relational spacing in Ancient Greece

^ Athens, Acropolis I (ca. 530 BC), Acropolis II (ca. 480 BC), & Acropolis III (after 450 BC)



Man is the measure of all things, 

of the existence of the things that are

and the nonexistence of the things that are not.

[Protagoras, quoted in Plato Theaetetus 152A]


The discovery of the Ancient Greek System of Architectural Spacing is a brilliant chapter of Constantinos Doxiadis’ PhD dissertation (originally published in 1937) on the system of polar coordinates used to place buildings in space. Prior to the rational Hippodamian grid (5th century BC), this conception was based on the human viewpoint, taking the entrance to a site as the reference from which all the optical perspectives would start from. As a result, the person is able to visually control all the constructions in a site from a single point. Gaps between buildings are meticulously choreographed and limited to a minimum, the elevation of one building immediately following its neighboring one.


[Ancient] Greeks employed a uniform system in the disposition of buildings in space that was based on principles of human cognition. […] If we have hitherto failed to recognize that the urban layouts of the archaic, classic, and Hellenistic periods were organized on the basis of a precisely calculated system, it is because we are strongly influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the rectangular system of coordinates (in which every point is established by its position on a plane in relation to two lines intersecting at right angles). This system was completely unknown to the ancient Greeks. Their layouts were not designed on a drawing board; each was developed on a site in an existing landscape, which was not subject to the laws of axial coordinates.


When a man stands in a landscape and looks about him, he sees its various features as part of a system of which he is the center and in which all the points on the plane are determined by their distance from him. If he wishes to establish the position of a tree, for instance, he notes that it is to his left at a distance of about 7 paces and that a second tree is somewhat further to his left at a distance of about 14 paces, or double the distance of the first tree. He does not automatically establish the position of the two trees in relation to abstract axial coordinates; he uses a natural system of coordinates. It was this system, known as the system of polar coordinates, that formed the basis of site planning in ancient Greece.


The following principles were used:

1 –Radii from the vantage point determined the position of three corners of each important building, so that a three-quarter view of each was visible.

2-Generally, all important buildings could be seen in their entirety from the viewpoint, but if this was not possible, one building could be completely hidden by another; it was never partially concealed. […]

4-The position of the buildings was determined not only by the angle of vision but also by their distance from the viewpoint. […]

6-One angle, frequently in the center of the field of vision was left free of buildings and opened directly to the surrounding countryside. This represented the direction to be followed by the person approaching the site: it was the “sacred way”. […]


The examples studied show that this point [of entry] lay where the mathematical axis of the propylon intersects the line of its innermost step (i.e., the final step before one entered the sanctuary) at a height of approximately 5’7’’, the eye level of a man of average height. […] They had no fear of infinity, and their layouts always included a definite route that traversed the entire site and opened to the outside world.


[text source> DOXIADIS, C, TYRWHITT, J (transl. & ed.) 1972. Architectural Space in Ancient Greece.  MIT Press.]

^ Olympia, Altis. Perspective.

^ Olympia, Altis. Hellenistic period.

^ Magnesia, Agora and sacred precinct of Artemis, 2nd century BC.

^ Cos, Asclepeion, second century AD.

^ Selinus, sacred precinct of Demeter Malophoros, 6th century BC. No gaps between built elements.

One Comment

  1. lft

    “The Creative Gaze: Doxiadis’ discovery” by Kostas Tsiambaos has an interesting reading of Doxiadis’ dissertation.

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