Archetype, Existential Expression, and Shared Experience

Typically, first impressions of a building take the form of purely qualitative evaluations. Buildings and rooms are spontaneously characterized as ‘intimate’, ‘monumental’, ‘dull’, ‘depressing’, ‘spartan’, etc. (Fig. 2). As a rule, it is difficult to describe one’s reaction. The assertion is simply made that different buildings elicit different responses. One gets an immediate sense of the whole which ‘overwhelms’, ‘establishes a mood’, and which concerns the architectural expression or atmosphere. One need not be acquainted with the building’s functions, their meaning, or the distribution of rooms in order to react. In this way, an overall impression of the spirit of the building, which need not correspond to the building’s function, can be quickly apprehended.


Architecture as experience (photo by P.-E. Knutsen).

Artists have similarly come to the conclusion through their works that specific forms can establish certain moods:

A narrative picture will move the feelings of the beholders when the men painted therein manifest clearly their own emotions. It is a law of our nature… that we weep with the weeping, laugh with the laughing, and grieve with those who grieve.1 (Fig. 3).


Sorrow (photo by H. Cooke).

The same is true for architects who have consciously attempted to establish completely specific correlations between space and experience. According to Etienne-Louis Boullée, the most essential aspect of buildings is that ‘the images they offer our senses should arouse sentiments analogous to the use which these buildings are dedicated’.2 Indeed, this is the main task of the architect, according to Geoffrey Scott, because ‘he designs his space as a work of art; that is, he attempts through its means to excite a certain mood in those who enter it’.3 Similarly, Le Corbusier saw moods as the essence of architecture: ‘By the use of raw materials and starting from conditions more or less utilitarian, you have established relationships which have aroused my emotions. This is Architecture’.4 In that sense, architecture is directed toward feelings:

Architecture is a thing of art, a phenomenon of the emotions, lying outside questions of construction and beyond them. The purpose of construction is to make things hold together; of architecture to move us.5 (Fig. 4).


The poetry of the skyscraper (sketch by Le Corbusier from Sestoft, Arkitektur, idé og sommenheng).

Such conditions within architecture prompt the practising architect to ask: How can one plan specific architectural effects?

The first condition for such planning is that the architect must be acquainted with the expressive characteristics of form before he starts designing. Another condition is that one is able to choose those forms which are appropriate to the intended expression.

The immediate objection may arise that an architect does not select forms; he creates them for each situation depending on the function. The credo of functionalism — form follows function — which implies that a form is developed in direct response to individual functional conditions, is also well known.

More recent architectural theory has, however, pointed out that such axioms are no longer unconditionally valid. It has gradually been perceived that creativity is primarily related to the way in which certain basic forms are combined and varied.

Archetypes and Their Classifications

These basic forms can be referred to as the archetypes of architecture. The original Greek meaning of the word archetype is ‘first form’, or ‘original model’ as it exists as a basis for all later variations and combinations.6

In other words, behind the plurality of the many forms in history lies a simple set of archetypes which we can call the grammar of architecture. These archetypes may be understood as images which can be identified in relation to both architectural form, function and technology.

The term archetype, which was originally employed within psychology by C.G. Jung, was first used systematically within architectural theory by Paul Zucker in his book Town and Square from 1959. On the basis of a description of five square archetypes, he uses specific examples to show how history chooses that form which is appropriate and how these typologies, owing to dissimilar functional characteristics, vary from antiquity up to the present day (Fig. 5). The theory of archetypes was further developed in the 1960s, with Aldo Rossi’s book The Architecture of the City from 1966 representing an important step forward. During the 1970’s, the theory of archetypes has increasingly been utilized as a basis for architectural practice, through the work of, among others, Michael Graves, Rob and Leon Krier and Mario Botta (Fig. 6).


The square archetypes based on Zucker: a) the closed squore, b) the nuceor squore, c) the dominoted square and d) the grouped square. In addition, there is the amorphous square (not shown).


Volumetric archetypes (project for a school by Leon Krier).

As far as being acquainted with the expressive potential of form is concerned, a theory of archetypes must have three goals: the first is to classify the archetypes in a concentrated overview, the second is to attempt to describe them in order to point out the potential expression which exists within them. The third goal has to do with the following question: Will the expression be at all perceived by the user, and does not the experience of architecture vary from person to person? The aim of this goal must then be to show that there is a common language of form which we can immediately understand, regardless of individual or culture.

Not until these three conditions are met can we begin to choose forms, because we then become aware of their potentialities to the greatest possible extent.

