougainvillaea; the variations in temperature between the hot sunny places and the cooler shady places; the cold water for bathing hands and feet; the textures of the cobbled pathways; and, if one were to pick one of the oranges, or a grape, the taste would contribute to the place too.

The basic elements of architecture as described in the previous chapter are abstract ideas. (That is why they were illustrated in such a sparse way.) When, by being built, they are given physical form, various additional factors come into play.

In their physical realisation and our actual experience of them, basic elements and the places they identify are modified: by light, by colour, by sounds, by temperature, by air movements, by smells (and even possibly by tastes), by the qualities and textures of the materials used, by use, by scale, by the effects and experience of time..

Such modifying forces are part of the conditions of architecture; they can also be elements in the identification of place.

The possible configurations of basic and modifying elements are probably infinite. The inside of a cell might be dark, or bright; it might muffle sound, or have an echo; it might be warm, or cool; it might be dank, or fresh; it might smell of expensive perfume, or of stale sweat, of fruit, or of fresh cooking. A pavement may be rough, or as smooth and slippery as ice. An enclosure (a garden) might be sunny, or shady. A platform (a seat) might be as hard as stone or metal, or soft, padded with foam or feathers. An aedicule may be sheltered from wind, or be exposed and breezy. And so on.

As abstract ideas, basic elements are subject to complete control by the designing mind; modifying elements may be less compliant. One might decide on the precise shape and proportions of a column, a cell, or an aedicule, but the matter of how it sounds, or is lit, or smells, or changes with time, is a more subtle issue. Control over modifying elements is a continuing and evolving battle. For example: in primitive times, light would have been that provided by the sky, and not subject to control; now there is electric light which can be controlled precisely. In the distant past, materials for building, whether stone or timber, were rough hewn; now their textures and qualities can be finely controlled.

Though use of the basic elements may be the primary way in which a designing mind conceptually organises space into places, modifying elements contribute a great deal to the experience of those places.


First amongst the modifying elements of architecture is light.

Light is a condition of architecture, but it can also be used as an element. Light from the sky is the pervasive medium through which sighted people experience the products of architecture; but light, both natural and artificial, can be manipulated by design to identify particular places and to give places particular character.

If one is thinking of architecture as sculpture it is by light that it is seen and its modelling appreciated. If one is thinking of architecture as identification of place, then one is aware that there can be light places and dark places, places with a soft even light and places with the strong brightness and sharp shadows of sunlight; places where the light is dappled, or constantly but subtly changing; places, such as theatres, where there is a stark contrast between light (the stage—the place of the action) and dark (the auditorium—the place of the audience).

Light can be related to the activity in a place. Different kinds of light can be appropriate for different kinds of activity. A jeweller at his workbench needs strong light over a particular area. An artist in her studio needs constant and even light by which to paint. Children in school need good general lighting for work and play. In all instances light contributes to the identification of place.

Light changes and can be altered. Light from the sky varies through the cycles of night and day, and during different times of the year; sometimes it is shaded or defused by clouds. The variations can be stimulating.

Daylight can be exploited in making places. Its qualities can be changed by the ways in which it is allowed into a building.

Some old houses have broad chimney stacks. Open to the sky they allow a dim 'religious' light to illuminate the hearth (when there is no fire). Le Corbusier used a similar effect in the side chapels of Notre-Dame du Haut at Ronchamp. Using light 'scoops' he identified the places of the side altars with daylight softened by its reflection off white roughcast walls.

The way light is admitted into the side chapels at Ronchampis similar ineffect to that of light filteringdown an old broadchimney stack.

The same sort of effect is used in this crematorium at Boras, Sweden, by Harald Ericson. It was built in 1957, three years after the Ronchamp chapel. The drawing shows its long section.

In the same year, Ralph Erskine used a roof-light cum light scoop to identify the place of a small winter garden in the middle of a single-storey villa which he built at Storvik, also in Sweden.

In this villa in Sweden, Ralph Erskine used a roof-light to identify the place of a small winter garden at the heart of the house.

A spotlight can identify the place of anything upon which one wishes to focus attention.

