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Winning Entries Announced: Essay Writing Contest: ‘Architectural Precedents’

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

Theme for the Series in this cycle was ‘Architectural Precedents’

Brief - Looking back at the past, formulating the present in anticipation of the future, one is in search of precedents. The question still is; is Precedent always an answer? It may, of course, be a complete answer that one can emulate. Whilst it can also be an intangible form of the answer that is laying the path, but not building the destination.

While in search of a worthy precedent; History may be a route to take, but there are many others too. Precedent may precede one by time, order, class and or importance. So a Precedent may be as close as yesterday and as far as prehistoric. Search for a precedent should open doors, not wearing blinkers. One may look within their house for a precedent, but to open doors one should look around too; a precedent can surely be interdisciplinary. So will an Architectural Precedent always be Architecture?

There are always exemplary 'Precedents' in the society and History that one can look at; if everyone looks at the same precedent, won't we end up with similar answers? If not, then are Precedents subjective?

An exploration into this realm of Architectural Precedents; is the call of the essay. Open doors and look for Precedents, open eyes identify them, open analysis to interpret them. Document and record a narrative of your experience while you engage and interact with these precedents.

'Special Mention Award I’ goes to Namrata Dewanjee

“Precedent (and Palimpsest)”

A precedent can be described as an example or rule to authorize or justify a subsequent act of the same or an analogous kind. It can act as a convention or a standard that scaffolds the argument presented. Architecture, like all forms of art, is not devoid of the weight of historicity. The built environment today has been shaped by layers of conscious or unconscious use of precedents.

The choice of precedents is far from neutral. The weight of conformity and history risks the built environment into an endless cycle of self-referentiality or worse, an assembly-line of “starchitecture”. One can never completely peel off the layers of context of time, space, or culture from architecture- thereby making the critical analysis of the precedent a necessity.

Take for example, the Parthenon- a building that has been precedent to countless works of architecture. The Parthenon was a pagan temple built by the Greeks in celebration of their strong cultural emphasis on mathematical rationality. The Lincoln Memorial built in the early 20th century in Greek Revival style imitated the form and geometry of the Athenian temple- the ornamental language of the Parthenon was directly translated into the American monument. The frieze of the Parthenon with carvings depicting the Athenian victories and pagan myths had been mutated into decorative carvings of bald eagles that symbolized the values of the new democracy. The revival style was characterized by the sudden consciousness of history that was brought about by Napoleon’s achievements. He, as a military leader of a France that dominated most of continental Europe, demonstrated that it was possible to inscribe oneself in history in one’s own lifetime. This possibility and access to history, in turn, inspired neoclassical and revivalist architects like Sir John Soane and Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The buildings that were built in said styles, used Classical buildings as merely an occular-centric precedent and duplicated the ornamental language and organizational syntax without critical analysis.

Le Corbusier, the Modernist architect used Classical architecture as precedent as well. Instead of duplication and transcription of the Classical language, he critically analyzed the elements of the historic buildings. The promenade architecturale, for instance, was inspired by the processional route to the Acropolis. By the time the construction of Villa Savoye reached completion, Corbusier’s architectural promenade evoked not just the route to the Athenian city-centre, but also the Labyrinth of Daedalus and “Law of Meander”. This layered the understanding of the architectural space with a synthetic vision crafted by critical curation of precedents. Corbusier, in the words of David Rifkin, practised a misinterpretation or misprision of precedents.[1]

Harold Bloom, in his 1973 book, Anxiety of Influence, described the psychological struggle of aspiring creators to overcome the anxiety posed by the influence of their antecedents. The book described the risk of one’s work reading as derivative or too closely resembling the precedent it referred to. Bloom prescribes six “revisionary ratios”: Clinamen (poetic misreading), Tessera (completion of the original text), Kenosis (a movement toward discontinuity with the precursor), Daemonization (to generalize the uniqueness of the earlier work), Askesis (separation of the present poet from the precursor) and Apophrades (deliberateness that creates the uncanny effect that the precursor's work seems to be derivative of the present poet) [2]. Although Bloom had theorized these revisions for poets, they can be applied to architecture’s relationship to precedents too.

