Buildings speak the language of the commercial sign system of the surrounding city.
The fact that all social groups build and design the abodes and public edifices of their villages, towns, and cities in characteristic ways is a clear indication that places, buildings, and spaces are felt throughout the world to have culture-specific meanings and functions. Indeed, a building is hardly ever perceived by the members of a society as simply a pile of bricks, wood, straw, etc. put together to provide shelter. Rather, its shape, size, features, and location are perceived to be signifiers that refer to a range of meanings that are as interconnected to the signifying order of a culture as are those associated with, say, facial expressions, cosmetics, and words for abstract ideas.
In this chapter, our trip through the landscape of culture takes us through the domain of the built and inhabited social environment This is the home of Homo faber, the maker. On this leg of our journey, we will stop to look at several fascinating semiotic aspects of places, spaces, and buildings. We will discuss, among other things, the function of maps as special kinds of signs and the nature and role of spatial and architectural codes in communal life. In this area of cultural analysis, too, we remind the reader that the semiotician’s research efforts are guided by five primary goals:
- identifying the basic signifying properties connected with spatial and architectural codes (iconicity, indexicality, etc.);
- relating these to the signifying order and to processes of representation (e.g. dimensionality);
- documenting and explaining the structural effects that spatial and architectural codes have on individuals;
- investigating how these codes are interconnected throughout the signifying order;
- utilizing the findings or techniques of any cognate discipline that are applicable to the situation at hand.
Animals reside in territories that they have appropriated as their own, or in some negotiated arrangement with other animals, so that they can procure their shelter, alimentation, and habitation needs. But, unlike other species, humans also manifest a unique compulsion to represent in meaningful ways the territories in which they are located as social groups, i.e. they demonstrate the tendency to imbue their territories with meanings extracted from the resources of their signifying orders.
As we saw previously (chapter 4, §4.4), biologists define territoriality as an innate survival mechanism that allows an animal to gain access to, and defend control of, critical resources such as food and nesting sites that are found in certain habitats. The Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) was among the first scientists to identify and document the patterns animals display in marking the boundaries of their territories. Such patterns, he proposed, were an important part of an animal’s repertory of survival strategies, as critical, in evolutionary terms, as its physiological characteristics. Lorenz (1952) also suggested that human aggression and warfare were explainable as residual territoriality impulses. Lorenz’s controversial theory gained widespread popularity through a best-selling book written in 1966 by Ardrey, The Territorial Imperative—a book that subsequently generated a heated debate in academia and society at large on the nature and origin of human aggression. The notion of territoriality in human life continues to receive much support because of its intuitive appeal—intrusions into appropriated territories (e.g. into one’s home, car, etc.) are indeed perceived typically by human beings as signals of aggression, in the same way that a cat, for example, would likely react to another cat intruding upon the boundaries it has proclaimed by urination.
The territoriality mechanism endows an animal species with the ability to secure a survival space within the habitat to which it has become adapted. But in the human species the story does not stop there. Consider, for instance, the procuring of a shelter within a habitat. Many animals have the ability to construct appropriate shelters within their habitats to protect themselves from the elements and to procure a safeguard against intruding enemies: e.g. beavers build dams of stick, mud, brushwood, and/or stone to widen the area and increase the depth of water around their habitats; marmots (groundhogs) make burrows in the ground where they can hibernate safely during the winter; and the list could go on and on. Human shelter-making, however, presupposes more than survival. As implied by the dimensionality principle (chapter 3, §3.9), a shelter is perceived to have a meaning not only along a biological (firstness) axis as an abode for enhancing survival, or as a means of supplementing the body’s protective biological resources, but also as an extension of Self (secondness) and as a sign with meanings derived from the various architectural codes that are present in a culture (thirdness):
Since ancient times, human societies have invariably represented the territories in which they are located with visual signs, known as maps, made with indexical (indicating where places are), iconic (representing places in topographical relation to each other), and symbolic (notational system) signifiers.
Making a map is such a straightforward task that virtually anyone who has been exposed to the concept of the map can make one on the spot. Here’s a simple illustration. Let’s say a stranger wants to get to a certain destination. The stranger is at location A, which is at the intersection of two streets, one running north and south, the other east and west. H/er goal is to go to a location B, which we know is west two blocks and north three blocks of location A. An easy way to show h/er how to get to B is to draw h/er a map. On the map, the location A is the point of intersection of two lines at right angles—the intersecting streets. Compass directions can also be added to the map to reinforce its orientation indexicality. Finally, two equally-calibrated units added to the east-west line can be used to represent two blocks west (to the left) of A; and three equally-calibrated units added to the north-south line starting from that point can be used to represent three blocks north. This will show the stranger how to reach the desired location, B:
A map can be defined, semiotically, as a complex sign made with three kinds of signifiers:
- A map is, overall, an indexical sign, since it indicates where the territory is located on the terra firma.
