Sunday, July 18, 2010

Architecture, Symbolism, and Signs

1. Las Vegas welcomes you to a land of illusions.
Architecture has meaning.  To say that is to say that architecture conveys information and is a means of communication. Communication can be overt or subtle. Literal or symbolic.  The first, overt communication, is the most recognizable.  In this category are ordinary conversation, print media, and graphic communications such as television and movies. The second category, symbolic communication, includes the arts: poetry, music, paintings, architecture. Subtle communications may include empathy, sympathy, mental telepathy, and body language. Obviously, these categories overlap and the boundaries between them are somewhat arbitrary.  Movies, for example, often contain a lot of symbolism.

Architecture overlaps categories as well.  A building sends overt messages by being -- sometimes very literally -- a sign.  A steeple communicates church and golden arches say hamburgers.  The 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas, explored this idea.  The authors (Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour) contend that, in Las Vegas, entire buildings are really nothing more than signs.  Driving up Interstate 15 at sixty miles an hour, the Excalibur Hotel, among others, acts as a billboard.  It is an improbable fantasy of King Arthur's court.  Its disproportioned towers and turrets are bright with color and impossible to ignore.  The entire structure screams, STOP!  We can entertain the kids and the parents!  Go no further! One can easily imagine a family with children immediately persuaded to spend the night.  Other Las Vegas structures beckon with exotic facades promising a night in Venice or a romantic stay in Paris.  Most of these venues took shape long after Learning from Las Vegas was published.  However, it is more true today than ever:  Las Vegas hotels are not architecture;  they are signs. The most honest assessment of this is contained in the name of one of the hotels:  Mirage.  These buildings are illusory. The over-scaled pinnacles and turrets of Excalibur have no interior resolution. There is no place inside the Excalibur where you are actually in a turret.  It is an illusion.  A mirage.  A big sign.  The Venetian hotel has indoor canals (astonishingly, flowing above the casino through a second floor shopping mall).  The Paris hotel offers a one-fifth-scale Eiffel Tower.  There is a pyramid down the street at Luxor.  None of this is architecture.  It is a collection of signs.  Or, perhaps more charitably, grand theater.
2. Excalibur promises Camelot with a riot 
of turrets, pinnacles, and battlements.

2.  Gondoliers serenade tourists in a
fake canal beneath a fake sky at the Venetian.
In architecture, more impressive messages fall into symbolic and subtle categories. If a message is too obvious it is kitsch. A hot dog stand in the shape of a hot dog is kitsch. Most of Las Vegas is kitsch, along with much of roadside America. However, if a message is too subtle -- “in jokes” that only architects might understand or obscure historical references that are lost to time -- then meaning is lost as well. The most enjoyable and most enduring meaning in architecture is in the subtle nuances of space, texture, shadows, scale, rhythm, etc. These things convey information about how we might feel and provide spaces that encourage reflection. Really good architecture offers depth to the experience.  One fine example of this is Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.  It conveys strength in its structure and a sense of melancholy in its colors and siting.  This information is conveyed in the architecture through subtle signs.

3.  The giant hot dog in Bailey, Colorado.
 It is obvious to most people that architecture has meaning in pedigreed structures that are sanctified by history and authority. It may be less obvious in more humble architecture, such as the buildings we live in. But residential architecture is also capable of highly personal and rewarding meaning. If this concept holds for the great architecture of the world, then why not also in our homes — the buildings where we spend most of our time? Consider Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. Hearth and home could hardly be expressed in any more meaningful way. It is a celebration of home. The warm colors, rich textures, and central weight of the fireplace all beckon in a primeval way to experience the comforts of home.

Residential architecture can enhance experience with meaning in varying degrees of subtlety and nuance. Among the possibilities: architecture can create a sense of arrival at the front door. It can convey charm and grace in our living spaces, relaxation where we sleep and communion with nature as it extends outward to terraces and gardens. Kitchens and breakfast areas can be bright and cheery; dining rooms can be romantic or or grand, depending on personal preferences and the weight of the occasion. Perhaps above all, architecture of all types can provide a sense of shelter and protection beyond the practical needs of keeping out bad weather or bad people. Architecture can offer a deep-seated assurance that all is well in our environment.

Interior decorating can augment these environments, but it is a failure of architecture if surface treatments and furniture arrangements are the only means to convey meaning. Architecture is meaningful in a powerful three-dimensional sense. It is accomplished by manipulating interior volume, controlling color and light, and arranging structure to support the intents of the design.

5.  Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Art.
Architecture can be appreciated at face value (fa├žade literally means face) with a great deal of enjoyment. However, like any art, the more we understand how it works the deeper and more profound is our appreciation. When we realize that architecture has meaning it becomes obvious that it is created by following principles of design to transmit its meaning, just as the principals of grammar are used to convey meaning in language. The grammar of architecture is a search for meaning in the spaces we create and inhabit.


1. Madcoverboy.
2. Excel.
3. Urban 2004.
4. John Perry.
5. Roger 469.