Peter Eisenman’s House II is another example of the use of Bloom’s revisionary ratios, namely clinamen. There are unmistakable parallels that can be drawn between Casa del Fascio by Tarragni and the architectural experiment that is House II. Eisenman appropriated one specific image, out of many published by Quadrante 35 in 1936. The image shows the main façade of Casa del Fascio framing a view of Lake Como with the mountains in the distance. That image, however, was a fabrication. The lake was not visible from this view. Terragni’s doctoring of the image allowed the reader to gauge the relationship between Casa del Fascio and its precedent – the Parthenon. Terragni, reportedly, modelled the upper-story loggias on the spaces between the peripheral columns and cela wall of the Athenian temple [1]. Peter Eisenman’s House II, could also be read as an example of Bloom’s daemonization. The house breaks away from the context, both political and geographic, of Casa del Fascio and looks beyond it and into Terragni’s precedent. The location of House II is atop a hill and the rugged landscape of the Vermont site. It immediately places one on the hill of the Acropolis. House II and the Parthenon are both sculptures on hills. The house has two support systems – one of columns, the other of walls. This excessive structural treatment forces new readings (or new parallels to be drawn). The Parthenon was a stone monument crafted in the image of wood- the redundancy of the structure speaks volumes of its relationship with its Etruscan precedent. [3] “In this redundancy, an architectural sign is created: each system’s function is to signify its lack of function”, Peter Eisenman says of his work.

Most of architecture consists of palimpsest of precedents across time and space. The Vitruvian Hut influenced the Etruscan Temple of Jupiter, which in turn served as precedent to Classical temples. Palladio brought the temple to the residence and stripped the precedent of its material and cultural context. This radical act of misprision changed the precedent it referenced as well. Eliot, in his essay Tradition and The Individual Talent says “The difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent that past's awareness of itself cannot show.'' [4] Perception of the past is affected greatly by its use as a precedent for the present.

The past, by the virtue of being used as precedent, has been subjected to a Deleuzian multiplicity. This clinical taking apart of the precedent makes one question the fate of architecture- is all act of building a metaphor for the ship of Theseus? “Can the legacy of our cities today be preserved without using them as frames of reference, maintaining their integrity while developing our eagerness for novelty”? [5]

Precedents enable the built environment to exist beyond its immediate context. The critical swerving of the precedent is in itself a continuous narrative that will, in time, distort the perception of chronology and space. The use of precedents, therefore, becomes an act of critically engaging with the built environment, be it for appropriation or adoration.


[1] Rifkind, David. “Misprision of Precedent: Design as Creative Misreading.” Journal of Architectural Education (1984-) 64, no. 2 (2011): 66–75.

[2] Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. United States, 1973.

[3] Fletcher, Banister, and J. C. Palmes. 1975. Sir Banister Fletcher's A history of architecture. London: Athlone Press.

[4] Eliot, T.S. 1919. Tradition and the Individual Talent.

[5] Moneo, Rafael. “Seeking the Significance of Today’s Architecture.” Log, no. 44 (2018): 35–44.

'Special Mention Award II’ goes to Rhythm Dua

“Precedents – A Base to Innovate”

“Every artist was first an amateur” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of many stages, and indeed a very interesting stage, of designing an architectural project is the case study. It is a study of Architectural Precedents. Precedents are something that has already been done, which then serves as an example to justify or authorize or inspire for similar practice. Precedents exist in every phase of our lives, be it moral, design, legal, emotional, etc. Humans work and react according to what they have seen around them. Therefore, every experience acts as a precedent for us at every stage of life. As the above quote says that everyone is amateur at the beginning so examples and precedents help them create a database to help build a vision. They act as do’s and don’ts or pros and cons data that gives an idea of what worked for whom in which situation.

In architecture, almost everything around us acts as a precedent. We use ancient and recent history to set guidelines and identify generic solutions to design problems that have been formulated in the past and are successful. The importance of history is far more than just names and dates as it sets a base for any new creation. Historical precedents are a source of enrichment for architects and not strict rules and regulations that have to be followed forever. Designing is a step-by-step process that involves conceptualization, idea formulation, techniques, and technology, practicality, and aesthetics. Precedents help us to understand these steps better but do not necessarily provide the solution for the current project. So, the notion that many believe, that precedents are the answer to all the doubts that arise while designing is not true. For example, the city Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier, is a precedent for all the urban planners as the workability of the design has proved to be successful in any and every way for years. But at the same time, the same techniques cannot be literally used for a problem of snow in Shimla or a flooding problem somewhere in Kerala.

