Structuralism and Meaning

Widely attributed to the pioneering work of Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralism was a movement introduced into a number of academic disciplines in the 1950s and 60s. It was an outgrowth of interests in linguistics, semiotics, and allied studies of language. It was influential in anthropology, with work by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Structuralism’s subsequent appeal for architectural theorists was largely due to its promise of a more philosophical, systematic or “scientific” framework for what had long been presupposed (some believe since the Renaissance; others since Vitruvius) that architecture was akin to language and that, like written text, architectural form exhibited a grammar-like structure for conveying meaning. According to this reasoning, material details (classical orders, ornament, and so forth) of buildings or series of building facades, are conceived as metonymic wholes, possessing semantic content and conceivably ethical worth (valence) for communicating meanings and values within social formations and from one generation to the next. Victor Hugo more or less espoused the idea in Notre-Dame de Paris where he bemoaned the arrival of the printing press and cheaply reproduced books. He counterpoised the fluidity and unreliability of the written word with the heyday of architecture in the form of the gothic cathedral on which he believed meanings were artistically manifest in stone—thus acquiring greater permanency and social relevance.

Linguistic structuralism promised not so much a philosophy of architecture; rather, it required that study of architectural aesthetics conform to the model and ideal of language and adhere to what amounts to an empiricist conception of knowledge. Structuralism’s methods worked to establish a fundamental opposition between (i) architectural form and function—privileging the communicative capacity of architectural aesthetics over a building’s other performative roles (as structure, shelter, or its function as a commodity, and so forth)—and (ii) between architectural form as a category of signifiers, and a largely pre-existing context of potentially meaningful artifacts, signified entities or referents.

Accordingly, Umberto Eco (1968) effectively recast the Vitruvian terms of form and function as elements in a culturally-grounded system of architectural signification, thereby denying the precedence and determining influence the modernists gave to one term over the other:

In other words, the principle that form follows function might be restated: the form of the object must, besides making the function possible denote that function clearly enough to make it practicable as well as desirable [emphasis in original], clearly enough to dispose one to the actions through which it would be fulfilled. (186)

Eco moves to distinguish between primary (denotative) and secondary (connotative) functions, neither more important than the other, but each dependent upon the other to form a “semiotic mechanism” (188). Hence, the form of either a barn or a church allows them to function as habitable spaces of a kind (their primary function) and these forms denote this purpose. Their doors “tell” us there is space inside; their windows “tell” us there is light with which to see and so forth. The combination and arrangement of building details work alongside cultural codes to connote (their secondary function) that the first building type, the barn, is just that, merely a building, while the second possesses architectural significance. Roland Barthes complicates the idea that architectural signs are composed by the one-to-one correspondence between signifiers and signifieds. In “Semiology and the Urban” (1971) he emphasizes the transience of urban life so that meanings are not fixed by such a correlation, but temporary and mobile.

Among architectural theorists and practitioners, renewed emphasis in the 1970s and early 80s on the meaningful interpretation of architectural and urban typologies (the classification and comparison of the formal and visual characteristics of building types and urban forms) reinforced the linguistic model. Reyner Banham (in Baird and Jencks, 1969, 101) rejected the move, believing that arguments in support of architectural semantics were merely promoting a new ideology of monumentality in the service of social elites rather than a more rational formalism and egalitarian (that is, functionalist) approach to design. Contributions to the debate over meaning versus functionalism in architecture were published in the first book in English on the subject, Meaning in Architecture (Baird and Jencks, 1969). Additional titles promoting the language of architecture appeared in quick succession, including Venturi, Brown & Izenour (1972) and Jencks (1977). Arguably, Banham’s functionalism and egalitarianism were pushed aside in preference for the stylistic eclecticism and populism allowed for in these books.

Borrowing from Noam Chomsky’s linguistics, Peter Eisenman began a series of experimental projects in the 1970s. These were primarily small houses designed with highly complex forms and models resembling abstract geometric compositions. Though the projects were often accompanied by equally complex theoretical exegeses, Eisenman nonetheless believed that his viewers were able to understand their meaning as they were purportedly derived from the same linguistic and syntactical structures used to express everyday thoughts. The architect-theoretician tried to relate formalism and linguistics logically, distinguishing between meanings that were semantic and those that were syntactical or integral to architecture’s coherence as an object. For Eisenman, formalism was the displacement of the semantic content of a design with the syntactic. The promise of freedom attributed to this displacement underscored Eisenman’s desire to create architecture that was autonomous and free from external constraints arising from pre-established meaning and practical necessity. His view of the “paradoxical nature” of architecture prefigured his subsequent interests in deconstruction and theories of conceptual and “cardboard” (unbuilt) architecture. This includes architectural drawings and plans for projects that may never be built or could not be built.

Structuralism is largely appraised today for the movements that followed and perhaps were reactions to it, variously assembled under the banners of “postmodernism” or “post-structuralism.” Its demise was perhaps due in part to the cumbersome vocabulary developed to describe systems of signification (de Saussure’s terms of and distinction between langue and parole, the division of “signs” into “signifiers” and “signifieds,” Eco’s denotative and connotative functions, and so forth). Questions also arise about the reality behind these terms and equally obscure concepts like Eisenman’s “wellness.” While the vocabulary and concepts might provide the theorist with a framework for describing architectural meanings, they are also largely a-historical and overly formulaic. Structuralism leaves us with the question of whether the so-called “paradoxical nature” of architecture as a system of signification can be reconciled with its determination by, and determining influence on, power and politics.

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