By Jeff Mottle

The stairway to heaven: interpreting symbolic architecture in arch viz

Editor's notes

Article brought to you by Deon Liebenberg
Jeff Mottle — Founder at CGarchitect

Lotte World Tower, Seoul. Image Courtesy: ©2010 DBOX for Lotte World Tower 

Functionalism versus symbolism

Modernist architecture was driven, to a very large extent, by the idea that form should follow function. This had the effect of stripping architecture of its non-functional elements – decorative as well as symbolic. Since the modernist era, various architectural movements have reacted strongly against this restrictive doctrine, and the shape of, for example, the Lotte World Tower, designed by KPF, has relatively little to do with functional considerations.  This development is fortunate for artists in the architectural visualization industry, since it greatly widens their creative horizons, in terms of emotional and symbolic expression.

‘The Big Bend.’ Image Courtesy: © Ioannis Oikonomou – oiio architecture studio.

It is true that the shape of the proposed New York City skyscraper, The Big Bend, designed by Ioannis Oikonomou of oiio architecture studio, was determined to some extent by the real estate considerations that are basic to the design of skinny skyscrapers. But the distinctive bend configuration that would make it an iconic landmark transposes it to the domain of symbolic architecture. The task of the artist who must somehow bring out this mysterious and vaguely sensed symbolic dimension of buildings is by no means an easy one, but the following will hopefully cast some light on the subject.

Science fiction

The use of expressive and symbolic shape is a prominent feature of science fiction architecture, which has been exerting considerable influence on the design of actual buildings in recent years. Furthermore, science fiction art often references ancient architecture such as the pyramids. Interestingly, these ancient structures seem quite appropriate in futuristic and even alien settings. In 1968 Erich von Däniken published a runaway best-seller, Chariots of the Gods, in which he argued that the pyramids and other ancient religious structures were evidence of ancient human contact with aliens. There are several reasons why such outlandish theories capture the public imagination (Von Däniken was by no means the first or the last to propagate ideas of this kind). One of these reasons is that there is indeed a link between ancient architecture and the cosmos. Although it is not of the type proposed by Von Däniken, Graham Hancock and others, it provides valuable insight into the symbolic dimension of architecture, and the psychological impact that it still has, particularly in architectural visualization.

Image Courtesy: Christian Quinot/cloudminedesign 

Cosmic architecture

Cosmic symbolism is a fundamental feature of sacred architecture in many parts of the world. Indigenous peoples of north-western Amazonia, for example, perform their sacred ceremonies in a maloca (longhouse). This structure is a microcosm of the universe – the floor represents the earth, the roof is the sky, and the posts inside are the cosmic mountains that support the sky. 

Amazonian maloca 1904. Theodor Koch-Grunberg

The Lenape of eastern North America used to build a large rectangular structure that likewise symbolized the universe. The annual erection of this ‘Big House’ represented a ritual recreation of the world and marked the beginning of the new year. This concept of the ritual structure or temple complex as a microcosm of the universe is found amongst the ancient high civilizations of Africa, Eurasia and the Americas. A good example is the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia (see below). But it is also found amongst agrarian, pastoralist and hunter-gatherer societies in various parts of the world, from central Africa to South America. 


Angkor Wat, Cambodia. The five central towers represent the five mountain ranges of Mount Meru, the Hindu sacred mountain that connects heaven and earth (see following section). Image Courtesy: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3991230

The way people traditionally relate to such architecture is a far cry from the way we generally interact with the functionalist spaces that we live and work in today. Functionalism has stripped away the mystical element that is fundamental to the traditional experience of such spaces. But it is this mystical/symbolic element, elaborated in many ways in different cultures, that arguably still accounts for a significant part of how we relate psychologically to large-scale architecture – and how it is depicted in arch viz. Take another look at the architectural visualizations above. Against the background of this cosmic symbolism they make perfect sense, as does our reaction to them. Some form of implied connection between the architecture and the cosmos seems to provide the subtext to these images. But, to see how this applies specifically to tall buildings, a more detailed look at the ancient symbolism in question is needed.

The stairway to heaven

The yurt (a portable round tent) of the Siberian Altai, like the sacred structures discussed above, is a microcosm of the universe. For ritual purposes a young birch tree, stripped of its lower branches, is placed at the centre, so that the tip protrudes from a hole in the top. There are seven, nine, or twelve steps notched into the trunk to make up a stairway or ladder. As the shaman, on his ecstatic flight, climbs from one notch to the next, he announces to those present that he is ascending from one heaven to the next. When he gets to the seventh notch (or the ninth or twelfth) he announces that he has now reached the highest heaven. Far away, in the southern part of South America, Mapuche shamans likewise climb up the steps of a stairway carved into a tree trunk in order to make their ecstatic ascent to heaven. This concept of a ladder or stairway to heaven, along with the various layers of heaven, is a very widespread tradition – as the sayings about being ‘in the seventh heaven’ or being ‘on cloud nine’ suggest. The Arapaho, of North America, tell of a hero who ascends to the sky by means of a stairway that leads up a mountain that stretches all the way to up the heavenly vault. In various traditions, as far afield as Asia and Africa, sacred mountains conjoin heaven and earth. But these cosmic mountains, which give access to the heavens, are also found in the form of man-made structures – pyramids. 

