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What is a Vestibule in Architecture?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Vestibules are important parts of many structures, which serve a very unique purpose. In this lesson, we'll look at the uses of vestibules across history and check out a few examples.

The Vestibule

When the earliest humans invented the first forms of architecture, they invented the concept of structures, but also something else: the concept of interior space. Biologically, humans have defined senses of personal, intimate, and social space, which can be modified through cultural expectations. So, ideas like private vs. public and interior vs. exterior matter to us. It's no surprise, then, that architecture doesn't often expect us to just change from exterior space to interior space without some sort of transition - that transition is the vestibule, an antechamber, lobby, or hall that separates the entryway from the main interior.

Where to Find the Vestibule

If you're looking to identify the vestibule in an existing structure, you need to know where it is. Here's what you do: start on the street, facing the building, and then enter the door. Congratulations! If this structure has a vestibule, then chances are you're in it. The vestibule connects the main interior with the entryway, transitioning you from the outside to the inside of the structure.

Plans of the White House, with the vestibule highlighted.
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Depending on where you are, the vestibule may take several forms. Some are wide and shallow, others are long and narrow, and some are more open and comfortable; some are entirely enclosed, with walls or doors on all sides, while others open directly into the main interior without such features. In general, however, you can expect the vestibule to be smaller and more enclosed than the main interior.

History & Uses

The size and shape of the vestibule very often depends on its intended function, and yes, there are numerous ways to introduce people into a building. We've got three major functions of the vestibule, and it's important to keep in mind that they're not mutually exclusive. Many structures have vestibules for all three purposes.

Welcoming into the Home

The systematic use of this concept in domestic architecture dates back to Ancient Rome. Roman houses were literally sacred spaces, protected by the house deities of the family. Defining the borders between private and public space was, therefore, very important to the Romans and had direct spiritual implications for their lives. So, the Roman house began with a vestibulum, a small, lobby-like room that represented the movement from the public space of the street to the private space of the house.

It should be pretty obvious that this is where the term vestibule comes from. Throughout European history, the concept of a vestibule remained important, although the feature is certainly not unique to Europe. Even after European peoples stopped worshiping house gods, the vestibule became an important place of entry and welcoming, generally called the foyer. In particular, it became a space where people could wait for the master or mistress of the house to greet them, while still being sheltered from the elements.

Can you see how it's a transitional space? You're protected from weather so you're not outside, but at the same time you haven't been formally permitted access or welcomed into the main interior space.

A large, open vestibule like this welcomes people out of the elements, and gives them a place to await formal entry into the main interior.
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Blocking the View

The second use of a vestibule is very simple: it's to keep people from seeing the main interior. When medieval church architects started building larger and larger interiors, they wanted those interiors to be shocking, incredible in their size and openness. One way to heighten this effect was to create a small, enclosed vestibule between the entryway and the main sanctuary. Picture it: you enter through elaborate doors into a narrow or shallow room with thick walls and a low ceiling. You then either turn a corner or open a door and boom! You're hit with a vast, dramatic, and open sanctuary! It makes an impression, and incidentally may have drawn on precedents first established in Ancient Greek temples.

This same tactic was also used by theaters and opera houses in England and France once those art forms became popular. The vestibule (sometimes vestibules) gave the audience or performers a place to talk without distracting from the show, and kept people from the street from peeking in and seeing the performance without paying.

A theater vestibule like this separates the performance space from socializing and ticket-purchasing space.
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