the Interpretation of Architecture
Theory of Interpretation
Vol. 12, No. 2, December 2008
The Work of Architecture as Image and Representation
There are people who become architects because they have the intuition that architecture is one of the last domains where generosity is welcome and where one’s energy, sympathy and pleasure can be expressed .
propose that the symbolic in general, and especially the symbolic in art,
rests upon an intricate interplay of showing and concealing. In its irreplaceability,
the work of art is no mere bearer of meaning – as if the meaning could
be transferred to another bearer. Rather the meaning of the work of art
lies in the fact that it is there”.
Gadamer also stresses that representation “does not imply that something merely stands in for something else as if it were a replacement or substitute that enjoyed a less authentic, more indirect kind of existence. On the contrary, what is represented is itself present in the only way available to it”. As representation, the work of art implies an “increase in being that something acquires by being represented”, and as such “calls us to dwell upon it and give our assent in an act of recognition”. For Gadamer, recognition of what is represented [the model] constitutes a moment of our perception, hence a moment towards understanding and interpretation:
“Recognition means knowing something as that with which we are already acquainted. The unique process by which man “makes himself at home in the world”, to use a Hegelian phrase, is constituted by the fact that every act of recognition of something has already been liberated from our first contingent apprehension of it and is then raised into ideality. This is something that we are all familiar with. Recognition always implies that we have come to know something more authentically than we were able to do when caught up in our first encounter with it. Recognition elicits the permanent from the transient. It is the proper function of the symbol and of the symbolic content of the language of art in general to accomplish this”.
L’Herméneutique, Grondin explains that hermeneutics has always had
as its main task to be “a doctrine of truth in the realm of interpretation”.
Stemming from the Greek verb hermeneuein, the term interpretation
in its classical definition essentially involves the transmission of meaning,
a mediation that may occur in two different directions: from thought to
discourse (the expression of meaning), and from discourse to thought (the
explanation or elucidation of meaning). Grondin identifies three definitions
of hermeneutics over time, the most recent (which developed mainly with
Heidegger, Ricoeur and Gadamer) constituting a universal philosophy of
understanding and interpretation, which implies that understanding and
interpretation are not restricted to methods in human sciences but involve
fundamental processes that are part of life itself. In this sense, interpretation
becomes an “essential characteristic of our presence in the world”.
We owe Heidegger this suggestion that life is hermeneutical because it
is a “being of understanding”. And since, Heidegger argues, understanding
is a power, an ability, a know-how, and a skill (a possibility of one-self,
or a self-understanding), therefore, interpretation is nothing else than
the explanation, the clarification, the elucidation of understanding,
that is the intention dwelling in life itself, the meaning of its “project”.
“To understand means to convey or express meaning […] Such expression implies that meaning is put into language […] To understand means being called upon by meaning, and being able to express it in a language which is always necessarily ours”.
This is why understanding as a guide towards interpretation, as opposed to the “classical” acceptation of interpretation as a means towards understanding, requires a genuine participation of the subject. In aiming at elucidating the contents of representation, interpretation is “an exercise in the appropriation of meaning”. As elusive as such meaning may be thought to be, it nevertheless remains that an image says something to someone when it calls upon something of one’s own experience of the world and of human life, otherwise it is inaccessible and unintelligible. Something that one can recognize and that, through the image, one can know better and understand, that is the increase in being that the model gains by being represented:
“Hermeneutics thus thrusts imagery into the sphere of existence and life. Both seem to take on meaning, probably first and foremost, when they are represented through “une pensée imagée”.
“In the art of architecture, buildings are made in hope of dwelling commodiously and maintaining our health in them, of taking pleasure from them and giving it to friends”.
“Architect and compass”.
Philibert de l'Orme: Premier Tome de l'Architecture, Book III, preface.
“The architect as wise counsellor”. Philibert de l’Orme: Premier Tome de l'Architecture, Book IX, 283 r.
do not really make buildings, but rather drawings of buildings. Drawings
stand between an architect’s intentions and buildings. In the sequence intentions/drawings/buildings,
drawings are inventions and mediators, acting both as an outcome [from intention
to drawing] and a springboard [from drawing to building] of interpretation.
It is most interesting in my view that de l’Orme also developed what I would
call philosophical or hermeneutical drawings which compare to what Gadamer
defined as image: a representation that says something about a model. If
such images are obviously meant to say something about architecture, de
l’Orme has chosen to do so by also saying something about an ideal architect.
