Hierarchy in Architecture

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  • 0:49 Architectural Hierarchy
  • 1:56 Hierarchy Through Shape
  • 2:51 Hierarchy Through Size
  • 3:32 Hierarchy Through Color
  • 4:22 Hierarchy Through Location
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Architects use many tricks to help them get their buildings just right. In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of hierarchy, and discuss how it can change the way we see a structure.

Definition of Ordering Principles

Imagine that you're designing a building. Maybe you've got a section you're really proud of and you want people to notice it, or perhaps this section is what unifies your aesthetic. How do you make sure that people actually pay attention?

Sure, you could put up flashing neon signs, but that could potentially be distracting. However, by using various visual cues, called ordering principles, architects can control how parts of a building relate to each other. Maybe you want a seamless rhythm, or maybe you want one part to stand out. Ordering principles can be very helpful when trying to create a building, as well as studying the components of existing structures. It's a useful way to make sure people see your structure exactly how you want them to.

Architectural Hierarchy

There are several ordering principles used by architects and art historians, but today we're only going to be dealing with one specific principle: hierarchy. Hierarchy describes components of a structure by how noticeable they are. The more obviously noticeable a component is, the more important it is to the architect and to the structure's overall aesthetic. Basically, hierarchy is about understanding how and why some parts carry more visual weight than others, and using that to create balanced or unbalanced structures, depending on your overall plans.

We'll get into the specific elements of hierarchy in a minute, but the basic way to create hierarchy is by creating a consistent compositional theme, then breaking it. When that motif is broken, it signals that this component needs to be observed. It's special. It's important. Look at it. That's the basic idea.

There are four primary ways to establish hierarchy. We're going to go through them here, but as we do, keep in mind that many structures use more than one of these elements simultaneously. See if you can identify all of the elements on your own.

Hierarchy Through Shape

The first way to create a visual hierarchy in architecture is through shape. Remember the basic rule: create a compositional theme, then break it. Let's apply that to this image of the Agha Bozorg Mosque of Kashan, Iran.

Agha Bozorg Mosque of Kashan, Iran

When we look at this structure, we see a motif of rectangles. The overall structure is a long, low rectangle, composed of five vertical rectangles. But, is that the first thing you notice? Probably not, because the rectangles don't carry the visual weight. The elements with the highest hierarchy are those that break from our compositional motif. Within each rectangle is a pointed arch, creating a new shape that attracts the eye. Now, where is your eye drawn the most? That center rectangle, in which you can see an arch through the arch. These shapes are at the top of the visual hierarchy in this structure, and demand the most attention.

Hierarchy Through Size

Okay, let's move on to what would likely be Sigmund Freud's favorite element of architectural hierarchy: size. Check out the picture of the Piazza del Campo in Siena on screen now.

Piazza del Campo, Siena

Beautiful place, right? What carries the visual weight in this scene? It's that gigantic tower! While the rest of the piazza is relatively consistent, that tower shoots into the sky, breaking from the compositional motif and establishing itself on top of the visual hierarchy. At the same time, the piazza itself is completely flat, distinguishing it from the surrounding structures as well. All of these components are competing for a place in the visual hierarchy.

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