Meaning in Architecture

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Theories of Meaning in  Architecture


Semiology: the science of  signs • Si Sign gnif ifie ier/ r/Si Sign gnif ifie ied d • Con onte tex xt/ t/M Meta tap phor  hor  • Langue/Parole from Charles Jencks ‘Semiology and Architecture’ in Charles Jencks and George Baird, eds. Meaning in Architecture, Architecture, 1969


Signifier/Signified The signifier is a representation for an idea or thought which is signified. In language, the sound would be the signifier and the idea the signified, whereas in architecture, the form would be the signifier and the content the signified.


Context/Metaphor  There are two basic ways a sign achieves meaning both through its relation to all other signs in a context or chain, and through the other signs for which it has become a metaphor by association, or similarity. The synonyms for context c ontext are chain, opposition, syntagm, metonymy, contiguiity3 relations, contrast: for  metaphor they are association, connotation, similarity, correlation, paradigmatic or systemic plane.


The Semiological Triangle


Langue/Parole  All the signs in a society taken together together constitute the langue or total resource. Each selection from this totality, each individual act, is the parole. Thus the langue is collective and not easily modifiable, whereas the parole is individual and malleable.


System and Syntagm from Roland Barthes, Elements of  Semiology ,1964 ,1964


Sign systems, by Charles Jencks


The Doric Order as System and Syntagm S yntagm


From Roland Barthes, Mythologies Mythologies,, 1958


Metaphor: Personification of the Orders by John Shute after Vitruvius


John Simpson, The Queen’s Gallery, 2002


Metonymy: The Semiotics of the Tassel  Alan Powers, Building Building Design, M May ay 2002 On one level, tassels are functional. functional. Something is needed to to deal with the end of a cord or rope, to prevent the end from from fraying, and a tassel is a formalisation of a knot with loose loose threads hanging be below low it. Visually, then, tassels but their function is also to give weight to the end of the cordare so terminations, that it hangs and swings in a controllable mann manner, er, emphasising the movement of the the body. Figuratively, tassels mean a lot more more than this. The cords to which they attach may themselves be essentially ceremonial, but in such cases not having a tassel would remove remove the cord from its symbolic function and return it to being a mere mere rope. This column and others like it are tassel-like appendages to the main function of a magazine. Tassels may be analogous to sexual organs, specially male ones, projecting and swinging as adjuncts to a larger entity. The ancients were were more used to seeing these tassels in everyday life than than we are, even in our liberated liberated times. Female tassel dancers use them literally for a paradoxical mixture of emphasis and concealment.


The new Queen s Gallery at Buckingham Palace has some fine bronze 

tassels hanging from the imitation cords cords that interlace its staircase. As conventionalised classical classical ornaments, they are a metonym not only for the architectural meaning of the gallery, but also for its position as a kind of richlywrought, attention-drawing attention-drawing tassel at the end of Buckingham Palace. Palace. The project of enhancing the old gallery is tassel-like in its message of thus far but no further  in respect of opening up the palace palace to public view. We are seeing some of the best bits, on condition that that the cord itself does not unravel unravel.. 

The gallery emphasises the glamour of royalty, drawing us near to its nourishing and protective breast. breast. The merchandise in the shop draws us even more intimately into a shared joke, with corgi-themed toys, dog-leads with crowns and other innocent innocent fun. Like the accoutrements accoutrements of military dress uniforms, which include epaulettes (shoulder tassels) tassels) and further f urther tassel-work about the ceremonial sword, the gallery fits into a familiar symbolic system through which royalty has always been been understood. There would be no more 

point in having an ornament-free Queen s Gallery than there would be in having a non-cermonial monarchy, and for this reason alone, John Simpson s design deserves to be hailed as a masterpiece of integrated semiotics, as well as being a clever piece of planning, an assembly of highly skilled craftsmanship and an agreeable place in which to view fine works of art. 


Of course, the lure that the tassel has for some is for others a signal for repulsion, very probably as a result of puritanism, but they might consider the nature of the emotions they are are experiencing. Monarchy has always operated operated through theatricality, even to the point of self-parody, and it is a mistake to attribute a love of tassel-work to a condition of decadence. decadence. It is of the essence of the thing, and carries attributes of priestly function, an area in which the language of textiles has always always been important. Both priest and king are Dionysian by nature and function, not Apollonian, and that means tassels, both literal and figurative. The one thing monarchy cannot afford to be is normal, although it may affect the emotions in almost any any other way. way. Republics can have their their tassels too, but the Queen s Gallery is clever because it responds to a quintessential tassel moment, when a sense of carnivalesque exaggeration is appropriate, 

something that classical revival architecture in the twentieth century too often lacked. The effect is is enhanced by the miniaturisation of scale, for while while speaking in the traditional language of ceremonial uniform, it creates a perfect illusion that the monarchy is both getting smaller and coming closer to us.


Pre-modern meaning


Historians reconstruct meaning: Erwin Panofsky


Porta Palio, Verona and Rustic Gate from Serlio


The European Gate from Peter Davidson and Alan Powers, Five Gates for England , 1996


Henri Labrouste, Bibliotheque Ste Geneviève, Paris, 1848 Elevation and section


E. Gunnar Asplund, Stockholm City Library, 1930


E. Gunnar Asplund, Mercury in Stockholm City Library, 1930


Everything in the world is a product of the formula (function times economy)  All art is composition composition and therefore therefore unfunctional  All life is function function and therefore therefore inartistic Hannes Meyer 1928 below: Trade Union College, Burnau, by Meyer & Wittwer, 1930


From Wiseman and Groves, Levi-Strauss for Beginners, Beginners, 1997


Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Architecture, 1966


Robert Venturi, Complexity and  Contradiction in  Architecture,, 1966  Architecture


From Venturi, Scott-Brown and Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, Vegas, 1972


‘Information/Heraldry’ ‘Information/Herald ry’ from Learning from Las Vegas




Pruitt-Igoe: The symbolic death of  Modern Architecture


Jencks on Mies van v an der Rohe: ‘Killing the Father’


‘Gay Eclectic’ - semiological anaylsis


Who lost the meaning of modernism?  Above: Barcelona Pavilion, Mies van der Rohe, 1929. Left: draw drawing ing by architects, and right: as redrawn for The International Style, Style, 1932 Below: Tugendhat House, Brno, 1930


From Terence Riley and Barry Bergdoll, eds. Mies in Berlin, Berlin, 2002


Walter ‘The Project’ HistoryBenjamin as a search forArcades hidden meanings


Playing with meaning and history: Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Cities, 1974


Modern architecture reprocessed as formal information: Michael Graves, Benacerraf House addition, 1969


Formal content: Peter Eisenman House III for Robert Miller, Lakeville, Connecticut, 1971


Narrative restored: Daniel Libeskind on the Jewish Museum


Daniel Libeskind, Study for the Jewish J ewish Museum


‘Void-voided void’, The Jewish Museum


The Jewish Museum, completed building, exterior 


Narratived trivialised? Private Eye on Eye on Libeskind, 2002

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