Compare and Contrast: Angkor Wat and the Forbidden City
BMH 02 - 28 - 2010

Both Angkor Wat and the Forbidden City reflect the governing body and practicing religion of their creators, thus the facilities stood as cultural icons of the ancient city. While these two complexes were created by different empires and for different agendas, the spatial organization reveals design similarities with varying degrees of embedded meaning and cultural adaptation. Built for King Suryavarman II of the Khymer Empire in the 12th century, Angkor Wat was the religious center of an ancient city – now reclaimed by the jungle. Originally a Hindu temple, the site was later converted into a Buddhist temple as the religious tone of the empire changed. While Angkor Wat was regarded as a religious center of Angkor, the Forbidden City was regarded as the political and ceremonial center of Beijing, China. The complex reflected the political might of the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty, but the complex also reflected the changing religious attitudes of the ruling dynasty, adding Taoist shrines during the Ming dynasty and Buddhist temples during the Qing dynasty. Although the complexes were built within the city, they both contain large walls and a dividing moat. Within the Forbidden City this provided the emperor with a sense of security, but the moat also fulfilled a principles of feng shui, adding a body of water in front of the complex (and a man-made mountain behind, not accomplished by the moat). At Angkor Wat, the external wall symbolizes the world's edge and the moat represents the ocean. Furthermore, both complexes follow a rectangular plan with a primary axis and symmetrical layout. The plan of Angkor Wat is symmetrically configured along an east-west axis terraced upwards to a central tower at the perpendicular intersection of a secondary axis. This establishes an axis mundi with the cosmos and is symbolic for Mt. Meru, the residing place of the gods. Angkor Wat uses elevation, form, and thresholds to establish this axis. The temple's primary entrance is also oriented to the West, possibly for its relationship to the Hindu god, Vishnu. While Angkor Wat is oriented to the West for its religious significance, the Forbidden City is symmetrically configured along a north-south Imperial Axis, pointing towards another capital of the empire and extending into Tienanmen Square, the civic center of Beijing. The Forbidden City uses elevation, thresholds, and sculpture to establish this axis. The Meridian Gate aligns with the Imperial Axis and contains a central door for the emperor and four flanking gates for high-ranking officials. Ceremonial ramps carved in symbolic bas-reliefs further highlight the central axis. To convey the political power of the imperial government, the most important buildings are elevated on three terraces and the roofs are lined with statuettes representing the status of the building. Finally, both Angkor Wat and the Forbidden city are comprised of a progression of courtyards. Angkor Wat uses a series of concentric rectangles to reinforce the cross-axis, and the outermost ring contains gallery walls depicting scenes from the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Together, these convey the religious significance of Angkor Wat. On the other hand, the Forbidden City follows a linear progression of gateways, buildings, and courtyards divided into an Inner Court for family and state affairs and Outer Court for ceremonies. Along with the elements mentioned in reinforcing the axis, the orientation of these spaces convey the political significance of the Forbidden City. The spatial configuration of Angkor Wat and the Forbidden City portray the political and religious agenda of the state utilizing similar design principles. So while two bodies set out to design facilities for different agendas, each utilized a variation of simple design principles to accomplish their goals. Through a further design analysis of these two spaces, one might find connections with other places and typologies to further refine these principles for application in contemporary design.

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