Timelessness in Architecture: Perception, Interpretation, Function

Timeless architecture is often considered to be something which has been designed in such an intentionally reduced manner to endure time. This text will investigate various approaches to timelessness in architecture. The first chapter will explore the concept of visual perception at its psychological origin and focus on various historic examples of proportioning systems. Chapter two will consider the idea of interpretation in architecture. It will suggest hermeneutic understanding and a ‘mechanism of architecture’ as an alternative method of achieving timelessness. The third and final chapter will approach the subject from a functional point of view: buildings which endure time due to their permanent functional appropriateness.

Dissertation at the University of Edinburgh



Architecture deals as much with the future as with the past, and is therefore expected to achieve a relative permanence.

Developing a project is a major investment and the result is usually expected to fulfil its purpose for a considerable length of time. It is extremely important to consider this throughout the design process, particularly today as technology development becomes faster and faster, allowing ever more experimentation with materials, products and ultimately aesthetics. In this dissertation I wish to address this desire of timelessness in architecture by looking at three options: visual perception and the possibility of an architectural expression which appeals to a universal psychological perception; interpretation and the need for innovation to capitalise on architecture’s potential to revolutionise and develop society; functional permanence through the creation of space tailored to basic human habit.



Much of today’s understanding of visual perception, particularly in the built environment, is based on the Gestalt Laws. These were first developed by the Gestalt psychologists, notably Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967), and Kurt Koffka (1886-1941). Their research forms the basis of today’s understanding of perceptual organisation and this fundamental form of visual perception is shared by all humans. It therefore provides a suitable starting point for discussing a holistic visual theory.

The rules of visual organisation are not an exact science, however they are easily identifiable in our built and natural environment. We can easily identify repetition and pattern in buildings, even when viewing it from an awkward angle, and such structured visual systems provide a sense of order which our eyes naturally recognise.

The question arises whether we like environments which are visually ordered and make the process of visual perception as easy as possible?

Studying the work of the ancients, which could be argued as having a timeless quality, it is clear that a certain visual order has been exploited. Economy of shape and form is a crucial aspect of developing a large construction project, even before the development of industrial processes.

However, proportioning systems can go far beyond aesthetic rationale. They can provide spatial order, connections and relationships: using a proportioning system for an entire building can even relate functional spaces to the aesthetic structure. Through an experience of repetition a user is able to recognise the system either consciously or sub consciously and will thus comprehend the structured environment.

Vitruvius had a clear idea of what constitutes lasting, or timeless, architecture: firmitas, utilitas, venustas is one of his best known principles and is a good summary of his theory. Furthermore, Vitruvius goes into great detail describing the proportioning system he advocated: that based on a ‘well-proportioned man’. This is discussed most fully in Book III of his book On Architecture, which details the design and construction of temples. It is particularly relevant as Vitruvius himself states that temples are examples of timeless architecture.

In the Rennaissance, a further milestone of proportional development, it was “commonly believed that the most beautiful rectangles were those whose sides had the simple numerical relationships of musical consonance.”

Although the golden ratio has been found in several architectural precedents dating as far back as the Greeks, evidence for its conscious use as a design technique is entirely indirect. In fact, the name ‘golden section’ or ‘goldener schnitt’ was first used in 1835, by the German mathematician Martin Ohm (1792-1872) in Die reine Elementar-Mathematik.

Matila Ghyka (1881-1965), a mathematician and philosopher, believes the proportions of the golden rectangle are naturally read by the mind. The squares which construct the fibonacci spiral  are “subconsciously suggested to the eye” without actually drawing them. This operation establishes a significant system of part to whole relationships within the over all shape. A characteristic which, as previously shown, had already been recognised as important by Vitruvius.



This stratification of architectural styles apparent in almost every major city is what invokes our generation’s excitement for our urban surroundings. The distinguishing beauty of the 20th; Century backdrop is that it is not the product of a single architectural style which has developed gradually. Instead, Koolhaas suggests, that “it represents the simultaneous formation of distinct archaeological layers.”

