How do vertical elements which constitute building form help define what we call architectural space? Archifiller™ – “designed to fill in professional development gaps” – responds in this two-part series.

Vertical elements of building form

In part 1, Archifiller™ brought attention to how horizontal elements of building form can be employed to define fields of architectural space. In part 2 – concerning this editorial – Archifiller™ will demonstrate to professionals within the architecture community how vertical elements of building form can establish the visual limits of a spatial field, especially those that have been created by horizontal elements.

Unlike horizontal elements, vertical elements have the ability to present themselves as more dominant within our visual field, making them more effective in creating designated spaces for particular purposes. They also – by their very nature – serve as a tool for separating the outside world from the inside habitable world, providing comfort, privacy and a sense of enclosure from within.

With that being said, here are the six vertical elements that you can harness in your design practices when establishing visual limits in your next architectural space commission.

1. Vertical Linear Elements

In order for the human perception to believe that a volume of space is present, it needs a visual cue of distinction in the form of physical edges or corners. This is where the use of vertical linear elements are well placed. They can act as effective tangible markers that reinforce the visual limits of a potential volume of space while simultaneously providing visual and spatial continuity through the very same space.

Vertical linear elements come in many shapes and forms, with the most prevalent of them all being the common column.

Standing vertically on its own in an open non-defined space, a column’s identity is typically non-directional, with the exception being the path that would lead us to its physical position in that space. However, when positioned within a defined volume of space – for example a four-walled room – the column will exert a spatial field of its own, becoming an influential element within that space relative to its positioning.

When a column is paired with another or more, it will create the perfect grounds for visual tension to occur. This tension increases in strength as the number of columns increase, and in turn, strengthens the volume of space that the columns choose to define. Furthermore, the cross-sectional geometry of the vertical linear element – whether circular, square or rectangular in shape – has the power to bring distortional effects to a volume of space, manipulating the manner in which an occupant transitions in and through the same space.

The Pantheon and its adoption of vertical linear elements that help to define an indoor-outdoor volume of space, called the Portico.

The Pantheon in Rome is a historical application of vertical linear elements being applied in practice to help define its signature portico. Here, the use of a colonnade of large granite Corinthian columns at regular spacing creates an intentional sense of space between the path of approach to the building and the actual progression towards the inner enclosed temple. Circular in profile and large in scale, the columns are strong enough in establishing visual boundaries while still maintaining a sense of flow spatially. In addition to this, the edges of the space that the portico provides are further reinforced visually by an overhead plane – called a pediment – that purposely bears its weight structurally onto the Corinthian columns.

“The height of a single vertical plane has authority over our interpretation of how this element visually describes the space on which it fronts. ” – Archifiller™

2. Single Vertical Plane

A single vertical plane is a stronger tool in establishing the visual limits of a space when compared to vertical linear elements since it has the built-in ability to articulate a volume of space on which it fronts. Seeing as a single vertical plane consists of two surfaces – both a front and back – it has the potential to define not one, but two identical fields of space. Alternatively, these fields of space can also be made distinguishable from one another when required with the appointment of contrasting qualities in both surfaces such as their colour, texture and form.

The height of a single vertical plane has the authority over our interpretation of how this element visually describes the space on which it fronts. This degree of authority is determined by our body height and eye level in relation to the element’s height.

The German Pavillion in Barcelona by Mies Van Der Rohe – view from the outdoor pool.

A great example of the single vertical plane and the power it can evoke in defining the edges of a volume of space can be shown with The German Pavillion in Barcelona by Mies Van Der Rohe. Here, the use of a full height wall in the form of a single vertical plane is employed in various locations throughout the Pavillion design to front various fields of space on which they face. For instance, an external wall clad in golden onyx is erected to limit the spatial and visual extents of the open outdoor pool space in relation to the site’s greater surroundings.

This technique of space defining is carried on through the interiors of the Pavillion, where the use of a single floor-to-ceiling partition is strategically set to inform a vivid boundary of where the living space starts and ends. Its proximity in relation to other vertical planes, such as the internal window joinery, gives us another visual clue of the type of space assigned through the establishment of contrasting spatial proportions. In addition, this sense of spatial demarcation is visually heightened even further with the application of contrasting horizontal elements in the form of floor treatments.

The German Pavillion in Barcelona by Mies Van Der Rohe – view of living space.

3. L-Shaped Planes

An L-shaped configuration is where two single vertical planes are brought together, generating a field of space that runs along an invisible diagonal axis. The enclosed corner where the two planes meet is where the visual limits of the spatial field are strongest, creating an inward and introverted field of space. As you travel towards the open end of the configuration where no planes exist, the space becomes weaker in definition, representing an open, extroverted field of space.

If a void in the form of a penetration or an opening is introduced into the enclosed corner that L-shaped configuration defines, then this begins to lessen the spatial field’s inclination towards defining a strong volume of space. In this case, the two vertical planes now become visually read as standalone elements in space, where one can be manipulated to appear dominant over the other.

The Bibliothèque nationale de France has L-shaped configurations at the heart of its building design.