Mostly the precedents that people use for their reference are of the eminent architects whose work has added meaning and value to the field of architecture. The amount of information and the kind of effort that is put in to create something meaningful becomes a great source of knowledge to create something new and increases the ability to generate new ideas. Precedents for a designer can be anything around us. Various design styles have evolved since the primitive eras which have been inspired by any and everything. Precedents in architecture don’t necessarily have to be just another built structure. It can be anything that gives inspiration or justification for a design. For example, Biomimicry architecture is a style of design that is not just inspired by nature for aesthetics and sustainability, but also deeply analyses and uses the concepts in nature for construction strategies and innovation. Buildings like the Dancing House in Prague, by Frank Ghery and Vlado Milunic, or the Harp Nieuw Vennep Bridge in the Netherlands, by Santiago Calavatra, are both inspired by dance and music respectively. The Sound of Chapel in Japan, by Ryuishi Ashizawa Architects, is not just a structure but a musical instrument itself. Situated near a lake, the wind travels into the building and flows over stainless steel wires that create beautiful harp-like sounds that change tone according to the wind. It is a beautiful example of how creatively the spaces are designed using precedents that is non-architectural, like the instrument Harp in the bridge in the Netherlands and the Sound of Chapel in Japan.

The similarity of ideas is a very common thing in creative fields. There is a thin line between copying ideas and getting inspired. If everyone in the architectural fraternity uses precedents as it is and starts to replicate ideas without innovation and originality, definitely there would be a time that everything would look similar. But thankfully, the designers, the clients, and the users are always looking for novelty. Humans tend to explore something new and that is why we humans as a race have evolved so much. Replicating an existing precedent can never be the perfect solution as every site is different and has its challenges. So even if something like this happens it is against the morality of the occupation. If every high-rise building in Mumbai starts to use each other’s design as a precedent, the skyline of Mumbai will not be as beautiful and interesting as it is now. It would simply be a box with partitions instead of a varying hierarchy which is a statement of the global ambitions of the millions of people in the city.

Precedents provide us with stories, struggles, inspirations, and so many unsaid efforts and emotions that have been put behind creating something. Architectural precedents are like time travel machines that give people a chance to feel and understand a different era, be it the old monuments or our ancestral homes. They allow the future designers to widen their perspectives, challenge us to innovate and explore outside the limited vision and exposure that each one of us is confined in.

Certificate of Appreciation_1: Aishwarya Mahadevan

“Looking beyond Architecture”

Taking up precedents in architecture is a widespread practice that is encouraged in both, the academic and professional fields. Precedents become important because they serve as living examples of what works and what doesn’t. But one essential aspect that we often turn a blind eye to is the time and the context in which this precedent is set. More often than not, architecture is seen to capitalize on and be highly sensitive to the zeitgeist. It thus becomes crucial to be mindful of what designers’ extract from these precedents. To be wooed by a genius precedent and apply it to the age and time in which it doesn’t belong can be a grave mistake in the creative field of architecture. The grandeur of the Taj Mahal, the openness of IIM Bangalore, and the material solidity of Therme Vals are fitted in the time of royalty, cooler climate, and abundance of resources.

Moreover, an architectural precedent establishes a certain convention that hardens with time. The consequence of this is the shaping of notions that we associate to spaces, the repetition of which makes it harder to break away from and innovate. It dangerously borderlines an ‘ideal quality’ or ‘the way to be’. We start linking grandness to monumentality, richness to the exclusiveness of the material, and darkness to dingy spaces. It also deepens the sense of an architectural language or type of spatial quality associated with a typology of buildings. A quality of diffused light and openness is associated with museums whereas tall height and dim-lit quality to churches. The argument is not about the validity of the trend that it sets, but of the fact that it does. This challenges the process of creation and innovation because of certain preconceived notions that we draw from architectural precedents.

