"The one will kill the other. The book will kill the building" (Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

While it would undoubtedly have been acknowledged that Gutenberg's invention of the printing press had made a significant contribution to civilization, Victor Hugo in his well-known novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame had one of the novel's principal characters, the Archdeacon Don Claude Frollo, ruefully observe that the same invention had deprived humanity of something fundamental.1 It had deprived architecture of its position as the mother of the arts and, more than that, had deprived it of its basic sense of purpose. For until the fifteenth century, 'architecture was the great book of humanity, the chief expression of man in his various stages of development.'2

Every civilization has propounded its own philosophies. And every generation that has been stirred by an idea is interested in perpetuating it. In seeking the immortality of an idea, it naturally follows that the most endurable form of expression be chosen - and what could be more endurable than architecture? Thus, from the symbolism of proportion to the mysticism and rituals associated with certain forms and spaces, to the literal narratives of sculptural ornament, architecture stood as the living register of humanity's dreams, myths and ideas. 

But in the fifteenth century everything changed. In the printed word, human ideas discovered a means of perpetuation, not only more durable than architecture, but also far simpler and easier. Expression no longer required the moving of large masses of material and men. And once on the printed page, an idea could be duplicated thousands of times and, like a flock of birds, scattered to the four winds, occupying at once all points of the horizon. What could be more endurable than ubiquity?

Stripped of its role of expressing human thoughts, architecture is reduced to a purely utilitarian role. 'The beautiful lines of art give way to the cold and inexorable lines of geometry. A building ceases to be a building; it is a polyhedron.'3 Brought down to this lowly status, architecture is faced with its eventual death as an art. And thus, we have Victor Hugo's prophecy of doom that the word will kill stone.

This becomes an issue that is extremely important in today's architectural debate. We have recently heard a great deal of criticism of modern architecture's emphasis on functionalism. We have heard a call for the reuse of stylistic elements from the past. We have been told of the need to reinstate cultural symbolism in architecture. Indeed, the question of the day has been: How can architecture recover its ability to express meaning?

But before we go further into the competition between architecture and the printed word, it is necessary to realize that the word has been absorbed into architecture itself. Through the use of the printed word, architecture liberated itself from the restrictions of a traditional craft into an autonomous, institutionalized discourse. This discourse has manifested itself in the form of formalized education, sophisticated magazines and publications and an organized professional body. These institutions, especially in their contemporary forms, are undeniably predicated upon the printed word and their creation has made a fundamental difference to the nature of architectural knowledge.

Knowledge of architecture as a traditional craft was transmitted mainly through the spoken word and by practical demonstration. This medium of communication carried inherent geographical restrictions with it. Knowledge was tied to place, as the teacher could teach only within a certain locality, and there was no other medium through which ideas could travel easily over long distances. As a result, the myths, rituals, social norms and other conventions in terms of which the meaning (and mysticism) of architectural types was made legible were all firmly rooted in the immediate local context.

But the printed word liberated architectural knowledge from the sense of place by allowing the discourse to be raised to an abstract conceptual level, where it could be discussed in terms of issues such as form, proportion, expression, character and meaning. The source of knowledge was now obscured, as the idea on the printed page could have come from far away. Meaning could now be discussed in terms that were external to the immediate local context. Thus, the meaning of architecture could be justified by going back to its roots in antiquity - the typology of the primitive hut, the rationalism of the machine, the spirit of the time, or even theories borrowed from another field, such as sociology or linguistics.

The permitted architecture to 'think of its autonomous technical existence in the full consciousness of the absolute relativity of that existence to social development.'4 In order to understand the link between architecture and society, it became necessary to understand the conceptual relationship between architectural form and social or cultural meaning. And to bring that relationship into the public forum, it was felt necessary to understand how form could legibly express meaning. Thus arose the importance of the issue of expression as related to idea, with the architect as privileged interpreter. This has set up the primary focus of the architectural debate - the legible expression of social or cultural meaning by architectural form.