Some aspects of two of his hermeneutical drawings will be presented here
(Figures 1 and 2).
De l’Orme’s compass
De l'Orme presents the relation between intention and invention, that is the image within the drawing itself, through the compass – his favorite tool (Figure 1). He does it under the patronage of Hermes who stands at the top of the drawing. Hermes is generally presented as the gods' messenger and interpreter, the connection-maker and master of passages, the friend of men in their everyday life, the god of commerce, exchange and metaphor. He represents the possibility of a creative encounter between different things, ensuring that thought or meaning is transmitted and received in a fecund manner. Hermes thus allowed for the inside to be brought out, and for the outside to explain the inside. I believe that Hermes is the image, which would represent the Gadamerian definition of image. As Deniau explains, “Gadamer defines an image’s being as transparence. An image cannot be reduced neither to what it represents nor to its support, it is precisely at the junction between the two: the fact that something appears through something else”. In this regard, center of this image – the architect and compass – should be examined in a similar way. The compass’ pivot and pointed branches represent the conjunction of intention (or understanding) and invention. In turning the compass into an analogical tool, de l’Orme also turns the architect bending towards it into a similar analogical “instrument”. Architect and compass seem to be walking at the same pace, his hand holding or conducting the compass’ “acumen”, while a serpent winds up the compass as a well-known representation of prudence and mature consideration.
What does this image say about a model? The architect “appears” through the compass, as an image of prudent making, as the conjunction of intention and invention, of understanding and interpretation. De l'Orme's instrumental agency is therefore far from being neutral, as a mere tool would be; rather it is an image of mediation. The architect’s intellectual skills, hence making and architecture become tools for perception.
De l’Orme’s elm-tree and vine
De l'Orme was not only interested in presenting the architect’s skills, but also in stressing that he is situated and stands in “a place” from which he acts, draws, works, speaks, and writes (Figure 2). The subtle equilibrium between skills and context, imagination and understanding, is the pleasure that architecture provides. This pleasure is implicit in this image, in its conspicuous fullness. For instance, there is the abundance of the architect’s senses of perception: extra ears, eyes and hands, as well as Hermes’ wings of imagination, have been grafted to his body and feet. Those attributes swirl around the architect's body, wonderfully resembling the vine climbing around the elm-tree, next to it, as yet another symbol of imagination in making architecture. The elm-tree acts as a tutor to the vine, and the vine somewhat espouses the elm-tree, as an image of a conciliatory encounter between material support and imagination. In all likelihood, Hermes the interpreter and connection-maker makes this encounter possible and meaningful: the image within the image.
The vine accounts for the play of imagination with materials. It turns around the elm-tree acts as a trope or a metaphor would do: its garland-like decorating effect is an image of fullness and completion. The way ornament grows out from, or encounters, what carries it, along with the way it also celebrates this support seems to constitutes de l’Orme’s definition of making, of architecture, hence of image.
Semper’s original motifs
All the decorative elements attending to architecture [...] all the artistic symbols, I say, owe their origin to the adornment of the body and, closely connected with it, to a few techniques of the most primitive family industries.
Semper, On architectural style
“The Caribbean Hut”.
Gottfried Semper: Style in the technical and Tectonic Arts, page 666.
According to Semper, “[architecture] orders the human condition in all its spatial requirements”. This has obvious ethical connotations, if one recalls Heidegger’s saying that ethics is the discipline that “thinks” man’s dwelling on earth. Hvattum defines the Semperian purpose of art, and architecture, as “the means by which man makes – practically and symbolically – a world for himself”. Semper stresses the practical-symbolic aspects of architecture, as they are rooted in some primordial human conditions, and made manifest through four original motifs – the hearth, the enclosure, the terrace and the roof – that metamorphosed over time. Such metamorphosis is brought about through interpretations of original techniques and plays with materials. The act of making is thus presented as “a fundamental mode of human existence”.
