How architecture keeps its secrets

Here’s a basic application of the containment principle. If you put something into a cardboard box and close the lid then it’s concealed from view. Buildings also conceal things.

I discussed the house-museum of the architect John Soane in a previous post. Soane was a practitioner within a secret society (Freemasonry), which in turn traded in coded messages and symbols with supposedly secret meanings. Soane’s house-museum amplifies what all buildings do, and by extension what happens in cities.

Such an analysis helps me understand the idea of a cryptographic urbanism. Here are the seven properties of cryptography I outlined in my last post. I’ll now reset and test them against architecture’s operations in making and preserving secrets.

1. Conceal. Cryptography deploys ciphers for concealing messages, communicated via text, symbols or other devices.

If you put your wallet in a box, the box in a safe, the safe in a room, and the room is in a building, then the wallet is in the building. If you can’t see the safe, then you can’t see the wallet either, even if the box and the safe door are open. In spatial and logical terms this is the commutative principle of containment — and visibility.

This is basic geometry, as well as an application of set theory, and of what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their seminal studies of metaphor called entailments of “the containment metaphor.” Cryptography hides messages inside code; buildings “hide” their contents. You can “hide” in a building from the elements and enemies. Architecture conceals.

In his conclusion to an interesting essay outlining the history of domestic privacy, Robin Evans remarked on how architecture (at least in the 20th century) limited the “horizon of experience.”

“reducing noise-transmission, differentiating movement patterns suppressing smells, stemming vandalism, cutting down the accumulation of dirt, impeding the spread of disease, veiling embarrassment, closeting indecency, and abolishing the unnecessary” (90).

He sees the various means by which architecture contains as providing a necessary but limiting conception of architecture.

2. Reveal. As well as messages, cryptography provides access to something. Or the message that it reveals affords access to a file or information, as does a key to a door.

Buildings specialise in controlled revealing. This access applies to different sensory modalities: blocking off and revealing sights, sounds, smells and what you can touch. Visitors and occupants move through doors. They can also peer through doors, windows, screens and from balconies and mezzanines. Membranes, openings, shafts, atriums and stairwells provide access to circulation, sounds and airflows.

3. Combine. Cryptography works with combinatorics: arrangements of symbols or other abstruse sequences as in a combination lock, password or hash code.

Buildings are made up of arrangements of elements. By my reading this is an aspect of architectural design only nascent until twentieth century modernity.

According to Aristotle, with beautiful things “nothing can be added to them or taken away” (101). Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) amplified this assertion.

“Beauty will result from the form and correspondence of the whole, with respect to the several parts, of the parts with regard to each other, and of these again to the whole; that the structure may appear an entire and complete body, wherein each member agrees with the other, and all necessary to compose what you intend to form” (1).

Factory production, modularisation, assemblies and more complicated reflections on function and human interaction expanded architecture as an art of perfect arrangement to the deliberative assembly of parts. The task of designing a building presents architects with configurational challenges analogous to solving a puzzle.

Sometimes these configurations shift and change in real time, via furniture, moveable partitions, lifts, moving walkways, and responsive sensor-controlled architectures. Spatial arrangement offers challenges analogous to working through combinations in cryptanalysis, though with no single correct or optimal “solution.”

4. Navigate. A code breaker (cryptanalyst) searches through a sequence with many branching paths to explore options, one of which leads to the plain text message. Programmers responsible for creating secure encryption invent algorithms that draw on similar processes of path navigation.

The architectural motif or the labyrinth, provides a major analogue for the process of searching through combinations that eventually lead to a hidden message. Any building can present alternative paths, or a single path as in a processional journey that weaves through space.

The Design Methods Movement championed the arts of solving spatial problems as search processes, analogous to traversing a complicated and dynamic maze of possibilities.

5. Originate. Cryptography helps preserve the concept of an original, a plain text message, an original meaning. It also provides analogies for history (or historicism) as a journey into the hidden past.

Architecture’s historicist theories are dedication to origins, a return to a first authentic primitive source — the garden of Eden, the primitive hut, Noah’s ark, the Tabernacle, the Temple of Solomon, the Celestial City, Utopia. Looking back is also a looking forward.

In a previous post I referred to Anthony Vidler’s account of Freemasonry in Architecture and its quest to “return to origins,” a motivation it shares with architecture. I would add that the quest of authentic origins extends into the Primitivist strands of modern art and architecture.

6. Transact. As with devices in written language in general, the purpose of cryptography is to preserve, but also to  facilitate social interactions.

