Even though the word “calligraphy” brings some definitions to everyone’s mind, especially the ones into art and architecture, it is probably much more than that. To better understand calligraphy in architecture, it is essential to first grasp what is calligraphy and what is not. Calligraphy cannot just be explained as beautiful handwriting or ornamentally decorated letters. Also, it is not a type of old-style, fancy lettering that is done by hand. It means more than that.

So, what exactly is calligraphy? Calligraphy can be explained as, writing as art to form beautiful and well-oriented symbols by hand. It is to make meaningful marks to show integrity, harmony, rhythm, and soul. Heather Child, in her book titled, The Calligrapher’s Handbook, explains, “Calligraphy is a craft requiring a singularly few tools—the writing instrument, the ink, and the writing surface are the only essentials. The art of calligraphy depends on the scribe having an understanding of the proper use of all three, on his knowledge of letterforms, and on his skill and freedom in their use.”

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Chinese Calligraphy_©https://www.metmuseum.org/

Origin of Calligraphy

Calligraphy a word originated from two Greek words: “kallos” which means beauty, and “graphein” which means to write. And in the early 17th century the word “calligraphy” was born. It is thought that calligraphy’s foundation comes from ancient China, where letters and characters were carved into animal bones and eventually transferred to Chinese ink brushes written on paper. Originally, calligraphy was done with ink, ink inkstone, a brush, and paper. The brush was the original and main tool for calligraphy. However, nowadays, pens and even technological equipment take the place of modern calligraphy. While traditional calligraphy aims for uniformity in the shape of letters, in modern calligraphy, the style is more flexible and embraces imperfections.

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Nizamiye Mosque,South Africa_©Andrew Moore

Calligraphy in Architecture

Calligraphy and architecture are two different art forms about design in space, not only in two dimensions but in three-dimensional forms (letter sculpture). In the book titled “A History of Calligraphy” by Albertine Gaur “calligraphy makes a statement about a particular society, a statement about the totality of its cultural and historical heritage. Calligraphy is more than beautiful writing.” Calligraphy in architecture has been used in many different civilizations over the centuries. However, the most important of these were the Arab (Islamic Architecture), Chinese, and Western civilizations. Even though they are all referred to as calligraphy, they are all unique to their respective civilizations. Again, Gaur says in her book, “The differences are based on three elements: the difference in the script, the motivation that prompted the development of calligraphic traditions in the first place, and the ultimate objective of those traditions within a given cultural, religious, and political context.”

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Folio from the “Blue Qur’an”_©https://www.metmuseum.org/

Calligraphy in Islamic Architecture 

In Islamic art and architecture, calligraphy is an essential element. Contrary to Christianity, in Islam, there is an absolute prohibition of figurative art. Because pictures and statues are thought to encourage the worship of idols. Instead, Islamic architecture used calligraphy art in mosques. The majority of calligraphy is derived from pure geometry; every geometric design begins with a circle and frames calligraphy artwork and floral motifs. Arabic calligraphy is an artistic style of calligraphy and handwriting that uses the Arabic alphabet. As an expression of Islamic art and to honor the religion and culture of Islam, these elements have begun to be used in mosques and other architectural buildings.

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Little Hagia Sophia,Turkey_©https://www.flickr.com/photos/fusion_of_horizons/

Arabic calligraphy is used on walls and ceilings inside and outside of mosques. The writings are usually from the Qur’an or oral traditions about the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds. Additionally, the divine names of Allah are written on mosque windows so that when sunlight reflects through them, it serves as a reminder to believers that Allah manifests Himself in the universe in all of His noble qualities.

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The Tower of Old Dragon Head_©https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Calligraphy in Eastern Asian Architecture

China, Japan, and Korea are all represented in eastern Asian calligraphy. Each dynasty that ruled over eastern Asian countries developed its unique calligraphy styles and visuals. This style is easy to distinguish, making it simple to recognize. The respected nations of Eastern Asia consider calligraphy to be a priceless cultural legacy, and all of them make great efforts to ensure that the regional calligraphic styles are well preserved. In the aspect of calligraphy in architecture, it is possible to come across it on the walls of buildings in many parts of East Asia.

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Shuyang Art Gallery_©Qiang Zhao

Shuyang Art Gallery | UAD 

Moreover, as a great example, the Shuyang Art Gallery by UAD in China is a structure its design concept is an abstraction of Chinese calligraphy. Since the main purpose of the gallery is to display the inherited Shuyang calligraphic style, it can be said that the abstract idea completes the design purpose. The buildings’ colors are dominantly black, white, and red, which are the three fundamental colors of Chinese calligraphy. The abstraction comes from rice paper, a brush pen, and a seal, which are the primary equipment of traditional Chinese calligraphy. Uniquely, the architectural play with light and heavy, open and close, and figure and ground references calligraphy art.

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The Mausoleum of Sultan Qalawun,Egypt_©Jorge Láscar

To conclude, these two different art forms have collaborated for centuries and produced beautiful examples. Eric Owen Moss summarizes this collaboration as follows: “Calligraphy is aesthetic, not only in terms of how you see but also how you think, feel, and understand because the form is elemental in the formation of culture and its association with language. Calligraphy contains a structure that represents a coherent, intelligible world. Can architecture confirm that?”

Reference List: 

  2. www.calligraphy-skills.com. (n.d.). What is Calligraphy Really? [online] Available at: https://www.calligraphy-skills.com/what-is-calligraphy.html.
  3. TOMORROW’S WORLD TODAY®. (2019). The Evolution of Calligraphy. [online] Available at: https://www.tomorrowsworldtoday.com/2019/05/31/the-evolution-of-calligraphy/.
  4. Anon, (n.d.). History of Turkish Calligraphy – Les Arts Turcs. [online] Available at: https://www.lesartsturcs.com/history-of-turkish-calligraphy/.
  5. Dariyadi, M.W., Baydoun, Z., Kamarudin, Z. and Murtadho, N. (2022). The Islamic art and design elements applied in the Islamic city. City, Territory and Architecture, 9(1). doi:10.1186/s40410-022-00155-4.
  6. www.widewalls.ch. (n.d.). What is Calligraphy? Discover Different Types of Writings | Widewalls. [online] Available at: https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/what-is-calligraphy.

İnci is an architect who is passionate about interdisciplinary discussion in the field of architecture.In her point of view architecture is not only about aesthetics and art but is an understanding and constant thinking of creating space for living thing.She loves to research,read,learn and write about different perspectives of architecture.