We owe Semper the development of a most fruitful image for understanding and interpreting architecture; from its origins, to its making and its meaning. Semper’s textile analogy, as it is also often called clothing analogy, gives prominence to the textile arts and its minute constituent the knot. Indeed Semper suggested that, the “knot is perhaps the oldest technical symbol and [...] the expression for the earliest cosmogonic ideas that arose among nations”. The very idea of a “technical symbol” constitutes the foundations for Semper’s anthropological and theoretical endeavour. In this regard, Semper also proposed that “the history of Architecture [began] with the history of practical arts”. This further led to his suggestion that architecture developed from four primordial ideas, elements or “motifs” which corresponded to four different practical arts: the hearth with moulding, the enclosure with weaving and plaiting, the terrace with masonry, and finally the roof with carpentry and joinery (Figure 3). Two motifs deserved greater consideration: the hearth because it constitutes the “moral element” of a building, and the enclosure which, enacted by textile artifacts, represents the origin of architecture, that is the visible, colorful, and perceptible – in a word symbolic – boundary of space. While it represents what truly makes space real and tangible, the enclosure also plays an important ethical role in both representing and protecting architecture’s moral element, the hearth.
Accordingly, Semper would infer that the origins of architecture coincides with the origin of the textile arts: the first representation of the idea of enclosure materialized thanks to textiles, through colourful rugs and fabrics whose form and ornamentation occurred simultaneously by the same and only practical art or technique. The textile analogy was also rooted in what Semper called human beings’ shared instinct for order and ornament, which translates in their need to join themselves or things, and to decorate them. In this way, he goes on arguing, the “formal meaning [of any textile production] is universally valid […] (everything enclosing, enveloping, covering appears as a unity, as a collective; everything binding as jointed, as a plurality)”. Semper’s subsequent logical proposition, namely that “there can no longer be any doubt that the technique chiefly used for the enclosure of space since the earliest memories of the human race must have had a crucial and lasting influence on the stylistic development of architecture proper”, has also recently found some echoes and relevance, especially on the relationships between imitation and invention, tradition and innovation.
Furthermore, Semper suggests:
“Adornment is, in fact, a very remarkable cultural-historical phenomenon! It belongs to the privileges of man and is perhaps the oldest of which he made use [...] It is the first and most significant step toward art [...] In adornment man tends to express that striving for individuality, that inclination for detachment which is innate in him. [W]hatever I adorn, be it living or inanimate, a part or a whole, I endow it with a right to exist by making it the focus of relations that are valid for it alone. I elevate it to the rank of a person”.
elevating an object to the rank of a person, adornment constitutes an
instance of the “increase in being” that Gadamer attributed to representation
The fundamental importance and effect that ornament has for Semper,
as a matter of ethical imagination, confers a renewed relevance to the
architectural motifs he had defined, especially the hearth and the enclosure.
Indeed, when it comes to architecture proper, Semper often used the
term “tectonics” whose aim
is the creation of space “by means of motionless and heavy masses
Tectonics is also defined as a “cosmic art”, that is a manifestation
of order and, as such an adornment. In this regard Semper explains,
tectonics “deals with the product of human artistic skill, not with
its utilitarian aspect but solely with that part that reveals a conscious
attempt by the artisan to express cosmic laws and cosmic order when
molding the material”.
A first instance of such conscious intention is the knot – the
“oldest technical symbol” – as
an expression of man’s desire to bind and to fasten, as does nature,
in a rhythmical sequence of space and time movements. The knot, we have
seen, will develop into textiles arts. Semper will feel assured in suggesting
that textile artifacts constitute the original representation of the
enclosure, the conspicuous divider of space that also represents the
hearth, the moral element of architecture.
Blais, Myriam: Invention as a Celebration of Materials, in Chora. vol 3, Intervals in the Philosophy of Architecture, ed. by Alberto Pérez-Gomez and Stephen Parcell, McGill-Queen's University Press 1999, pages 1-24.
Blais, Myriam : Enhanced architectural making: the ideas and works of François Rabelais and Philibert de l'Orme. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia 1994.
de l'Orme, Philibert: Traités d'architecture. Nouvelles Inventions pour bien bâtir et à petits frais (1561). Premier Tome de l'Architecture (1567). Paris, Léonce Laget 1988.
Deniau, Guy : Hans-Georg Gadamer, in : Introduction à la phénoménologie, ed. by Philippe Cabestan, Paris, Ellipses 2003, pages 39-52.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg: The relevance of the beautiful and other essays, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1986.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg: Vérité et méthode. Les grandes lignes d’une herméneutique philosophique, Paris, Seuil 1996 .
Grondin, Jean: L'herméneutique, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France 2006.
