Vol. 8, No. 2 (March 2004)    


___Claus Dreyer
  Architecture as Vernacular or High Culture?



1. Vernacular vs High Culture

There is no doubt that architecture is part of the culture of a society, a region, a country or an epoch. There is also no doubt
about there not being “one” culture but just as many part-, sub-, or particular cultures, as there are social groups, geographical regions, countries or epochs. The change of these cultures in the course of history, equally within a culture and between cultures, takes place all the time and quite often leads to the simultaneity of dissimilar things. Intermixings, overlappings, and interpenetrations lead to plural or multivalent manifestations, but at the same time also again and again to standardizations, dominances and preferences of cultural phenomena. Both trends call watchful observers onto the scene who partly critically, partly apologetically raise their voices and many are heard in times of general uncertainty by economic or ideological crises.

With these perspectives in mind, the question concerning “the” construction culture can’t be solved any more in a normative or at least regulatory way, because the criteria and the knowledge is lacking which would be adequate for the complex reality (if one doesn’t like to take refuge to a reductionist rigorism as in the case of the "guiding culture", traditions, history, reference to locality, aesthetic models). Therefore I would like to pick out an aspect of this question, which refers to a conspicuous phenomenon of contemporary construction culture and which can contribute in combination with an existing architectural theory to a perspective to define culture in construction across regional and temporal limits.

It is striking, that in the variety of the contemporary everyday construction business there are prominent buildings, which are prefer
ably designed by always the same illustrious architects – or to phrase it differently – that for important construction tasks the same international architects are invited again and again to develop their solutions (e. g. Libeskind, Nouvel, Eisenman, Koolhaas, Gehry, Foster, Hadid). Usually the tasks in question are of high profile and are often fulfilling a public function: museums, concert- and theatre buildings, railway stations, airports, but also shopping malls, office- and residential buildings – which are all tasks, which in general could also be solved by “normal” architects from the respective region. Because of the quantitative and also its ideational size and its public nature, which is vouching for the claim of exclusiveness, it is justified to talk of buildings of and for high culture, which are distinguishing themselves from the variety of smaller an more banal (because less demanding) building tasks of everyday life.

While our architectural everyday culture is functionally simple, plural, sometimes multicultural, often commercial, frequently regional, and formally orientated rather superficially on symbols, our architectural high culture can be considered as artistically and functionally complex, ideationally charged, and internationally orientated and achieves thus the status of "symbolic forms" by formal
abundance and succinctness.  The history of architecture and construction culture has been time and again been interpreted by different theoretical perspectives as the history of the realisation of symbolic forms through architecture (cf. Dreyer 2003b), and it is obvious that especially the exposed buildings of political power, religious ideas, and cultural values have been foregrounded as they are structures by which each respective high culture expresses and manifests itself. I would like to follow up and subsequently check my thesis, that also our present international architectural high culture offers an ensemble of symbolic forms, which represents the spirit of our time and which is also to be understood in its difficulties and inconsistency as an expression of a contemporary construction culture (cf. for the crisis of the representation: Section 3). We will have to ask, what these symbolic forms of a contemporary construction culture mean and how they can prompt us to deal with them.

2. Architectural High Culture as a Symbolic System

If Hegel describes architecture in his aesthetics as the prime symbolic art form, he nonetheless regards symbolism as a lesser form in the artistic expression of ideas, however, after the success of the concept of the symbol in the 19th century, several approaches to a theory of symbolic forms have been developed in the 20th century, which are chiefly applied in the realm of aesthetics and cultural sciences (cf. Pochat 1983).
Following Ernst Cassirers and Susanne K. Langers philosophy of symbolic forms as well as being based on other psycho-social applications of these theories, Christian Norberg-Schulz in his “Logik der Baukunst" (1963/1968) understood architecture as the central area for the manifestation of “cultural symbolisation” of a society or epoch. Norberg-Schulz regards architectural forms and configurations as means by which cultural objects (e.g. values, ideas, customs and uses, fantasies and utopias) are symbolically expressed. These forms can be “a building type, a floor-plan, a special shape of rooms” (ibid. p. 175), but also partial forms, a decorative form, a specific material or even the special form of a wall (ibid. p. 126), in principle therefore all architectural elements ranging from a detail to an overarching element, as long as  they can be perceived and described with formal succinctness.

