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Visual Expression in Architecture

By: Djordje Alfirevic.


Analyzing flaws in ideas and stylistic tendencies in architecture, it may be noticed that many phenomena have been repeated in the course of history in a more or less altered form. New ideas have occasionally emerged with different possibilities for creating architectural forms and contents, but they would very often vanish at the very beginning, because they could not exist longterm in given circumstances, i.e. they were not appropriate to that particular time and space.

Certain ideas have been more widely accepted and have managed to develop into a new, pure and important architectural direction. Such creative tendencies usually emerge out of nowhere, develop quickly, experience their short culmination and then gradually fade away over a long period (but almost never completely). Their appearance and gradual extinction blend into a ”grayness” of parallel tendencies. In most cases, the emergence of architectural tendencies is related to historical turning-points in which radical social, economic and other changes take place. The cyclic character of these tendencies has long been observed and considered to have emerged in crucial and critical moments of the development of architecture and art, when the conditions were ripe for defining a new perception of the world and for establishing new forms (Trifunović, 1969).

If one tried to reduce the number of architectural tendencies to only several basic ones, it would be possible to distinguish three different elementary groups: a) inventive (creative); b) pragmatic (rational); and c) traditionalistic (historical) architecture (Jencks, 1986).

In the mid-20th century, Herbert Read, an art critic, introduced the thesis that art ”is an expression of feelings of the certain states of an individual’s intuition, perception or emotion” (Read, 1957). In the following text, we will attempt to make a relationship between Read’s assertions about the existence of elementary creative factors in art – realism, idealism and expressionism and the main architectural tendencies, with the aim of also indicating the possible existence of elementary creative orientations in architecture, which herein we will call: mimesis, associativity and expression.


Mimicry (Greek mimikos - mimicking) represents a permanent or temporary similarity of elements in shape, color or other external properties with their surrounding, making it difficult to distinguish between them, although there is no other connection, except for these external similarities. The terms mimicry and mimesis are often equated, although apart from their similarity in meaning they are essentially different. The term mimicry is used when talking about mimicking in nature, i.e. species that are mimicking visual or other characteristics of each other, while the term mimesis is related more to art terminology and represents mimicking in a wider sense.

Mimicry in nature

Mimicry is not characteristic of people only, but it is found in flora and fauna as one of the main principles of protection and selfpreservation in nature. The survival of the species depends on the degree of their adaptation to the surroundings; whether they are protecting themselves against vultures, or using mimicry for capturing their food more easily. Mimicking is a natural trait of human beings from their childhood. In this way, they acquire their first knowledge about the surroundings to which they are trying to adapt. The phenomenon of people trying to adapt to their surroundings is known in psychology as introjection, meaning the process of drawing objects into our subjective circle of interest (Jung, 2003). Our famous geographer Jovan Cvijić also wrote about this phenomenon, mentioning moral mimicry and subservient mentality (rajinski mentality), which occur when enslaved people equate themselves with their conqueror.

Mimesis in art

Something that is impossible, but probable, is more desirable than something that is possible, but improbable (Aristotle). Mimesis is one of the oldest antique principles, on which rests the relation of artists and their work towards reality. Artwork is not a copy of some model, a pale shadow of an idea, and what it represents when it repeats or mimics is not an object but an artifact or a fictional being (Cauquelin, 2005).

The controversy over whether or not the art should mimic nature (Plato), and, if it does mimic it, whether it should transform a concrete figure, thus creating an idealized type or paradigm (Aristotle) which surpasses the reality, was waged in the same or similar form until Modernism, when it was rejected with the first avant-garde experiments. Since the very beginning of artistic creativity until today, there have been many art movements which have assumed the mimesis as a basic principle of creativity: realism, naturalism, impressionism, hyperrealism, etc.

The essence of any movement based on mimesis is in the aspiration to achieve a creative ideal which exists expressed in its perfect manifestation so far only in nature. That is why great masters of mimesis like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer did not aspire to copy the phenomenon, but managed to breathe life into their visions, whereby succeeding to reach perfection in their creativity. If nature is observed as an embodied ideal, there is still a dose of relativity in human perception that is different for every individual, thus raising the question of the expediency of mimetic (realistic) expression.

Mimesis in architecture

True architecture is always a reflection of space. Regardless of when it was created, it is as if it had always been there (Aleš Vodopivec)Considering the fact that in architecture compared to other arts, the degree of limitation, which is conditioned by factors of time and place is greater, the question arises as to whether it is at all possible to depart from mimesis, because the structure must be adjusted to the needs of the beneficiaries in order to be called architecture in the first place. Therefore, it can be concluded that mimesis (understood in its widest sense) is in the essence of each architectural creation; it is only a question of how widely it is interpreted.

