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Symbols in architecture

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Courtesy of Res Graphic Design

Bookstores and websites are plastered with news of the arrival of Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol. If the book is similar to the author’s last two books, the plot will carry the story’s protagonists searching for clues and meanings of forms and symbols found in historic places around the world. Using symbols to drive the plot is very effective because the symbol is a form or character charged with meaning understood by a group. The symbol bears a connotation that individuals are able to comprehend. However, the meaning of a symbol is not explicit in a given connotation, so the meaning can change and transform. Therefore, a symbol known throughout most of a culture can have subtle differences of meaning across the culture. These mixed interpretations allow a dynamic mythology to develop, constructed from the disparities among the connotations’ variations.

Symbols play a large part in the field of architecture. Architects engage conventional understanding of symbols’ meaning. For example, a bank is often designed using traditional or solid elements to represent strength and conservatism, whereas a retail store will often use bright or patterned signage and materials to convey a fashionable image. Furthermore, architects borrow symbolic meaning from the arts, including painting and literature. The walls of Gunnar Asplund’s Stockholm Library entrance corridor depicts the Illiad, while the Schroder House by Gerrit Rietveld works within the symbolic language of the De Stijl movement.

The architect understands that the power of a symbol persists even when its original culture and meaning has changed. The eagle is depicted on many buildings around Washington, D.C., but the eagle has represented many countries and empires, including the Persians, the Romans, and the Third Reich. However, in all of the cultures, the eagle was held in high esteem for its attributes.

Though contemporary architectural trends deny representational form-making, one still finds symbolism within the appearance and construction of a structure’s design. Rex Architects’ Museum Plaza in Louisville, Kentucky is a symbol of its own pragmatic design process. Furthermore, China’s Beijing National Stadium, by Herzog and de Meuron, appears to be a bird’s nest, evoking a secure and inviting place for spectators to gather.

For more information on symbols, please visit:

Encyclopedia Britannica