It is also true for Norberg-Schulz, as in the mentioned symbol theories, that symbols must be based on social conventions, that they consequently can't be arbitrary and that these conventions have to be public common property (ibid. p. 175). In spite of this conventional characters of the symbols in general, Norberg-Schulz believes to be
able to demonstrate with examples of sacral and feudal architecture, that the architectural symbolic forms have at large a “structural likeness” (ibid. p. 175) to the symbolised objects, which are due to an abstraction from formerly representational “iconic” signs and which are remains of a “shorthand structural description” (ibid. p. 175). This is the basis for their effectiveness and communicative capacity which makes a living culture possible in the first place. "Produced by people and of exceedingly practical nature, construction has the special ability to show how cultural values and traditions determine our everyday life. Only by cultural symbolisation can architecture show that the everyday has a significance beyond the immediate situation and that it participates in the cultural and historical continuity" (ibid. p. 128).

As we wouldn't like to measure the complete construction business of a time or region in terms of this huge demand, however, we may demand according to Norberg-Schulz "that at least some construction tasks will include the dimension of cultural symbolisation" (ibid. p. 128), or respectively we will be allowed to analyse and interpret prominent buildings or construction complexes of a particular time or region according to the specified premises with respect to symbolisation and the meaning of the symbolised cultural objects.

3. Cultural Symbolisation and the Crisis of Representation

As I have remarked already at the beginning, there is at the moment a small clear-cut group of prominent international architects who are invited again and again to present their designs for large-scale architectural projects and who are often designated as winners. We may assume (and I would like to hold this thesis), that in their designs a generally intelligible and accepted symbolisation of widely esteemed and valued cultural objects ex
presses itself in its outlines, which is a public common property at least on the level of the present Euro-American high culture or at least could be so. To describe, analyse, and interpret the new concert hall of Frank Gehry in Los Angeles, the Dutch embassy of Rem Koolhaas in Berlin or the master plan for "Ground Zero" in New York by Daniel Libeskind it requires some abstract effort (as we can already gather from contributions in appropriate newspapers and magazines) which shall not be presented here (cf. to an example in Dreyer 2001), but we may assume that we can demonstrate, how in each case by very diverse architectural symbolic forms statements are made on the nature of music (Gehry), on politics and diplomacy (Koolhaas), and on the national ideology of the U.S.A. (Libeskind) and how culture is thus architecturally manifested. This shall under no circumstances mean that the here symbolised cultural objects shall be accepted uncritically and that the type and form of their symbolisation shall be unquestioningly admired. Quite on the contrary: only by the materialisation of such demanding architectural symbolic forms the critical or affirmative discourse will be enabled, by which culture comes to life in the first place and may develop further.

Nevertheless, a shadow falls on this picture of a sound architectural high culture. It has been adequately described and it is ever topical, that paradigms shift in the course of time (and sometimes very quickly), which devalues old things and produces new ones, but which could also lead to the decay of symbols and their destruction (cf. the controversy around the planned demolition of the “Palast der Republik" in
Berlin). With the acceleration of social change also the cultural change accelerates and its expression in symbolic forms; internationalisation and globalisation enlarge the horizon enormously and lead simultaneously to uncertainties of one’s own cultural identity. Thus it comes to the known antagonistic positions, where some would like as much as possible to keep and go back to homogeneous, clear-cut, regional cultures while on the other hand the avant-gardes orient themselves globally and communicate internationally with always the same symbolic forms of a "new" architecture. One can talk "about a general crisis of representation", which concerns all levels of culture and which has already reached architecture, too (cf. Dreyer 2003a). This crisis shows itself in the manifestation of present demanding architecture among others as follows:

1.      The symbolic forms of the architectural avant-garde are hermetic and speculative; they abstain from traditions and reference to locality, the connection to historical contexts is avoided or if needs be constructed in a highly artificial way (e. g. Libeskind).

