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Recent developments in architectural




Few architect-semioticians can resist pointing out that one of the first
semiotic statements ever to be published occurs in the earliest surviving
text on architecture, in which Vitruvius, writing at the time of Christ,
says (Chapter 1: 3): Ίη all things, but especially in architecture, there
are these two points: that which is signified and that which gives it
So it is hardly surprising that once Saussurean Semiology had been
developed by Levi-Strauss into Structuralism and applied to the analysis
of cultural phenomena in general, there would follow applications of
such thinking to architecture. These seem to have been started in Italy
in the 1960s by analysts of culture in general, such as Gillo Dorfles,
Umberto Eco, and Emilio Garroni, but architects such as Renato de
Fusco and Maria-Luisa Scalvini soon began to develop their own applica-
tions as architects. Cesar Janello too introduced such studies to Buenos
Aires, where a flourishing school was to develop.
The Anglo-Saxon world tended to be suspicious of such 'theorizing',
but interest began to develop after Jencks and Baird had published their
pioneering collection on Meaning in Architecture (1969), after which
others set up conferences in this field such as those convened by Llorens
at CasteJdefeJs in 1972 (see his 1974) and Krampen at Ulm later in 1972,
followed by others in Lubbock, Texas (1980) and Toronto (1982). There
have been sizeable architect-contingents too at each meeting of the IASS,
not to mention monographs by Bonta (1979), Krampen (1979), and
Preziosi (1979) and collections of papers by Broadbent, Bunt and Jencks
(1980) and Broadbent, Bunt and Llorens (1980). And not to mention
Charles Jencks's 'pop' presentation of semiotic ideas in The Language of
Post-Modern Architecture (first edition 1977), which by its title alone
captured a mood that has permeated thinking in most of the arts ever
But it was a meeting organized by Lagopoulos in 1985, on the
'Semiotics of Space' in the idyllic Greek Island setting of Andros, which
finally convinced architect-semioticians that they had much to gain from
regular meetings.
The initiative was taken by Manar Hammad, who organized a meeting
on the 'Semiotics and Aesthetics of Space' at Urbino in 1987, and a
further one there on 'Affordances' in 1988. Out of these grew the
Association Internationale de Semiotique de l'Espace (IASPE), a group-
ing of those most involved in the field who met to discuss 'Regulating
Lines' within the larger context of the IASS in Perpignan (1989), where
IASPE was recognized formally as a constituent body.
As with any such grouping, the members of IASPE are diverse in their
aims and objectives. There are philosophical — if not ideological —
differences of the kind which Margolis diagnosed at Perpignan (1989)
between those mainland Europeans who take a 'binary' view on matters
to do with meaning, derived from Saussure's semiology as developed by
Greimas and others; and those Anglo-Saxons who, drawing on Peirce's
semiotic, tend to think largely in triads. This makes for lively and pro-
ductive discussion.
The products of these discussions have on the whole been dispersed in
architectural, planning, semiotic, and other journals, more general confer-
ence proceedings, and so on; but one coherent collection has emerged,
edited by Lagopoulos, in Espaces et Societe (1985), based largely on the
Andros papers. The scope, at least of the field, is given by the main
section headings: 'Space and Ideology', 'Semiotics of Architecture and
Aesthetics', 'Architectural Connotation', 'Spatial Structures',
'Architecture and Urban Intervention', 'Approaches to the Semiotics
of Space'.
Underlying all this, however, there have been two nagging worries:
first, that since Jencks's book on postmodernism, architects worldwide
have been striving again to build meanings into their buildings, yet few
seem to know that semiotic principles could help them; and second, while
those of us within the discipline see architecture — with its muJtisensory
inputs — as a peculiarly useful vehicle for expanding semiotic studies
beyond the language-derived conventions of Saussure and Peirce, these
possibilities have rarely been grasped by other semioticians. We waited
with baited breath at the IASS in Vienna, for instance (1979), when
Roman Jakobson announced that the time had come to expand semiotic
studies beyond language with concepts from some nonlinguistic field. He
described that field in some detail, making it sound exactly like architec-
ture, and then plumped for music!
So I'd like to expand a little on why it seems to me that our colleagues
on both sides — architects and semioticians — should look a little more
closely at what they seem to be missing.

