would seem to be easier to interpret than other art works. Architecture
stands distinctively exposed to the community. Buildings are unavoidable
and they enter into many different activities. Larger architectural works
obtrude into the public context with an intensity and physical stubbornness
that few art works accomplish. Also, architectural works seem more open
about themselves than other art works. In planning and constructing architecture
many people and groups cooperate, and during that cooperative process
intentions get made explicit; programs get written; functions get defined
and evaluated. Compared to the other arts, there is more available evidence
about the intentions and program behind the works and the choices made
in their design. Interpretation and criticism of these intentions and
choices seems more possible. Public reaction can range from public debate
about the functional appropriateness of a new town hall, to learned professional
critical discussion of the success of a new building in fulfilling its
program, to people saying after a party that they would never live in
Yet for all this exposure, architecture maintains a distinctive resistance
to interpretation. Although statements of intention and program exist,
they are themselves texts that need interpretation. Perhaps the parties
understood the terms differently, perhaps the language has changed, perhaps
there were unspoken private intentions, perhaps, there were unwritten
agreements. No text is self-interpreting. Also, though architectural works
intrude into the public context, a context itself is not fully definite;
it too needs interpretation. A building can change a context as well as
fit into it, and the new whole can be reinterpreted in unexpected ways.
Then there are the many dimensions that enter into interpretation and
criticism: function, appearance, immediate reactions, community standards,
previous experiences, notions of function, rules of design, bodily experience,
philosophies of art, and so on. It is not automatically clear whether
and how these are to be prioritized, nor what aspects of the context are
relevant, nor what previous works should be taken as precedents, since
there are many possible relations of similarity.
Finally, although buildings have more flanks exposed to criticism, they
often outlive their critics and the climate of opinion that judged them.
Functions and modes of life change. Judgments and meanings that once seemed
firm lose their hold as time goes on. Grand old buildings once publicly
approved become an embarrassment and no suitable use can be found for
them. "That house" becomes something to be preserved for its
unique quirks. The once inappropriate town hall becomes a symbol of our
city. The work that violated the rules of a style becomes emblematic of
a new style.
In response to such considerations, it is easy to suggest that interpretation
should be more flexible, responsive, and the like, and to worry how that
flexibility might lead to arbitrariness. But there is a deeper issue with
the way the problem of interpretation often gets posed. It treats buildings
according to a scheme of passive text and active interpreters, where the
building is a particular thing, describable by such and such measurements
and materials, waiting to be read by the interpreter/critic and assigned
its meaning and value.
But a building does not sit quietly, or rather, its sitting quietly is
not the whole of its being-there. Abstracted from ongoing community talk
and use the building becomes a pile of stuff with no clear boundaries.
Insertion into forms of life makes the building meaningful. But the relation
of the pile to the building is not the relation of a totally definite
particular thing to a more fully categorized thing. A building, as well
as its built and social context, is not a totally definite particular
thing or assembly of things passively waiting to receive a general categorization
by active subjects or communities who are themselves already totally definite.
The interpreter, the community, the building, its norms, and the contexts
are all involved together, but not as pre-defined items. In this mutual
involvement, buildings act too; they can change their users, often beyond
the intentions and choices in their original design. The work is always
in progress. We are always on the way to finding definite meaning anew
It would seem, though, that emphasizing this larger context and process
does little to help with the problems about interpreting architecture.
Indeed it seems to push further in the direction of a facile relativism.
This is because today the assemblages within which interpretation occurs,
what Hegel might call "shapes of spirit," are multiple and intersecting,
not the large epochal unities that Hegel analyzed and academic culture
likes to periodize. We live in many places at once that are not concentric.
They intersect at angles and lie together at foldings and are open and
closed to one another in complex ways without exclusive or concentric
borders. Our inhabitation is multiple, and that multiplicity is not just
an additive series of smaller seamless inhabitations. Even single places
are fractured. Places, persons, and communities do not now and may never
have had such simple identities as our concepts made them out to have.
But our places and identities become complexly multiplied, interpenetrating,
and the electronic no-place-all-place opens before us.
But this multiplicity does not imply that buildings can be interpreted
arbitrarily. That would presume the same detached interpreter and passive
In his Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (III-26, 49, V-51), Wittgenstein
writes about the way we interpret diagrams of mechanisms. We can just
see that if the lever is moved, the wheel will turn counterclockwise.
The machine is clear and we have a habit of reading. But in real life
perhaps the lever will break, perhaps the wheel is stuck, perhaps there
is a piece of the machine that we can't see because it is under the wheel
in the diagram. We can read the diagram because we abstract the machine
from a real context. Something similar can happen with architectural plans,
models, and even photographs, especially photographs that ignore context.
The unbuilt or isolated building or plan seems clear, easy to understand,
obvious in its function. It represents itself as fitting perfectly into
its projected uses. But in real life the building is exposed to unexpected
pressures and to changes that are less than ideal and far from clear,
while the building itself exerts pressures upon its users to change their
expectations and habits.
That is, in the assemblage that includes interpreter and building, there
are constraints that stem precisely from the way buildings and interpreters
are out in public. These constraints do not mandate one particular interpretation
but they do restrict possible interpretations by increasing the salience
of some criteria and horizons of meaning over others.
Architects have always had to work at the intersections of meaning and
causality. Buildings are more tied to natural and causal connections than
are most works of art. Multiple sub-communities in an area may have differing
practices and values, but when people share a geographical area, they
share its infrastructure: roads and highways, water, power grids, waste
systems, product distribution networks, and so on. Even while living by
varying social norms in different spatial patterns they act together as
drivers, passengers, shoppers, efficient users of resources. As a result,
the meaning of a building can be affected by new causal patterns in the
infrastructure shared by all the sub-communities in a given area.
Consider bicycle sheds. In general, not all buildings are equally prominent
or meaningful in a given cultural context and set of practices. (See,
for example, Karsten Harries' discussion of Ruskin in chapter 3 of Harries
1997.) Strictly speaking it is true that one could trace the whole context
starting out from the practices around the most humble building or tool,
but some buildings are lived as more prominent and central than others.
In a traditional town, a bicycle shed is not so important as a large civic
building. The shed could be demolished or replaced without many ripple
effects, but a cathedral or a courthouse has a more central place in the
culture and context.
Yet on the other hand, it is not purely a matter of architectural prominence
or detail that determines which buildings assume influential roles in
an assemblage of customs, cultural values and practices. In a more secular
world the cathedral becomes less central to actual practice. Also, causal
effects impinge on all shapes of spirit. At a time of peak oil and rising
concern with global warming, a bicycle shed might indeed become a more
central symbol and more prominent meeting place than a cathedral or a
civic building. Changes in the causal availability of natural resources
would have increased the salience of environmental values and meanings,
changing shared practices so that the built landscape would center itself
in new ways and demanding that interpretations not ignore this dimension
of the context. There are always public exposures and causal constraints.
Interpretations of architecture happen at these intersections, and interpretations
need to be responsive within dimensions of meaning that are not under
the control of either the architect or the interpreter.
Karsten. 1997. The Ethical Function of Architecture.
Ludwig. 1967. Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics.
Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. London: Blackwell