An Index of Elements: The Importance of Precedent

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of coloured glass that have been in use through all the ages.” – Mark Twain. (Twain 2013)

As a student and participant in the world of architecture, the thoughts above feel very familiar to me. For years, through school, university and now work, the knowledge of architectural history has played an essential role in how I perceive architecture, what I deem as good architecture, and how I go about creating architecture. When stepping back and looking at the state of Architecture in today’s context, one does have to ask themselves the question – is design today simply an accumulation and recontextualisation of what has come before it? And does the knowledge of history burden us by directing our design thinking, or does it enhance and elevate it?

By definition, precedent is “an action, situation, or decision that has already happened and can be used as a reason why a similar action or decision should be performed or made.” (“Cambridge English Dictionary: Meanings & Definitions” 2021). Usually linked to the judicial system, precedent is often procedural, and in most cases, confined within the law system in which the case is taking place. Architectural precedent takes on a similar meaning but is applied in a very different way. More episodic in nature, architectural precedent is acquired in the form of reference material collected throughout an architect’s career and constantly drawn from in their day-to-day practice (Lawson 1980). It is also not confined or limited to its context, be it place, culture or environmental conditions.

Although some references are sought out for specific projects and design problems, the database of inspiration for a given designer is a constantly evolving thing that is inspired from different periods and different places. Herman Hertzberger suggests the importance of growing this database:

 “Everything that is absorbed and registered in your mind adds to the collection of ideas stored in the memory: a sort of library that you can consult whenever a problem arises. So, essentially the more you have seen, experienced and absorbed, the more points of reference you will have to help you decide which direction to take: your frame of reference expands.” (Hertzberger et al. 1991)

The process of precedent research has been an essential part of any creative process. It has become somewhat unavoidable with the ever-growing support of the internet and collection of books detailing projects and works of the past. This has allowed access to everything and anything before us, facilitating the reinterpretation of designs from centuries of built forms. While some designers are inspired by material choices, detailing and construction methods (Reggev 2020), others look to find examples of solutions to similar problems that they themselves are trying to solve. Even before the accessibility to computer-based research and the highly categorised indexes available, travel provided much inspiration to many of the great architects, forming the framework from which to base their works (Vinson 2016).

The work and education of architectural great, Le Corbusier, is a perfect example of someone who was heavily influenced by his predecessors. By studying and reinterpreting their work, Corbusier refined the common elements utilised in their designs and integrated them into his own work. His early education in various styles taught him many things; Art Nouveau taught him ornamental aesthetics and how to observe architecture. Classicism taught him the importance of proportions and structure. Along with this formal education, he was constantly travelling and learning from his surroundings. The buildings that he saw and documented, particularly in his travels to Greece and Italy, were to become precedent work for him and his peers. These discoveries and studies helped him form the guidelines and rules that would go on to define the International Style. 

He studied how “classical architecture reduced down to the raw play of horizontals, verticals, and volumes”, could be used as a precedent in his designs. This abstracted approach meant that he was not bound to studying only within the realm of classicism but any and all buildings that exemplified a certain quality that resonated with him. He was not in search of one specific style or monument, but rather multiple that would add to the index of ideas that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would be essential in defining his architectural style. The infusion of many different types and forms from buildings he was inspired by, such as the Parthenon, while not immediately apparent to the viewer or visitor of his works, helped to evoke a similar sensation to that of the precedent he was referencing (Le Corbusier, Moos and Rüegg 2002). Le Corbusier’s ability to observe and reinterpret the things that inspired him in new and interesting ways made his work groundbreaking.




FRANCE, 1928

This sort of adoption, or perhaps adaptation, of a previous style, technique or element is what architects can utilise to enable the general public to understand and perceive the works created. This knowledge of what has come before and the familiarity induced allows a building to have a significance that would not be present without history. Humans have been incorporating distinct design elements into structures for thousands of years, and with this, architectural languages have been developed and adapted throughout time. This architectural language relies on repetition the same way that language relies on people speaking in common tongues.

