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Theories of Meaning in Architecture

Semiology: the science of signs

• Signifier/Signified

• Context/Metaphor

• Langue/Parole

from Charles Jencks ‘Semiology and Architecture’ in Charles Jencks and George Baird, eds. Meaning in 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 are chain, opposition, syntagm, metonymy, contiguiity 3 relations, contrast: for metaphor they are association, connotation, similarity, correlation, paradigmatic or systemic plane.

The Semiological Triangle

The Semiological Triangle

Langue/Parole

All the signs in a society taken 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

System and Syntagm from Roland Barthes, Elements of

Semiology,1964

Sign systems, by Charles Jencks

Sign systems, by Charles Jencks

The Doric Order as System and Syntagm

The Doric Order as System and Syntagm

From Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 1958

From Roland Barthes, Mythologies , 1958

Metaphor: Personification of the Orders by John Shute after Vitruvius

Metaphor: Personification of the Orders by John Shute after Vitruvius
Metaphor: Personification of the Orders by John Shute after Vitruvius

John Simpson, The Queen’s Gallery, 2002

John Simpson, The Queen’s Gallery, 2002

Metonymy: The Semiotics of the Tassel Alan Powers, Building Design, May 2002

On one level, tassels are functional. Something is needed to deal with the end of a cord or rope, to prevent the end from fraying, and a tassel is a formalisation of a knot with loose threads hanging below it. Visually, then, tassels are terminations, but their function is also to give weight to the end of the cord so that it hangs and swings in a controllable manner, emphasising the movement of the body. Figuratively, tassels mean a lot more than this. The cords to which they attach may themselves be essentially ceremonial, but in such cases not having a tassel would remove the cord from its symbolic function and return it to being a 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 more used to seeing these tassels in everyday life than we are, even in our 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 that interlace its staircase. As conventionalised classical ornaments, they are a metonym not only for the architectural meaning of the gallery, but also for its position as a kind of richly- wrought, attention-drawing tassel at the end of Buckingham 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 to public view. We are seeing some of the best bits, on condition that the cord itself does not unravel.

The gallery emphasises the glamour of royalty, drawing us near to its nourishing and protective 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 fun. Like the accoutrements of military dress uniforms, which include epaulettes (shoulder tassels) and further tassel-work about the ceremonial sword, the gallery fits into a familiar symbolic system through which royalty has always 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 experiencing. Monarchy has always 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. It is of the essence of the thing, and carries attributes of priestly function, an area in which the language of textiles has 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 other way. Republics can have 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 enhanced by the miniaturisation of scale, for 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

Pre-modern meaning

Historians reconstruct meaning: Erwin Panofsky

Historians reconstruct meaning: Erwin Panofsky

Porta Palio, Verona and Rustic Gate from Serlio

Porta Palio, Verona and Rustic Gate from Serlio
Porta Palio, Verona and Rustic Gate from Serlio
Porta Palio, Verona and Rustic Gate from Serlio

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

The European Gate from Peter Davidson and Alan Powers, Five Gates for England , 1996
Henri Labrouste, Bibliotheque Ste Geneviève, Paris, 1848 Elevation and section

Henri Labrouste,

Bibliotheque Ste Geneviève, Paris,

1848

Elevation and section

E. Gunnar Asplund, Stockholm City Library, 1930

E. Gunnar Asplund, Stockholm City Library, 1930

E. Gunnar Asplund, Mercury in 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 and therefore unfunctional All life is function and therefore inartistic Hannes Meyer 1928

below: Trade Union College, Burnau, by Meyer & Wittwer, 1930

is function and therefore inartistic Hannes Meyer 1928 below: Trade Union College, Burnau, by Meyer &

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

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

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 1966

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

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 1966

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

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

‘Information/Heraldry’ from Learning from Las Vegas

‘Information/Heraldry’ from Learning from Las Vegas
1977

1977

Pruitt-Igoe: The symbolic death of Modern Architecture

Pruitt-Igoe: The symbolic death of Modern Architecture

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

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

‘Gay Eclectic’ - semiological anaylsis

‘Gay Eclectic’ - semiological anaylsis

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

Left: drawing by architects, and right: as redrawn for The International Style , 1932 Below: Tugendhat
From Terence Riley and Barry Bergdoll, eds. Mies in Berlin , 2002

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

Walter Benjamin ‘The Arcades Project’ History as a search for hidden meanings

Walter Benjamin ‘The Arcades Project’ History as a search for hidden meanings

Walter Benjamin ‘The Arcades Project’ History as a search for hidden meanings

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

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

Modern architecture reprocessed as formal information:

Michael Graves, Benacerraf House addition, 1969

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

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

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

Narrative restored: Daniel Libeskind on the Jewish Museum

Narrative restored: Daniel Libeskind on the Jewish Museum
Narrative restored: Daniel Libeskind on the Jewish Museum

Daniel Libeskind, Study for the Jewish Museum

Daniel Libeskind, Study for the Jewish Museum

‘Void-voided void’, The Jewish Museum

‘Void-voided void’, The Jewish Museum

The Jewish Museum, completed building, exterior

The Jewish Museum, completed building, exterior

Narratived trivialised? Private Eye on Libeskind, 2002

Narratived trivialised? Private Eye on Libeskind, 2002