Symbolic architecture has been used since antiquity to transmit certain sacred information in an associative way. Human beings like devoting meaning to all kinds of things, be it colours, flowers, animals or art. For instance, the colour white represents peace, whereas the flower rose exists as a symbol of romance. Therefore, it was only a matter of time for humans to associate meaning to architecture via symbolism. Symbolism reflects the function of buildings and emphasises the context and forms of cultural identity. In short, symbolic architecture is the art of using architecture to represent an abstract idea.
Here are 10 examples of symbolic architecture:
1. Church of the Light – Tadao Ando
The Church of the Light, located in Ibaraki-Shi, Japan, is a building that symbolises spirituality through light. The intersection of light and dark raises the visitor’s awareness of their spirituality. The entire sanctuary wall acts as a religious symbol of Christianity, where a void is cut into it in the shape of a Latin cross. Natural light enters through this slit, illuminating the interior strengthening the relationship between humans, God and nature.
2. Salk Institute – Louis Kahn
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is a research institute in La Jolla, San Diego, California. Designed by architect Louis Kahn in 1965, it stands as a symbol of tranquillity even today. The monumental architecture consists of two long structures of six stories each, standing across each other in a wide plaza. The concrete structures on either side replicate each other, creating a strong sense of symmetry. Running through the plaza’s centre is a narrow strip of flowing Water that faces the pacific ocean. The open courtyard under the vast sky overlooking the enormous ocean creates a true symbolic architecture of peace and tranquillity.
3. Jewish Museum in Berlin – Daniel Libeskind
The Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, exhibits the Jewish people’s lives in Germany. The monumental structure symbolically represents the void left behind by the giant Holocaust in the Jewish community. The jagged floor plan is reminiscent of a deconstructed Star of David that represents the jews who were assassinated in concentration camps during the Holocaust. The facade of the zinc-coated building shows diagonal stripes that imitate the cross-glued windows, which were made to prevent breakage during bombings. In addition, the light streaks on the black ceiling depict the light of searchlights in the dark sky, looking for the military aircraft.
4. Lotus Temple – Fariborz Sahba
The Lotus Temple or the Baha’i House of Worship is India’s one of the most popular religious monuments. The structure imitates the shape of a lotus flower to symbolise spirituality. The Lotus flower is considered to be a sacred flower for the Indians. The architect of this design, Fariborz Sahba, quoted “The lotus represents the Manifestation of God [divine messengers and prophets], and is also a symbol of purity and tenderness. Its significance is deeply rooted within the minds and hearts of the Indians.”
5. Quadracci Pavilion, Milwaukee Art Museum – Santiago Calatrava
Santiago Calatrava was inspired by the site while designing the Quadracchi Pavilion. This sculpture-like structure features the Windhover Hall, which houses a majestic cathedral-like space with a high vaulted ceiling and Burke Brise Soleil that open and close like the wings of a Pelican. This symbolic architecture illustrates the scenario of a lake with its boats, birds and ever-changing landscape.
6. Falling Water – Frank Lloyd Wright
Falling Water, the embodiment of organic architecture, is a retreat located in Pennsylvania. This iconic house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, symbolising the harmony between people and nature. Through the breathtaking design that blends seamlessly with its natural setting, the symbolic architecture, its furnishings and surroundings were merged to create one cohesive composition.
7. Empire State Building – Shreve, Lamb & Harmon
The Empire State Building is a 102 storied skyscraper located in New York City. This iconic landmark was designed with Art Deco style and is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The towering structure designed during the great depression symbolises the technological prowess and economic strength of the United States.
8. National Assembly Building of Bangladesh – Louis Kahn
The National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, designed by architect Louis Kahn stands as is a symbol of democracy and pride. Khan combined designs for sacred places such as churches, synagogues and mosques to create this monumental structure. The concrete facade of this symbolic architecture looks bold and solid symbolising power.
9. Heydar Aliyev Centre- Zaha Hadid
Heydar Aliyev Centre is an internationally recognised landmark of Baku, Azerbaijan, which portrays unconventional, modern and edgy architecture. It was designed by Zaha Hadid and Architects to symbolise the future aspects of Azerbaijan as a confident emerging nation. The flowing design of this symbolic architecture depicts overcoming obstacles and moving forward.
10. Ronchamp Chapel – Le Corbusier
The Ronchamp Chapel, also known as Notre-Dame du Haut, is an architectural masterpiece located on top of a hill in Ronchamp, France. Le Corbusier’s concept behind designing this catholic church was to create a place of silence, prayer, peace and inner joy. With its whitewashed walls and stained glasses, this symbolic architecture creates an ethereal atmosphere in the interior. The roof of the Ronchamp is inclined upwards as if sloping towards heaven.
- Curtis, William JR. “Louis Kahn: The Space of Ideas.” Architectural Review, 23 Oct. 2012, www.architectural-review.com/architects/louis-kahn/louis-kahn-the-space-of-ideas.
- “Salk Institute: Architecture & Architect | Study.com.” Study.com, 2021, study.com/academy/lesson/salk-institute-architecture-architect.html.
- Welle (www.dw.com), Deutsche. “Architecture of Remembrance and Hope: Daniel Libeskind Turns 75 | DW | 11.05.2021.” DW.COM, www.dw.com/en/architecture-of-remembrance-and-hope-daniel-libeskind-turns-75/a-19251296.
- “Ando’s Cross – Faith & Form.” Faith & Form, 2014, faithandform.com/feature/andos-cross/.
- “Lotus Temple: A Symbol of Excellence in Modern Indian Architecture.” World Architecture Community, worldarchitecture.org/architecture-news/cvcmg/lotus-temple-a-symbol-of-excellence-in-modern-indian-architecture.html.
- “Milwaukee Art Museum | Santiago Calatrava.” Arch2O.com, 10 Feb. 2016, www.arch2o.com/milwaukee-art-museum-calatrava/.
- “Designing Fallingwater – Fallingwater.” Fallingwater, 2015, fallingwater.org/history/about-fallingwater/designing-fallingwater/.