Understanding Ordering Principles in Architecture

Predominately, we associate this creative process with being unbound and purely imaginative with no strict rules to constrain it. And while it is mostly true..

Architecture (and design as a whole) is generally considered to be extremely spontaneous and creative processes, where ideas are conceptualized through sudden light-bulb moments. 

Predominately, we associate this creative process with being unbound and purely imaginative with no strict rules to constrain it. And while this is mostly true, there are certain principles of design you can utilize to make your end product more cohesive. 

In this article we guide you through the understanding of architectural ordering principles and how to implement them in your designs.

What are the ordering principles in architecture?

A “principle” is a fundamental idea/concept that serves as the foundation for a system. It is basically a guided trail for the people who are a part of a specific system. Principles are the fundamental truth of any system, a law that is to be followed, either desirably or as an inevitable consequence of something within that system. 

Similarly, an architectural principle (or ordering principle) sets the basis for the design process of an architectural project. Whilst it is true that a part of the design process is spontaneous and fueled by sudden inspiration, it does require some sort of formal order to organize and manage the design directions that take place. 

Implementation of these principles is necessary to ensure a balanced and coherent design – As without this, the end product may seem incomplete or crude.

This is where design principles come in, as they help to structure the form and proportions of your design. These ordering principles are not only used as a tool to design, but also to understand other designs.

Historians have discovered traces of these ordering principles in architecture as old as the ancient Greek empire. For example, the plan of the Parthenon has a strict linear axis and repetition in form of the columns. Similarly, we see rhythm in the infamous facade of the roman colosseum. 

Ordering Principles in Architecture

Hence, these principles are seen everywhere around us if one was to pay a little attention.

While these words were formally introduced in western Europe in the late nineteenth century, the principles have impacted art and design for thousands of years. They make the design, whether it be art or architecture, visually appealing and understandable. 

Principles of order are a pathway towards a cohesive end-product and their incorporation in a design is necessary for balance and coherence.

The principles of order in architecture 

Having established the importance of design principles, let’s get into understanding what these principles are and how they can be implemented in our designs. For your ease, we have provided a brief explanation and use of each of the design principles below.

Note: keep in mind that these principles can seem quite similar at times and overlap frequently.


An axis, in physics, is the imaginary line around which an object rotates. And similarly, in design, an axis is the centralized line around which other elements and spaces can be organized. 

It is a linear condition that is formed when two significant elements are present on each side of the middle “line”.

Axial design is used to bring the eye towards one specific element at the end of the axis, usually of great importance, i.e. a window or sculpture, etc. It is a formal design principle that is used to depict the linear elements of design. 

Axis’ can be emphasized by placing symmetric or non-symmetric elements on either side e.g. trees placed on both sides of a linear road.

A good example of a major axis can be seen in the Salk institute, where the outer courtyard has a centralized axis towards the water through a water body. The axis is emphasized by the balanced built structures on either side of the water body.

Ordering Principles in Architecture


Perhaps one of the most widespread and frequently used principles of order in art and architecture, symmetry essentially occurs when both sides of an object mirror each other. 

So, if one were to cut a symmetrical object in half, both sides would be exactly the same as each other. Symmetry is inherently very attractive to the human eyes and symmetric faces are considered very alluring.

In architecture, symmetry is the balanced distribution of various spaces and elements on the opposing sides of a central line hence symmetrical buildings can generally be divided along a central axis. 

It is often found in spaces that are used to depict importance, formality, or power (religious or political) e.g. in churches, mosques, government buildings, or head offices, but can also historically be observed in architectural landscaping e.g. the gardens of Versailles or the Mughal royal gardens.

A building’s symmetry can be created either via its plan or the form itself. For example. The Taj Mahal in Agra is one of the best examples of this, where both its form and plan are perfectly balanced.

Ordering Principles in Architecture


Hierarchy in its simplest form is essentially the implication that one element is more important than the other. The reason for creating a hierarchy in architecture may be functional or purely aesthetic. Hierarchy can be created through size, color, materiality, shape, position, etc. 

