“Sacred Symbolic Architecture: Time and Orientation” 

By A. T. Mann

A. T. Mann
An architecture graduate of Cornell University and an astrologer since 1972, he has written many books such as “The Round Art of Astrology,” “Sacred Architecture,” and “Sacred Landscapes” which will be published in October 2010. The Mandala Astrological Tarot will be republished in 2009 and he writes reports for tarot.com. He is Director of Publications for NCGR, designs websites and is a member of the Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality.

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #12 – Autumn 2009

Lynn Davis (b. 1944) received a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1970 and apprenticed with Berenice Abbott in the summer of 1974. She has had 68 solo shows since 1980 and has work in many collections including those of: Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, J. Paul Getty Museum, Guggenheim Museum and Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. She has taken photographs in 46 countries including Egypt, Yemen, Burma, Cambodia, Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Greenland and most recently Greece & Brazil. Davis lives and works in Hudson, New York.


Sacred sites and the sacred architecture in many religions and cultures often utilized symbolism inherent in their geometry, and their orientation in time. Thus orientation, proportion, and flow are keys for the siting, shape, ecology, and design of sacred places, including whole cities. For example, Tibetan Buddhist deity meditations are guided imageries that invoke realms of the sacred mandala paintings, which are simultaneously cosmoses and worlds and are profoundly architectural in their mechanism and intent. The city (in the outer world) is similar in form to the mandala (a map of the inner world) and both are reflections of the same conceptions.

After graduating from the Cornell University College of Architecture in 1966, I worked as an architectural designer in New York City and later Rome, Italy. During school I had gradually become aware of the tendency to understand buildings as abstract objects in an ideal world; often intellectually, if not literally, divorced from their environments, which is a primarily spatial view of architecture. I became interested in how we move through and around buildings, which happens in time, and this changed my perspective profoundly. My focus became more oriented toward the sequences of spaces and their proportions, movements of air and people from outside to within and vice versa, the shifts in attitude when we turn in different directions, and the guiding principle of progressions of movement that function “in time” as one moves around buildings or natural spaces. The proportions of walls, colors, textures, light and shadow, spaces and passageways all modify our experience of moving through these spaces and they are never the same. While I like abstraction, I came to feel that buildings must be more accessible, comfortable, ecological, and scaled to the human touch.

After some years of traveling and living in Europe and the Far East, I came to understand and study astrology, which is a science and art of working with and decoding cycles in time. In an unexpected way my interest in astrology reactivated my earlier quest to understand architecture and the mysteries of number, proportion, and form, and it soon provided me with an underlying and ancient cosmology, history, and mystical tradition for which I had searched in vain at Cornell and during my working career. Architecture and astrology seem antithetical, but I discovered that in early times they were often integral to important architecture. I quickly realized that both these skills were essential in order to understand and create sacred architecture.
I had originally thought that architecture was a mystical practice and found it odd that my professors or renowned architects didn’t explicate this mystery or even refer to it. I always felt that proportion, shape, and orientation in architecture were vehicles for higher meaning, for communicating ideas, but my new astrological world view informed by studying religious and mystical traditions and astrology, demonstrated beyond doubt that the three dimensions of traditional architecture (height, length, and breadth) were often subsumed by the fourth, the most powerful and most difficult to define dimension, time. We don’t experience a building in some idealistic space, but in real time. Indeed, “sacred” architecture is a building, temple, or space where an integration of space and time, earth and heaven is felt and its interaction transcends the ideal. The subtitle for my next book “Sacred Landscapes” (A. T. Mann with photographs by Lynn Davis, Sterling, New York, 2010) is “The Threshold between Worlds,”1 which means that when we experience sacred places, we enter a special domain that is linked to other, more spiritual worlds, both in history and within ourselves. In the ancient world natural spaces were revered or buildings created to correspond not only to stylistic concerns, but to reflect in their proportions and orientation a literal connection with their environment as well as the universe, in time as well as in space, and as a link to the beyond. When the site or building is considered in this way, it is profoundly ecological as it becomes an integral part of the larger world, as well as a spiritual symbol. This is a lesson that can be beneficial for our current architecture.

