Make no mistake about it, gold is, and has long been, one of the world’s most precious commodities. It’s built and destroyed empires, confirmed love stories and marriages, and even induced people to uproot their whole lives to search for its riches. Gold is all powerful in its allure, so it’s no surprise to learn that designers have been using gold in architecture since ancient times.
From the Parthenon in Athens to Kinkakuji Temple in Japan and even the Metropolitan Opera House in New York — their aesthetic styles are vastly different, gold in its various forms unite these splendid buildings together as one. But how, if at all, does this use of gold in architecture differ from culture to culture? And do the designers of the present use gold in the same way as our designers of the past? Keep reading to find out.
Gold in Architecture and Design
Traditionally, the role of gold in design and architecture has never been for reasons of structure or engineering. Across cultures, gold was primarily used for decorative purposes.
In Western cultures, gold has typically been associated with the divine realm. Its shining aesthetic splendor, indestructible nature and precious scarcity made gold the ideal representation of the gods, or God in later Christianity. For this reason, gold was most commonly found in sacred spaces.
Catholic churches in particular were known for their elaborate use of gold. Here, gold featured in intricate ornamental designs intended to invoke great grandeur. In Byzantine religious art for instance, solid gold served as a background for symbolic imagery depicting scenes from the Bible. This use of gold was seen as the only appropriate expression for humans to show their veneration of the Holy Spirit.
East Asian Cultures
Much like its Western counterpart, gold in East Asian cultures was mainly used for design and architecture related to spiritual spaces. However, its symbolism, and thus aesthetic style, was a little different.
In Buddhist cultures for instance, gold symbolized sun or fire. As such, the type of gold used in Buddhist-inspired designs tended to be more yellow in tone. What’s more, mixing gold with other elements was considered inauspicious because of the way it dilutes the natural brilliance of gold. Instead of gilded gold, Buddhist design and architecture favored pure gold, which resulted in bulkier, solid interpretations of gold design in contrast to the intricacy of the Western aesthetic.
Meanwhile over in Japan, the nature of gold in design changes yet again. Unlike Buddhist cultures, Shinto and secular Japanese design embraced the use of gold leaf because it meant that only a small amount of gold was needed to decorate a large area. This allowed Japanese architects to think big with their use of gold. Case in point; Kinkakuji Temple (also known as the Golden Pavilion), which boasts a striking gold leaf exterior.
That being said, the use of gold in Japanese design was generally more refined. Even though the gold detail on Kinkakuji Temple is undoubtedly extravagant, it’s also stylistically very simple in appearance.
If you’ve been keeping up with recent design trends, you’ll know that gold has had somewhat of a renaissance of late. Whether in architecture or interior design, this contemporary use of gold has shaken off its symbolic roots. Instead, we see gold taking on a more practical function in design, regardless of cultures.
In the realm of architecture, designers have found new uses for gold thanks to its temperature regulating properties. The designers behind Toronto’s Royal Bank Plaza for instance, employed gold coated glass windows for reasons of energy conservation. Here, the gold works to reflect sunlight during the summer and bounce internal heat back into rooms during winter.
In home decor, gold is used more sparingly than in times past. In Western design, this translates to statement gold accent details mixed in with modern contemporary design.
On the other hand, in East Asian design, you’re more likely to see an element of the traditional when it comes to decorating with gold. Think classic laquerware with gold leaf paint, or the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which uses fine gold to repair ceramics.