The Daring
Diagonal
Virtual
Museum

A division of the Center
for the Study of Diagonality
in World Culture

Daring Diagonal Virtual Museum
Axial Rotation
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Ancient Egypt
Executed by:
Date:

An axis is an imaginary line that runs through the center of a single building or complex of buildings, along which the major rooms or wings are organized. A rotated axis occurs when the centerline of an otherwise orthogonal structure is deliberately rotated off at a different angle. Rotated axes appear in ancient Egyptian temple complexes such as Karnak and in the temple of Luxor on the east bank of the Nile in what is now called Luxor, far to the south of the pyramids.

The ancient Egyptians did not rotate architectural axes as an intentional design statement in and of itself (as many modern architects have done). Rather, they simply wanted the grand entrance gates (the pylons) of their religious and pharaonic buildings to be aligned perpendicular to the paths into and out of the buildings.

It is logical to conclude that the axial realignment at Luxor was the result of a two-part desire on the part of Ramses II to position the pylon of his addition perpendicular to the then major side entrance to Karnak. This side entrance was created after construction at Karnak was started but before the Ramses’ addition was constructed. Obsessed with axial processions and perpendicularity (frontalism) as expressed in the pylon gates themselves, Ramses II chose to simply shift the direction of his route from its perpendicular alignment with the main axis of the Karnak complex to the then-new side entrance at Karnak. Supporting this explanation for axial rotation (or pylon realignment) is the fact that the courts and pylons projecting sideways from the main temple at Karnak also progressively rotate to face the Temple of Mut in a similar frontal, perpendicular fashion. It is evident that there was a fair amount of sequential axial realignment going on over many years between the various temples and precinct enclosures and that the axial rotation and pylon realignment at the Luxor Temple is only the most visually striking and most noticeable example.

Another reason Ramses II would have altered the original axis of the Luxor Temple is that an older shrine (believed to have been built by Queen Hatshepsut) already lay on the axial center-line of the temple just behind the pylon gate (see plan above). If the Temple of Luxor’s northerly expansion would have continued un-rotated, the final Luxor temple entrance would have been blocked by the shrine—or the shrine would have had to be destroyed or relocated to preserve the original Luxor Temple axis. The shrine was in fact built into the final pylon but ended up off center of the doorway permitting entry to proceed unimpeded.

In a culture so dominated by the right angle, it would certainly have been an act of supreme authority and/or compelling need to alter the straight line of a complex’s axis when an additional court was added to the complex—that is, to rotate the extended axis off its previously established course. Axial rotation did, in fact, sometimes occur in ancient Egyptian architecture other than at Luxor—although not for the purposes of an architect or ruler to be au courant or in fashion. By contrast, in the 20th century, axial rotation became a frequently used architectural motif used because it was the modern way space could be, and oftentimes should be, organized, and it remains a chief feature in the design vocabulary of contemporary architects.

Modern views of space and architecture are far more complex than they ever were before, resulting in a more nuanced attitude toward spatial organization in buildings. Moreover, democratic societies needed to account for and express the interests and views of a diverse constituency. No longer is there a single, royal straight-line view of the world. Diverse perspectives call for multiple axes.

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