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The writing on the wall: the language of buildings

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The interplay between structures, text and symbols reveals much about society and takes to another level how architects communicate with the public

Buildings speak. Some utter monosyllabic grunts, like trump. Others are more loquacious braggarts, babbling iohanes oricellarius pav f an sal mcccclxx. Or, going back a little further, m agrippa l f cos tertivm fecit. The first of these needs no deciphering; the second is the inscription on the facade of Santa Maria Novella telling us that Giovanni Rucellai paid for it; the last, from the Pantheon, proclaims the generosity of Marcus Agrippa. 

Inscription is a very ancient custom, telling us about lost cultures when less-durable media have long since rotted away. The sealed chambers within Egyptian pyramids are covered with hieroglyphic incantations, texts intended for otherworldly eyes that need no light to read them: Oho! Oho! Rise up, O Teti! / Take your head, collect your bones / Gather your limbs, shake the earth from your flesh! / Take your bread that rots not, your beer that sours not / Stand at the gates that bar the common people!

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Venturi Scott Brown and Associates’ Learning from Las Vegas

Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi differentiated between a ‘duck’ – a building that explicitly represents its function through shape and construction – and a ‘decorated shed’, a generic structure with signs and decor to convey its purpose. They defended The Long Island Duckling for combining functional and symbolic aspects of architecture. The work above is from Learning from Las Vegas, 1972, by Steven Izenour, Scott Brown and Venturi. Image courtesy of Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, inc.

Even when inscriptions are less eloquent about their intended recipients, their placement – high up on facades, for instance, or deep in labyrinthine chambers – still reveals something of the historical relationship between architecture and its publics. At times, these publics are very specific, even individual, and the authors themselves are not of this world: mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. This is the horripilating warning that appears in letters of fire on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace, ruining his dinner: ‘you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting’. On other occasions, similar judgments are added to buildings by less-authoritative hands, in the form of graffiti or posters. Buildings then become places of competing texts, not exactly tabulae rasae but – that dreadfully abused word here becomes literal – palimpsests. The low overwrites the high, whether with simple assertions of identity in the form of tags, or more-complex slogans. 

There are also historical Chinese buildings whose plans resemble linguistic characters, such as the pavilion in the Garden of Perfect Brightness shaped like a swastika, which in Mandarin is pronounced ‘wan’, meaning ‘infinity’. This was the game of a learned elite relaxing in its cultivated retreat, a message for a minuscule audience. More recently, OMA’s China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters building in Beijing can be seen as a return to this tradition, albeit for a national public (the orientation is telling in this regard). The rectangular silhouette could be read as the character ‘kou’, meaning mouth – mouthpiece of the party, perhaps. 

‘According to architecture parlante, the formal qualities of buildings inform viewers of their function and, thereby, of the ideals of the society that built them’

But even those buildings that do not bear inscriptions or resemble texts themselves have been called legible. The first decades of the Western neoliberal reaction, from the late 1960s to the 1990s, were animated by an architectural debate that seemed almost quaint and certainly extinct until very recently. Are buildings not meant to be read, went the question, posed in a variety of different forms and by equally various people. This was, to some extent, a response to the ‘theory’ percolating through the humanities, but it was also a more direct reflection of the political situation, as well as an internal reaction within the relative autonomy of architectural culture itself. 

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Walker evans, times square 1930

Walker Evans’ Times Square/Broadway Composition, 1930, reflects New York’s vibrant confusion of towering billboards and names in lights that, together, produce a city to be read, especially at night

The Postmodernists, for one, objected to the supposedly incommunicative facades of Modernist buildings, either on the grounds of their elitism, their rejection of meaning and tradition, or their tedium. At around the same time and borrowing from post-structural theory, those architects and theorists who would later be christened Deconstructivists sought to interrogate the text of the building and city. The linguistic turn had first entered the discipline via semiotics, which had been concerned, in a more passive way, with reading the conventional signs of architecture – now designers wanted to disrupt them. In this regard, Deconstructivism can be seen as a critical extension of Postmodernism. 

The notion that buildings might be legible was not new. The idea that the church is the bible of the illiterate is often attributed to Pope Gregory I; this is, in fact, a misquotation of a remark that occurs in a letter of his dated AD 599. Returning to the text, it is clear Gregory was specifically referring to the pictures displayed on the walls of churches, and he goes on to urge that these should be preserved from iconoclasts because they aid the uneducated to learn about sacred stories and the lives of the saints. 

Nevertheless, later writers have seized on Gregory’s words and expanded them to encompass not just pictures, but the building of the church itself. And, although this is an abuse of the text, it adheres to its logic: Gregory was the first to assert that visual matter could be read. This notion was secularised in the Enlightenment with the concept of architecture parlante, according to which the formal qualities of buildings inform viewers of their function and, thereby, of the ideals of the society that built them – specifically the nation state. The most commonly cited example of this is Ledoux’s design for a brothel at Chaux, planned like an erect penis. This ‘speaking architecture’ can be understood in the context of the new bourgeois public, a field of discourse discovering its autonomy from the church and court, the avant-garde of which sought entirely new codes of communication. 

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Herbert Bayer’s Entwurf für einen Zeitungskiosk

Herbert Bayer’s Entwurf für einen Zeitungskiosk, 1924, merges architectural themes with advertising techniques. Image courtesy of DACS 2018

In the 19th century, as the dialectic of the Enlightenment became apparent, there was a complex double movement of progressive reaction to such ideas. Ruskin, who sought a socialist future in the medieval past, described San Marco as a ‘vast illuminated missal’. For 19th-century critics, the Middle Ages seemed a lost golden age before the onslaught of modernity, a period of unity, in which people came together to construct great buildings that were also perceived – read – by the same community. In the attempt to revive such communality, old languages of ornament were also documented and revived. This coincided, however, with a huge growth in literacy and the industrial production of books, which meant that the masses were no longer dependent on the visual languages of buildings.