This idea has dominated architectural thinking ever since the Renaissance, and no attempt has been made to deal with this entire period. This essay is concerned with its modern manifestation, where meaning has been deprived of its roots in a believed natural order, and has been transplanted to stand firmly within the impulse of 'culture' ('society' in orthodox modernism).

Also, the distinction between modern and post-modern architecture is irrelevant here. Modernism denied explicit reference only to inherited or conventional meaning and redefined meaning in terms of function, spirit of the time, and technology. Post Modernism has merely tried to shift the emphasis to the cultural and linguistic dimensions in architecture. Thus, for both movements, the essence has been that form can express meaning - whether one calls it function, spirit of the time, myth, symbolism, character, or just meaning; and since 'meaning' is both a general and a currently acceptable term, one can accept it as a comprehensive term for the purpose of this essay.

The relationship between form and meaning has received a great deal of attention in the fields of literary criticism and theoretical linguistics. To describe it as a relationship is really incorrect, because form and meaning have not been regarded as separate entities. In fact, form is meaning. Poems and other literary works do not vary meaning merely by the words making sense, thereby connecting to an external reality. The laws of literary aesthetics are autonomous to literary form, as it is the manipulation of literary forms themselves that is meaningful. This analysis was first introduced by the literary movement known as Russian Formalism, particularly in the works of Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson. It was later developed further by the European Structuralists, such as A.J.Greimas, Tsetvan Todorov, Roland Barthes, and Jakobson after his emigration from Russia. To outline this entire philosophy is not possible here,5 but a point can be made by emphasizing some issues raised by Shkolvsky and Jakobson.

In his analysis of the nature of poetry, Shklovsky saw all formal literary devices, such as phonetic pattern, rhyme, rhythm and metre, not just as the grouping of works to 'represent' sense, but as meaningful elements in their own right. These elements are assigned to one central function: that of 'making strange.' Poetic language is very different in structure from ordinary day-to-day language, and the logical opposition of ordinary form to poetic form is significant. In our day-to-day life, we tend to fall into certain routines. These routines, become so much a part of us, that we carry them out without any conscious awareness of them. Thus, we become anaesthetized to the 'ordinary' forms of speech and action. Through the use of out-of-the routine 'poetic' forms, the poet jars us out of our habitual modes of perception and thoughts., causing a heightened awareness. The disruption of our stock responses forces us to see the world, instead of just numbly recognizing it. It is these poetic forms themselves, rather than any extrinsic message they carry that hold rhetorical power. And this rhetorical power is sustained by the opposition of 'poetic' to 'ordinary'.

Jakobson saw the human ability for language based upon the simultaneous use of two axes of thought related to the two basic rhetorical figures of metaphor and metonymy. Both are figures of 'equivalence' in that they typically relate the main subject of the future to a different entity, suggesting an equivalent relationship. Thus, in the metaphor, 'The man is a fox', the nature of a fox is posited as 'equivalent' to that of the man. And in the metonymic phrase, 'We read Hemingway', an author is posited as 'equivalent' to the books that he wrote. Generally speaking, metaphor is based on similarity or analogy between the literal subject (the man) and its metaphorical substitute (a fox), whereas metonymy is based on continuity between the literal subject (a set of books) and its adjacent substitute (the author who wrote them). 

Metaphor and metonymy are the characteristic modes that form the two-fold process of 'selection' and 'combination' by which all linguistic signs are formed. 'Selection' is based on the vertical metaphorical axis of 'similarity' where a word is chosen from a range of similar possibilities. 'Combination' is based on the horizontal metonymical axis of 'contiguity' where words are grouped in structures containing contiguous relationships. Thus, every linguistic utterance consists of a 'combination' of constituent parts (words, articles of speech, sentences, etc.), 'selected' from the range of possibilities contained in the lexicon.

