Metaphor and Architecture

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Metaphor and architecture

Metaphor comes from Middle Frenchmetaphore(Old Frenchmetafore, 13c.), and directly from Latinmetaphora, from Greekmetaphora"a transfer," especially of the sense of one word to a different word, literally "a carrying over," frommetapherein"transfer, carry over; change, alter; to use a word in a strange sense," frommeta-"over, across"[1].Using metaphors in architecture can be tricky at times as there is a very fine line between tacky and kitsch. This essay explore the application of embodied cognition in architecture by using metaphor and an excellent project designed using metaphor - Terragni’s Danteum which is a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy into architecture by layers of meaning.

From the introduction, we get a slight understanding of what is metaphor. Before delving further, we’ll explore metaphor more extensively here. As we know in literature, metaphor is a medium in implying things and objects that are different from each other but carries some similar characteristic between them. For example , ‘ Alice is a walking dictionary.’; this sentence does not mean that Alice is a dictionary but it means that she is so smart and knowledgeable that she is like a dictionary that is ALIVE. In this case, when we think about ‘dictionaries’, vocabulary, book and knowledge came into our mind while ‘walking ‘ gives personification to the term ‘ walking dictionary’. Arguably, Shakespeare has perhaps the best use of metaphor in his works. In Sonnet 18, he uses summer as a metaphor for his love. From the above examples, we can see that the appropriate usage of metaphor appeals directly to the senses of the readers by enhancing their imagination. Therefore, metaphors give the readers fresh views, ideas and thinking regarding the subject.

Barie Fez-Barringten once quoted

“Metaphor is a catalyst which fuses memories, experiences and other mode of existence; it embodies within its own distinctiveness certain universal symbols and concepts common to mankind. Metaphorically things, times and places known to have a preferential specific or localized use in one context are explicitly employed in another. One familiar and one strange term are usually composed into a single form where one term normally used in one context is brought over into another with the use of illuminating; making more evident something in the second domain which otherwise remains obscure.”

However, the question regarding how metaphor and architecture relates still remained unanswered. How can we design with metaphor? Metaphors can invoke senses such as sound, taste, smell, touch and sight to the readers. Interestingly, there is a research regarding embodied cognition in Psychology which suggests that the senses mentioned earlier influences the way humans make judgements of the external world. Now we can see how senses and embodied cognition are connected to each other. By using metaphors, we can shape and alter the experiences of the people in our architecture by invoking their senses.

White, M.A once quoted

“In fact, the relationship between physical experience and thought is a key element in cognitive linguistics”. He also said that the physical interaction of the corporal human being with his/her environment plays a major role in empowering man to construct abstract thought.

From the diagram above, we can see some touch senses and how people think and feel regarding them. Let’s take an example, Light gives a feeling of casual, fun, hi-tech, cheap, delicate.

We can easily identify architecture that relates closely to some of the attributes mentioned above – SANNA – Rolex learning Centre.

From the picture above, we can see how white gives the building a futuristic feeling. The very fact that the building has an organic shape and ‘not touching the ground’ gives an air of high tech grandeur. Although it doesn’t gives a cheap vibe, the slim and long columns and all other simple detail definitely makes it very delicate. The slim column supporting the roof, the shape, the colour scheme made the project very elegant. On the other hand, Heavy gives a feeling of importance, valuable and seriousness. We don’t even need a specific example for this as it has always been around us. We can often find monuments around us which are usually made or built with stones, marbles and concrete. In United States, the White House and Pentagon in a way convey the political and military prowess of the country. Our very own Cardiff University Main building is a very good example that gives people feeling of importance, valuable and seriousness. In fact, a lot of old political and educational institution building shows heaviness and in most cases they are masonry building. The ‘heavy’ isn’t just the physical heaviness as in weight, but also the metaphysical solemn vibe that these buildings relay to the people. This clearly proved that the studies about embodied cognition is true, the mind and the body is inseparable.

Continuing from the last paragraph, we can briefly mentioned the connection of the senses – Light and Heavy to the materials used. As mentioned above, most old political and educational institutions are masonry buildings. Materials also play an important part in invoking senses. Let’s take an example, concrete.

Tutor : What type of material are you going to use?

Student : Concrete.

Tutor : What type of concrete? There are lots of types of concrete, from how you cast the concrete to the composition of the materials in the concrete mixture………….

I believe this is a rather common conversation between a tutor and a student everywhere around the world. At least, this conversation was my very own experience during tutorial, and my tutor has been bugging me to decide the type of concrete I want to use for weeks. A picture speaks a thousand words, so the following pictures would make the discussion easier to understand.

The first picture shows the church of light by Tadao Ando while the second pictures shows the Brother Klaus Field Chapel by Peter Zumpthor. They are both churches and the material used are concrete. I think we can see how different they are. Being inside the church of Light and Brother Klaus Field surely give the visitors completely different feelings, we can see the importance of material, not just the choice of material ( glass, steel or concrete) but also how we are treating the materials.

The cast affects the textures (smooth or rough). The composition of the concrete mixture affects the colour, texture and ‘heaviness’ of the concrete. All these little details are things that architects can decide, and this decision plays a vital role in creating the atmosphere and invoking the senses of the people using the building.

Forty, A. once said that “Successful metaphors rely on the unlikeness of things, not upon their likeness. The characteristic of an effective metaphor is it borrows an image from one schema of ideas, and applies it to another, previously unrelated schema.