Light from an electric bulb is more constant and controllable than daylight: it can be switched on and off, or precisely varied in intensity, colour and direction. One of the most intense uses of electric lighting is in the theatre; but any place can be considered as a 'theatre' and lit accordingly.

A spotlight can identify the place of an actor, a singer, a painting, an object...anything on which attention is to be focused.

Beams of light can also work in the opposite way, drawing attention to their source.

In identifying places through architecture, light— both the varying light from the sky, and the precisely controllable light from electric bulbs— can contribute in many ways.

The way in which light contributes to the identification of place is part of architecture. Decisions about light play their part in the conceptual organisation of space, and affect the ways in which basic elements of architecture are used.

Light contributes to the ambience of place. One is likely to make the quality of light in a place of contemplation or worship different from that in a place for playing basketball or one for performing a surgical operation.

Without changing the physical form of a place its character can be radically altered by changing the way in which it is lit. Think of the dramatic change in the appearance of a friend's face when you hold a flashlight under his or her chin. The same changes can occur in a room when it is lit in different ways, at different intensities, and from different directions. A room's character changes radically when, in the evening, the electric lights are put on and the curtains are drawn; the fading dusk light is replaced with a constant brightness. We are perhaps so familiar with this event that we do not recognise its drama.

The device of reversing the lighting conditions in a theatre, when the house lights go out and the stage lights come on, is an important ingredient in the magic of theatre.

Light can make the fabric of a building seem to dematerialise. A well lit, completely smooth, surface (of a wall, or a dome, for example), of which one perhaps cannot see the edges, can appear to lose its substance and become like air. The absence of light can have a similar effect. The surfaces in the distant recesses of the interior of a gothic church can seem to disappear in the gloom.

There are places where light is constant, and places where light changes. In some buildings (hypermarkets or shopping malls for example) electric bulbs supply light which is exactly the same all the time, at 9.30 on a winter evening, and at 12 noon on a summer day.

Making a clearing in a forest is an architectural act. It removes the obstruction of tree trunks, but it also changes general shade into a place with bright light from the sky. The removal of obstruction means that the place becomes a 'dancing floor'; the admission of light accentuates the place, and allows it to be a garden rather than a forest.

Erecting a roof under desert sun creates a patch of shade. The creation of a place of shade is essential to the architecture of a Bedouin tent.

A roof, which might in some climates be considered primarily as protection against rain, is also a shade. Putting a roof-light in it can be like making a clearing in a forest, creating a pool of light surrounded by shade.

The doors of ancient Greek temples faced the morning sun. The red light from the east must have dramatically illuminated the figure of the god within. Like a cannon operating in reverse, the sun's horizontal light, striking deep into the interior of the temple helped to identify the place of the image of the god at a particularly significant time of day.

In the ceiling of the large church of the abbey of La Tourette in southern France, the architect Le Corbusier designed

A tent in the desert identifies a place of shade.

Inside the tower of Brockhampton Church, designed by William Richard Lethaby in 1902, the windows cast shadows of their tracery as a pattern of sunlight on the white walls.

A lone lamp in a dark A roof-light in a room street identifies a place; a red identifies a place of light.

light maybe identifies somewhere more specific.

In this image you have to imagine the statue of the god illuminated by the golden light from the rising sun.

In the Aye Simon Reading Room (in the Guggenheim Museum of Art designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) Richard Meier, who was remodelling the room, used three existing rooflights to identify three specific places (from left to right): the built in seat; the reading table; the receptionist's desk.

a relatively small rectangular roof-light. As the sun moves across the sky, through the dark interior a rectangle of its beams tracks like a slowly moving searchlight.

In the side chapel of the same church Le Corbusier used deep circular roof-lights, like broad gun barrels with brightly coloured inner surfaces, to illuminate the places of the altars.

In the crypt chapel of the church intended for the Guell Colony in southern Spain, the architect Antonio Gaudi created a place of darkness in which columns and vaults melt into shadow, lit only by the stained glass windows. This chapel, rather than making a clearing, recreates the forest, with stone tree trunks and coloured dappled light seeping under a canopy of shade.


Issues of colour are of course inseparable from those of light. Light itself can be any colour; coloured glass changes the colour of light which passes through it; the apparent colours of material objects are affected by the colour of the light that falls on them.