In the following, consideration will be limited to those archetypes which constitute the elements of spatial delimitation: the floor, the walls, and the roof. This does not mean that the spatial volume itself is disregarded, such as the cube, the sphere, the cylinder, the cone, etc. (Figs. 7, 8, 9). Volume and delimitation are mutually dependent, in that the design of the spatial boundaries will be able either to strengthen or to weaken the spatial form. The prioritization is based more on the desire to study building as a specific phenomenon, which means the study of the construction of the elements of the roof, walls and floor.


Volumetric archetypes volumes (from Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture).


Archetypical relationships: a) addition, b) penetration, c) division and d) ‘space in a space’.


Archetypical modes of organization: centrality, axiality and network (from Norberg-Schulz, Existence; Space & Architecture).

In terms of form, the floor element, the wall element, and the roof element can be divided into categories which at the same time represent four levels of scale within the construction of the delimiting elements. The first is concerned with the elements’ major forms. The second has to do with the construction system, which shows whether or not the main forms are massive or skeletal. The third concerns itself with the surface treatment of the major forms, and the fourth has to do with the openings in the major forms.

On each of these levels (major form, construction system, surface treatment, and openings), clearly defined archetypes exist which represent general solution to problems of form that remain the same regardless of time, place or function. Respectively, they are referred to as themes and motifs. The themes are related to the functions of the elements, or rather to what they ‘do’, as with a floor, for example, which directs, delimits and supports. The motifs suggest how the elements do their job, which means the specific interpretations within each of the themes. As an example, the delimiting theme of a floor is interpreted in principle by a limited group of motifs, such as lowering, raising, frame, central patterns, surface patterns.

Motion, Weight, and Substance as The Basis of Existential Expression

An archetype’s expression can be found in an exact description of what they are or as suggested above, what they ‘do’, and how they do it. As stated, such a description also creates a basis for the division of classifications into themes and motifs.

But do not roofs, walls, and floors ‘do’ completely different things, in that a roof spans above, a floor covers the ground below, and a wall encloses around? These functions cannot be seen as different, in that they represent dissimilar ways of accomplishing fundamentally similar ends. This architectural commonality is that the delimiting elements separate interior space from exterior space. The exterior space that is bounded by the roof exists over us (the sky), the walls adjoin the exterior space that is around us (the landscape, people), and the floor defines the exterior space that is beneath us (the ground) (Fig. 10).


Man surrounded by nature’s roof, walls and floor (photo by W. Eugene Smith).

In other words, the elements of the roof, wall and floor all do the same thing — they balance the forces of inside and outside. The battle between these forces is an existential prerequisite for mankind. Without shelter, in the broadest sense, man cannot live upon this earth. In this context, these delimiting elements embody a fundamental meaning and thereby a fundamental expressive potential, in that we evaluate them in relation to their principal role of protecting an interior space from an exterior space. This expressive potential lies in how the roof, walls, and floor relate to the surroundings. In other words, the expression of the delimitation is visualized in the span between opening and closure. Each work of architecture must find its place somewhere between complete closure and complete openness (Figs. 11, 12).


The wall is lightweight and encourages contact between inside and outside. The original cube seems to be dissolved frames, columns and stairs which immediately encourage penetration in, over, under, through and between (M. Graves, Benacerraf House, Princeton 1969).


The wall is heavy and discourages contact between inside and outside. The volume is precise and geometric, the stripes give the form a restive weightiness while the incisions emphasize the thickness of the mass (M. Botta, Casa Unifamiliare, Switzerland 1975-76).

How then can a roof be open and closed? The roof bounds the exterior space of the sky and is in balance with this space in the curve of the dome, climbs up towards it in the point of the gable roof, and closes against it in the low flat roof.

How then can a wall be open or closed? A wall bounds the exterior space with its landscapes and people. If it stands firmly on the ground, as in the stone masses of a fortress wall, it remains closed. If it rises up towards the sky as in the lines and towers of a Gothic cathedral, it opens both upward and outward. And if a wall is permeated by similar window openings, as in the walls of a Renaissance palace, interior and exterior space are in balance.

How then can a floor be open or closed? A floor bounds the exterior space of the ground, the space of the earth beneath us. A massive stone floor closes the space. It is the ground itself that rises up and exerts pressure, while a shining mirror floor opens up the space downward, and the surface layer of a wooden floor strikes a balance between the life of the interior and the substance of the earthly space.

From this description, we see that there are three qualitative concepts which are essential to the description of how the three delimiting elements close or open between inside and outside. These concepts are motion, weight, and substance. They are necessarily utilized in any architectural description which attempts to suggest a building’s reality. Motion describes the dynamic nature of the elements, whether they expand, contract or are in balance. Weight describes the heaviness of the elements and is related to gravity. It describes whether they stand, fall, weigh down or lighten up. Substance is related to the materiality of the elements, whether they are soft, hard, coarse, fine, warm or cold.