Buildings undoubtedly protect and conceal. They are also places in which transactions and interactions take place: social, economic and pragmatic. Reflecting architecture’s pragmatism, Evans celebrates

“an architecture arising out of the deep fascination that draws people towards others; an architecture that recognizes passion, carnality, and sociality” (90).

The idea that architecture provides settings for meaningful human interactions pervades conceptions of contemporary urban design.

7. Risk. Cryptography plays on uncertainties. Cryptography may obfuscate the fact that it is concealing a hidden message, as in the case of steganography.

Buildings and their elements are typically multifunctional. They may also confuse and obfuscate their functions and structures. Part of the pleasure and functioning of architecture comes from uncertainty about whether you are in or out, trading on the ambiguous condition of the threshold as architectural motif. It’s a condition in any case of architectural interpretation. See post: Introducing hermeneutics to an architectural audience.

Dissolving architecture’s secrets

Various devices work to confound or supplement architecture’s engagement in secret keeping — not least the inventions of photography, secretive surveillance methods, digital cameras and display screens.


  • Aristotle. 1976. The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. J. A. K. Thomson. London: Penguin. Written c. 334-323 BC.
  • Evans, Robin. 1997. Figures, doors and passages. In Robin Evans (ed.), Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays: 55-92. London: Architectural Association.
  • Furjan, Helene. 2011. Glorious visions: John Soane’s spectacular theatre. London: Routledge
  • Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press
  • Lavelle, Brian. 2017. Dean Cemetary: the way upward and the way downward. Edinburgh Drift, 25 January. Available online: (accessed 6 March 2021).
  • Palladio, Andrea. 1965. The Four Books of Architecture. New York: Dover. First published in English in 1737.
  • Vidler, Anthony. 1987. The Writing of the Walls: Architectural Theory in the Late Enlightenment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press


  • The image is of a tomb by the famous Edinburgh architect William Playfair (1759-1823). He was a member of the Freemasons, as reflected in this choice of a pyramidal structure. The grave is of William and Sophia Rutherfurd. William was high up in the Scottish legal system and had it built for his wife, who he outlived, according to a blog post by Brian Lavelle.
  • Today I changed the template for this blog site, which applies to all previous posts as well.


  1. Asad Khan says:

    Quite a fascinating––synoptic yet panoramic survey of the application of cryptography within architecture. Thank you for providing us with a formalised vocabulary.

    I am particularly interesting in risks, as in X-risks or existential risks, of which Nick Bostrom has written a whole pantheon of definitions and sub-classes. Risk derives from the Greek maritime term ‘rhizikon’ denoting ‘obstacles to avoid during sea voyages’. Kant says reason is a ‘ship’ navigating across the ‘noumenal’ waters and of course the ‘noumenon’ a thing-it-itself is foreclosed to human knowledge, thus encrypted. Prognostication through rational means affords the ‘recursive aspects’ of a ‘risk proper’. One undergoes a hazard, yet risks are taken. In its etymological root, ‘hazard’ comes from the Classical-Arabic ‘al zahr’ meaning ‘the dice’––indicating ‘chance’. Dice throw later keyed into the mathematisation of probabilistic forecast during the Middle Ages, necessary for articulating contingencies, including X-risks.

    On the notion of combinatorics and revelation, Quentin Meillassoux’s has written about the cryptographic infrastructure underlying the poems of the French poet Stephane Malarme in his book ‘The Number and the Siren’. Here’s an excerpt from the description: “The number that ‘can be no other’ can only be revealed to us via a secret code, hidden in the Coup de dés like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of that siren, emerging for a lightning-flash amongst the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.”

    I seem to remember you have posted earlier about Reza Negarestani’s posit of the ‘hidden writing’. For me, hidden writing is a steganographic practice par-excellence, at least when applied in the morphological aspects of architecture. For instance, Negarestani refers to hidden writing as a method of reading narratives (solids) through the voids (plot-holes)––where the main plot (architectural mass) is used as subterfuge or to chime in Negarestani’s term ‘hyper-camouflage’ to smuggle the multiplicities of sub-plots (spatial voids). As Negarestani writes “Every activity of the solid appears as a tactic to “conceal” the void and appropriate it, as a program for inhibiting the void.”

    So, I guess, in addition to things, buildings also conceal voids. What do voids conceal? Perhaps possibilities and absolute contingencies including existential ones.

    1. Well that’s very helpful. Thanks for that Asad, especially the Meillassoux/Malarme quote. Any references to cryptography gratefully received, especially if there’s a spatial connection.

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