With the conclusion on the relationship between metaphor and architecture, we are going to study a project called The Danteum. The usage of metaphor in architecture has been taken to a whole new level in Danteum. Although it was never built, it is definitely a project worth studying. What makes Danteum successful is the layers of meanings that surrounds the project.

Danteum is an unrealised project commissioned by Mussolini’s Fascist government.At that time Italy was ruled by Musolini. In order to put Italy back on the world map as one of the strongest country, Mussolini for a literary masterpiece of Italy’s majestic and glorified past as a representation of Italy’s greatness and asked Terragni to design a monument for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Danteum was never built due to the decline of mussolini’s power during World War II. The buildings take the visitor through a sequence of 3 different realms: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. The Divine comedy can be interpreted into several distinct levels as it is interlaced with the physical, social, political and historical system.

Terragni takes the visitors through different encounters in his proposal. There are four primary component in the Danteum : The entrance court, Inferno, Purgatory and Paradiso.

The picture above shows the circulation path that can be taken. The visitor enters a long narrow pathway and would have to make a u turn into the courtyard. The atmosphere changes from a more restricted space to a more open space in the courtyard. However, the space diminishes again as the visitor progress from the court to the forest of columns then to the three steps. As the visitors pass through the columns and down some steps, the amount of light in the spaces slowly diminishes as well till they reach Inferno. The Inferno which is in a shape of a golden rectangle can be decomposed into seven squares with different floor heights. This is quite different to a conventional building where the walls are those that are changed (having window, void or openings of different height and size). The inferno has a dark interior with light coming in through the narrow gaps. Then, the visitors would have to go up a series of stairs that leads to Purgatory which is a reminiscent of the truncated conical mountain island having seven cornices. From here, the space becomes brighter as they proceed from Purgatory to Paradiso. Part of Paradiso (upper part of Paradiso in floor plan) extends to the Empyrean while the other side leads to the exits.

The atmosphere in inferno[2] Inferno[3] Paradiso

Danteum is designed with compositional, numerical and descriptive attributes from The Divine Comedy that form the program of the project. The spatial organisation of Danteum adheres closely to the poem. Instead of using a literal translation on The Divine Comedy, Terragni delved deeper into history and other metaphorical elements to imply subtle story of the poem. In the picture below, you can see how Danteum’s floor plan is based on the Golden Section which was popular after the Renaissance period. There is 2 squares overlapping and shifted away from each other to form a Golden Rectangle. This forms the perimeter of Danteum and creates a threshold between the 3 realms. The use of Golden Section as a proportioning system also generates the positioning of the columns which is more obvious in the Inferno. The inferno is decomposed into 7 squares where the columns were placed at the center of a nested square within the Golden Section. The Columns also diminishes in size, spiralling along the Golden Section. On the other hand, the columns in the courtyard are of the same size and array upon a square grid. The handling of columns in Danteum is unconventional in the modernist movement where the wall defines the realms while the columns dance in space which is different with the modernist movement.[4] Floor Plan and Golden Section

The numerical attributes of the Divine Comedy plays a huge part in Danteum’s design. It also influences the columns in Danteum where they denote the abstract structure of the poem. There are 100 cantos in the poem and thus there are also 100 columns in the Danteum.

In the poem, the imageries of the realms were described through topological structures. The Northern hemisphere had landmass with Jerusalem at the center whereas the Southern Hemisphere is covered with water. The inferno – hell was created when Lucifer was thrown out of heaven when cast in the depth of fire.

This picture shows the section cutting across Inferno and purgatory. (Inferno on the left, Purgatory on the right). Notice how Inferno is lower than the Purgatory ? Since in the poem, creation of Inferno is the reason why Purgatory is formed, mass of earth from inferno is transferred to Purgatory making Inferno lowest part of the realms ( hell is the lowest ) , supporting the Purgatory with mass from Inferno ( Inferno as a foundation of Purgatory). Purgatory is described as a mountain surrounded by water. The mass from Inferno made Purgatory into a ‘physical mountain’ surrounded by water (As mentioned before, the South hemisphere is covered with water).

Paradiso is the third room sitting above the hundred columns (the hundred columns is a metaphor for dante’s forest with light filtering through the glass block above just like how light is filtered by the leaves in the forest). It is constructed with grid structure, with 33 glass columns. The floor, beams, roof are all made from glass. The reflection and refraction of light off the glass surface gave Paradiso a Ethereal feeling that one can easily relate and imagine when one thought about heaven. The material choice for Paradiso made it a very light compared to the other relams.(Refer to floor plan), note that there is 9 circles in the middle of Paradiso, the 9 circles are actually glass columns representing the 9 spheres surrounding the earth, and beyond that sits the final seat of God. In Paradiso, souls are entitled a specific sphere according to their merits.

On the other hand, the 7 squares in Purgatory represent the redemption of the seven sins. The roof has relatively large voids to let light into the space compared to Inferno. In the section, note how the ground level for Inferno is uneven and the slabs supported by the columns are not connected allowing light to slit through the roof, they convey the harsh landscape on earth in a more extreme form according to Terragni’s text “The sensation of the impending, of void formed under the crust of earth and through a fearsome seismic disorder caused by the fall of Lucifer’.


Schumacher ,Thomas L. ,Terragni's Danteum,2nd edn(Princeton : Princeton Architectural Press,1993)

Kanekar,Aarti, Metaphor in Morphic Language(London:UCL,2009)

Schnall, S.Are there basic metaphors?(2013). In M. J. Landau, M. D. Robinson & B. P. Meier (Eds.),The power of metaphor: Examining its influence on social life.Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.