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Reading the city: Roland Barthes in Paris and Tokyo

19th-Century map of Tokyo

From ‘The Eiffel Tower’ to Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes teaches architects how to interpret places

We all dream of the Eiffel Tower.

A kiosk halfway to the sky. Where you can buy paper aeroplanes, burnt sugar-coated peanuts, dense rolls of newspaper, shiny magazines and innumerable keyrings in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. You can probably buy a stamp on the Eiffel Tower to affix to your postcard showing the very same site. I would like to write to the tower. It might be the beginning of a flirtatious correspondence. I know it has been married before.

It is a friendly building, seen throughout the day by the inhabitants of a city. Winking here, blinking there, but never failing to touch them all with its kindly glance from time to time, as though to say ‘Hello, we’re both still here’.

Guillaume Apollinaire's  Calligramme

Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligramme

Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1918 caligramme of the Eiffel Tower represents it as a symbol of the strength of France. From Caligrammes: Poems of Peace and War 1913 - 1916

Can a building see to touch? Can the glimpse of a building be felt as tender? The tower is both spectacle and a point of sight. Visitors look at it, from near or far, then climb into its wiry body to look back out from where they came. Roland Barthes says it is a complete object, carrying what he called ‘both sexes of sight’. 

It has a special uselessness. And it is a lightning rod for meaning because it has no real function. It is an ‘empty monument’ even though it receives twice as many visitors a year as the foie gras of monuments, that old stuffed Louvre. When they wrote to mark their indignation and ‘slighted French taste’, the artists of 1887 took note of the fact that the tower-to-be was for nothing. It did nothing! Eiffel’s response was to list all the possible future uses: ‘They are what we might expect of an engineer, scientific uses: aerodynamic measurements, studies of the resistance of substances, physiology of the climber, radio-electric research, problems of telecommunication, meteorological observations, etc’. What a different fate the tower might once have had, but ‘gratuitous meaning’ can only arise from a ‘basic uselessness, which makes it live in men’s imagination’. 

And yet, for all that, it is not a sacred monument. Have you been to St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London recently? The squat Hawksmoor church that TS Eliot has his narrator wander past in The Waste Land. If you turn right on entering, wedged into a vestibule you’ll find a tiny coffee stand. Barthes would approve because, for him, it is the commerce that takes place up in the air on the Eiffel Tower that lets it contain a continuation rather than an escape from ‘life’. This magic object, able to reach into days and dreams, able to withstand all your romantic projections, does not hold itself out of reach. It remains tethered to the ground and rowdy, like those other human sites where it would not be out of character to smell popcorn in the air: the Ancient circus and the North American drive-in. As Barthes says, ‘Architecture is always dream and function, expression of a utopia and instrument of a convenience’. ‘Who can say what the tower will be for humanity tomorrow? There can be no doubt it will always be something, and something of humanity itself. Glance, object, symbol, such is the infinite circuit of functions which permits it to be something other and something much more than the Eiffel Tower.’ 

Wed final

Wed final

A series of hand-drawn maps that Barthes referred to as his ‘address book’

If the Eiffel Tower is a construction of wrought iron organising an endless circuit of glances, symbols and dreams, then Tokyo – known also by Barthes as ‘Faraway’ – is the occasion for loss of meaning. He tries to write this loss through an interlaced series of textual fragments and images. He tries to write a city by watching how food is made and consumed there. He tries to write his impressions of a place by going to a pachinko hall and studying the febrile movements of the players.

He writes about bowing. And choosing stationery. And calligraphy. 

The imaginary construction of a haiku contains a double myth, and every Western reader thinks they have one in them, strolling about, ‘notebook in hand, jotting down “impressions” whose brevity would guarantee their perfection, whose simplicity would attest to their profundity. The haiku seems to give to the West certain rights that its own literature denies it … you are entitled, says the haiku, to be trivial, short, ordinary; enclose what you feel in a slender horizon of words, and you will be interesting’.

Faraway is different. There, they know there is nothing profound about the haiku. It is not a nut to crack, a sac to pierce, a poem to ‘unpack’ or, even worse, ‘invest’ with symbolic charge. Instead, ‘the work of reading attached to it is to suspend language, not to provoke it’. So the after-toll of the haiku is a soft sonorous reaching, an evacuation of space. 

Go, go, little snail.
Climb Mount Fuji
But slowly, slowly. 

Is it too much to hope for attention like this? Attention, not to detail, but to culture and its quiet gestures. When the architect makes her site visit, is she allowed to wait until something happens before taking a note or making a mark? Can she embody the humble stranger in a productive way? Can she read what she finds? 

Barthes says that rather than photograph Japan, he was starred by a series of ‘flashes’ from it. ‘Japan has afforded him a situation of writing.’ This situation is a moment of dislocation, ‘a subversion of earlier readings’. How long would it take you to write something if you were always waiting for your expectation, understanding, assumption to waver before you could start? Is this what they mean when they say there should be ‘no a priori solutions’?

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower

Source: Getty images

The Eiffel Tower rising from the ground in 1888 Paris is useless yet redolent with meaning

The place he visits is rendered in sidelong glances, piled up like so many grains of soft fat rice. His occasions accumulate. The elegant work of the tempura chef, the quick wrist-flick of the pachinko player, the slicing of cucumber in the market: ‘the cucumber’s future is not its accumulation or its thickening, but its division, its tenuous dispersal’. 

He gets lost and finds his way with the help of a telephone in the back of a taxi and a series of hand-drawn maps. Some of these orientations are recreated in the book, crisp neat articulations of space, clear journeys and routes. Barthes gets off on watching them being drawn: ‘I could have hoped it would take hours to give me that address’. In recording his lostness, the calm, kind gesture of helping him find his way, and the stranger’s delight in seeing streets arranged in pen and ink, he describes for us the way in which ‘knowing’ a place might emerge: ‘This city can be known only by an activity of an ethnographic kind: you must orient yourself in it not by book … but by walking, by sight, by habit, by experience; here every discovery is intense and fragile’. 

This piece is featured in the AR December 2018/January 2019 Book issue – click here to purchase your copy today