1. Mimetic house, Feevaghmore (D. Stevens)
1. Mimetic house, Feevaghmore (D. Stevens)

Only when a structure is positioned in a certain place, and when the regulations are met together with the other location conditions (mimesis in its wider sense), there is a possibility of applying mimesis in its narrower sense, as well as associativity and expression, which are reflected in the layout and elevation (”plastics” and materialization).

Compared to art in general, the notion of mimesis in architecture is widely interpreted. Three main categories of mimetism can be singled out as follows:

1. Mimicry of structures means copying elements of a certain style or complete architectural shapes from immediate surroundings or a wider surrounding area.

2. Mimicry of surroundings implies a visual unity with or the ”disappearance” in the natural or artificial surroundings – principle of dematerialization (Čarapić, 2008).

3. Development in the “spirit of the place” (genius loci) is the main principle of contextualism, as the highest level of mimesis.

Examples of copying elements of a certain style or elements from the surroundings are often found in practice. A typical example of mimesis is found in Greek temples where original forms of temples have been translated from the wooden into stone materials by mimicking the stylistic features. Today, advocating such an attitude is less justified, except in cases when it is necessary to strengthen the wholeness of a spatial or ambience entity, and only if it has an exceptional architectural, cultural or some other value. By introducing new stylistic features to a greater extent in some protected ambience, the importance and value of the original is diminished.

Another form of mimetism occurs with objects that are visually camouflaged and seemingly blend into the surroundings (Fig.1). It is applied in cases when, out of certain reasons (capacity, inappropriate program contents, etc.) it may not be possible to establish a dialogue with the surroundings. In such a case, the ”illusion” of dematerialization, i.e. visual neutralization of volume, is employed.

One of the well-known examples of dematerialization is the new, reconstructed part of the Louvre Museum with facilities hidden beneath the museum plateau and the main access through a transparent, glass pyramid which does not disturb the view of the protected surroundings. In the exhibition pavilion ”Blur Building”, which was built for the world exhibition Swiss Expo 2002 on a lake in Switzerland, the form seemingly disappears in a cloud of steam artificially created around the building’s facade (Fig.2).

Contextualism in architecture is a viewpoint where tolerant relationship to the surroundings (”spirit of place”) is brought to the fore, from where the motives and inspiration are drawn and sought after for creative action in the space. This approach involves the widest interpretation of the notion of mimesis, thus getting close to the notion of the associative.

Achievements of architect F.L.Wright, known by his refined feeling for the essence of both the immediate surroundings and the wider surrounding area, provide an excellent example of such creative perception. Like the works of the great masters of mimesis (Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo) Wright’s house on the waterfall (Fig.3) does not mimic its immediate surroundings, but corresponds with the spirit of nature. The form of the house cascades through the forest evoking an image of stoned water ”running” down the rocks.

2. Blur building, Lake Neuchatel (Diller amp; Scofidio)
2. Blur building, Lake Neuchatel (Diller & Scofidio)
3. Fallingwater house, Mill Run (F. L. Wright)
3. Fallingwater house, Mill Run (F. L. Wright)


Association (in Latin – connection, association, brotherhood)

Association of thoughts means causing the occurrence of a thought about an object as a result of mentioning or recalling the other object, which has been in some connection with the previous one, usually by its similarity or difference.

Associativity in psychology

Associations, as a specific form of aesthetic observance or decision-making, may occur in several qualitatively different ways. Depending on the duration of emotional experience and depth of cognitive analysis, there are three types of aesthetic observance, i.e. levels of analysis of visual, phenomenal or other information, which are involved in the process of associating (Ognjenović, 1997).

H level – implies a process of phenomenon and shape simplification, insisting on a good form and emphasizing the rhythm, symmetry and golden section. The main idea of such a way of processing is harmony (therefrom the letter H). Cognitive processes on which this level of associativity is based are basically simpler and faster compared to the other two.

R level – implies a principle of decoration, redundance, i.e., repeated information, as well as enrichment with details and ornaments. Sensibility for such a way of observing and decisionmaking is reduced to quantity, number of details in stimulation, or to their highlighting and beautifying.

D level – leads to mysterious interpretations and decisions, probably based on opening of new (semantic, aesthetic) space for “déjà vu”. Therefore, such a way of observing and decision-making is the most time-consuming. Sensibility for such an emotional experience or aesthetic expression is reduced to the ability of multi-layered and parallel information processing, whereby previously perceived phenomena are perceived in some other way. Such a way of associative perception is closest to the artistic perception.