These qualities can be described as the existential expressions of architecture. Existential expressions are characteristics of a form which are at the base of symbolic meanings with their stylistic and regional variations. As an example, the existential expression of the Gothic style is its verticality and lightness. All of its other cultural characteristics such as symbols and regional articulations are governed by this general quality. The opposite quality is typical of Greek temples, in which massiveness and heaviness are the primary characteristics. On the other hand, one Gothic building can seem heavier than another, albeit relative to the general quality of the style. Similarly, the Parthenon seems lighter’ than the Temple of Hera at Paestum, but here within the realm of massivity (Figs. 13, 14).


The verticality and lightness of the Gothic style (St. Chapelle, Paris, 13th century).


The massiveness and heaviness of the Greek style (Propylaea, Athens, 4th century).

In the same way, motion, weight, and substance also suggest the expressive foundation for the archetypes found within the categories of roof, wall, and floor. On each level, both in terms of major forms, construction systems, surface treatments and openings, the archetypes can be described and thereby associated with a specific expressiveness based on these concepts. For what is it that the roof, the floor and the wall do? As a motion, the roof rises or falls (Fig. 15). The walls stand up or sink, the floor spreads out, climbs or descends (Fig. 16). In this way, weight is also implied. That which rises is light, that which falls is heavy. And if the roof is bright and soft as a sail, it is open.-If it is dark and of stone, it is closed (Figs. 17, 18). If the openings in a wall are tall and narrow, they ascend, if they are short and wide, they sink. A soft and fine floor is warm and open, but if it is hard and coarse, it closes and is heavy.


The space rises. This is due to the fact that the space ‘helps’ the perspective by stepping inward as it rises and due to the fact that the columns are arranged densely as joined lines, and finally due to the fact that the space opens at the top toward the light (T. Watanabe, Nakauchi House, Nara 1975).


The stair leads upwards. We are’ on top by gazing at the form (Astronomic Observatory in Delfi, 1724).


The roof is lightweight and rises upward. The roof appears to be a thin and precise ‘sail’ which is inflated from below while held back by thin pilasters (P. Johnson, Synagogue, Port Chester, 1956).


The roof is heavy and presses downward. This is due to the relatively modest ceiling height, the ‘unstable’ columns ad the rusticated, half-ruined treatment of materials (A. Gaudi, Crypt church in Barcelona, 1908-15).

In summary, it can be stated that the existential expression in an architectural form can be characterized by a description ‘von Gegenstand her’. That means a description of what an architectural form ‘does’, in terms of motion, weight, and substance seen in relation to the function or meaning the form is to have.

Motion, Weight and Substance as The Basis of Shared Experience

We have asserted that it is important for an architect to be acquainted with the nature of the archetypes in order to be able to plan the effects of architecture more securely. We have also asserted that the existential expressions of architectural forms can be described by what motion, weight and substance those forms have.

But how can we be sure that the forms are experienced as we wish them to be? Besides the competence of the architect, the user’s attitude is essential to the architectural experience. Is not the effectiveness of the expression dependent on each individual’s attitude and background (age, sex, group, culture)?

These conditions represent our most conscious relationship to how our surroundings are experienced. The communicative aspect of architecture is dependent on a number of changing experiential levels. We can group them in two major categories, both related to conventions and based on recognition: private experiences and social experiences. Private experiences are connected to our personal experiences and individualities (such as comprehensive abilities!). We may like a piece of furniture that others consider ugly because it was owned by and reminds us of someone we were once close to. The social experience is related to common cultural associations — certain cultural agreements are necessary if the meaning of form is to be comprehended. In this manner, yellow is the colour of mourning in India, while black serves the same purpose in the West.

This part of the teachings of expressionism, which deals with architectural elements as symbols, has surely been given more attention than any other areas of study within architectural theory. Postmodernism is to a great extent based on such culturally specific associations. Charles Jenck’s book, The Language of Postmodern Architecture from 1977 is an example of such a theory. It is characteristic of both the private and social levels of experience to view architectural forms as symbolic expressions. This means that the forms are primarily seen as signs of an external reality.

The intention of this book is to study a third level of experience alongside the private and social levels. This level, which is to a great extent independent of cultural determinants, can be termed the universal level. These shared experiences are difficult to put one’s finger on because they belong to our spontaneous and unconscious reactions to architecture. They are defined by our reactions to the inherent structure of architectural forms, independent of their symbolic associations.