The Bibliothèque nationale de France (The French National Library) situated in Paris is arranged to symbolically represent in built form four open books with the employment of four L-shaped configurations. Like mentioned above, these L-shaped configurations are multi-purpose in their application, where the four corners programmatically house the collection of items made available for public use while the four open ends simultaneously enclose and bind an open-air communal field of outdoor space. Thus, a combination of spatial needs and uses are formulated through the exploitation of the L-shaped configuration that lends itself expertly to the different nature of these very spaces.

4. Parallel Planes

Unlike an L-shaped configuration that meets at one closed off corner, parallel planes exhibit two open ends through the use of two standalone vertical planes. Their relationship to one another defines a extroverted volume of space in between them, creating a strong directional quality that orients an occupant axially toward both open ends of the configuration.

This conveyance of receptivity along the open ends can be further defined spatially with manipulations of horizontal elements underfoot and overhead. The same is true if this field of space in between is required to be visually extended or suddenly terminated, with the addition of further horizontal and vertical elements put into play.

If there is a need for the directional quality of the space to be eliminated or minimised at some juncture, then the two parallel planes that form the volume of space can have openings introduced into them or a significant differentiation in form, colour or texture can be applied to one of the two parallel planes.

A common streetscape in Venice and how the use of parallel planes in the form of building facades help orient pedestrians through.

The most common use of parallel planes is in the application of spaces where there is a practical need for circulation and movement, such as public infrastructure. For example, this common streetscape in Venice above has the facades of various buildings acting as the two parallel planes of interest, pulling the pedestrian and vehicular movement in both directions towards the open ends as intended by the master planners. The lack of distractions through horizontal and vertical intrusions further compounds the design intent, allowing the space to flow uninterrupted along its axis.

“The choice behind whether to employ a symmetrical or elongated U-shaped configuration comes down to the use of the space and whether or not the occupant needs to contemplate or move quickly through that space. ” – Archifiller™

5. U-Shaped Planes

A U-shaped configuration has a third vertical plane added unlike L-shaped configurations and parallel planes, where the definition of a volume of space is oriented primarily towards the open end of the configuration. It is ambivalent in character, with a stronger definition towards its closed end which dissipates towards the open end.

Similar to parallel planes, a U-shaped configuration can be reinforced visually and spatially with the addition of further vertical and horizontal elements. Also, the U-shaped configuration has the capability to morph into either a square or a rectangle, with the open end in either scenario remaining as the primary face of the spatial field.

The choice behind whether to employ a symmetrical or elongated U-shaped configuration comes down to the use of the space and whether or not the occupant needs to contemplate or move quickly through that space.

Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome.

With the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, the adoption of a U-shaped configuration in the form of three buildings serves to define the edges of a monumental urban space and has its open end addressing the scenic outlook over Rome from its significant elevation above the city as envisaged. Concurrently, this U-shaped configuration also physically terminates the primary means of approach towards the Piazza via the grand stairs that begin at a lower elevation. Furthermore, the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio becomes a focal point within the urban space – like a column in space as aforementioned – highlighting the importance of its placement with this defined field of space.

6. Four Planes: Enclosure

When a fourth vertical plane is added to a U-shaped configuration, we create what is effectively a four-walled enclosure. This congregation of vertical elements is the most typical of them all, creating the boundaries of an introverted field of space through its primary trait of four corners, influencing the greater field of space that surrounds it.

Similar to other vertical elements, a plane out of the four can be chosen as more domineering or made into a feature wall, achieved via differentiating its size, form, surface articulation or by introducing openings within it such as doors and windows.

In reality, four planes come in a variety of building scales, such as a tall-height public atrium space right down to an individual bedroom or closet. Historically, four planes have been exemplified best through their use in defining a spatial field with external walls that is directed inwards towards the activity of worship.

“External walls to a vast extent determine the visual character of a building, whether they are heavy or light, transparent or opaque, or a combination of the two.” – Archifiller™

The Church of Light by Tadao Ando – interior.

External walls to a vast extent determine the visual character of a building, whether they are heavy or light, transparent or opaque, or a combination of the two. This statement stands true for the Church of Light by Tadao Ando.

Here, the introduction of a white cross in the form of an opening within one of four planes that encloses the church not only symbolises the worship of Christianity, but also orients occupants towards its surface – like a feature – through its ability to manipulate light and amplify its presence in a poorly lit intentional field of space. Additionally, the enclosure isolates this defined field of space visually from any outside distractions in order to make the crucifix the focal point of this space. The result is a sheltered volume of space that displays a uniquely experiential indoor environment that is designed with its worshipers in mind.

And that concludes part 2 – the six vertical elements of building form that can establish the visual limits of a spatial field and be instrumental in the definition of form, space and order. The projects referred to above demonstrate the power behind these vertical elements, and in most cases, how they have been carefully considered and crafted when drawn on a humble piece of paper prior to their placement and erection in practice.

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

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

Editorial Quiz

  1. What are the six vertical elements of building form that help define the visual limits of architectural space?
  2. In order for the human perception to believe that a volume of space is present, what are the two visual cues it requires?
  3. Which vertical elements above have a strong axial orientation towards two open ends?
  4. Which vertical elements above are the most typical of them all in practice?

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