Associativity in art

Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible (Paul Klee).

The notion of associativity in art may have a multiple meaning depending on the aspect from which the problem is perceived. On the one hand, the observer experiences (perceives) a work of art and interprets it based on ”mental images” that are stored in his/ her mind and abstracted from the previous experience. They will have a direct impact on the way of processing the observed information, i.e. on the recognition of a certain object or theme. On the other hand, an artist may convey a message to the observer through associations which often, due to specific artistic perception, may be hermetic (as with D mode).

The case when the artist’s associations coincide to a lesser or greater extent with the associative perception of the observer is of importance for this theme, and this is actually one of the basic issues of the relationship artist – work of art –percipient.

Considering that associativity is in the very essence of the artistic way of creation, it is very difficult to equate a certain art movement with the sole field of associative experience action. Furthermore, out of the three associative categories, the distant mode (D) is closest to artistic perception because the remaining two categories represent a primary way of perception (or more directly – association). The distant mode of associativity is to a greatest extent expressed in artistic stands of conceptualism and symbolism through abstracting shapes and phenomena – idealization.

Rudolf Arnheim’s comparison of Camille Corot’s ”Mother and Child” and Henry Moore’s ”Two Large Forms” best illustrates this. Namely, Arnheim points out that the themes of these two works are identical. He also points out the different forms of associativity by which they are expressed. In both cases, the main theme is communicated through the structural skeleton of the composition, a reclining figure (mother) which in a protective manner is bending over the smaller figure (child), which is statically placed and slightly moved towards the bigger form (Arnheim, 1985).

Associativity in architecture

4. National center Nemo, Amsterdam (R. Piano)
4. National center Nemo, Amsterdam (R. Piano)

Examples that in an adequate way depict this creative orientation in architecture are not often found, because, in most cases, it is a question of public buildings (museums, cultural centers, etc.), which account for a smaller part of the world architecture stock. Usual methods employed by architects in creating an architectural work are phenomenon and form association – stylization.

Stylization implies a procedure by which a completely new wholeness of the composition, different from the original model but resembling it to a lesser or greater extent, is formed without unnecessary details through abstraction, i.e. simplification of the space and shape by reducing them to formal essence (Marić, 2006). Stylization belongs into the group of formal associative methods, whereby the creator deals with the interpretation of visual perception. The phenomenon association procedure leads to deeper spheres of creative action, during which works are created that may be completely different compared to the original in the sense of their shape, but which have distant, semantic ties with the model.

5. Airport, Lyon (S. Calatrava)
5. Airport, Lyon (S. Calatrava)

Among successful examples of associativity are the works of Renzo Piano (Fig. 4) and Santiago Calatrava (Fig. 5), who have often employed this orientation in their work. The following works may also be singled out: the Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin (Fig. 6), which may be considered as an expressive rather than associative work, because the associations it carries are distant by nature (abstract composition of the train), and the Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (reminiscence of ships and one of the ports from which the conquest of the New World has began), as well as interpretations of birds with airport buildings, etc.

In most cases, the form is abstracted to the level of main elements, lines or surfaces. In certain examples, and at first glance, it is more difficult to realize what is the association which the form carries, like in the example of the embassy of Nordic countries (Fig. 7) where the common head office has been represented by an embracing envelop and thus, unifying the dismembered elements.

6. Jewish museum, Berlin (D.Libeskind)
6. Jewish museum, Berlin (D.Libeskind)
7. Nordic embassy complex, Berlin (Berger+Parkkinen)
7. Nordic embassy complex, Berlin (Berger+Parkkinen)


Expression or expressiveness (Lat. expressio – expression) implies a clear and authentic displaying of the character or personality of an individual. The expression is often identified with the art movement of expressionism, whose main starting point and aim is to present and express what has been seen“ or experienced in the inner eye of the mind, heart and soul, i.e. to express the subjective moods and feelings without referring to conventional and objective” values, judgments and truths (Vujaklija, 1970).

The notion of expressiveness is herein considered in a wider context with the aim to also comprise those, at first glance less visible, manifestations of a person’s character which are ephemeral due to their introvert nature. Therefore, we will discuss below the extrovert and introvert expressiveness, i.e. expressions of space and shapes, thoughts and ideas.

Person’s character and temperament

A person’s character is determined by a harmonious relationship between the psyche and the soul, i.e. a set of functions forming a psychological type, as well as its manifestation to the object in the surrounding, or to an individual as an object, in the form of spiritual expression – temperament (Vujaklija, 1970).

