Superstition in architecture is surprisingly pervasive. You would think, in the ever-advancing world of 3D software design and digital prototyping, that the old ways might be at odds with the new technology and functional design. But take a second to think about how many people you know who still throw a pinch of salt over their shoulders or knock on wood to ward off bad luck…
It’s not such a stretch to see why engineers, architects and construction workers – whose work can leave lives hanging in the balance – might want to attract some good vibes. And, since people live so closely with architectural structures it’s not so surprising that they would attach superstitions and myths to them.
Building ceremony into PR exercise
The foundation stone or cornerstone is significant in functional design because other stones are arranged around it. There are references to it in the Old Testament and other texts. In modern times it has come to have ceremonial significance, often laid by the local mayor or celebrity. In times gone by, however, the ceremony included offerings such as grain or wine, and in older times even animal offerings or human sacrifice. Churches sometimes have relics placed in a hollowed out portion of the stone, and more modern buildings include objects of cultural significance, like newspapers or coins, in their cornerstone. The Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria had a ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone on the 16th of December 1938 where descendents of members the Great Trek laid objects of importance behind it. These included a copy of Jan van Riebeeck’s diary, a copy of the Piet Retief-Dingaan Treaty, and the family Bible of Mr. Henning Klopper.
Everyday, tourists from around the world follow a common travel superstition that if you toss coins into the Trevi Fountain fountain in Rome (using the right hand over the left shoulder) you will return to the Eternal City. The beautiful baroque fountain is probably the most famous fountain in the world and it might even be said that superstition superseded its structural design. Coin tossing is so prevalent that Roman authorities collect up to €600, 000 a year in revenue. The creation of the act has been attributed to a nineteenth century German archaeologist who was inspired by an ancient practice – travellers from Celtic and Roman cultural areas especially – used to offer sacrifices to bridge and spring deities when they passed.
The Pont des Arts in Paris shows how rapidly an idea can take hold and gain momentum in popular consciousness and could even affect structural design. Tourists visiting the “City of Love” chose this bridge as a place to demonstrate their love by attaching a lock and throwing the key into the Seine River. From 2008 (when the practice is said to have taken off) until 2014 (when it was halted) it is estimated that the bridge collected over 700,000 locks, raising concerns about the safety of the bridge, not to mention the water below. With the functional design being compromised, the locks were removed. There has been no word on how this has affected the relationships of their owners.
Is this your floor?
Thirteen has long been seen as unlucky in Western culture. Attributed to the unhappy arrival of Judas Iscariot at the last supper – Jesus’ betrayer was the thirteenth guest – the number has subsequently been avoided, if not outright feared. Some airlines do not have a row thirteen and buildings often do not have a floor thirteen either. According to some research more than 80% of skyscrapers in the United States do not include a thirteenth floor, with hotels, hospitals, and airports avoiding the number too. Many South African buildings do not have a thirteenth floor either, for example the Michelangelo Tower in Sandton.
Top it all
“Topping Out” is a modern practice where a celebration is held as the last beam is placed on a building. A tree, branch or sprig may be attached to the beam as a symbol of good luck and continued growth. There are a few theories about the origin of this custom. One of them is that it may date back to the pre-Dark Age Scandinavian cultures which placed a tree on top of new buildings as appeasement for the tree-dwelling spirits that were displaced. Topping Out was taken to England via Scandinavian invaders in the eighth century and is now found in countries all over the world.
For more information on how software can enhance functional designs, watch our Revit video 2016 on structural analysis.