The Temple of Kukulcan, Chichen Itza, Mexico. Image Courtesy: Daniel Schwen https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Dschwen


In Central and South America, pyramids typically have stairways leading to the top. The Temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza is a good example. This is the architectural counterpart of the stairway that leads up the cosmic mountain in the Arapaho myth – an actual stairway to heaven. Pyramids in the Near east, known as ziggurats, also have stairways leading to the top. Egyptian pyramids are the exception in this regard. Nevertheless, the Pyramid Texts from Egypt, the most ancient sacred texts that have survived, name both the cosmic stairway and the cosmic ladder as means by which the dead pharaoh’s soul ascends to heaven (which, in this case, is situated in the constellation of Orion). The five stone towers of Angkor Wat likewise represent the Hindu cosmic mountain, Mount Meru, which connects heaven and earth (see above).

In countless traditions around the world a hero or celebrant ascends to the sky or heaven by means of a cosmic stairway, ladder, tree, mountain, pole, rope or vine. (In the story of Jack and the Beanstalk it has survived as folklore). These are all variants of the same motif, and sometimes they are combined, as in the above examples, where a stairway or ladder goes up a mountain or tree respectively. 

Universal archetype or prehistoric tradition?

The global distribution of these and many other mythic motifs inspired the psychologist Carl Jung to argue that these motifs are universal archetypes that emanate from the collective unconscious. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, somewhat similarly, argued that they are manifestations of the inherent structures of the human mind. Both these approaches have been called into question, and this opens the possibility that they are simply extremely old, part of a common human cultural legacy that was dispersed to the furthest corners of our planet in the course of early human migrations. In other words, the concept of the cosmic mountain might predate the actual construction of pyramids, both in the Old World and the New World, by thousands of years. (This would explain the striking similarity in shape and symbolism of pyramids on both sides of the Atlantic without resorting to theories about alien visitations or the myth of Atlantis). 

Lucas van Valckenborch. The Tower of Babel, 1594. Louvre, Paris.

A different approach to the same theme

The painting of the tower of Babel above, by Lucas van Valckenborch, is a 16th century visualisation of unbuilt architecture. It gives the symbolism of the ‘skyscraper’ a very different treatment – opposite, in its tone of moral condemnation, to that found in most of the other renderings shown above and below. According to scholarship the Biblical account refers to the ziggurats of the Near East. Nevertheless, other variants of this motif are given a positive reading in the Old Testament: Moses scales Mount Sinai to commune with God, and Jacob sees a ladder to heaven in his dream.

Jeddah Tower. Image Courtesy: ©Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture/Jeddah Economic Company  

Arch viz and cosmic architecture

When completed, the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, will be the tallest skyscraper in the world – at just over a kilometre tall. At this point, with the tip of the structure shown literally penetrating the clouds, architecture starts re-entering the domain of cosmic symbolism in quite an explicit way. 

Image Courtesy: MIR

Not only tall buildings, but also many other structures still proclaim our connection to the cosmos in various ways. The impact of this image by MIR, of a new undersea restaurant designed by Snøhetta, has much to do with the suggestive power of the way that the monolithic concrete shape is related to the untamed elements of sea, earth and sky. It would have little meaning without our ‘instinctive’ sense of the mystical cosmic symbolism of architecture. 

Image Courtesy: MIR

Image Courtesy: MIR

This aspect of architecture can also be expressed with great effect in renderings of interior spaces or even very low structures, as these two images above, both by MIR, demonstrate. The first one, of the Leeza SOHO Tower, by Zaha Hadid Architects, brings home the psychological impact that a very tall interior space can have – an effect formerly reserved for sacred or ceremonial spaces. The second one, of a Viking Museum designed by 3XN, is particularly evocative in its deployment of symbolic overtones. Naturally, the architecture must lend itself to such interpretations, as in these cases.

Image Courtesy: Bartosz Domiczek

Even small, portable structures can be imbued with this symbolic dimension, as this striking image by Bartosz Domiczek, with its direct reference to the pyramids, shows. And it is worth noting here that small, portable tent structures (yurts) might have been used as symbolic representations of the universe long before the first pyramids were built (see above).

Arch viz and the problem of symbolism in contemporary images

Trond Andersen and Mats Andersen of MIR once said in an interview that ‘Most people forget that images are an emotional media, and there are limits to how much intellectual ideas you can communicate.’ This is very true, but it was not always the case. The visual art of traditional societies could convey elaborate messages and complex ideas – philosophical, theological, cosmological and otherwise – through a rich system of symbols. It could do so because art formed part of an explicit belief system that the entire community was versed in. Everybody was expected to know the meaning of the symbols, just as we now know the alphabet. In the modern age art has lost this role of being the primary means of visual communication, and the ability of an image to communicate ideas or literary content has been greatly diminished. For this reason, it is a mistake to look at the art of previous ages, or of traditional societies all over the world, and to try and emulate their level of explicit conceptual communication in contemporary art. But, as shown above, arch viz can still communicate powerfully by tapping creatively into these universally shared concepts of cosmic architectural symbolism. Whether you believe that these concepts are based on archetypes emanating from the collective unconscious or are simply a common human cultural inheritance, their global currency makes them a vital part of the arch viz artist’s creative tool kit.


Written by Deon Liebenberg   

Deon is currently art director at Thinklab group, a Cape Town based arch viz company. After studying fine art he spent most of his life so far lecturing in art and design at university level. He has a master’s in architectural technology and has had articles published in academic journals on subjects ranging from art and architecture to mythology and evolutionary psychology.


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Modernist architecture was driven, to a very large extent, by the idea that form should follow function. This had the effect of stripping architecture of its non-functional elements – decorative as well as symbolic.

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Jeff Mottle

Founder at CGarchitect

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