A psychological type, according to Carl Gustav Jung, represents an example or pattern based on which main psychological functions such as thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition are continuously expressed in a characteristic way, whereby an individual acquires certain specific characteristics. Types based on these psychological functions are: feeling, thinking, intuitive and sensing types, and may be classified according to the quality into: rational (thinking and feeling) types and irrational (sensing and intuitive) types. According to movement and orientation of psychic energy (libido), they may be extrovert or introvert types.

Temperament is a set of characteristics possessed by a person through which the relationship of his/her psychological type is manifested to outer objects, as well as to unconscious, i.e. inner objects (Jung, 2003). The best known and most often used typology is the Hippocrates’ typology according to which temperaments are classified into: Sanguine, Choleric, Melancholic and Phlegmatic.

Forms of expressiveness

8. Stata center, MIT (F. Gehry)
8. Stata center, MIT (F. Gehry)

Given that there is very little literature on the forms of expression, we will hereafter rely on the Hippocrates’ and Jung’s views of a person’s character because they are still valid and most suitable for explaining the expressive phenomena. It is necessary to clarify whether the notion of expression refers to the creator’s temperament or to the character of architectural work. The issue of how these phenomena are related is extremely complex and beyond the scope of this paper. However, herein, it is primarily the matter of ”character traits” of the created work, i.e. how it is interpreted; which does not explicitly mean that the creator also has the same or similar character traits.

Therefore, we can recognize two main expressive personality types:

a) Extrovert (choleric and sanguine types);

b) Introvert (phlegmatic and melancholic types).

The notion of choleric could imply a fierce and energetic expression (Fig. 8), with a great dose of exaggeration and angry and aggressive release of energy, due to which the shape becomes crumpled, broken, split or cracked, whereby the edges and fractures are brought to the fore as a main composing motive (Palmier, 1995). Creation is spontaneous and accompanied with a large amount of coincidence, with very little or no meaning. An excessive extroversion is mostly initiated by a strong desire for putting one’s self forward in relation to the surrounding – principle of contrast. Rhythmicity, as any other repetition, almost does not exist as it disturbs the unique quality of visual expression. Dramatic and energetic quality is additionally intensified by the contrast of colors.

9. Wozoco apartments, Amsterdam (MVRDV)
9. Wozoco apartments, Amsterdam (MVRDV)

Sanguine expression is cheerful, moderate and optimistic (Fig. 9), where liveliness and delightfulness of shape and space are brought into the fore (Hrnjica, 1994). Expression of energy is controlled with occasional accentuation, which by its nature may be in the heat of the moment. Extroversion is a natural tendency by which an object opens itself towards its surrounding and engages in dialogue with it. Some of the main characteristics of this expression are expressions of naturalness and the spontaneous and arrhythmic composition which emphasizes a playful form. The use of colors and materials is also in accordance with the above stated.

It seems that the notion of phlegmatic is the farthest from expressiveness. However, if there is a notion of expression of thought, then anybody could be related to the phlegmatic expression which, by its nature and at first glance, seems expressionless (Fig. 10). It is characterized by a minimal and visually barely noticeable expression of energy, while a great and “unarticulated” power of thoughts and ideas, which is sometimes felt in the power of gesture, lies in its essence. Natural introversion leads to deliberation and accentuation of a concept and idea over objectivity (Jung, 2003). Abstraction, as well as the need for harmony and meaning, to a great extent contributes to mystification and thoughtfulness of statement. Colorism is reduced and most often based on symbols.

Melancholic type is the opposite of sanguine type and is characterized by deep and very strong feelings which are pessimistic by their nature. Emptiness and reduction to ultimate reality-limit (Fig. 11), as well as the need for introversion, are deeply rooted in this expression and represent a prime “moving force”, because the static quality and extra-temporal existence lie in the essence of this expression. The power of melancholy emotions is expressed in excessive abstraction and dematerialization, but not uncommonly, the monumental emotions also occur as a thoughtful and formative counterpart. The use of colorism almost does not exist, or occurs to a lesser extent, in the form of a cold color tone scale.

10. Portugal pavilion, Lisbon (A. Siza)
10. Portugal pavilion, Lisbon (A. Siza)
11. Dior building, Tokyo (Sejima amp; Nishizawa)
11. Dior building, Tokyo (Sejima & Nishizawa)

Expression in art

Most of the authors dealing with art criticism equate the notion of expressiveness with the art movement of expressionism, which has not been only an art movement, but a vision of the world with hopes, dreams and hatred. It has actually been a special sensibility. In order to make a clear distinction between these two phenomena, it is necessary to explain the main characteristics of this art movement.