2.      The symbolised cultural objects remain indistinct and nebulous, they correspond to the Zeitgeist in an eclectic way. What Dieter Claessens says about the “reduction of the old symbolic reality" at the end of the 19th century is also valid here: “As the individually working architect, without properly realising it, has stepped into the shoes of the theologian – as did the philosopher, and the physician, and the jurist as a philosopher of law, he also combines ideas of omnipotence with highly personal philosophies” (Claessens 1984, p. 129; in e. g. the latest publications of Koolhaas).

3.      The general public to which the symbolic forms of this “high-end” architecture is aimed and which should support it, is on one hand constantly increasing, mostly because of increasing publicity in mass media, but on the other it is also decreasing, as there is no general consensus in this wider public any more, but only heterogeneous individualities, scenes and networks, which often have nothing to do with each other, but which are highly differentiated and specialised in their structures (cf. Archplus166/2003 and 167/2003).

4.      Increasingly, the understanding and the interpretation of the architectural symbols of high culture can only be achieved by insiders, experts and special institutions like universities and research institutes. We have to fulfil ever higher demands on knowledge, education, and experience to be able to contribute in the discourse for and on cultural symbolisation: the situation of avant-garde architecture resembles that of contemporary music, which has moved away to the socially and culturally elitist.

The here (only superficially) mentioned symptoms of the crisis are certainly serious, but could nonetheless be considered positively as a significant expression of the present condition of architectural symbolic forms in a specific western high culture.

4. The Discomfort in Culture and Cultural Industries

This dubious condition of our present architectural high culture could be due to the contradictions on which our culture is based and which have led Sigmund Freud to his "Unbe
hagen in der Kultur" (1930). All attempts to promote culture by increasing the beauty, order, logic, and purity of environmental design increase according to Freud the repressive and aggressive tendencies, which manifest themselves not only in physical violence, but also in the explosive gestures of received architectural forms and which can be only seemingly aesthetically sublimated: the compulsion to submit under cultural norms is impressively manifested by architects symbolically and is experienced lastingly by observers or users. On the other hand a desire for freedom expresses itself in the individualistic and hermetic symbolisations, which opposes norms and power and thus addresses hidden wishes and motives and which thus makes culture accessible in the first place.

In view of the "chaotic" condition of architectural vernacular culture one could say that in its contradictory variety and complexity (cf. Venturi 1966) an anarchic trait is ex
pressed, which contravenes the symbolic compulsiveness of architectural high culture and which embodies a primary vital energy; this might not be promoting culture, but perhaps it is life-supporting. Helpers with their well meant measures to bridge or even to resolve this contradiction in our culture should take the advice of Freud to the heart: "Perhaps we acquaint us with the idea ... that there are difficulties which are inherent in the nature of culture and which won’t give way to any attempt of reform." (Freud 1930/1994, p. 80).

The "discomfort in culture" increases if one thinks of the role which the cultural industry plays in the est
ablishment of symbolic forms in society, which equally concerns architecture. By mass publications of exemplary architecture in newspapers, magazines and TV magazines it contributes significantly to produce and to deepen a general public and a consensus for the acceptance of architectural symbolic forms. This is valid both for the architectural high culture as well as for the everyday culture: Both spheres dispose of their own media, which only overlap occasionally and which address different target groups. What would have to be welcomed actually – the creation of public and consensus by information and communication – becomes only too easily subject to the conflicting features of this industry branded by Adorno and Horkheimer:

"Culture is a paradoxical good. It is so completely exposed to the law of exchange that it isn't exchanged any more; it thus blindly consumed in usage that one cannot use it any more. It is therefore fused with all advertisements" (Horkheimer/Adorno 1947/86, p. 170f), which means nothing else but the "pure representation of social power" (ibid. p. 172). What is meant by that Adorno formulates in another place: "The categorical imperative of the cultural industry, as opposed to the Kantian, has nothing in common any more with freedom. It says: you shall conform, without concern to what to conform to; conform to what is anyway, to what everyone thinks anyhow as a reflex to its power and its omnipresence. Conformity replaces consciousness by the power of the ideology of the cultural industry" (Adorno 1967, p. 67).

Freud's findings
about culture are thus reinforced: by the ubiquitous cultural industry (here in form of the mass media) pressure is exerted both on the level of the high as well as the vernacular culture which shall lead to conform to the existing, the established, and the anyway dominant and which rather hinders an active cultural production and cultural policy.

