Writing and Architecture (Design)

The 1970s saw a growth of a sub-movement in Post-Modernism called Semiotics, otherwise known as linguistics.  Architecture was a huge talking point of post-modernism, especially when it came to responses of the banalities of modernism. Artists and architects alike criticized the creations of the built environment during that era and in response initiated a series of designs that were much "busier" and diverse. Death to the plain white boxes of the early 20th century and greetings to the diversity the post-mod movement gave to the culture all around the world.  

Semiotics followers and philosophers believed in a level of interpratability  of architecture, just like in your favorite novel.  There were different ways to read a piece of architecture, no single response was right or wrong, it was just what the "experiencee" saw when engaging the space.  This became a huge starting point for designers such as Eisenman and Ghery who fully embraced the Deconstructivist movement (also a post-modern set of ideologies).  Architecture now was read below its aesthetic, it was much more than just an assemblage of parts, spaces and zones.  Instead it was a series of interpretations that related back to an original architectural concept or theme which encompassed the entity.  While architects like Robert Venturi read the semiotics and linguistic movement of architecture as a play on the growth of consumerism, many other's criticized it for being superficial and gimmicky.

Looking back upon the study of language and architecture, we can de-contextualize ourselves from the post-modernist mindset and instead understand this set of ideologies from a different point of view.  Rather than looking at the ways in which architecture can speak to us visually, we can compare it with the structure of language.  The ways in which the thinkers of that day thought of language and design was much more in terms of the legibility of design and the perceptability from aesthetics.  Today, I am going to propose we revisit the ways of comparing architecture to literature in more of a structural and symbolic sense.  By looking at these two different artistic expressions, there is a lot we can do to compare how we read (something an everyday person does) to architecture (something an everyday person certainly does not do).  

The Literature of Architecture

We aren't going to focus in on books that capture the essence of the architectural spirit (key in Invisible Cities), instead let's focus on the similarities between literature and architecture and how they can help a layman and an architecture(man) relate better to one another.  These similarities can span anywhere from structure to diction and the ways in which these parts all flow together.  Architecture and literature are very easily comparable to one another and thinking of it like so produces easier to read buildings and also more useful creations.   


Both in literature and architecture structure can mean a literal thing (paragraphs and columns) and a figurative way of thinking of composition.  In regards to a more figurative conceptualization of the word, they both have very similar impacts on their respective audiences.  First let's think about different structures of a piece of writing.  This can vary from shorter sentences, longer runs of words broken up by commas, hyphens and colons and even the way paragraphs come together to create the entire piece.  These different structures create varying types of tone and attitude which can then be interpreted in a fashion the author has in mind.  Architecture is much of the same. Think first about a regular building.  It can be broken down into several (millions) of different components.  A single brick can be a piece of structure all the way up to the auditorium that it and fifty thousand others fit into. However small the piece of structure is, it has an impact on the way that one may read the space.  Just like a piece of literature, architecture is read through visual, tactile and aural means,  the main difference between the two is their base structural units.  A change in even the smallest piece of the structural equation can completely alter the way that the users experience and engage in the reading of the space.  This of course can be intended or not from the original author and changes based on external factors.


Choosing the right words for  a written composition is important for different types of audiences. Varying types of writing have different words, phrases and jargon that are appropriate and the same can be said for architecture and its own form of diction.  Architectural diction is probably best described as the "moves" used or the selection of different elements ranging from programmatic placement to material specification.  Each combination creates a different structure and a different kind of rhythm which then reflects on the reader and how (s)he reads it.  It is important to always mock up and understand the ways all of these different pieces of structure flow together to form a certain kind of rhythm.  Just as it's important to understand the ways words work together in a composition, it's important to grasp the concept of how different elements will 'play' with one another in an edifice.  This of course relates back to the tone, concept and message the designer intends to convey to an audience.   


The way in which the different parts of both architecture and writing flow together are a crucial part of their interpretability.   Creating quick and abrupt changes to text can make a reader feel rushed or anxious.  Elongated sentences and adding in different forms of breakage can create suspense or even a sense of urgency at times.  Architects employ similar methods of dictating the flow of space.  While they do not have the use of text (or do they?) to create these feelings in their audience, they have architectural elements that can cut space, add to space, detract from space and so on.  These methods are innumerable and change depending on a designers style and aesthetic.  Rhythm in space creates not only an order for the beauty of construction but also the ease of use or not-so-ease of use, depending on the design intent.  This creation of flow from space and through text can be felt the same way as the brain will interpret each similarly.


Perhaps the easiest connection to make between architecture and literature is their use of symbolism.  Both are forms of narrative which we understand through different mediums but have an intended plot.  Symbolism is utilized in both cases to embed a message for the audiences to interpret knowing that either of the parties could have significantly different takes on what that message is.  In a novel, symbolism is what readers "read between the lines", inferred bits of information that play undertones to the overarching theme but still are just as important as what is plainly on a page.  Symbolism creates foreshadow, refers to external events and allows the audience to interpret in their way.  While literature has its own ways of doing this, architecture creates its own forms.  Architectural symbolism constantly begs people to look below its surface aesthetic and deeper into what things mean.  Why is the ceiling that high?  Is it to elevate the users' sense of being?  What about the placement of penetrations in an envelope, are they meticulously selected based on some external piece of information? Symbolism is important because it creates a depth both in text and in buildings.  Without it, everything that exists without interpretation and question.  And without those two things, what exactly is innovation and design?  It doesn't exist.

This is the first 'real' post on the blog and I saw it fitting as I will be utilizing words quite often to convey ideas in my head.  These may be vivid ideals, maybe quite vague concepts but writing is a way to flush out whatever may be floating in one's head.  Text and building materials are quite similar, actually.  You must carefully select both, put them in the right place, use them correctly and ensure there is a great reason to exist.  Writing is at the base of all that we do as designers, and even as I write this, I note how many mistakes I may have made throughout, whether grammatically or with content.  I am okay with the idea that this won't be perfect because I'm treating it as a design process.  I will continue to improve and use my knowledge of design and writing to help me become better at both things.  Never forget the importance of writing for design, or the effect design has on writing.  There should never be one single mindset but rather a culmination of each frame of thought and field of study.