- Its layout is iconic, because it shows the features in a territory in topographical relation to each other.
- It involves symbolicity because it is interpretable on the basis of a conventional notational system (e.g. key, scale, etc.).
Some semioticians prefer to define a map as a text. Actually, a map can function both as a sign standing for a specific territory and a text conveying a message or point of view about that same territory. Maps thus have structural effects on how social groups perceive and interpret represented territories (chapter 3, §3.10). To illustrate how a map can produce such effects, we direct the reader’s attention to the technique of cylindrical projection in Western map-making—a method for making two-dimensional maps by projecting the globe onto a flat surface. Developed by the Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), this technique consists in wrapping a cylinder around the globe, making it touch the equator, and then projecting (1) the lines of latitude outward from the globe onto the cylinder as lines parallel to the equator, and (2) the lines of longitude outward onto the cylinder as lines parallel to the prime meridian (the line that is designated 0° longitude, passing through the original site of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England). The resulting two-dimensional map represents the world’s surface as a rectangle with parallel lines of latitude and parallel lines of longitude (which are perpendicular to those of latitude).
Because of the curvature of the globe, the latitude lines on the map nearest the poles appear closer together. This distortion makes certain land masses appear smaller than they are. This, in turn, tends to produce a structural effect on perception, by which larger land mass = better, more powerful, more important, etc. land mass, and thus tends to condition how people come to see the relative value of the territories represented by this kind of map. Indeed, the very concept of worldview derives from the fact that the ways in which we come to view the world are, in part, a consequence of how that world is represented for viewing by the maps we make of it.
Although modern technology now makes it easy to construct three-dimensional maps, traditionally the term map has always designated a two-dimensional representation of an area; three-dimensional maps are more accurately known as models. All civilizations have developed map-making techniques to meet a host of social purposes. In Western culture, these were elaborated and refined in tandem with and in relation to the rise and growth of the physical and mathematical sciences. The basic type of Western map shows the natural features of the area covered as well as cultural features—e.g. political boundaries, such as the limits of towns, countries, and states. Developed in parallel with this basic type are the many special-purpose maps that have been devised with specialized functions in mind: e.g. maps for the special needs of navigation and exploration, to show political divisions, to show the physical structure of an area, to indicate crop distribution and/or density patterns, to show population levels, etc. Cartographers have invented a great variety of signifiers to suit various representational needs. These are generally summarized and defined in the map’s key or legend, which is, more accurately, a code in the semiotic sense of the word.
Since Mercator invented the cylindrical projection method, most Western map-making techniques have been devised in accordance with the principles of Cartesian coordinate geometry. These allow the cartographer to represent the earth as a two-dimensional plane covered with lines of longitude and latitude. By convention, longitude is marked 180° east and 180° west from 0° at Greenwich, England. Latitude is marked 90° north and 90° south from the 0° parallel of the equator. Points on a map can be accurately defined by giving degrees, minutes, and seconds for both latitude and longitude; these correspond to real points on the earth. Indeed, the whole concept of map-making involves the representation of “real spaces” (the signified domain) in terms of “map spaces” (the signifier domain) with higher or lesser degrees of fidelity.
Distances are represented with the technique of scaling, which allows for the portrayal of the distance between two points on the earth as the distance between the two corresponding points on the map: e.g. a scale of 1:100,000 means that one unit measured on the map (say 1 cm.) represents 100,000 of the same units on the earth’s surface. A high degree of accuracy can be achieved in scaling through the use of aerial and satellite photography. The varying heights of hills and mountains, and the depths of valleys, are portrayed instead with the technique known as relief. In earlier maps, this consisted in making small drawings of mountains and valleys on the maps. But this method was extremely imprecise and thus came eventually to be supplanted by the use of contour lines. The shapes of these lines provide accurate (iconic) representations of the shapes of hills and depressions, and the lines themselves show actual elevations, so that closely spaced contour lines indicate steep slopes. Other methods of indicating elevation include the use of colors, tints, hachures (short parallel lines), or shadings. When colors are used for this purpose, a graded series of tones is selected for coloring areas of similar elevations. Shadings or hachures, neither of which show actual elevations, are more easily interpreted than contour lines and are sometimes used in conjunction with them for achieving greater fidelity in representation.