Shared experiences, like symbolic meanings, are based on recognition, but this time with reference to our bodily experiences (Figs. 19, 20). Such experiences are common to all people and are gained through confrontations with the phenomena which surround us. These things are givens, such as gravity and the forces of nature. Experiences with these phenomena can be described in terms of motion, weight and substance. As acting individuals, we move in relation to a dynamic reference which is defined by gravity and which therefore represents a vast range of characteristics for us: we lie, we sit, we stand, we run, we bend and twist. Day and night provide experiences differentiated by light and dark. Tactile experiences teach us about the differences between soft and hard, coarse and fine, wet and dry. These experiences form a complex net of references which are the basis for our reactions when we move in relationship to objects in space. These movements are described vis-à-vis physical relationships to the things around us. We walk on something, we ascend something, descend something, walk along something, through something, between something, under something, etc. But the manner in which we do these things is not immaterial, in that the experience differs if what we walk on is steep or slack, broad or narrow — if what is above us is low and heavy or high and light — is what we walk alongside of is soft or hard, coarse or shiny.


Man in motion (photo by G. Mili).


Man and substance (photo by W. Bullock).

In other words, the existential expression of an architectural form, which is based on the form’s motion, weight and substance, is recognized on the basis of our common experiences with natural phenomena. In the same way as symbolic meanings in architecture, existential expressions form images to which we react. This means that we ‘use’ our surroundings psychologically prior to using them physically. This is stated also by architectural theorists such as H. Wollflin:

… we interpret the whole outside world according to the expressive system with which we have become familiar from our own bodies. That which we have experienced in ourselves as the expression of severe strictness, taut self-discipline or uncontrolled heavy relaxation, we transfer to all other bodies (Fig. 22)7.


Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (from Blaser, Furniture os Architecture).


Thesurroundings enhanced as unconscious ‘opportunities’ (FromGehl, Livetmellomhusene).

If we see a door on the opposite side of a room, we ‘go’ through it in our minds before we do so in reality. It acts as a sign of its use as a door because of our indoctrination through past experiences. However, the actual experience of passing through the doorway is dependent on whether it is high or low, wide or narrow, whether it is part of a solid wall or exists as an element in a skeletal wall system, etc.

In the same way, we ‘sit’ in a chair before we actually do so physically, and we sit comfortably in a soft chair, uncomfortably in a hard chair, relaxed in a lounge chair and formally in a straight-back chair (Fig. 21). And a table gathers individuals hierarchically if it is long and narrow, intimately if it is round.

Additionally, we wish to ‘be’ what a volume does. Therefore, we walk swiftly in a corridor and slowly and ceremoniously in a broad space. We ‘are’ in the end of a deep room and in the centre of a round room, and at the top if a staircase is rising and at the bottom if it is falling.

We also wish to be what the delimiting elements do somewhere between the assault of the phenomena of nature and the resistance of the enclosing elements, where the feeling of security or insecurity is decided by the degree to which the interior space is threatened or victorious. An interior space is like a pulsating membrane that surrounds us, soon contracting and threatening as a prison cell. ‘In the innermost part of my house I live in peace while the enemy burrows his way from one direction slowly and quietly towards me’,8 or soon expanding and optimistic as in Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1851),9 or soon heavy, balancing on a tight-rope as a log cabin’s obstinancy in the face of a winter storm (Figs. 23, 24). It is because we ‘participate’ in these things that we are uplifted under an elevated dome and borne down upon under the nearness of a cellar vault. We bear the load of the roof with the walls, and with them we protect in order to survive in the world: ‘With its thickness and its strength, it protects man against destruction’.10


The open and expanding interior (Crystal Palace by J. Paxton, London 1851, From Hersey, High Victorian Gothic).


The closed and secure interior (Norwegian log house from Bru, Bugge/Norberg-Schulz, Stav og Laft).

At all scales, security is the driving force, while shared experiences provide points of existential reference. The existential expression then is linked to the characteristics of a space which we immediately recognize independently of cultural determinants.

Of course, this does not mean that the existential expression cannot be influenced by symbolic meanings and attitudes. Nevertheless, the existential expression is always there as the very reference for the symbolic meanings. If we stand at the base of a steep stair, the existential expression is the resistance itself which lies in the steepness. We know what lies ahead as we mount the stair, thus accepting its invitation. However, the sensation of resistance varies with the goal at the top. Ascending to the gallows and ascending to a victory stand are two completely different things. In the former instance, the resistance could be experienced as reluctance, in the latter as a challenge to be overcome. In the same way, sick people and healthy people will have the same experiential reference, but will respond differently in the same situation. For a wheel-chair user, a narrow door is seen as a special hindrance. As a healthy individual, he will experience the door as an opening, but for the wheel-chair user, it will be an opening that cannot be penetrated. What the surroundings do and what we can do in them are not experienced completely differently from individual to individual, rather they exist as different possibilities within the same ‘offer’.

In summary, we can state that the existential expression has a fundamental effect on our architectural experiences, not as a quality separate from the symbolic meaning, but as an integrated part thereof. In other words, the study of the expression of form in terms of motion, weight and substance links the art of building to universal qualities and manifests itself as a phenomenon in relationship to existing cultural and personal associations.