Harries, Karsten: Representation and re-presentation in architecture, in: VIA 9. Journal of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania 1988, pages 13-25.
Harries, Karsten: On truth and lie in architecture, in: VIA 7. Journal of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania 1984, pages 47-57.
Herrmann, Wolfgang: Gottfried Semper. In search of architecture, Cambridge, MIT Press 1984.
Hvattum, Mari: Gottfried Semper and the problem of historicism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2004.
Saint-Giron, Baldine: L'acte esthétique, Paris, Klincksieck 2008.
Semper, Gottfried: London lecture of November 11, 1853, in: RES 6 , 1983, pages 5-31.
Semper, Gottfried: On architectural style (1869), in: The Four Elements of architecture and other writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1989, pages 264-284.
Semper, Gottfried: Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics. Introduction by Harry Francis Mallgrave. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute 2004.
Semper, Gottfried: The attributes of formal beauty (Introduction, 1856-1859), in: Gottfried Semper. In search of architecture, by Wolfgang Herrmann, Cambridge, MIT Press 1984, pages 219-244.
Semper, Gottfried: The four elements of architecture and other writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1989.
Snodgrass, Adrian and Richard Coyne: Interpretation in architecture. Design as a way of thinking, London, Routledge Taylor & Francis 2006.
Winters, Edwards: Aesthetics & Architecture, London, Continuum 2007.
Wunenburger, Jean-Jacques: Philosophie des images, Paris, Presses
Universitaires de France 1997.
 Henri Ciriani: Architecture as lifestyle, in Dan S. Hanganu architect: projects and buildings, 1980-1990. Centre de design de l'Université du Québec à Montréal, 1990, page 8.
 Gadamer 1986, page 37.
 Gadamer 1996, pages 158 and 168.
 Gadamer 1996, page 160.
 Gadamer 1996, page 161.
 Wunenburger 1997, page 1: “We agree upon calling image a concrete and perceptible representation of a object [model], be it material or ideal, present or absent to perception, which is related to the model in such a way […] that it enables to recognize, know or think the model”.
 Wunenburger 1997, page 76.
 Gadamer (1986, pages 31-32), recalls that a symbol, as a technical Greek term for a token of remembrance, is “something in and through which we recognize someone already known to us”. He adds: “for our experience of the symbolic in general, the particular represents itself as a fragment of being that promises to complete or make whole whatever corresponds to it”.
 Gadamer 1986, page 33.
 Gadamer 1986, page 34.
 Gadamer 1986, page 35.
 Gadamer 1986, page 36.
 Gadamer 1986, page 47.
 Grondin 2006, page 4.
 The first meaning being the classical interpretation of texts (especially sacred texts), and the second, a methodological reflection on the “claim to truth” and the scientific status of the human sciences (namely philosophy, literature, history, and the social sciences). Grondin 2006, page 7.
 Grondin 2006, page 37.
 Grondin 2006, page 46.
 Grondin 2006, page 55.
 Deniau 2003, page 41.
 Grondin 2006, page 51.
 Grondin 2006, pages 60-61. Grondin explains Gadamer’s proposition as follows: “As the experience of art has taught us, understanding is such a fusion experience that it is impossible to distinguish between the object and the subject who understands. They “merge” in a successful encounter between subject and object: this is Gadamer’s version […] of the “adequation” between thing and thought, which constitutes the classical definition of truth”.
 Grondin 2006, pages 61.
 Wunenburger 1997, page 78.
 Wunenburger 1997, page 85.
 On that subject, see especially Saint-Giron 2008, and Winters 2007.
 I use the word “spectator” for lack of a better word to convey the idea that a work of art, especially a work of architecture, is “experienced” by someone (both on a physical and symbolic levels), that it is “lived” or inhabited beyond the mere fact of being “seen” or “used” (that is why the word “user” is too restrictive).
 De l’Orme and Semper have both been busy architects who built a lot, while committing themselves to architectural theory and writing about architecture and building.
 These reasons are more thoroughly discussed in Blais 1994 and Hvattum 2004.
 De l’Orme: Premier Tome de l’architecture, folio 7r.
 Hermes is also present in other images that de l’Orme devised (but which are not discussed here), namely in the frontispieces of both his treatises. On that topic, see Blais 1999 and 1994.