Using an architectural precedent means identifying a piece of work as an ideal/ a guide or a well-suited example that I believe could lead to idolizing these pieces of work and forming strong attachments. We do so with many architects and their works today and in the process of discussing these precedents, it sets a level of expectation that many try to achieve. This often restricts their thought process and provokes them to, consciously or subconsciously, duplicate some aspects of this much-celebrated work.

So, where do we borrow precedents from?

Architecture is an interdisciplinary field that has the potential to tap into aspects of sociology, ecology, biology, art and aesthetics, storytelling, technology, construction, building energy and systems, planning, landscaping, etc. For an architect to be well versed in all these areas of expertise is unrealistic. Taking precedents from these fields not only provides an opportunity to enrich the architectural product but also broadens the scope of innovation. Applying a technological precedent like the power to efficiently analyze data and produce results through artificial intelligence in the process of data-heavy urban planning in architecture can result in the generation of smart cities. Storytelling too can offer an interesting insight into the powerful act of narrating lives in imagined environments. A precedent of weaving lives into fictional worlds provides for a great opportunity to challenge the status quo and fearlessly create an alternate world for the future generation.

Another intangible yet essential aspect of architecture is its spatial quality. The primary challenge that architecture poses is the inability to experience a space before building it. Can we then borrow precedents from our own life? Precedents can surely lie in the way humans behave and inhabit an environment daily. They give us clues on how a user’s behavior might change with changes in aspects of form and volume to aspects of materiality and tactility. This is not limited to within a building but must expand to open spaces. If not through personal experiences and observations, one can always see this captured and documented through other media like movies, TV shows, documentaries, and social media. How influencers use urban spaces to create content can give us clues about the way we engage with open spaces in the city. The frames and architectural sets that are used in movies can convey certain relationships of people to spaces.

There is so much scope in using lived experiences and lived behaviors as precedents to then apply to a physical medium. The need for architectural precedents is being replaced by software and technology that allows us to test new structural systems and their performance, and produce 3D renders and views to test material composition and aesthetics. Moreover, the main advantage of referring to precedents outside architecture is their open-endedness. They can’t directly transform into a physical space but become important learnings/ applications in the process of designing and creating. They are fresh and broad in nature that opens up doors to larger, undefined territories rather than defined spatial qualities.

Certificate of Appreciation_2: Siong Vui Choong

“The who, what, why, when and how of Architectural Precedents”

- Introduction

Studying Architectural Precedents have long been part of the education in many universities around the world. Some universities included Precedent studies in their Architectural Design courses, while those that do not, encourage students to take a completely liberal approach to design. There also seems to be a concern that studying architecture precedents will lead to limitations in design creativity. The purpose of this essay is to address these concerns and provide the reason that Architectural Precedents should be included in Architectural Education. Professional Architects should also include the studies of Architectural Precedents as part of their design process. For design inspirations, precedents do not always have to be architectural at all.

The first part of this essay will focus on what we can gain from the study of Architectural Precedents. The second part will discuss when to include Architectural Precedents in our design process. The third part provides an example of using past experiences of a historical events as precedents, which formed the basis of a great architecture project.

- What can we learn from Architecture precedents?

Architectural Precedents should serve as a basis to improve our design skills. It was particularly useful for young architects to understand how other great architects design and how we can approach different types of space and building typologies. Young Architects will also benefit by observing architectural drawings and analysis of spaces from past work of architects they studied. For Professional Architects, it is also particularly useful if they move from one building typology to another or from one scale to another and etc. Studying what has been done by other architects, will enable us to understand the current best practice or exemplar in architecture and provide us with the basis to challenge existing boundaries. As Pablo Picasso famously quoted “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Generally speaking, when choosing architectural precedents, the following criteria should be taken into account:

• Program or brief

• Scale and Size

• Location and climate

• Client (who are they for)

• Architectural style or language

• Architect or Designer

Analysis of architectural precedents should include but not be limited to the following aspects:

• Context and siting

• Planning and Circulation

• Interior space and spatial experience

• Structure design and innovation and earthquake control

• Spatial Composition

• Form and Function

• Tectonic and Materiality

• Urban Design and neighborhood characteristics

• Daylighting and light control

• Climate control and innovative solutions

• Ecologically Sustainable Design

The following is an example of precedent studies clearly laid out on an A3 sheet. A precedent analysis is best represented by images, text, hand sketches, key plans, sections and elevations. Each of us will generate analysis that may vary from one person to another due to differences in the level of understanding or area of focus and personal interpretation, which will ultimately lead to different design solutions. Therefore, the concerns that it will lead to similarity in design is unfounded.

