How Not to Do Things With Buildings

Architects occasionally make buildings to say something. Some think that if a building does not intentionally convey a message, it’s not “real” architecture. Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center has a form that symbolizes flight, Daniel Libeskind claims that the form of his Jewish Museum Berlin comes from connecting the lines from the death camps to the site (Eisenman & Harrison, 2008, pp. 235-6), Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe intentionally looks like a graveyard, Mies van der Rohe’s Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht is a brick wall because that’s what was in front of them when they were shot, in a more vulgar case we have the Walt Disney World Dolphin and Swan Hotels by Michael Graves which have giant dolphin and swan statues on them.

What do these buildings tell us? In the first case, perhaps the message is “I am an airport”, in the last: “I am the Dolphin/Swan hotel”. The other projects are captivating for different reasons, and the symbolism of a memorial does not lessen its value. But are the messages themselves interesting? Is it worth it to worsen the acoustics of a conservatory to make it look like a musical instrument? Or double the cost of an airport to make it look like a bird?

You may accuse me of reductivism and point out that we can also reduce the premise of a poem or a Shakespeare play to a trite sentence. The premise of Macbeth, for example, might be “ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction” (Egri, 1960, p. 4). But there’s much beyond this premise (for an excellent analysis, see “Macbeth or Death-Infected” in Kott, 1961/2015), and the simplicity of the premise in no way makes the play worse. While in the case of architecture, the attempt to say something often takes away from aesthetics or functionality.

No building can avoid being symbolic in some sense but architecture made with the primary intent of conveying a message, usually at the expense of some other design aspect, is a different story. So why is deliberate symbolism preferable to accidental symbolism? Such architecture is too uninteresting to make up for the sacrifices it makes.

Take, for example, the poem “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

If we analyzed this in terms of its premise, the result would inevitably be underwhelming. Poetry loses its value when it is not obscure. Similarly, if the only value of a building is its message, then it’s not a very interesting building. And the message itself tends to be disappointingly banal.

Contemporary architecture should be just as radical as contemporary music. But there are limits. Although a work of architecture based on disharmony and fragmentation, on broken rhythms, clustering and structural disruptions may be able to convey a message, as soon as we understand its statement our curiosity dies, and all that is left is the question of the building’s practical usefulness.

Architecture has its own realm. It has a special physical relationship with life. I do not think of it primarily as either a message or a symbol, but as an envelope and background for life which goes on in and around it, a sensitive container for the rhythm of footsteps on the floor, for the concentration of work, for the silence of sleep. (Zumthor, 1998/2010, pp. 12-3)

If you want to say something, to make some argument, a building is a horrible choice as a medium. No possible arrangement of columns, walls, floors, ceilings, and other elements of the langue of architecture can convey anything close to what, for example, a text can.

  • Egri, L. (1960). The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives. The Writer.
  • Eisenman, P. & Harrison, A. L. (2008). Ten canonical buildings 1950-2000. Rizzoli : Distributed to the U.S. trade by Random House.
  • Kott, J. (2015). Shakespeare, Our Contemporary. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. (Original work published 1961)
  • Zumthor, P. (2010). Thinking Architecture. Birkhäuser Basel. (Original work published 1998)

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