Semiotic in architecture

Christian Norberg-Schultz introduced Morris's (1938) three-part division

of semiotic — Pragmatics, Syntactics, and Semantics — into architectural
debate with his Intentions in Architecture of 1963. But he abandoned
them later as 'too scientific' and moved instead to the esoteric complexities
of Husserl's and Heidegger's untested and untestable speculations in
But in March 1972 the mainstream American journal Progressive
Architecture published On reading architecture', by Gandelsonas and
Morton, in which the authors analyzed houses by two — then and still —
avant-garde architects: Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves. Gandelsonas
and Morton suggested, correctly in my view, that the complex geometric
rule-based systems by which Eisenman generated his highly abstract
house forms — based directly on Chomsky (1957) — are a form of
architectural syntax. And since Graves presented visual references to the
work of Le Corbusier and other heroes of the Modern Movement —
Peirce would have call them 'Icons' — Gandelsonas and Morton
described Graves's work as an architecture of semantics.
Neither Eisenman nor Graves bothers much about pragmatics,
Morris's 'psychological, biological, and sociological phenomena which
occur in the functioning of signs'; but other architects, or so it seems to
me, do treat such things with much greater seriousness. I suggested
architectural applications in my 'Plain man's guide to meaning in architec-
ture' in the mainstream British journal Architectural Design (1977), and
I still find them excedingly useful. What's more, architects in practice do
tend to work — albeit unconsciously — with pragmatics, syntactics, and
semantics, often with more emphasis on one than the others.


So in 1987 I started an analysis of three major art museums: Louis

Kahn's Kimbell in Fort Worth, Texas, which I see as almost entirely
pragmatic; James Stirling's Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, which I see as even
more semantic than Graves's houses; and Richard Meier's Craft Museum
in Frankfurt, which I see as deriving from even more complex geometric
syntaxes than Eisenman's early houses.
These analyses are to be published elsewhere, so I will merely outline
my major findings.

Pragmatic design: Louis Kahn s Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

(Figures 1-3)

Kahn makes it clear in his account of the Kimbell (1975) that his thinking
was Pragmatic. He started his design by thinking through, very carefully,
how he should let in the daylight, designing a long, narrow concrete
vault — half a cylinder, lying horizontal and supported by long walls,
with a narrow central slit along its length. Daylight enters through this
slit and is reflected round the curves of the vault by mirrored baffles.
Everything follows from this, with seven such vaults laid one behind
the other — an arrangement which, of course, depends on a simple
geometric syntax of parallel walls enclosing long, narrow galleries.
The result, for most people, is one of the great museums. The light
has the qualities Kahn sought, falling gently, but subtly — indeed beauti-
fully — onto the works of art; it changes from day to day and even from
minute to minute. And with each change one sees, literally, each work
of art 'in a different light'.

Semantic design: James Stirling's Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (Figures 4-10)

Stirling was less conscious that his approach was semantic; yet, as he
makes clear in his account of designing the Galerie (Stirling et al., 1984),
he played clearly with a quasi-Peircean system of Icons, Indices, and
Symbols. Stirling's architectural hero is Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose
Altes Museum in Berlin (Figure 6) has a central, circular rotunda sur-
rounded by a squared-off U-shape of galleries. Stirling intentionally made
his plan Iconic with Schinkel's. Schinkel's central rotunda is domed, but
Stirling's is open to the sky, forming a sculpture court.
As for Stirling's Indices, there is a clear Index of entrance off the road,
marked by a small Icon for a Classical temple, under which a choice of
routes is indicated by a staircase and a ramp up, into, and through the
Museum. There is an alternative route, indicating with equal clarity a
right-of-way up, into, and around Stirling's rotunda and over the roofs
of his galleries to a higher-level street behind.
There are far more Indices than these in Stirling's Galerie, and far
more Icons too: with pit-head winding gear for Stirling's elevator shaft
and a piano-shaped plan for his Music School (which gives rather good
shapes acoustically!). The most remarkable, however, is Stirling's Library,
supported on slender columns with smooth-plastered, white painted walls,
long, horizontal windows, and a flat roof-terrace between quite high
parapets, much like an enlarged Le Corbusier villa. Which is no coinci-
dence, because across Stuttgart at Weisenhof there are villas built by Le
Corbusier in 1927 — a pair of them with slender columns, plastered and
white-painted walls, and a flat roof terrace with parapets (Figure 9).
Stirling's Library, clearly, is Iconic with these; he himself speaks of the
likeness'. And if one climbs onto Stirling's roof-terrace, the parapets
direct one's gaze — like enormous horse's blinkers — toward Weisenhof.
So Stirling's Library is Iconic with and Indexical o/Le Corbusier's houses!
The Staatsgalerie is indeed a virtuoso exercise in architectural seman-
tics, bristling with Indices and Icons; and it has become a Symbol in
itself for Stuttgart's cultural aspirations. Since its building — as an
extention to the old nineteenth century Staatsgalerie — Stuttgart's
Museum has moved from 53rd place to first among Germany's museums.