5. Cultural Production and Cultural Policy as a Task

With these observations we can once again come back to the initial question, how our present construction culture in its contradictory variety can prompt us (practically, theoretical, political) to deal with it. We shouldn’t be surprised that the answers also turn out to be contradictory.

1.      The existing international architectural high culture will continue to produce lavish symbolic forms and refer to its special cultural mandate: to charge everyday existence with significance. However, we have to take the advice of Norberg-Schulz: "Architecture has to serve the desired manifestation of meaning again. However, these meanings react again upon architecture itself. By manifesting new meanings, architecture contributes to cultural development " (Norberg-Schulz 1963/68, p. 128).

2.      If you share the opinion with Freud (and Horkheimer/Adorno and others), that all culture has an inherent repressive and compulsive trait (and the higher it is, the more it is so), you then would remain critical to all attempts to promote culture, be it construction culture, style of home décor, lifestyle, and always insist that there be areas which resist cultural formation and standardisation and which claim their right to independent existence, to experiment, to deviation, and to difference. Alfred Lorenzer and Bernhard Görlich have stressed the political consequences of this attitude: "We have to ... examine the cultural framework which enables people, despite all concrete hurts they suffer, to develop nonetheless the need to realise themselves in the engagement with their world, the others, in personal development, as in the active readiness to act in solidarity and social competition." (Lorenzer/Görlich 1994, p. 80). It is natural that this engagement with the world should also include construction culture, but has to include also the vital human right for the fulfilment of “wrong needs” (Adorno 1967, p. 121), even though it might be hard to tolerate at times. The mixture and variety of cultures is a chance to make life richer, more meaningful, and more pleasurable. With Freud, once again, we have to be reminded "that there are difficulties which are inherent in the nature of culture and which won't give way to any attempt of reform" (cf. above).

3.   A good educational and cultural policy should support and promote all areas, high culture, vernacular culture, and alternative culture and seek to establish a sound balance between them. The main emphasis could shift from one side to the other: without this change and exchange culture would stiffen and dilapidate to an empty ritual.



·         Adorno, Theodor W. (1967): Ohne Leitbild. Parva Aesthetica. Frankfurt am Main.

·         Archplus 166/2003: Off-Architektur 1: Szenen. Archplus 167/2003:
Off-Architektur 2: Netzwerke.

·         Cassirer, Ernst (1925/1973): Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Darmstadt.

·         Claessens, Dieter (1984):Der Abbau der alten symbolischen Wirklichkeit und das Dilemma der Architektur im Wandel der Gesellschaft. In: Das Abenteuer der Ideen. Hg.: Joseph P. Kleihus u. a., Berlin 1984, 119-130.

·         Dreyer, Claus (2001): Politische Architektur als Bedeutungsträger: Ästhetik und Repräsentation. In: Wolkenkuckucksheim 1/2001.

·         ders. (2003a): The crisis of representation in contemporary architecture.
In: Semiotica 143-1/4 (2003), 163-183.

·         ders. (2003b): Die Transformation der Zeichen in der Architektur.
In: db 8/2003, 68-70.

·         Freud, Sigmund (1930/1994): Das Unbehagen in der Kultur. In: S. Freud, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur und andere kulturtheoretische Schriften.
Hg.: Alfred Lorenzer und Bernd Görlich, Frankfurt am Main.

·         Horkheimer, Max / Adorno, Theodor W. (1947/1986): Dialektik der Aufklärung. Frankfurt am Main.

·         Long, Susanne K. (1942/1965): Philosophie auf neuem Wege. Das Symbol im Denken, im Ritus und in der Kunst. Frankfurt am Main.

·         Lorenzer, Alfred / Görlich, Bernd (1994): Einleitung zu S. Freud (1930/1994).

·         Norberg-Schulz, Christian (1963/1968): Logik der Baukunst. Gütersloh.

·         Pochat, Götz (1983): Der Symbolbegriff in der Ästhetik und Kunstwissenschaft. Köln

·         Venturi, Robert (1966): Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. New York.

·         ders. (1972): Learning from Las Vegas. The forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Cambridge / Mass.




Vol. 8, No. 2 (March 2004)