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Architecture as Language


 1.   Introduction 


That architecture is a language of some kind or at least similar to one is an idea that appears fairly often in discussions on architectural theory. Usually the use of the term ‘language ‘ is confined to noting the similarities that arise between architecture and natural language in the sense that both systems can be seen to represent events taking place elsewhere so to speak.  That is, in some referent system or other. The similarity may sometimes be extended to noting that both systems use vocabularies of elements organized by some kind of syntax or grammar. However there is usually an implication that any similarity between them is no more than a sometimes useful but ultimately superficial coincidence. The ideas put forward in this paper propose that there are in fact deep functional similarities between architecture and natural language and that on this basis they are analogous in terms of their organization and functioning. It is proposed here that architecture, like natural language (written or spoken language), is simply one of many different types of language each with its own lexicon and grammar. Others would include music, scientific theories, art, political organization and many others. The definition of ‘language’ as it is used here is, therefore not a matter of the content, the substrate, the particular kind of lexicon or the ‘subject matter’ of any given system, but of what the system does and how it does it. In other words, the similarities and analogies between these different kinds of language systems reside at the level of their organization and functioning. In order to examine the idea of architecture as a language, it is important to define what a language is and does and therefore how well architecture fits within that framework.


2.     Similarities and Differences between Different  Kinds of Systems


Architecture does not use notes or chords to produce its forms, and music does not use columns or windows. For most people such very obvious and yet very fundamental differences between systems would seemingly eliminate any possible similarity between them. Yet these differences only occur at one level of the system’s existence, namely that of the components or elements which are manipulated in its attempt to represent other systems.  The premise of this paper is that at the level of organization and function there are considerable similarities between different systems. The comparison will be made between architecture and natural language (written or spoken) starting with the following two general statements:


a)  The difference between systems whether music or architecture or science is a matter of the medium or material which is manipulated to achieve the goals of the system.


b)  The similarity between systems is a matter of the processes involved rather than components which are manipulated. Thus in order to find a similarity (if there are any) we have to compare the processes which operate within each system. Thus instead of searching for similes or metaphors we would look for ANALOGIES. That is, functional similarities, of organization or process between different systems.


3.     Language – A General Description


As a general description of language one can suggest the following set of characteristics. One could, for instance say the following:


a)     Language is a system of communication.


b)  Each act of communication is a report or representation of things or events. It is an attempt to model a particular experience and transmit the form of that model to another.


c)   In language representational process involves the combination of a finite number of discrete units to generate a potentially infinite set of statements about experience (the referent).


d)    These discrete units form a vocabulary or lexicon while their arrangement is constrained by a grammar or syntax. In other words there only so many ways of arranging the units into a meaningful or legitimate statement. Language in this sense is rule-governed.


e)       Language is a digital representation of an analogue (continuous/seamless) event. Digital in the sense of using a set of separate and distinguishable elements to describe an experience which has no such distinct internal divisions.


f)  The closeness of the relation between the representation and the event to which it refers is a function of the particular arrangement of the elements (signs) of the language which is governed by syntactic rules. These are a matter of convention or historical usage.


g)     Language can be analysed into syntactic, semantic and pragmatic processes.


h)   Syntactics governs the legitimate combination of discrete units (based on collective previous usage) required to produce a meaningful statement.


i)   Semantics refers to the difference between the intended and received meaning of a particular statement or report. More basically, does the report trigger the necessary or predicted response in the receiver? If it doesn't the statement is meaningless. Meaning is a function of probability or expectation.


j)    Pragmatics refers to the intentions behind the statement – its intended meaning and the desired response in the receiver. This is a matter of the SELECTION of the discrete units to be used and the kind of syntactic level (mode, mood, register, attitude) required. Pragmatics is essentially a matter of context.


k)    Language may be seen as a code while the statements produced can be seen as messages drawn from legitimate combinations of that code.


l)     Language seeks to achieve both the accurate representation of events (the selection of discrete units and their legitimate combination through syntax) and the desired meaning of that statement as it is received by the recipient (pragmatics).