Syntactic design: Richard Meier's Museum für Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt

(Figures 11-16)

Richard Meier also extended an existing Museum housed in the almost

cubic Villa Metzler. He too describes his working methods (Meier et al.
1985): Meier started by disposing three large squares south, southwest,
and west of this in an L-shape. But the road turns at the Villa by some
3.5°, so Meier superimposed a second geometry at this angle over his
original squares. And like Stirling in Stuttgart, he had a right-of-way
across his site tilted some 3.5° degrees in the other direction. So Meier
superimposed a third geometric Syntax. He then placed Metzler-sized
pavilions in the corners of his site with a Metzler-sized courtyard between
the two southern ones. Then between his three new pavilions and his
courtyard he placed access ramps, bridges, and corridors with display
spaces merely 'left over' between his clashing geometries.
Meier then played similar syntactic games with his facades, extracting
a grid, 16 squares by 16, from those of the Villa Metzler. So things like
window size are matters of geometry with little concern at all for where
and how much daylight may be needed. Which disdain for the pragmatics
of museums — the indexing of routes, the proper lighting of objects —
permeates most of what Meier did. This confirms what one finds so very
often — that architects who pursue the Syntax of their geometries to
self-consistent, logical conclusions often forget that in the long run our
relations with their buildings will be pragmatic, to do with Morris's
Origin, uses, and effects of signs within the behaviour in which they occur'
(my italics).
Differences between these museums help us clarify certain semiotic
concepts. I have suggested, for instance, that in certain ways Stirling's
Museum indicates which routes we should take, while Meier's, on the
whole, does not. An opening in a wall is an Index in a strict Peircean
sense. So is a staircase, a ramp, and so on; they indicate where we may
or may not go. In this respect these elements of building seem more
unequivocal, less ambiguous that some of Peirce's own Indices. His
pointing finger, for instance, certainly indicates something — usually the
object to which it is pointing. But some cultures read it differently. In
Byzantium, for instance, it indicated a command; in Malaysia it is a rude
gesture; and so on. But a ramp is so unequivocal that anyone from any
culture must read it in the same ways (as indeed must cats and dogs, not
to mention slugs and snails!).
So these architectural examples suggest that the Index might be a
totally universal sign, read directly, and physically, in the same way, by
whatever creature cares to read it. An Icon, by contrast, has to be learned.
One needs to have seen, say, a Classical temple to know that Stirling's
aedecule is Iconic with it; Le Corbusier's houses to know that Stirling's
Library is Iconic with them; and so on. But such learning is fairly
automatic. Having seen the two elements of an Index anyone, from any
culture, would recognize their likenesses.
Which makes Peirce's Icons rather different from his other sign type
that has to be learned within a culture: his Symbol. While Peirce describes
crowns, theatre tickets, bank notes, and so on as Symbols in this sense,
his paradigmatic example is the word, and words of course are learned
within particular linguistic groups, particular cultures. I learned very
quickly in the Christian West that a certain building with a spire, a tower,
pointed roofs, pointed windows, and so on is a church, and once I knew
that I recognized others that were Iconic with it. But it took me much
longer to learn; indeed I did not learn until I went into quite different
cultures, that a building with a minaret, a mihrab (niche pointing to
Mecca), a mimbar (pulpit for the preacher), and so on is a mosque.
And even now when I go to one of the great cathedrals I really cannot
'read' the saints represented by carvings and stained glass. I was brought
up in a Protestant community, and the attributes of saints were by no
means part of our day-to-day discourse. I did not learn them as I would
have in a Catholic culture, so I have to walk around guide-book in hand
if I am to identify them. Such architectural symbols have to be learned
just as Peirce's words have to be learned within the language of one's
So it is that architectural examples help us clarify fundamental differ-
ences between the signs of Peirce's major triad: the Icon as a sign which
merely has to be seen to be believed; the Index as a direct, totally cross-
cultural physical indicator, and the Symbol as a sign whose meaning has
to be learned within a particular culture.
So despite their disregard and maybe even disdain for semiotic theory,
Kahn, Stirling and Meier — not to mention most other architects —
clearly have worked with semiotic concepts such as pragmatic, syntactic,
and semantic! So I liken them to Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme:
M. Jourdain, who Tor more than forty years' had been 'speaking prose
without even realising it'. And what is more, they seem to have clarified,
indeed enriched, the crucially important Peircean triad of Icon, Index,
and Symbol!


Not so those drawn to the post-Saussurean, post-structuralist ideas of

'Deconstruction'. Some of them indeed seem inordinately knowing about
such things. The first architect to contact Jacques Derrida, with a view
to comparing approaches, was Bernard Tschumi, whose architectural
thinking does indeed seem to have paralleled Derrida's own. And once
the contact had been made, Tschumi commissioned Jacques Derrida to
work with Peter Eisenman on an architectural commission.
So how much of Derrida must we know to understand the architectural
applications? Quite a lot to gain the full picture, but since I have written
extensively of this elsewhere (1990), again let me summarize my

Deconstruction in action:

Derrida's technique, of course, is to take the work of some other author,

usually another philosopher, and 'deconstruct' it by demonstrating that
if one pushes the author's premises to their logical conclusions then they
tend to destroy the very argument the author seems to be trying to make.
Derrida articulates his approach in Of Grammatology (1967a), whilst the
clearest application of his working methods is to be found in his account