Under this formulation, Jakobson defines the poetic use of language as that which juxtaposes the selective and combinative modes in order to promote a new level of equivalence. When I say, 'The man is a fox', I construct a relationship of 'similarity' by selecting the word 'fox' from a range of metaphorical possibilities, and then combine it in a relationship of 'contiguity' with the 'man' to promote an equivalence between the character of the man and that of the fox. To quote Jakobson: 'Similarity superimposed upon contiguity imparts to poetry its thoroughgoing symbolic, multiplex, polysemantic essence......In poetry where similarity is superinduced upon contiguity, any metonymy is slightly metaphorical and any metaphor has a metonymical tint.'6

All this is a more sophisticated version of Shklovsky's definition of 'making strange'. In poetic language, a metaphor is juxtaposed upon metonymy in a manner that is not typically found in ordinary language. Thus, rhetorical power is drawn from the juxtaposition and manipulation of forms (figures of speech in the case of language), creating oppositions, such are ordinary to poetic, old to new, familiar to unfamiliar, similar to contiguous.

This aesthetic code has manifested itself in the international scene in architecture, both at the theoretical level,7 and in design. In the area of design, it is perhaps more visible in the work of the American Post Modernists, such as Charles Moore, Robert Venturi and Michael Graves. These architects have relied on an almost parodistic use of stylistic elements from the past. Whether these be of classical or vernacular origin, elements such as gables or keystones are found placed within compositions that one does not expect to find them in, or have been subjected to a change in proportion, or are broken and used partially. In fact, to understand these works, one is forced to reevaluate the familiar and unfamiliar, and practically reconstruct the relationship between the elements that constitute their architectural form; which reminds us of the poet shaking us out of our habits to see the world again with new eyes. 

One can see the same aesthetic code in a different compositional theme in the work of the European architects Aldo Rossi and Rob Krier. Here, the use of partial elements is frowned upon and design is based on the reuse of entire compositions or types. The sources are typically from the typology of the traditional city. But the architectural types that result are not faithful reproductions of the past. We find them forced through subtle transformations from traditional composition, and stripped down of ornament. It is the selection, transformation and juxtaposition of traditional types that is held to be meaningful; or to put it in Jakobson's terms: the juxtaposition of the axes of selection and combination to promote a new level of meaning.

Orthodox modern architecture has also used the literary aesthetic,8 but on a more abstract plane, at the level of geometric composition. Thus we find the development of an architectural composition through an emphasis on the freestanding plane, standing in poetic opposition to the idea of the overall mass of the object. Or we see the building developed as a sculptural object standing in figural opposition to its surroundings.

One could go on about the ways in which the literary aesthetic has been used in architecture. But it may suffice, at this stage, to realize that architecture has never considered it acceptable to be merely 'ordinary'. The mechanical reproduction of cliche has been considered to be banal technique and not art, and architecture has always insisted (consciously or unconsciously) upon its status as an art. For example, the real estate developer-instigated house or apartments building derived from standardized plans, has never been considered to even remotely belong to the mainstream of architectural creation. In other words, architecture has always insisted upon the poetics of form.

One cannot deny that even in architecture, the poetic manipulation of form does carry immense rhetorical power. The question really is: can this aesthetic code, which is really specific to literature, form a valid foundation for an architectural aesthetic code? For one should realize that there is one significant difference between architecture and literature: and that difference lies in the performance and status of the utterance.

It is not the intention of the poet that his utterance gain immediate acceptance into the stock phrases of conventional language. In fact, if this does occur, the work loses its power, for poetry degenerates into cliche. The rhetorical power of the poetic utterance is gained by the utterance distancing itself from ordinary language, and its ability to survive lies in maintaining that opposition, so that between two readings, the reader has time to immerse himself in the anaesthetizing numbness of convention. The aesthetics of rhetoric lies essentially in the opposition, 'ordinary : poetic'.