How do we decode a map? To say “I am here, but I want to get to there” on a map involves understanding (1) that here and there are indexes in map space standing for points in real space: [a point on a map _ a physical location in a real territory], and (2) that the movement from here to there on a map stands for the corresponding movement between two points in real space. In this way, maps make it possible to plan a journey through real space with amazing accuracy, since the journey has in effect already been envisaged intellectually in terms of the map space. This is why maps have greatly enhanced humankind’s ability to know the world, having allowed people to literally “envision” real-world places in their minds.
The History of Cartography
The first known maps were made by the Babylonians around 2300 BC. Carved on clay tablets, they consisted largely of land surveys made for the purposes of taxation. More extensive regional maps, drawn on silk and dating from the second century BC, have been found in China. The precursor of the modern map, however, is believed to have been devised by the Greek philosopher Anaximander (c. 611–c. 547 BC). It was circular and showed the known lands of the world grouped around the Aegean Sea at the center and surrounded by the ocean. Anaximander’s map constituted one of the first attempts to think beyond the immediate territorial boundaries of a particular society—Greece—even though Anaximander located the center of the universe in the Aegean Sea. Then, around 200 BC, the Greek geometer and geographer Eratosthenes (chapter 3, §3.6) introduced the technique of parallel lines to indicate latitude and longitude, although they were not evenly and accurately spaced. Eratosthenes’ map represented the known world from present-day England in the northwest to the mouth of the Ganges River in the east and to Libya in the south. About 150 AD, the Egyptian scholar Ptolemy (c. 100-c. 170 AD) published the first textbook in cartographic methodology, entitled simply Geographia. Even though they contained a number of errors, his were among the first maps of the world to be made with the mathematical technique of projection. At about the same time in China, map-makers were also beginning to use mathematically accurate grids for making maps.
The next step forward in cartographic methodology came in the medieval era when Arab seamen showed the world how to make highly accurate navigational charts, with lines indicating the bearings between ports. Then, in the fifteenth century, influenced by the publication of Ptolemy’s maps, European map-makers laid the foundations for the modern science of cartography. In 1507, for instance, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller (c. 1470-c. 1522) became the first to apply the name America to the newly identified trans-Atlantic lands, separating America into North and South—a cartographic tradition that continues to this day—and differentiating the Americas from Asia. In 1570 the first modern atlas—a collection of maps of the world—was put together by the Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598). The atlas, titled Orbis Terrarum, contained 70 maps.
Undoubtedly, the most important development in the sixteenth century came when the Flemish Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594) developed the technique of cylindrical projection in 1569. As mentioned above, this allowed cartographers of the era to portray compass directions as straight lines, at the expense, however, of the accurate representation of relative size. This technique led, in the first half of the seventeenth century, to the development of more precise methods of determining latitude and longitude. By the eighteenth century, the modern-day scientific principles of map-making were well established. With the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, a number of European countries conducted topographic surveys to determine political boundaries. In 1891, the International Geographical Congress proposed the political mapping of the entire world on a scale of 1:1,000,000, a task that has occupied cartographers up to the present day. Throughout the twentieth century, advances in aerial and satellite photography, and in computer modeling of topographic surfaces, have greatly enhanced the accuracy and fidelity of map-making.
But to the semiotician, no matter how great the representational fidelity of scientifically produced maps, they are still signs that reflect cultural worldview. Maps of American aboriginal cultures, for instance, differ from Western maps, not in objectivity, but in how they portray spaces and territories culturally. Whereas Western mapmaking is based on the principles of Cartesian geometry, which segments the map space into determinable points and calculable distances, aboriginal map-making is based instead on portraying the interconnectedness among the parts within the map space through a distortion of distance, angulation, and shape. The end result is that Western maps represent the world as an agglomeration of points, lines, and parts, related to each other in terms of the mathematics of the Cartesian plane; aboriginal maps represent the world instead as a holistic unsegmentable entity. Both types of map produce structural effects—Western maps provide a “discrete point” Cartesian view of the world, aboriginal ones a more holistic sacred view.
The Western map space has, indeed, even produced structural effects on how planners have designed modern cities. Not only does the layout of the city of New York, for instance, mirror the Cartesian map space, but the city also names its streets largely in terms of the grid system: e.g. 52nd and 4th refers to the intersection point of two perpendicular lines in the city grid. The same effects manifest themselves also in how architects and planners draw such things as blueprints, floor plans, city sewer systems, suburban subdivisions, etc. In a fundamental semiotic sense, modern cities and buildings are the “structural byproducts” of the worldview that has been produced by the widespread use of the techniques that have shaped Western map-making since the early sixteenth century.