Fig. 1. Barcelona Pavilion from: “Studio Lesson 101: Architecture Precedents.” Hawkins, Andrew, Life of an architect, 14 Jan. 2021. Accessed 8 Nov. 2021.

- When do we conduct the study of Architecture Precedents?

One of the biggest concerns of introducing the studies of architectural precedents to students is that, students tended to copy directly from the architectural precedents and styles of great architects they studied, with little or no input of their own into the project.

Therefore, the question is when architecture precedents should play a role in the design process? Based on my personal experience, architectural precedents studies should only be started when the designer has conducted a thorough site analysis, the design brief has been understood fully and has an idea of what the outcome they wish to achieve. Once these tasks have been completed, the search for Architectural precedents shall commence.

Fig. 2. Steps with conducting precedents studies, Siong Vui Choong.

Architecture precedents should be carefully chosen according to scale, functions, programs, location and climate. It is worth noting that Architectural precedents should also be limited to a few well-analyzed precedents, rather than a large number of poorly analyzed precedents. Students and Architects should critically questions themselves the appropriateness of Architectural precedents selected.

When site analysis is conducted, aspects such as: climate, site and planning constraints, history and urban context, architectural characters and urban morphology should be carefully scrutinized. Full knowledge in these aspects will provide us the parameters for design, which is what sets every project apart, even if the same Architecture precedents is referred to – it is our understanding that matters.

Without understanding the brief and site analysis in full, students or architects who only initiated their design process after referring to architectural precedents for inspiration may suffer from the absence of a natural guiding language or concept throughout the design process, hence resulting in less likelihood to produce a compelling piece of architecture.

- Must precedents always be architectural?

One of the easiest ways to find precedents is to identify what was on site by referring to historical maps, photos and plans from the archive. After all, local history plays an important part to define the architectural characters of local neighborhoods. Significant historical events which formed a part of collective memory from the past should precede over the history of other periods, particularly significant history which deals with life and death, sufferings and tragedy which evokes public memory.

Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany is an example of drawing precedents from human experience and significant historical events. Visitors were presented with the opportunity to witness the Jewish experience through the continuity with German history, emigration from Germany and the Holocaust. Libeskind’s zigzag building plan lead visitors through galleries, empty spaces and dead ends. The building tells the story that it is hard to escape as the slot openings are located high above the atrium space and beyond the reach of anyone. The building is less of a museum but instead a testament of Libeskind’s skillful translation of human experience into an architectural composition.

Fig. 3. Photographs of the Jewish Museum from: “Jewish Museum Berlin | Studio Libeskind”. Denis Esakov. ARCH2O,, Accessed 8 Nov. 2021.

- Conclusion

In conclusion, Architecture precedents studies is a good learning exercise for students and professionals, provided that it is properly studied and is relevant to the project the designer seeks to undertake. Architecture precedents research should be conducted only after the architect had a thorough understanding of the Brief, conducted site analysis and site visits and have an initial concept and massing. Architects should be made aware that their design process should not start by referring to architectural precedents for inspirations, as this tends to subtract from creativity. Precedents do not necessarily have to be architectural. History, experience and etc. have in the past been used as precedents which resulted in compelling works of architecture.

- References

Callender, Jassen. Architecture History and Theory in Reverse: From an Information Age to Eras of Meaning. Routledge, 2017. Paperback.

Clark, Roger H. and Pause, Michael. Precedents in Architecture: Analytic Diagrams, Formative Ideas, and Partis (4th edition). Wiley, 2012. Paperback/Softback.

Lin, Maya., McPhee, John (FRW)., Brenson, Michael (CON). and Fox, William L. Maya Lin: Typologies. Rizzoli International Publications, 2015. Hardcover.

