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  • Angie Lane

Architectural Design Principles 101: Path

There are all sorts of design principles. Depending on who you ask there are either 5, 7 or 12 commonly accepted architectural design principles. Personally, I like the list of 12: contrast, balance, rhythm, emphasis, movement, white space, proportion, scale, hierarchy, movement, contrast, unity, and variety. How architecture embodies these principles is the interesting part. Does it totally disregard the design principles or strictly adhere to them?


File it under movement. Path is like spatial signage telling you where to go or how to experience the space.

Path (or no path) can indicate circulation routes, delineate and accentuate processions, encourage exploration or meditation, and indicate point of entry. Most of the time there is not a clear path defined by architecture and the user is dependent on way finding signage. That's not a bad thing. It's just the result of larger scale buildings or commonly understood uses where the occupant knows what to do. For example, restaurants or store. You walk into a restaurant and you are seated by the host/hostess. You don't need to know the way. The same is true for a store. You walk in and you know that cash registers are going to be up front and all the merchandise is behind them for you to wander through.

Having a path is part of the experience and oftentimes you don't even realize it. Path can be horizontal or vertical. It can be the stairs winding you up and around to experience a certain view or the winding loop through a nature preserve.

Path As Circulation

The circulation path guides you through a larger area. The path can be meant as a way for you to experience the larger area, as in a park setting. In nature areas, the path can also act as protection to the natural environment by keeping people walking on it instead of the surroundings.

These paths can be open loops where you follow the path to a destination and take the same path again to exit. Or they can closed loops where you enter the path and travel the path around or through something to exit that path at the point of beginning but you don't have to double back.

In larger settings or grouping of elements, the path provides an easy way to navigate through. The path through this grouping of cabins also provides a pleasant view of the river and acts as a river walk.

This pool facility takes from it's natural surroundings by creating the path out of the same materials while leading the user to various pools within the overall complex.

Paths can also be vertical (stairs, ramps, elevators). This vertical stair path takes the building circulation and puts it on the outside which creates a unique journey involving both the building and the surroundings.

Separating various circulation paths within urban areas for specific types of transit (bikes, pedestrians, etc) provides better flow and less incidents. This bike path is a great example of utilizing space to separate bikes from pedestrians from cars.

This external staircase makes a statement of entry but is mostly to take advantage of the river view while bringing the visitor in.

Path As Procession

Sometimes paths are used to accentuate the journey itself and give the act a sense of place. The focus is given to the path & occupant instead of the surroundings. The processional path may not completely disregard the surroundings but it does give more importance to the user.

There may or may not be a specific or important destination.

Even when there is a destination, the path that is given a sense of importance accentuates the importance of the destination. And the size of the path can be more private or, as shown here, give the user a feeling of being a part of something larger.

Here the path is a distinct mark on the landscape that terminates in a view and experience you can't get just by traversing the landscape.

Path To Encourage Exploration or Meditation

Some paths are put in place to encourage exploration. They may be playful as a way to encourage exploration...

These pavers jut out so the user can check out the water in the channel.

Sometimes the path encourages exploration by making the landscape more accessible. This simple bridge path is a good example.

This path also provides a bridge through the environment but it also provides niches with seating to facilitate rest and contemplation.

Strategic seating encourages meditation along the path.

Path To Indicate Entry

Probably the most common type of path. Often it's not clear where the entrance is. Or even if it is clear, the path provides a specifically laid out way to get to the entry and dictates the way one experiences a building.

I like how this path takes an indirect route and expands to provide wood storage at the house.

I like how this path makes the user experience the rhythm of the building's facade. So you not only see the rhythm of the elements, you experience them spatially as you traverse.

Bridge as path might be my favorite entry path type. It's not very common so it makes the path all that more unique.

This is another good example of an ubiquitous entry that needs the path to allow the user to locate it. This path is also nice because the detailing of it echoes the building's operable panel exterior: the path looks like what the panels look like when they are open.

Here is a residential example of the path reflecting the architectural nature of the home. The sleek, low profile steps perfectly represent the massing of the home.

And I have saved the best for last! This weekend home by Brininstool + Lynch has a phenomenal path. It starts as entry...

and then the path branches out into views and exterior space. The house is a hub that the path interacts with on multiple sides. The house is elegant and clean and the path is this beautiful, simple gesture that brings it all together.


Don't Forget About Path!

It's not always a necessity but path doesn't have to be a strip of sidewalk. Path can add another level of experience to your building, change how you see the space, and also influence how you feel in and around the building.