The cyclical nature of enquiry is a constant enumeration and development of thought, driven in turn by that exact development. Rather than being a conclusive process it is a process of evolution that leads to a greater understanding and in turn a higher level of intellectual freedom.

It is mankind’s apparent need for something ‘new’ which brings us to the concept termed the ‘Informal’ by Balmond. In 1977 the architect Robert Venturi succinctly declared his preference for this approach:

I like elements which are hybrid rather than ‘pure,’ compromising rather than ‘clean,’ distorted rather than ‘straightforward,’ ambiguous rather than ‘articulated,’ perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well ‘interesting,’ conventional rather than ‘designed,’ accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.

In contrast to the beliefs of architects up to and including the modernists there has recently been the discovery and enjoyment of the unexpected.

According to Lindsay Jones, architects have been unable to avoid the “interdependence of order and variation” throughout history. However, architectural styles tend to “shift their emphases to either conventionality or innovation.” Nonetheless, we must remember that without a feature of “reassuring familiarity,” the dialogue with the architecture will never get started. Similarly, without the element of innovation, “nothing of significance transpires” through sucha dialogue. “To lack either is to forestall the transaction of meaning.”

As ‘innovations’ develop society’s understanding, an inevitable change in the reception of architecture occurs. It is bizarre to consider that things which today society generally perceives as beautiful have not always had the same reception.



The title of Alexander’s book, The Timelessway of Building, claims to have a solution, the solution. His inspirational observations and position speaks of ‘The Quality’ of a place. This quality is never succinctly defined but conveyed to the reader through many enlightening examples. His approach reflects the belief of Giedieon: it is the simplest and in certain respects most obvious of design decisions which gives a place this quality. Alexander is of the belief that this quality is naturally encoded within each of us and we thus all have the potential to create timeless environments.

Creating spaces which appeal to the most fundamental characteristics of man-kind are timeless because they appeal to permanent, biological habits. Alexander has shown how analysing spaces which you particularly like can develop a catalogue of features, or a pattern language, which can be foundations for a timeless design approach.

Architecture must provide space for the most fundamental habits of human life, habits which are constant: for example the need for social interaction. Historically market places are an example of the combination of working and personal life. The supermarket typology of modern society is devoid of any social space and instead focussed entirely on sales and revenue.



In contrast to what I originally believed, there appears to be no such thing as a universal timeless aesthetic. Timelessness in architecture is not something which can be designed with the use of rules, it is a mind set. Out of respect for the environment and the investment which an architectural project requires, it should be the aim to create something of permanence. However, the urban environment is not something which will eventually be completed. Evolution is not finite. The failed example of the Robin Hood Gardens mentioned in the introduction did not achieve this permanence. Nevertheless, the architects risked and unfortunately compromised their careers realising a vision which they believed would improve the inhabitants’ quality of life. Architecture as a profession will always involve risks taken by innovators. In order to minimise this risk and to develop an understanding of what has worked and what has not, a development of critical thinking must constitute the core of architectural education.

Only through an awareness of ‘conventional’ patterns can the Informal be created and socio-cultural development be given an opportunity.




Select Bibliography

Alexander, C., 1979, The Timeless Way of Building. New York: Oxford University Press

Balmond, C., 2002, Informal. London: Prestel

Bruce, V., Green, P.R., and Georgeson, M.A., 2003, Visual Perception: physiology, psychology and ecology. 4th ed., New York: Psychology Press

Fechner, G.T., 1876, Vorschule der Ästhetik. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel

Jones, L., 2000, The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture. Vol. 1., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Koolhaas, R., and Mau, B., 1995, S,M,L,XL. New York: The Monacelli Press

Le Corbusier, 1958, The Modulor: A Harmonious Measure to the Human Scale Universally applicable to Architecture and Mechanics. 2nd ed., London: Faber and Faber

Padovan, R., 1999, Proportion: science, philosophy, architecture. London: E & FN

Vitruvius, P., 2009, On Architecture. trans. by Schofield, R., London: Penguin Group, initially appeared 15BC

Zeising, A., 1855, Ästetische Forschungen. Frkfurt a. M.: Verlag von Reidinger Sohn & Comp.