Although they were devised originally as socially meaningful representations of specific territories, maps have also served another deepseated need of the sapient animal—exploration, i.e. the need to know what lies beyond one’s immediate world. Across the ages, explorers went on their quests to find new territories with maps in hand. Indeed, the practice of exploration requires not only thorough knowledge of ships or other crafts, but also considerable experience with reading and making maps.
The reason why maps have allowed human beings to travel and seek out unknown territories is that they are made in part with the same symbolic properties that geometry, algebra, and other symbolusing representational systems possess (chapter 3, §3.6). In the same way that the sciences of geometry and trigonometry have allowed human beings to solve engineering problems since ancient times, the science of cartography has allowed explorers to solve travel problems with amazing accuracy. As representations of real spaces, maps allow humans to take intellectual journeys whose imagined trajectories on the map space can then be reenacted in the world of real space to see where they lead. Maps have, in effect, allowed humans to model the physical world in ways that have suggested to them beforehand how to travel within that world.
Exploration involves the determination of position and direction. Position is a point on the earth’s surface that can be identified (i.e. fixed) in terms of the grid or coordinate system of Cartesian geometry, i.e. with lines of latitude and longitude. Direction is the position of one point relative to another. In the Cartesian plane, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and since any line in the plane is a hypotenuse, then its length can be determined easily. In this way, Cartesian-designed maps allow explorers to fix points and determine distances to regions of the plane (the earth’s surface) that are as yet unknown. Suppose, for instance, that the known world is located in the upper left quadrant of the Cartesian plane. Points shown in that map space—p1, p2, p3, . . .—can be located accurately in real space with the technique of scaling. Now, assume that the unknown world is in the lower right quadrant. With this map, an explorer can literally chart h/er trip to that world because s/he can calculate the distance needed to reach some imaginary point in the map space of that world, say p2, by simply determining the length of the line in the map space from h/er starting point, say p1 to p2 and then converting that measurement to real-world units, using the scale established for the upper quadrant:
Clearly, the explorer setting out on a journey to p2 will not know what s/he will encounter along the way, nor will she know in advance if p2 is a land mass or a body of water. But s/he can still take that journey with a high degree of assurance that s/he will be able to find h/er intended destination, no matter what it is.
In sum, the science of cartography has allowed Homo culturalis to explore the terrestrial world with amazing ease. What is even more remarkable is that the same science has permitted Homo culturalis to describe the positions of heavenly bodies and to calculate their distances from Earth with accuracy. Suffice it to say here that mapping outer space involves the use of techniques that correspond to terrestrial point-fixing in terms of latitude and longitude lines. Simply put, the positions of stars relative to one another are regarded as points on a celestial map; the motion of the sun, the moon, and the planets is then indicated as a mean rate of progression across the celestial space. It is truly mind-boggling to think that with the aid of a simple representational device (the map), Homo culturalis has already been able to set foot on the moon and will no doubt be able to visit other places in the skies in the not-too-distant future.
At a denotative level, buildings and places are perceived to be reflexes of shelter and territoriality. But in the larger social context, they are invariably imbued with connotations that emanate from the spatial codes of a culture’s signifying order. There are three types of spatial codes—public, private, and sacred. Public spatial codes are those that relate to sites where communal or social interactions of various kinds take place; private spatial codes are those that relate to places that individuals have appropriated or designated as their own; and sacred spatial codes relate to those locales that are purported to have metaphysical, mythical, or spiritual qualities. Like all codes, these too regulate behavior in social situations: e.g. one must knock on the door of a friend’s house to announce one’s presence, but one does not knock on the door of a retail store; one may sit and wait for someone in a foyer, atrium, or lobby, but one does not normally wait for someone in a public washroom; one can walk on a public sidewalk, but one cannot walk on someone’s porch without permission; when one enters a sacred place like a church or chapel, one feels and behaves differently than when one enters a bank or a stadium; and so on.
Although people experience physical space in similar ways throughout the world, the meanings assigned to spaces in social territories will vary. An outsider would have to learn how to interpret, respond to, and behave appropriately in the public, private, and sacred places of a culture before becoming a functional member of that culture (Gallagher 1993).
In the wilderness, places are perceived by all species as survival spaces; i.e. as spaces in which sustenance and shelter can be procured. But in cultural contexts, the space appropriated by a tribe or society is felt additionally by its members to be a communal body. This is why societies are often described by people as being healthy, sick, vibrant, beautiful, ugly, etc. And, indeed, outsiders habitually judge a society at first sight on how the public places appear to the eye—as neat, dirty, organized, disorganized, etc. And this is why when someone defaces public places, s/he is felt to have violated the entire community. Conflicts between tribes or nations are, in actual fact, often triggered by such acts against the communal body.