Historically, rooms of importance in buildings were kept larger or in a different shape to the ones surrounding them. This provided a distinct identity to that space and highlighted its importance simply through its design language. 

Domes are one of the most frequently used hierarchical elements in architectural history, where buildings with major significance were given a dome instead of a flat or pitched roof. This can be observed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, where the huge dome is visible from afar making it a prominent feature in its context.

Ordering Principles in Architecture


Transformation is based on the idea that architectural forms, concepts, structures, etc. can go through a series of changes in response to their context and conditions without losing their identity. 

Transformation is one of the most complex ordering principles in architecture because it doesn’t just factor into the tangible physical fabric of the building but is dependent on the intangibles of the site as well. Transformability requires an architect to fully understand the past as well as the future of the building’s context.

Architecture is often derived from its natural surroundings and obviously, these surroundings can change over time or under different conditions. But through the process of exploration, a form can be achieved that is in accordance with the new context but hasn’t lost its original essence. 

This is also a type of transformation.

Sometimes transformation appears in the design process where little changes are made in each new iteration so that the overall form does not look completely different but small spaces have been changed subtly.


A datum is an architectural element (this could be a surface, a volume, or a line, for example) that anchors all other elements of the design around it. The datum achieves this through its continuity or regularity. 

A datum is an incredibly important element as it helps to organize an otherwise random pattern of forms or spaces. 

It is usually a purely visual element that has sufficient visual accessibility and size. A datum could simply be the singular plane on the side of the road on which a house is built i.e. the ground. Even though the houses might all be different, they have a clear datum which is the ground. 

One of the most well-known examples of a datum is in the Sydney opera house. Where the datum is formed by the consistent shape of the outer shells of the building. While the shells differ in size and orientation, their outline (or shape) remains the same throughout and helps to give a cohesive aesthetic to the building.

Ordering Principles in Architecture


In music, rhythm is the melodic pulses and beats that form a musical sound. In architecture, it is the unifying visual movement that is created by the repetition of a pattern at a specified interval ( this could be regular or irregular).

In architecture, rhythm is often created by elements placed and repeated at intervals. For example, Roman architecture is often characterized by the rhythm it archives through its vaults and arches as well as its columns, as seen in the Parthenon. 

Similarly in Calatrav’s design of the turning torso in Sweden, rhythm is created through the progressive twisting of the plan after every 5 floors.

Ordering Principles in Architecture


Patterns are formed when architectural elements are repeated in a predictable manner with little to no variation – unlike in rhythm, where the intervals and elements may change.

Patterns are used in architecture usually in the finishing of surfaces or facades as a purely aesthetic element. Distinct patterns may define the essence of a building and make it appear more attractive to onlookers.

For example, the repetitive pattern used in Moroccan tile or the patterns used in Indian jaalis (latticed screens). Patterns are found in almost all of Mughal architecture in India and Pakistan such as the Lahore fort or the Taj Mahal.


Repetition is perhaps the simplest design principle as it is visible to us everywhere, even in nature. It is the repeated use of any architectural element and is used to reinforce identity or create familiarity. 

For example, the repeated use of the columns in the Parthenon creates harmony and unity in the entire structure. 

People often get confused between pattern and repetition but there is a very simple difference between them. Repetition means for a single object to be repeated whereas, patterns are made up of different elements that are then repeated at regular intervals.

Ordering Principles in Architecture

To sum up 

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the ordering principles of architecture are one of the most important facets of design. 

Their importance can be understood by the fact that while architecture is an extremely dynamic and evolving field, these principles of order are still much in existence and used frequently today. 

Understanding and utilizing ordering principles in a balanced way is often the mark of a good architect, and students would therefore benefit greatly from understanding and learning them at an early stage 

However, as a designer, it is pertinent that you find a middle ground between free creativity and these structured principles, as an excess of either can result in a very chaotic or rigid design.  So look around you and try to identify the various ordering principles present in your surroundings. Happy learning!

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