Early sacred architecture fulfilled many functions simultaneously. Ordinary people would have had a limited understanding of the real significance and underlying dynamics of such places, but they would still have resonated deeply with them, as though feeling their more profound intentions. Early priesthoods transmitted the mysteries of the sacred places under their control and helped perpetuate the sense of wonder that the populace in general experienced.
Magical sites such as Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid at Giza or Machu Picchu in Peru were religious monuments, ritual centers, religious symbols (like solar symbols2), astronomical observatories and calendars (these two are integral and reflect each other), canons of measurement in stone, iconic sacred places of pilgrimage, and libraries or repositories of ancient knowledge. (Image 4) It is usually the case that in such places the form and orientation and proportions are major organizing mechanisms that provide information to those able to decode them. It is probable that the sheer size and complexity of these two monuments were instrumental in organizing their respective populaces in their construction. This may indeed be a common function of such monuments. (Image 5)
This understanding expanded a vision of architecture that includes not only the impact of the beauty of buildings themselves, but their additional symbolic and spiritual layers of significance and meaning. When we visit sacred buildings or sacred places (trees, mountains, rivers, oceans, waterfalls, etc.) in nature, they evoke something special and profound in us. They trigger embedded memories of older and deeper mysteries of which we now know little. And despite our lack of knowing their initial rationale, we recognize instantly their inner power to transform us. Therefore, the architecture that I consider sacred is that which has a common root in the life of the soul and spiritual vision, rather than that which simply reflects traditional religious forms. Symbolism and meaning in architecture are more important than aesthetics.
This definition requires that we define the word “spirit.” Spirit is the active, dynamic aspect of the psyche, independent of forms, yet an essence which seeks expression in and through the world, always invested in forms. Those forms into which spiritual energy flows reflect a sense of the divine, and initiates developed a science of such forms throughout history, a science based on symbolism and geometry. Such symbols manifest spiritual archetypes according to definite laws, and express their essence through form. Symbolic qualities evoke inner beauty and truth to understanding in a way unavailable to pure form-creation. Symbolic architecture is based on principles which extend beyond formal rules, because it taps the depths of the unconscious and mythic layers of being, as well as activating higher spiritual qualities.

