ARCHITECTURAL SPACE: HORIZONTAL ELEMENTS (P1 OF 2)

How do horizontal elements which constitute building form help define what we call architectural space? Archifiller™ – “designed to fill in professional development gaps” – investigates.


Horizontal elements of building form

Architectural space is born at the intersection of two things: three-dimensional horizontal elements and three-dimensional vertical elements. Without these instruments, a volume of space can simply not exist.

In this two-part series, Archifiller™ will firstly explain to professionals within the architecture community what qualifies as horizontal elements within building form and how these elements have been leveraged in practice – both historically and recently – to convey specific types of architectural space for varied end purposes.

With that being said, here are the four horizontal elements to bear in mind when engaging in the act of designing architectural space.

1. Base Plate

A base plate is a horizontal plane placed against a contrasting background in order to help define a specific field of space. This contrasting characteristic in the surrounding ground plane could be articulated in the form of colour, tone or texture, allowing the base plate to become a distinctive element on its own while still maintaining a continuous flow of space between the base plate and its surroundings.

A prime application of a base plate being employed in practice is in the context of a large open space where specific zones of smaller space need to be highlighted. Take the common approach towards the front entrance of a home.

The common approach towards a modern house entrance – one of many applications where the base plate can be used to define specific types of architectural space.

As shown in the visual example above, the path of movement towards the front entrance of the home is defined by the use of a tiled walkway acting as the base plate, which is laid in direct contrast to the surrounding lawns that adjoin it. Texture and colour are the strongest indicators of differentiation here, with the edge of spatial demarcation being visually reinforced further by the addition of plantings on the left and an in-situ garden wall on the right.

“However, unlike an elevated base plate, a depressed base plate effectively becomes an isolated field of space, where its edges become the defining factor of its spatial extents and visual impact.” – Archifiller™

2. Elevated Base Plate

An elevated base plate is a base plate that is separated from its surrounding ground plane through being raised vertically. This creates vertical surfaces along its distinguishable edges that can adopt similar surface characteristics to its surroundings in order to become an extension of the surrounding space, or it can be articulated separately with a contrast in form, colour or texture.

Unlike a standard base plate, an elevated base plate interrupts the flow of space across it, which is dictated by the degree of elevation applied to it. This characteristic of level change inherent in an elevated base plate allows it to be an explorative horizontal element of form that provides a variety of spatial and visual design possibilities.

The Peruvian historical sanctuary of Machu Picchu and its liberal employment of the elevated base plate.

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Machu Picchu is a great example of the use of elevated base plates, where polished dry-stone walls become the distinguishable base plate edges as they increase in elevation and stagger vertically up their placement within the mountain ridge. This technique results in a terraced building estate, where each raised space becomes a platform for viewing the greater surrounding natural landscape.

3. Depressed Base Plate

A depressed base plate is a base plate that has been lowered vertically, creating sunken vertical surfaces along its distinguishable edges. Similar to that of an elevated base plate, contrasting qualities can be applied to a depressed base plate to create spatial independence between itself and its surrounding ground plane if required. However, unlike an elevated base plate, a depressed base plate effectively becomes an isolated field of space, where its edges become the defining factor of its spatial extents and visual impact.

“The most typical building examples that personify overhead planes and are manipulated to articulate architectural form are roofs and ceilings.” – Archifiller™

The unmatched Colosseum in Rome and its use of depressed base plates to aid in its delivery of historical entertainment.

The oval amphitheatre of the Colosseum in the city of Rome is cognizant of the effects that depressed base plates can evoke, where a series of them were appointed to create a field of space separate to the rest of Rome for the purposes of holding local entertainment, such as gladiatorial contests, public spectacles and re-enactments of famous battles. Furthermore, the use of depressed base plates and its sunken vertical edges made of travertine limestone, tuff (volcanic rock) and brick-faced concrete helped to cut out any surface-level wind and background noise in the area that may interrupt the delivery of the activity happening within.

4. Overhead Plane

An overhead plane is a horizontal plane that has been raised vertically to the extent that it begins to define a volume of space between itself and the surrounding ground plane that it relates to. Its edges define its boundaries – similar to that of base plates, elevated base plates and depressed base plates – yet, unlike the other previous ground and floor plane manipulations that were reliant on their surroundings, an overhead plane has the ability of its own to define a entire new volume of space.

This volume of space and the extent of its spatial definition can be visually reinforced further by various other elements and techniques, such as turning the edges of the overhead plane downward or by integrating an elevated or depressed base plate beneath its elevation.

The most typical building examples that personify overhead planes and are manipulated to articulate architectural form are roofs and ceilings.

The masterstroke that is the Farnsworth House, by Mies Van Der Rohe, makes good use of the overhead plane in order to define space and form. This is visually reinforced by the elevated base plate below.

Take the Farnsworth House by Mies Van Der Rohe, where the overhead roof plane not only dictates the scale of the space, but also clearly defines the house’s formalism. The addition of vertical linear elements – such as these regularly spaced posts – helps to support the overhead roof plane structurally while visually establishing the limits of the volume of space created without disrupting the flow of space between the inside and the outside.

So, there you have it – the four horizontal elements of building form that have been employed through design thinking to help define what we know as architectural space today. Through the examples illustrated above, this design technique is evidently an advantageous tool when engaging in your next act of designing architectural space.

As mentioned in the introduction, this editorial forms part one of a two-part series. To read part two – Architectural Space: Vertical Elements, please visit the editorial found here.


Written by Thomas Denhardt – Founder and Creative Director of Archifiller™


Editorial Quiz

  1. What are the four horizontal elements of building form that help define architectural space?
  2. Which horizontal element is dictated by the degree of elevation applied to it?
  3. What qualities does contrasting characteristics in a horizontal element achieve?
  4. What are roofs and ceilings typical examples of?

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