The very origin of the notion of expressionism is quite unclear. It emerged for the first time around 1850 (Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine), describing expressionists as those ”who wish to express a particular emotion” (Palmier, 1995). It has often been the case that works of artists such as Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, having some features of expressionism, have been called expressionistic artworks, and this has led to confusion. In France, artists with expressive elements in their works have been called ”cubist artists’’ or ”fauvists”, while in Germany they have been called the ”expressionists”, and in Italy the ”futurist artists”. Kandinsky, for example, makes a difference between his Expressionist period and Cubist period and the period of transition to abstract art, while the same phenomenon has also been observed with other artists – visual characteristics of their works have been changed (they belonged to some other art movement) but the kind of expression, i.e. expressive features, have not been changed. It is definitely certain that the term “expressionism” primarily refers to works which have been considered to be reactionary in  the time when created and to works with rather clearly defined attitudes towards themes and techniques (fierceness of expression, denial of reality, abstraction, high intensity of colors and lighting, furrowing, breaking, tearing), while a work which is authentic and recognizable and which expresses the essence of an artist’s personality and character may be called an expressive work in its more general meaning.

If we consider things in this way, we will notice that the phenomenon of expressiveness has existed in art since ancient times, having culminated in a unique art movement – expressionism in the beginning of 20th century.

In this context, we can say that certain works of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Jusepe de Ribera, J. M. W. Turner, Caspar Friedrich David, or El Greco represent spiritual precursors to expressionism given that they possess a high level of expressiveness. We can also conclude that notions of expressionism and expressiveness also imply expression of thoughts and ideas, and not only expression of emotions.

Expression in architecture

Expressionism in architecture occurred somewhat later than in other arts (around 1913), although the idea of glass and steel architecture was promoted earlier (in the mid-19th century).

Evidently, there is a similarity between expressionism (Glass Pavilion designed by Bruno Taut and Crystal Crown designed by Hans Poelzig) and Gothic architecture which has emerged out of  deep respect to the Gothic dematerialized being and medieval architecture, as an expression of the epoch imbued with the spirit and metaphysics.

Prominent examples of expressiveness in architecture are works created during the Gothic and Baroque periods, periods of Czech Cubism, the Secession and Expressionism, up to the contemporary examples of hi-tech and deconstruction.

However, besides the listed examples, there is an entire field of architectural creativity which, in terms of expression, is not that much obvious because it is based on thoughtful and phenomenal expression (Vasilski, 2008). Such form of expression has a great unuttered power which remains hampered by the frameworks of the material. Examples of such creativity may be found in movements of conceptualism, symbolism and minimalism.


Analyzing the grounds of Read’s assertions regarding the existence of creative orientations in art (realism, idealism and expressionism), which are based on the elementary forms of perception in humans (perception, intuition and emotion), we come to a direct conclusion that there is a relationship between these orientations and the main contemporary architectural tendencies in the world, which Charles Jenks set up as a thesis. By comparing Read’s and Jencks’ views, the following conclusion may be drawn:

1. One of the main creative orientations occurring in the art of Realism (Read), also present in traditionalistic tendencies in architecture (Jencks) is a mimicric expression or mimesis.

2. Idealism in art (Read) and rationalistic tendencies in architecture (Jencks) are based on associativity.

3. Expressionism in art (Read) and creativist tendencies in architecture (Jencks) are based on expressiveness as a creative orientation.


Arnhajm, R. (1985): Vizuelno mišljenje – jedinstvo slike i pojma, Beograd, Univerzitet umetnosti. (nasl.orig. Arnheim, Rudolph. Visual Thinking.)

Vasilski, D. (2008): Minimalizam kao civilizacijska paradigma na početku XXI veka, Arhitektura i urbanizam, br.22-23.

Vujaklija, M. (1970): Leksikon stranih reči i izraza,Beograd, Prosveta.

Jung, K. G. (2003): Psihološki tipovi, Beograd, Dereta (nasl.orig.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Psychological Types.)

Koklen, A. (2005): Teorije umetnosti, Banja Luka, Besjeda.(nasl. orig. Cauquelin, Anne. Les théories de l’art.)

Marić, I. (2006): Tradicionalno graditeljstvo pomoravlja i savremena arhitektura, Beograd, Institut za arhitekturu i urbanizam Srbije.

Ognjenović P. (1997): Psihološka teorija umetnosti, Beograd, Institut za psihologiju.

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