In physics resonance is a mechanism by which pairs of atoms, objects, wave forms or beings that move in a similar fashion and at a common frequency instantly communicate information over large distances. This information flows both ways faster than the speed of light, making it truly mysterious and strange. We recognize it as the special process of being “on the same wavelength” as someone else, or when we are in a room full of unfamiliar people and see someone who we know will be a friend. In music, resonance is when a musician produces a sympathetic vibration that intensifies or prolongs an initial sound. Some Eastern musical instruments like sitars and veenas that have sympathetic strings and resonant chambers on the body of the instrument that vibrate with the outer strings. Resonance enriches the apparent significance of things and evokes deep emotional experiences spontaneously.
Sacred architecture and sacred landscapes communicate their sacrality in resonant ways: when we experience such places we resonate with their energy fields, the density of their materials, the play of light and shadow, the look of certain angles or curves, or even the field of experience that the landscape carries based on events that happened there in the beginning times, as in the lore of Australian aborigines. This is particularly true for buildings that are sited and oriented in relation to the zodiac or certain fixed stars, or the rising or setting positions of the luminaries. It is as though they are in synch with the environment through time. In a way, when monuments or sacred buildings are constructed in such places they act as a kind of focus for our own, sometimes unresolved, resonant dynamics and therefore the building or object becomes a sounding board for many inexplicably deep feelings that the place can evoke as it centers it and brings it into tangible form. In this sense, the resonance of sacred architecture and places links heaven and earth, above and below, without and within. We pass between worlds in such places much more easily because the very environment encourages its sacred presence, and if we are willing to “go there” we can enter the spirit of such a place and receive its profound messages.3
The relationship of landscapes and buildings to the arc of the sun and moon and to the natural progression of days, nights, and seasons affects our awareness and our bodies in profound ways, but we easily neglect how we situate ourselves in respect to these natural patterns of life because we have resisted accepting such deeper feelings for many centuries. Our sense of our environment has been distorted, which has led to many people feeling “out of touch” with the Earth. We could even take this further and state that this is a primary underlying cause of our environmental crisis. We have lost touch with Earth rhythms! The shifts of light and shadow continually modify and play with the landscape, and our orientation in space and time is essential as it orients us to the source of planetary energy, the sun. (Image 6)
The Scottish architect William Lethaby wrote in Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (1892), that the “perfect temple should stand at the centre of the world, a microcosm of the universe fabric, its walls built four square with the wall of heaven.” This means that it is essential to orient to the cardinal angles in order to be secure in respect to the surrounding universe. Many of the earliest human conceptions of the universe were as a cube oriented to the four angles, as exemplified in the construction and orientation of Egyptian temples, Buddhist stupas, Mexican pyramids, as well as Greek, Christian, Islamic, and Persian theologies. Indeed, this idea of Paradise as a garden enclosed on four sides comes from the original Persian root word Pairi-daeza meaning walled garden, to the Latin Paradasus and then the French Paradis. Islamic derivation of the word “paradise” is Ferdaws.
Sacred buildings universally respect the four cardinal directions because they reflect the foundation orientation against which the movements of the sun, moon, and planets can be measured. In earlier cultures, the planets’ movements against the background of the stars were seen as messengers of the gods and goddesses.
There is evidence that most early cultures watched, revered, and oriented their sacred places towards luminaries, the sun or moon, as well as planets like Venus (the morning/evening star) and even certain constellations. The luminaries and planets all move within some degrees of the Sun’s path, called the ecliptic, while the constellations and individual fixed stars always rise and set at specific latitudes either above or below the ecliptic. The three major pyramids of Giza are situated in the landscape to reflect the constellation Orion and the placement of major temples at Angkor Thom in Cambodia reflect the constellation Draco. Some suggest that the Greeks worshipped Demeter by orienting her temples toward the sunrises, while the Dodona temples in Greece are oriented toward the opposite constellations Leo and Aquarius. (Image 7)
This astronomical positioning links temples across Greece with their appropriate constellations, so that if the Parthenon is the navel of the Greek empire, then the sacred site at Delphi is equivalent to the Pole Star. Jean Richer, author of Sacred Geography of the Ancient Greeks (1994) suggests that the entire structure of Athenian society is also based on this geometry manifest in their landscape. Thus: “the Athenians (were divided) into four groups, each group into three tribes and every tribe into thirty clans.” In addition, it is easy to see that this structure reflects the organization of astrology and astronomy, which in ancient times were the same thing.
The incorporation of celestial movements and mythological figures into ancient Greek landscaping animated these ancient sites, and many of the early Mediterranean sacred buildings were placed on sites where the sacred was alive. Later, these sacred landscapes accumulated temples and other ritual markers, but in the beginning their sacredness was based purely upon their location as related to the stars and planets.
The first Mosques in the seventh century were oriented toward Jerusalem. However, from the eighth century onward, the Qibla wall of Mosques were oriented toward Mecca, and soon thereafter it was accented and enhanced by the Mihrab, which is a niche set into the wall to indicate the prayer’s direction to Mecca. As Islam spread in all directions away from Mecca, the Mihrabs became more and more elaborate, and it is obvious that the orientations of Mosques were always different and in a symbolic way encircled Mecca in ever-expanding circles or waves of influence. (Image 8)
While we know that the cross that is symbolic of Christianity is also a reference to the east-west orientation of churches and cathedrals. (Image 9)
This is similar to the orientation of the great cathedrals built in Europe from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. Although they are all nominally orientated along an east-west axis, in reality there is a clever move designed to differentiate them. Each cathedral was dedicated to a patron Saint and therefore was consecrated on a certain Saint’s Day during the year. When the cathedral was planned, it was common for the Bishop and master mason to be at the site of the altar on that Saint’s Day, so that when the sun rose, the axis indicated by the shadow of a vertical staff placed in the ground at the site of the altar would define its unique axis. From then on, on the appropriate Saint’s Days each year, the sun would rise and cast its first rays along the axis of the cathedral. In this way the cathedral was integrated into the yearly ritual cycle of Roman Catholicism.
The unique and mystical mathematical proportions of the human life time and psyche synchronize with planetary rhythms and geometry, as Plato, Pythagoras and the Hermeticists stated. Geometry and number are the primary source of magical as well as scientific thought, linking humanity to cosmos. Modern solar panels that move with the sun’s daily route across the sky and passive solar buildings do utilize these principles of orientation in their design. We can learn much from buildings that are sited and oriented toward natural phenomena like the rising and setting of the sun and moon and stars, and they might just lead us back into harmony with our cosmos.

Note: All of the photos are © All World Rights Reserved, Lynn Davis, Except the mandala painting which is © All World Rights Reserved, A T Mann

1. Mann, A. T., Sacred Landscapes: Threshold between Worlds, with photographs by Lynn Davis, Sterling, New York, 2010.

2. Bauval, Robert and Gilbert, Adrian, The Orion Mystery, Heinemann, London, 1994, p. 26-7.

3. In the new physics there is even a process called “entanglement” that Einstein predicted and essentially suggests that two subatomic particles can become entangled and inextricably linked so that even if they are separated by being in different universes, a change in one particle would instantly be reflected in the other. See Aczel, Amir D., Entanglement, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 2001.