Aedicular frames sheltering sculpture at the south porch of Chartres Cathedral (photo by Andreas F. Borchert, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and 1.0 Generic license).
I don’t think there’s ever been a child who didn’t enjoy crawling under a table, or building a shelter out of cardboard boxes, couch cushions or blankets and proclaiming it his or her house or fort. The appeal of a little house in which to establish dominion over one’s territory is universal. As the British architectural historian Sir John Summerson wrote in his essay Heavenly Mansions, “It is symbolism—of a fundamental kind, expressed in terms of play.”
The symbolism of the miniature shelter lies in both its coziness (which intensifies the sense of security in a hostile world) and its ceremony (the idea of neatness and serenity within, contrasting with wildness and confusion without). In historic architecture, the little house often served as a symbolic and spiritual center within or as part of a bigger building. For example, countless churches, cathedrals, temples, and shrines throughout history have incorporated miniaturized symbols of shelter for ceremonial purposes. These may have taken the form of a ciborium or a baldachin (a freestanding canopy supported on columns), or as two-dimensional frames or niches within which sculptural figures expressed theological concepts. As parts of larger structures, the diminutive shelters also preserved the human scale. The architectural name for one of these little buildings is aedicula.
The first time you hear the word aedicula, it sounds as though it might be a name for part of the human body, like the uvula—that funny thing that hangs at the back of your throat. Its etymology dates to the Latin of ancient Rome, and literally translates as “little building.” Today, we can largely credit the continued use of the word and application of the aedicula concept to Summerson and also to Charles Moore(1). Moore, along with Gerald Allen and Donlyn Lyndon, presented contemporary uses of aediculae in residential architecture in their book The Place of Houses.
The notion of the aedicula appeals to me because it recalls the interpretations of home, shelter, and protection we all invented as kids. This genesis is primal, instinctive, and innocent. The aedicula is a childlike design response we can apply to real-world, grown-up architecture of all kinds. For Moore and his colleagues, the aedicule provided a way of accommodating the general need for a symbolic center in the midst of the specific demands of a household. Other architects have employed aediculae to likewise differentiate spaces within spaces, or as elements to ceremoniously frame special settings.
Picture of a table fort via The Artful Parent
We never really outgrow our love for things that appeal to our inner child—our imaginative, creative, and wide-eyed self. As children we innately understood the significance of our play. We learned how to demarcate and occupy space, to build a refuge and exclude the elements. What we may not have understood was how central and important the symbolism of the “little houses” we created was to our youthful fantasies. In fact, the creativity we express as adults and our use of symbols is the offspring of the imagination we all cultivate at a very young age.
As Sir John Summerson noted, the concept of the aedicula is an idea of fundamental importance in the aesthetics of architecture. Aediculae are elemental expressions of shelter, centeredness, and place. Throughout history, they’ve served as vessels laden with symbolism and as centers for ceremony. Their place in the architect’s toolbox is assured, and yet their use in contemporary work isn’t as commonplace as it might be.
I believe the aedicula is ripe for rediscovery by architects precisely because of its potency as an architectural device. In a word, the aedicula is AWESOME!
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(1) I had the privilege of working with Charles Moore as an employee of the Urban Innovations Group in Los Angeles from 1985 to 1987.