An Observation on the Perception of an Arbitrarily Defined Convention

North is up. North is always up.  Isn’t it?

In architectural education (at least in the UK) one of the most consistently and stringently prescribed conventions is that architectural plans should always be drawn with north ‘up’ on the page. That makes perfect sense, since it means that reading plans, particularly in relation to the position of the sun, is straightforward.  It also matches the global reading of the orientation of The Earth in space (on maps and atlases north is always up).  It all makes perfect sense.

But what if it doesn’t really, really make sense? In ‘The God Delusion’ Richard Dawkins notices the arbitrariness of that rule.  He suggests that buying maps where the South Pole is on the top would undermine a “deeply ingrained unconscious northern hemisphere chauvinism” by confirming “that ‘north’ is an arbitrary polarity which has no monopoly on ‘up’”.1

While maps all over the world only make sense if they are consistently orientated with each other, that initial definition, that first step, which defines north as being ‘up’, is fundamentally flawed. Space exists and extends in every direction equally and simultaneously.  In reality, at least in fundamental cosmological terms, there is no ‘up’; ‘down’; ‘front’; ‘back’; ‘top’; or ‘bottom’.  Maps of our planet, or any of our countries would be no less accurate if they were upside-down, or even if they were rotated through any of the three hundred and sixty degrees of orientation.

I’m not arguing for a realignment of how we ‘see’ the world – or how we draw buildings within the world, but it is interesting to take a moment to consider all the angles! We’re conditioned by what we see and what we (think we) know; our perception of what looks right and what looks wrong becomes increasingly fixed.  The maps below just look really wrong.  But, actually, they’re not.  Are they?!










1 Richard Dawkins (2006). From ‘The God Delusion’, page 139. Black Swan / Transworld, London.

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