 Hermes’ abilities are enacted thanks to a specific intelligence or skill, his metis. Metis is a conjectural knowledge, “an intellectual operation which lies half-way between reasoning by analogy and a skill at deciphering the signs which link what is visible to what is invisible” (Marcel Détienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant: Cunning intelligence in Greek culture and society, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press 1978, page 314). Metis is a manner of being in the world: a skillful gesture will respond to the acute eye of an individual endowed with metis, thanks to the ability of his conjectural intelligence to quickly grasp the occasion. Metis implies a thorough technical know-how: a person with metis is an astute builder, a good craftsman, gifted with prudence. Good metis allows for the delivery of fruitful inventions, and useful constructions.
 Deniau 2003, page 44.
 Understanding corresponds to the French entendement, an ability that de l’Orme strongly and repeatedly asks of the architect throughout his writings. For the geometricians of de l’Orme’s time, entendement corresponded to the top and sharp angle of a triangle, its “acumen”. Intention stems from the I-E *ten- which means to tighten or to stretch. Intention has the implication of bending towards, paying attention, and understanding.
 Invention suggests "walking", "meeting", and "finding". Invention comes from the I-E *gwen-, which signifies "to come". From the Greek equivalent bainein ("to walk"), comes diabêtês ("that which goes through"), and which is Greek for "compass". From the Latin invenire ("to meet", "to invent"), comes inventio ("discovery", "finding").
 “What the architect gains through prudence is nothing else than reflection, discernment, and foresight of all he has to do, so that he will proceed appropriately and get a favorable outcome [...] He has to take into account places, intentions, time, and people” (De l’Orme : Premier Tome de l’architecture, folio 51r).
 De l'Orme’s architect presents the experiences, and outer appearances, of his inner senses through his unusual quantity of eyes, ears and hands. Four ears and four hands are the attributes of human wisdom – the plentiful practice of a trade (signified by the hands) combined with a consideration of other people's counsels (signified by the ears). Three eyes that represent prudence which is made of memory and learning from the past, intelligence in ordering the present, and foresight in anticipating the future. Prudence accounts for a right space and a right moment: it resembles the conjectural thinking, the metis, of the craftsman's practical mind.
 Hermes is a recurrent figure in de l'Orme's imagery. Grafting Hermes' wings is an image of swift flight from one place to another: a flight that is launched by the lower members of the architect’s body, by his hold to the ground by the sole of his feet (of the body’s understanding and participation in its historical context). It has been suggested that the wings of imagination are always worn at the feet.
 Growing vines around an elm-tree requires the appropriate pruning of both vine and elm-tree in order to prevent the one from smothering the other. This actual procedure is also revealing of the metaphorical relation between imagination and materials.
 Cited in Hvattum 2004, page 9.
 Hvattum 2004, page 13.
 Hvattum 2004, page 20.
 Semper 2004 [c1860], page 219.
 Semper 1983 , page 9.
 Semper: Prospectus (1859), in: The four elements of architecture, page 175.
 Semper 2004 [c1860], page 250.
 Karsten Harries (The Ethical function of architecture. Cambridge, MIT Press 1997) and Demetri Porphyrios (Building & architecture, in: Building and rational architecture. London, Architectural Design 1984) have indeed suggested that there has existed, in the course of architectural history, a few meaningful “constructive solutions” that we have associated with important building types, and that we think of as bearers of enduring value. Since these buildings have acquired, the authors insist, a natural authority as truth or model through force of habit, tradition and consensus, it is therefore legitimate for architects to wish commemorating these ingenious solutions. Their work of imagination truly begins at this very moment, drawing their model from the practical arts associated with the construction of ideal buildings. Such architecture’s task: to allow an understanding of “the building craft from which it is born, from which it detaches itself, and to which it alludes”. (Porphyrios, Ibid, page 31).
 Semper: On architectural style (1869), in: The Four Elements of Architecture, page 270.
 As Georg Simmel has also argued, ornamentation makes something “more” and gives it value by virtue of its shining in the other’s direction. Adornment “attains this goal in the pleasure, in the visual delight it offers to others, and in their gratitude” (Adornment, in: The sociology of Georg Simmel. Glencoe, The Free Press 1950, pages 339-340).
 Semper: The attributes of formal beauty (Introduction, 1856-1859), page 220.
 Semper cited in Herrmann 1984, page 151.
 Semper 1983 , page 11.