Schneider, Bernhard. Daniel Libeskind: Jewish Museum, Berlin. Prestel Publishing Ltd., 1999. Hardcover.

Certificate of Appreciation_3: Saakshar Makhija

“Unfolding Patterns through Space and Time”

“New ideas must use old buildings” - Jane Jacobs

Architecture precedents are not limited to the built form. They encompass a plethora of notions that collectively make for guides in the design process. While in search of precedents, the question arises; is Precedent always an answer? Arguably so. As a designer, it is inherent to comprehend the patterns in society that shape our surroundings. While familiarizing with this language, it is through these existing patterns that a designer unravels the unknown. In such a case, one cannot observe a precedent in quarantine as the only study element. It is about gaining an understanding of the whole context encompassing it.

The search for a worthy precedent can only be in our past. It may range from being back in the day, dating back to a few years or even going to prehistoric times. Yet, it may fluctuate based on the conditions during the period. The advent of new technology and materials transposes this circumstance. Since the study of architectural precedents is an interdisciplinary one, it is not limited to the physical form or the spatial layout of the building. It is a synthesis of both tangible and intangible features. They together function as architecture precedents. How humans inhabit spaces articulates the non-physical characteristics that shape the layout. Furthermore, with both tectonics and technology advancing in architecture, the study of an architectural precedent is constantly evolving. Nonetheless, our focus should be on keeping the roots being the patterns unimpaired.

An intrinsic study using cognitive processes is integral to experience architecture. In my personal experience of moving to a new city of Vadodara, my interaction with spaces has been wholesome. The rather imperial city witnesses a rich heritage. It ranges from a macro-scale of an urban area to a micro-scale of Pol houses. The subjectiveness of how people behave in these spaces also holds value as an architectural precedent. With royalty imprinted in its past, this city embraces an eclectic style of architecture.

Wide streets and monumental buildings greet one at regular intervals. As a consequence, it forms a pattern in the urban realm. The colossal scale in itself is a precedent to what people experience through their lives. It is through the influence of architecture that the community is incorporated into the site context. The sensitivity of human perception enables them to desire what they see around them. In addition, the architecture becomes a medium of expression facilitating the whole process. Accordingly, in the design process of a residence in Vadodara, a client tends to express their inclination to have a grand entrance. They impulsively want to replicate the one they see in their surroundings. It is the formation of a pattern that varies with the requirement of varying levels of privacy.

Thus, an architect holds the responsibility of investigating the deep-rooted history. Besides, it is fundamental to assess evolution simultaneously.

In a similar vein, the landscape is an integral part of the city. The name - Vadodara derives from the Sanskrit word - ‘Vatodara’, meaning ‘in the heart of Banyan tree’. These veteran trees are flanked on both sides of the wide roads. Moreover, the old banyan trees are a metaphor for the embellishments in the city. So, the sensitivity towards nature cannot go unnoticed by the local people. It evokes the feeling of emotion in people. In the larger scheme of things, it performs as a tool for designing walkable streets. In a city so rich with natural heritage, the people tend to associate with the surrounding landscape. However, referring to the example of Copenhagen, the attachment of people to nature manifests as an architectural precedent. It forms a pattern that propagates with the ideology of the people located there.

By citing the examples above, one understands how the environment has plenty of precedents. But, do all architecture precedents need to be from architecture? Instead, we may redefine architecture as a collaborative program. It engages one through its physical or tangible features. On the other hand, innovation lies in the intent behind the same. This overall synthesis of an architectural program comes out as a form of expression. At the same time, the perception towards it is heterogeneous even if everyone looks at the same precedent. Besides, the interaction of one’s senses, as well as the cognitive abilities, vary significantly. The encounter between spaces and their inhabitants is both critical and complimentary. Nonetheless, it is subjective owing to the temporality in nature.

In the present day, with a technocentric approach, we are redefining architectural design strategies. However, there are underlying problems such as life in concrete jungles, climate change, urban heat island effect and more. Architects are in search of harnessing the power of designing spaces to accomplish the essence of architecture. Hence, a thorough analysis of architectural precedents can guide one to a more sustainable solution.

Note – No entry was found suitable for the ‘Citation Award’ in this cycle.

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