orientation, in architecture, the disposition of the parts of a building with reference to the points of the compass. From remote antiquity the traditional belief in the efficacy of religious ceremonials performed at dawn toward the rising sun has influenced the orientation of temples and other sacred structures. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, in Mayan Central America, even at Stonehenge in England, entrances and other important architectural features were designed to point toward the east; the temples of Greece and Rome often, though not invariably, faced the rising sun. In medieval Europe and, consequently, in modern Europe and the Americas, it became customary to have the congregation and the priest at the altar facing east. So strong was this custom that "west front" came to be a generic term for the facade of a church. Some churches were so built that a central line of the axis of the church pointed exactly to the rising sun on the day of the saint for whom the church was named. Such orientation was, however, by no means universal. St. Peter's at Rome, continuing an earlier tradition, faces in the opposite direction. Important secular buildings in the West often face toward the cardinal points of the compass, and the gridiron pattern of a city's streets is frequently so laid out. Practical problems also govern orientations. The disposition of a building in relation to the prevailing wind or to the sun has long been an important consideration in construction. Early commentators on the problem were Xenophon and Vitruvius. Examples of the concern for climatological orientation can be found in ancient Rome, where there were laws regarding the placement and heights of buildings, or in Puebla, Mexico, where in 1554 the streets were planned so that winds would not sweep through the city. Although orientation in accordance with climatic conditions was in many instances ignored in the 19th cent., modern architects have considered it and have tended to design their buildings accordingly.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.