Colour, with light, can play apart in identifying place. A room painted a particular shade of green has a particular character, and is likely to be know as the 'Green Room'; a room lit only by a blue electric lamp has a particular character; a room lit by daylight passing through coloured glass windows has a particular character. Different colours and qualities of light may seem to suggest different moods.

Colour is not only a matter of decoration or the creation of places with particular moods. Colour plays a part in place recognition. The importance of colour in place recognition is underlined by camouflage, which conceals by destroying or obscuring colour differences.

Colour is also used in coding. In directing someone to your house, you might describe it as the house with the red (or blue, or green, or whatever colour) door (or walls, or windows, or roof). A coloured line can indicate a place where you should wait (to have your passport checked). A change in the colour of paving slabs, or carpet, might indicate a particular pathway, giving it special importance (as when a red carpet is laid down for an important person), or help people find their way.


Temperature plays a part in the identification of place too. The chief purpose in building an igloo is to organise a small place of relative warmth amidst the snowfields of the arctic north.

A reason for the shaded patios, full of plants, in the houses of Cordoba, is that they create a relatively cool place as a respite from the heat of southern Spain.

Temperature has always been a central consideration of architecture when thought of as identification of place.

Temperature may or may not be associated with light. In the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere a south facing wall can make a place which is both bright and warm from the light and heat of the sun. An air-conditioning outlet, however, which emits no light, can identify an attractively warm place on an icy day. A bright room can of course be cold; a dark one warm.

The interiors of some buildings (recent art galleries for example) have constant, unvarying temperature in all parts, carefully controlled by air-conditioning and computer systems.

In other buildings, a rambling old house for example, there may be places with different temperatures: a warm place by a fire, a cool hallway, a warm attic, a cool cellar, a warm living room, a cool passageway, a warm courtyard, a cool pergola or verandah, a warm conservatory, a cool larder, a hot kitchen oven, a cold ice-house...; moving from place to place one passes through zones of different temperatures, related to different purposes and providing different experiences.


Temperature is involved with ventilation and humidity. Together they can identify places which may be warm, dry, and still; cold, damp, and draughty; warm, humid, and still; cold, dry, and draughty; and so on.

A fresh breezy place can be refreshing after a warm, humid one; a warm, still place is welcome after a cold windy one.

In the ancient palaces of the Mediterranean island of Crete, which has a hot, dry climate, royal apartments had open terraces and tiny courtyards shaded from sun, and positioned to catch or produce air movement to cool the interior spaces.

In the front elevation of the Altes Museum in Berlin, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the nineteenth century, there is a loggia, once open to the outdoor air, containing a pair of stairs from ground to first floor, and looking over the square (the

The small courtyards (patios) of houses in southern Spain are shaded by their high walls and, when the sun is at its highest, by awnings. They are packed with many plants, and maybe a small fountain.

Evaporation from these creates cool air which flows through the rooms and into the narrow streets.

The residential quarters in the palaces of ancient Crete were well shaded. They were also provided with many openings and small light wells which, by providing ventilation, helped keep the rooms cool in the severe Cretan summer heat. (This is part of the palace of Knossos.)

An air-conditioning outlet can identify a warm place to stand on a cold day.


Sound can be as powerful as light in identifying place. Places can be distinguished by the sounds they make, or by the ways in which they affect sounds made in them.

Some religions use sound to identify their places of worship: by bells, or gongs, or wind chimes, or a priest calling from a minaret.

A place might be distinguishable by the sound of the wind in the leaves of its trees, or by the sound of a stream or fountain of water. One's experience of a hotel room might be spoilt by the constant hum of its air-conditioning. A particular place in a city might be associated with the music of a particular busker. A place—an examination room or a library or a monastery refectory— might be distinguished by its silence; a restaurant by its taped background music.

Places can be identified by sound, but they can also be

Above right is the ground floor plan of the Altes Museum in Berlin; above left is part of the second floor plan, showing the loggia. Below is a sketch of the loggia looking out towards the Lustgarten, (there is a much better version of this drawing in Schinkel's own Collection of Architectural Designs, originally published in 1866 but republished in facsimile in 1989).