4.     Architecture as a Language


Based on the general statements about language made above we can now look at how well architectural processes fit into that scheme of things. Thus:


a)    Language is a system of communication, a report or representation of things or events between sender and receiver. Architecture communicates, reports or represents the organization of an institution (client, program) in a particular place and time (the context: location, finance, technology,etc). In other words a building is a report or representation of the functions and relationships within an institution and the immediate  context within which the institution will be materialized. That is the concrete reality of designing buildings.


b)   Any statement in a language has a referent. It is always talking about something (event or thing). The referent in architecture is the institution, client or program which is being represented.


c)    Language is digital. That is, it uses discrete elements (words, for instance) combined in certain legitimate ways (syntactic rules) to represent its referent. For architecture those discrete elements are architectural forms or compositional techniques selected from the current typical set of a style (the vocabulary). In architecture, syntax involves the conventional ways of combining architectural elements. Conventions which by definition are derived from past experience.


d)   Elements are combined to define the function and relationships of the referent institution. Using the forms at its disposal and constrained by the prevailing rules of syntax architecture makes a metaphor of the institution; a metaphor in built form. That is, a form which represents the elements and relations of the institution.


e)  For language there is always a statement about something. In architectural terms, the building is equally a statement about something: the referent institution.


f)   While the number of typical (discrete) elements is finite, the number of possible combinations of those (buildings or statements) is infinite, though not all of these would be accepted as legitimate or meaningful combinations of form.


g)   A set of elements plus the rules which govern their legitimate arrangement and from which statements can be derived is called a language. So too in architecture, a set of typical or conventional architectural forms plus the compositional rules which govern their arrangement can be termed a language.


h)  In architecture, a particular or characteristic set of forms together with their conventional usage or rules of combination is called a style.


i)    The typical set or style provides a code from which selections may be made for particular contexts. Legitimate combinations of form are constrained by the rules of the code. The style is the code, the building is the message derived from selections of forms and syntax of the code-style.


j)     As a message, the building is a report about the ‘state of things’ in the referent institution in a particular context, namely this time and this place.


k)    Meaning in architecture involves both denotative and connative dimensions of experience. The denotative refers to the expected or permissible arrangements of form which can be derived from the repertoire of a particular style. In other words it is ‘internal’ to architecture. The connotative dimension refers to the appropriateness (expectation) of these forms in a particular social or built context. This is the ‘public’ meaning of a particular combination of forms.


l)  Architecture like written/spoken language is rule-governed.


m) Architecture like Language can be analysed into syntactic, semantic and pragmatic processes. Syntactic constraints on architecture are, like written language, fairly easy to observe in the expected/unexpected relationships between stylistically familiar elements. So too, in many cases it is fairly easy to understand the architect’s semantic intentions behind the composition of the forms of the building. In other words the building can be analysed in semantic, pragmatic and syntactic terms.


n)   Analysis can only be carried realistically IF the stylistic repertoire being used is known. This allows one to understand the constraints within which the architect has made his choice of elements and combinations and thus within which the building has taken shape.


5.        The Architect as Author


If we want to think of this issue in personal terms or in terms of authorship we can usefully consider the following:


a)   Using the formal vocabulary available to him (within the repertoire of a particular style) and constrained by the rules (of selection and combination and context), the ARCHITECT SPEAKS THE BUILDING. HE is indeed the author of the building.


b)   The building is a STATEMENT by him about some referent event and its context and derived by him from a selection of possible (appropriate?) elements and their combinations to represent this event/context.


6.     Conclusion


No doubt some critics would feel more secure about this analogy between architecture and natural language if they could find the equivalent of ‘verbs’ in the architects statement, namely in the building. Verbs are, of course ‘words’ in the text which represent actions or events taking place ‘somewhere else’. Where would we find equivalent signs in the composition of a building.


These would lie in the relationships which the architect sets up between different parts of the building and which reflect or represent the dynamics of the institution and/or its context. In other words it is the geometrical arrangement of the building which reflects the dynamics of its referent. THE GEOMETRY IS THE VERB. After all its only a report. Now these concrete (!) arrangements don’t look like verbs, but then what does a verb look like? It is a written or spoken WORD. A thing in other words which represents an action. So too with the geometric composition of the building.


If we avoid the literary bias so prevalent even in our visual disciplines and concentrate on processes, then many disciplines can be understood as different materials or media all manipulated by a similar formative process.






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