If we look at the example of an archway, an element that has been utilised as early as the 2nd millennium BC, we can see its evolution and lineage through history. It has been used across various cultures, contexts and periods, with each interpreting it differently. Although it is a seemingly simple design element, it has held the same significance and qualities as its first uses. The accumulated meaning associated with an archway (grandness, openness, and a gateway from one place to another) allows it to be used by an architect when designing with a similar intent. We see the translation of an archway used in temples and spiritual places (Figure 3) shift into a more contemporary context, being one’s private home, such as a recently completed project for Kanye West (Figure 4). The feelings we instantly associate with this project are not dissimilar to those in the former works where the element was initially developed. Would Kanye’s hallway have as much architectural significance without knowledge of this element’s past? Probably not. The recontextualisation makes it current whilst simultaneously adding to the history and contributing to the story of the element.

    FIGURE 3:


USA, 2019

We can’t, however, assume that combining multiple individual elements of significance into one structure implies design intent and, in turn, a great work of architecture. Although these sources of inspiration can become a set of design tools that we can use within our own projects, it is our ability to apply these ideas to our own context which gives our projects authenticity. Often it is not the obvious link that is the most successful. Lawson questions, “why can some designers sometimes draw on a reference from apparently remote situations and use them in quite novel ways that not only surprise us but also seem entirely relevant to us?” (Lawson 1980). It seems that with more experience, and a more extensive index of references, an architect can absorb the information that is relevant to the given project and put it to good use in the context it is required. This ability to draw connections between distant sets of ideas and make links between problems and solutions often enhances and accelerates the design process. Kneller adds to this, stating;

“One of the paradoxes of creativity is that, in order to think originally, we must familiarise ourselves with the ideas of others… These ideas can then form a springboard from which the creator’s ideas can be launched. Design education, then, is a delicate balance indeed between directing the student to acquire this knowledge and experience, and yet not mechanising his or her thought processes to the point of preventing the emergence of original ideas. (Kneller 1965)

 It is clear that precedent has and always will be an essential part of an architect’s process, which we engage with consciously and subconsciously. An architect’s ability to draw connections between the past and the present, identifying characteristics worthy of emulation and recontextualising common elements appropriately makes for a skilled practitioner. These interpretations make designing with precedent interesting – different people absorb different things, and different things resonate with different people. Architecture is an amalgamation of all that came before it – a practice that is deeply rooted in knowledge and history, a collection of ideas from which we can tangent from. Each new way of thinking is a conversation with its past, whether it be a reaction, betterment or change in direction from the previous (Kerson 2021). Without history, there would be no progression, and the significance of these languages would be lost. As we find ourselves in a place where architecture has no dominant style or language, our options for inspiration are endless. We are free to pick and choose from any reference sources that feel most relevant and inspiring to us. What really matters is our ability to take these things, learn from them, and apply them in a way that creates an interesting and current piece of architecture, recognising that we, too, are contributing to an ever-growing precedent.



“Cambridge English Dictionary: Meanings & Definitions”. 2021. Dictionary.Cambridge.Org.

Hertzberger, Herman, Ina Rike, Laila Ghait, and Marieke van Vlijmen. 1991. Lessons For Students In Architecture. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Uitgeverij 010 Publishers.

Kerson, Kingsley. 2021. “History Of Architecture : Does It Still Have A Place In Architecture Schools? – Arch2o.Com”. Arch2o.Com. Accessed May 21.

Kneller, George F. 1965. The Art And Science Of Creativity. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Lawson, Bryan. 1980. How Designers Think. London: The Architectural Press.

Le Corbusier, Stanislaus von Moos, and Arthur Rüegg. 2002. Le Corbusier Before Le Corbusier. New Haven: Yale University Press.

McDonald, Jason K., and Richard E. West. 2021. “The Nature And Use Of Precedent In Designing.” Brigham Young University. March 26, 2021.

Reggev, Kate. 2020. “In Praise Of Precedent: How Do Architects Use History For Inspiration?”. The Architect’S Newspaper.

Rowe, Peter G. 1994. Design Thinking. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Twain, Mark. 2013. Autobiography Of Mark Twain. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Vinson, Shaelyn J. 2016. “Exploring The Contemporary Use And Understanding Of Precedent In Architectural Design Via A Comparative Analysis Of Brunelleschi And Le Corbusier”. Bachelor of Architecture.