Lustgarten) in front of the museum. Before it was enclosed with a glass curtain wall (in the early 1990s) this loggia, which is encountered during one's progression through the museum as well as at the beginning and end of a visit, provided a reminder of the fresh air and the openness of the outside, as a contrast to the enclosed interiors of the galleries.

identified by the ways in which they affect sounds made within them.

A sound in a cathedral which is large and with hard surfaces, will echo. A sound in a small room with a carpet, soft upholstered furniture and curtained windows, will be muffled. A hall for the performance of music, or one for drama, or a courtroom in which witnesses, lawyers and judges must be heard, has to be made with careful consideration of the quality of sound it will allow.

In the large church which is part of the monastery of La Tourette (the same church which has the rectangular roof-light), Le Corbusier has created a space which seems to hum of its own volition: its hard parallel concrete surfaces reflect, and even seem to magnify, every small noise—someone's shoe scraping on the floor, someone clearing their throat. When the monks sang in this space

Sometimes odd acoustic effects can be produced inadvertently. In the early 1960s the American architect Philip Johnson designed a small art gallery as an extension to a house. Its plan is based on nine circles arranged in a square; the central circle is a small open

court; the other eight circles form the galleries and entrance lobby. Each of the galleries has a shallow domed roof. At the centre of each gallery one's voice seems amplified, as the circular surfaces of the walls, and the spherical surface of the domed ceiling, reflect it directly back.

A related effect occurs in an amphitheatre. If one stamps at the central focus, the sound reflects back from each step in turn, producing a very rapid 'machine-gun' sound.

If you stand at the centre of one of the galleries in this building by Philip Johnson, your voice is reflected back to you by the curved surfaces of the walls and the ceiling, making it sound louder than elsewhere.

Some composers have written music specially to exploit the acoustic effects of particular buildings. The sixteenth-century composer Andrea Gabrieli wrote music especially for the cathedral of St Mark's in Venice. For his Magnificat he would position three choirs and an orchestra in different parts of the church, producing a quadrophonic effect.

There have also been occasions when the fabric of a building has been used as a musical instrument: this happened apparently at the opening of an arts building at

Standing at the centre of an amphitheatre, a sound is reflected back from each tier in turn, extending it into a string of echoes which sound like a rapid machine-gun.

Gothenberg University, Sweden, in the early 1990s, when the balcony rails were used as percussion instruments.


A place can be identified by its smell; a smell can make a place.

A schoolboy's stink bomb identifies a place to avoid. A public lavatory tends to smell one way, a ladies' hairdresser's another, a perfume shop another, a fishmonger's another.

The character of an old library is partly due to the smell of polished wood and musty leather book-bindings; that of an artist's studio to the smell of oil paint. Food halls in department stores cultivate odours of roasted coffee, delicate cheeses, and fresh-baked bread. Chinese temples are pervaded by the perfume of burning incense. The bedroom of an adolescent boy might be distinguished by the smell of old socks or deodorant. The lounge in a gentleman's club might smell of polish and old leather armchairs. Different parts of a garden might be distinguishable by the perfume of roses, honeysuckle, jasmine, lavender


Texture is a characteristic which one can see—in this it relates to light and the sense of sight; but it is also a characteristic which one can feel—in this it relates to the sense of touch. In both ways, texture contributes to the identification of place.

Texture can be achieved by surface application, of paint or of polish or of fabric; but texture is also intimately related to the innate qualities of materials and the ways they can be treated and used.

We identify places by changing their texture. We do this inadvertently when, for example, by repeatedly walking the same route across a field or a yard, we (or some sheep) wear away a smooth path. We do it consciously when we define a pathway with grit, or cobbles, or paviours, or tarmacadam. These changes are apparent to our eyes, but they are also appreciated by our sense of touch, through our feet, and provide a harder wearing surface than the earth.

On some roads the white lines which mark the verges are textured with rough ridges. If a car deviates from its lane it is communicated to the driver by the vibration and the noise of the tyres on the ridges; the place of the roadway is identified not only by sight, but by vibration (and sound) also.

Changes of texture are useful in the dark, and for people with partial sight. In some places road crossings are indicated by a change in the pavement texture.