At the same time, buildings were starting to be understood as ‘purely’ spatial, in the thought of Hegel, Semper and Schmarsow. In the face of the revolution in literacy, the textual qualities were stripped from buildings. This prepared the way for the relatively abstract spaces of Modernism; it also made the possibility of reading a building like a book, or even as an image, problematic, as the pre-eminent mode of experiencing a building was no longer merely ocular but via bodily movement through space. And yet, in modernity, text returned to the building with a vengeance. The towering billboards, names in lights and ceaseless tickers of the great metropolis, produced a city to be read, especially after nightfall. 

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Tblisi’s Palace of Rituals

Completed in 1984, Tbilisi’s Palace of Rituals is known as The Wedding Palace. Emphatically phallic in elevation and yonic in plan, Victor Djorbenadze’s building represents the act of marriage as a symbolic and anatomical conjoining

Times Square is the epitome of this phenomenon, an open-air petri dish for experimenting with neon on a mobile army of subjects. It is itself named after a form of text media: the New York Times relocated to a new headquarters here in 1904 and persuaded the city to rename its location in its honour. In the same year, the newspaper also pioneered an entirely new form of reading when it installed the ‘zipper’ – a panel of moving, illuminated text – wrapped around the base of its tower. (Today, the tower is an uninhabited husk, hollowed out by the text smothering it like a parasitic creeper.)  

Reactions to these developments varied. The new aesthetic element they introduced to the experience of the city was depicted in the textually exuberant photographs of Fritz Lang and Walker Evans, and the paintings of Charles Demuth. This novel urban volubility also bursts into Modernist literary works, peppering Ulysses with the slogans seen by the meandering protagonist, Leopold Bloom (who also works in advertising), thereby demonstrating the effects of the metropolis on the consciousness of its inhabitants. Walter Benjamin also tries to capture this in his 1928 book One-Way Street, a collection of aphorisms titled with fragments of text torn from the street, which he develops into more or less related critical texts. Here, the book and the space of the city are brought together under the modern condition of distraction, in which the built environment and the book are both perceived by people buffeted by overwhelming sensory stimuli, their thought processes entangled with texts from commercial and other sources. The challenge, for some, seemed to be the production of architectural space that was adequate to this state – a challenge taken up by designers like Mendelsohn.

‘We experience space not in its phenomenological plenitude, nor as an ancient message from the depths of the European soul, but entirely absent-mindedly’

In cities such as Moscow and Berlin, the innovations of the capitalist West were also adapted more critically, rerouting the language of commercialism towards revolutionary goals. The Constructivists designed – and sometimes built – structures that were more text than building, a return to the problem first tackled by the designers of architecture parlante: how to make an architecture that speaks to, and thereby conjures, a new public. Karl-Liebknecht-Haus in Berlin, headquarters of the German Communist Party, demonstrated a pragmatic approach to the problem: the long bare spaces between its rows of windows were filled with frequently repainted exhortations, a low-tech version of the ticker girdling tower of the New York Times.

However, such borrowings from commercial design were subsequently evacuated from the canonical view of modern architecture – the so-called International Style – and the abstract, phenomenological approach to space triumphed. This was never a total triumph, however, and the a-textuality of Modernist space – depending of course on what one means by ‘text’ – was never complete. Even the barest of facades spoke to their viewers, announcing a new era (of architecture, at least). Lefebvre himself admits the possibility of reading buildings like a text, but adds that ‘the analogy would serve no particular purpose’. Nevertheless, if the question of publics is brought to the fore, and the very literal textuality of some buildings is not suppressed, then the textual analysis of buildings can be a fruitful one, albeit not the only one – Lefebvre is right in that space is not reducible to text.

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Trump Tower Las Vegas by Bergman, Walls & Associates

Soaring priapically out of the Nevada desert, the gaudily brazen temple to conspicuous consumption that is Trump Tower Las Vegas, by Bergman, Walls & Associates, opened in 2008. Gold-mirror glass, gold signage and giant gold Ts fuel an orgy of auric exhibitionism that would put Midas to shame. Image courtesy of Getty Images

However, with Pomo once more in the ascendant – to the extent that one can barely swing a cat in London without hitting some implied columniation – it can seem that this argument has been resolutely won by those who would make buildings speak, and speak plainly: the uncritical ventriloquists of architecture. These have their doubles on the fringes of the political right; the latter rarely have the same politics as the neo-Postmodernists, but they are their occasional allies in the fields of preservation and planning, and both advocate an architecture that speaks a common tongue.

But these all seem Canute-ish manoeuvres when one considers the lived reality of our spatio-textual situation, in which the built has been thoroughly and irrevocably penetrated by the word. Those textual aspects of the modern city singled-out in the 1920s by avant-gardists such as Benjamin and Moholy-Nagy have since been intensified, not lost, albeit in an unexpected dimension. We experience space not in its phenomenological plenitude, nor as an ancient message from the depths of the European soul, but entirely absent-mindedly, while reading. We stare intently at our hand-held screens, through which we move as we walk, scrolling through the city. The consequences are occasionally fatal to pedestrians and, although they may not be a matter of life and death for architects, they are still perplexing – what should a city look like when it isn’t looked at? When it is read but never seen?

Perhaps a return to another Modernist might be productive at this juncture: Ludwig Hilberseimer. His mute facades and city plans constitute an undifferentiated architecture that holds its tongue, admitting the impossibility of competing with the lure of screens. The elevated walkways that separate pedestrians from the traffic below would make a safer environment for the bent-necked, shuffling masses, who glance neither sideways at each other nor up at the silent facades surrounding them.  

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