But in architecture, the building is relatively permanent and seeks immediate acceptance into daily routine. So when one transfers this aesthetic code to architecture, some profound ethical and epistemological problems immediately arise.

Firstly, the aesthetic depends upon the freshness of the image. In architecture, there is no shifting between reading ordinary language and poetic language. The unavoidable reality of architecture makes it ordinary immediately. Usually the same group of people use the building day in and day out and become intimately familiar with it. Rhetoric soon degenerates into cliche. The poetic aesthetic retains its force with the format of architectural publications, where the image is always fresh, but one wonders whether it can survive the demands of reality.

Secondly, the poet has no desire or obligation to reform language, but to distort it for rhetorical purposes. If the architect indulges in rhetoric, he immediately accepts the continued existence of the opposition: 'ordinary : poetic'. He therefore accepts an ordinary architecture which he makes no attempt to alter, but merely uses as a base against which his work gains rhetorical power. So one may ask: who determines what is ordinary architecture: Should the architect confine himself to poetic architecture, and if so, can he ethically justify ignoring a certain portion of the building environment: Is the architect not ethically bound to help improve and reform the building environment?

Thirdly, the nature of architectural form is discussed at a very different level amongst architects than amongst the general public. If the rhetorical manipulation of form is the major aesthetic force, and the aesthetic derives from laws that are autonomous to form, architects face the danger of falling into a little private game amongst themselves.

Finally, the continued distortion of the ordinary would constitute an attempt to destroy the rules and conventions that legitimize a certain portion of the environment. Rather than sustaining cultural meaning, the architect will slowly destroy it.

If the expression of meaning appears to be so destructive, one may ask how architecture can concern itself with meaning. Perhaps some clues to the answer to this question lie in the fact that architecture is not merely 'read', but is also used. The continued rituals of using a space lead to the memories of events that become associated with it. One does not merely read meaning from architecture; through the use of memory, one also implants meaning into it. So one can put forward questions such as : Does the architectural aesthetic spring mainly from a building's ability to express meaning or from its ability to absorb and sustain meaning? Should the standard of excellence of a work of architecture be judged by the power of first impression, or by the degree of affection with which one can regard it after years of use?

Reality, of course, is never totally black or white. So whatever the arguments displayed here, one has to concede the fact that one cannot totally deny rhetoric to architecture; for to do so is to deny an essential aspect of art to architecture. The issue that we are really faced with is tied to an ethical question: To what extent does architecture's obligation to the public realm limit the rhetorical luxuries afforded to the other arts? And if one belongs to the school of thought that holds this obligation to be indisputable and paramount, it seems legitimate to reflect once again on the words of Victor Hugo, and wonder if his prophecy of doom would have been more accurate if his fear was not so much that the word will kill stone, but that stone would indeed try and become the word.

  • 1. Victor Hugo, 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' in The Works of Victor Hugo (New York: Black Readers Service Company,1928), p. 170
  • 2. ibid.
  • 3. ibid, p.177
  • 4. Anthony Vidler, 'The Idea of Type'. Oppositions 8 (Spring 1977), p.96
  • 5. For a concise description, see Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1972). For a more detailed analysis see Frederic Jameson, The Prison House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).
  • 6. Roman Jakobsen, 'Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics', in Style in Language, Thomas A. Sebeok ed. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press,1960), p.370
  • 7. For explicit quotations from literary criticism, see Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977), pp.41-44. For a transfer of the models from theoretical linguistics to architecture see Signs, Symbols and Architecture, Charles Jencks, Geoffrey Broadbent and Richard Bunt eds. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1980).
  • 8. Recent criticism has shown that some of the modern masters did not break away totally from the past and did, in fact, use traditional compositional themes as a rhetorical base. See the title essay in Colin Rowe, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1982). Also see the essays on Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto in Alan Colquhoun, Essays in Architectural Criticism: Modern Architecture and Historical Change (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981).