In old houses, when the making of hard pavements was a laborious activity, the places of hardest wear, around the doorways, were often identified and protected by large slabs of stone, or aprons of cobbles.

Floors and pavements figure so prominently in discussion of the ways in which textures can identify place because it is through our feet that we make our main tactile contact with the products of architecture.

Carpets change the texture of floors, making them warmer and more comfortable, particularly to bare feet. In some places consideration of bare feet is more problematic; around a swimming pool there is conflict between the need for comfort for feet and the need for a non-slippery texture.

Texture is important in other places where we come into contact with architecture.

If the top surface of a low wall is also intended as a casual seat, then one might change its texture from hard stone, brick or concrete, to soft fabric or timber, thereby identifying it as a place to sit. The change is apparent to the eye, but also to another part of the body.

Texture is also important where our hands or upper bodies touch buildings: door handles, counters, sleeping places, and so on. Beds are essentially matters of changes of texture— making a place upon which it is comfortable to lie and sleep.


This drawing shows a man standing on a rather small stage.

If however one is told that this man is only a piece of stage dressing, and that the real man on the stage is actually the dot between its legs, one's perception of the size of the stage is dramatically changed.

Scale is about relative sizes. A scale on a map or drawing indicates the sizes of things shown on it relative to their sizes in reality. On a drawing which is at 1:100 a doorway which in reality might be one metre wide would be shown as one centimetre wide.

In architecture scale has another meaning, still to do with relative sizes. It refers to the size of something relative to oneself.

The experience of a place is radically affected by its Scale. A football pitch, and a small patch of grass in a back garden, though both defined areas of grass, present very different experiences because of their different scales.

(Scale is also discussed in the chapter on Geometry in Architecture, under 'Measuring'.)


If light is the first modifying element of the products of architecture, then time is perhaps the last. Light provides instant stimulation; but time takes.time.

Time plays a part in architecture in various ways. Although architecture produces lasting products, none of them is immune to the effects of time: materials change—develop a patina, or deteriorate; original uses become more ingrained in a building, or are displaced by others; people make places better, or alter them for new uses.

Sometimes the effects of time are positive, sometimes

negative. They are usually considered to be 'natural' in that they are not subject to control by human decision; but that does not mean that they cannot be anticipated and used positively. It is possible to choose materials, or to design generally, with maturity rather than early use in mind.

Time is a modifying element of architecture in another sense; one which is more under the control of the designer, though not totally so.

Although it takes time to achieve a profound understanding of a great painting, one is able to take in an initial impression literally in the blink of an eye. With a piece of music it takes the duration to be able to get even this initial impression; the achievement of a profound understanding probably takes many listenings.

With a product of architecture it takes time to get an impression too. Though we see a great deal of architecture illustrated by photograph in books and journals, this is not of course the way in which it is intended to be experienced.

When we experience a building in its physical existence there are many stages to the process. There is the discovery, the view of the outward appearance, the approach, the entrance, the exploration of the interior spaces (the last of which probably takes the greatest amount of the time).

Some architects consciously try to manipulate the temporal experience of the products of their architecture.

All processional architecture encapsulates time. In ancient Athens there were processions which led from the agora, up the acropolis, to the Parthenon. The route took time. Great cathedrals seem to encapsulate the time it takes to pass from the entrance, along the nave, to the altar; as in a wedding. The production line in a car plant takes cars through a process of assembly, which takes time.

In the Villa Savoye (1929) Le Corbusier used time as a modifying element of architecture. The three floor plans are shown on the left. Approaching it, entering it, and exploring within it, he created a route—an 'architectural promenade'.

The approach works whether one is on foot, or in a car. The 'front' entrance into the house is on the left of the ground floor plan (bottom); but one approaches from the rear. In a car one passes under the building following the sweep of the glass wall around the hallway.

One enters the house, and there is a ramp which takes one, slowly, up to the first floor, which is the main living floor. You can see the ramp on the section (top).

At that level there is the salon, and a roof terrace.

From the roof terrace the ramp continues to an upper roof terrace, where there is a solarium, and a 'window' just above the entrance, completing the route.

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