Within the communal body, public places are set aside so that members of a society can gather as groups for reasons of entertainment, recreation, celebration, etc. They provide appropriate locales where ritualistic behaviors can unfold. The spatial codes that relate to such places are coordinated with the kinesic and proxemic codes described in chapter 4 (§4.2, §4.4). This is why the way one dresses for church is typically different from the way one dresses for work, the way one behaves in a restaurant is different from the way one behaves at home, and so on. This interconnectedness among the various codes of the signifying order is what gives coherence and overall purpose to social activities and routines, producing recognizable structural effects on how people experience places—e.g. the space in one’s home feels more personal than the space in a bank. At a party, a feast, a ceremony people assume the social personae that they are either assigned or expected to play, i.e. they know what clothes to wear, what behaviors are appropriate, etc. The end result is that the public event is felt as a collective bodily experience. Participation at such gatherings is necessary for the maintenance of social solidarity and traditions.
Public places set aside for the display and exchange of goods are characteristic of all cultures. In many large contemporary urban societies, this function is served by shopping malls. But the mall has become much more than just a locus for the acquisition of market goods. The modern mall satisfies several psychic and social needs at once. It is perceived as a safe and purified space for human socialization and is thus felt to be a haven for combating loneliness and boredom; it provides a theatrical atmosphere proclaiming the virtues of a consumerist utopia; it imparts a feeling of security and protection against the world of cars, mechanical noises, and air pollution outside; it shields against rain, snow, heat, cold; it conveys a feeling of control and organization. In a phrase, the mall is placeless and timeless—there is no appearance of aging or experience of time passing in its ambiance.
Malls are self-contained consumerist fantasylands, where one can leave the problems and hassles of daily life literally “outside.” In the controlled “inside” environment of the mall everything is clean, shiny, cheery, and ever so optimistic. The mall is commonly experienced as a nirvana of endless shopping, cosmeticized and simplified to keep grisly reality out of sight and out of mind. And as one can with a remote-controlled television set, one can “switch” from scene to scene—from clothing store to coffee stand, to pinball parlor, to lottery outlet—with great ease.
The mall subtext is essentially shopping = paradise on earth. But this is ultimately an empty, vacuous message. Very few people will claim that their experiences at shopping malls are memorable, rewarding, or meaningful. Indeed, they do not remember them for very long once they have left.
In the same way that public spaces are perceived to be the parts of a communal body, so too private spaces are felt typically to be extensions of Self-space. A home, whether a crude hut or an elaborate mansion, is a shelter providing protection from weather and intruders. It is felt to be an extension of the body’s protective armor. Indeed, when one steps inside, one feels as if one has entered into one’s own body. When people build and decorate their homes, they are primarily engaged in making images of themselves to suit their own eyes. The identification of Self with the home is characteristic of all cultures.
In tribal societies the house tends to be a single volume, a room for all activities, reflecting an uncomplicated experience of Self. It is usually built directly against neighboring structures and often close to the tribal meeting-house or religious site as well. In China, on the other hand, the walled-in form of the courtyard house, which has persisted for centuries, reflects the need for privacy that is inherent in Chinese social traditions and perceptions of Self. But rows of single-volume dwellings, each with a small court or garden, are also found in China, reflecting a different type of Self-perception. At the other end of the scale are the imperial palace compounds, of which the Forbidden City in Beijing is the outstanding example. The various buildings of these compounds, laid out to form a vast, symmetrical complex, constitute a symbolic text supporting the divine claims of the emperors and the society they governed.
Within the home, the rooms are themselves meaningful spaces eliciting a specific constellation of emotive connotations. Concealing bedrooms seems to have a biological basis. Humans are extremely vulnerable when sleeping, and so it is certainly judicious, if not essential, to keep sleeping areas hidden from view. This is perhaps why people are especially protective of their bedrooms, which are felt to be the most vulnerable and secretive part of Self-space. In this private space, an individual unwinds, relaxes, and expresses h/er inner Self through decoration and personal objects. The bedroom is a refuge and asylum from the outside world. Only intimates are allowed to share that space symbolically. This is why when someone steals something from a bedroom, or defiles it in some way, it is felt to be a personal violation. When people cannot procure a personalized space, as in public housing projects, prisons, etc., it should come as no surprise to find that they tend to lose respect for their place and even for themselves, thus engaging in defacement and vandalism.
It is instructive to note that the Industrial Revolution was a turning point in Western society, in the meanings assigned to the private home. The city poor lived in reasonable, well-built rows of small houses. But it was the emerging middle class that attained the economic ability to buy land and to build fairly comfortable large houses. In the twentieth century, new transportation systems, and the desire of the middle class to own a plot of land, produced suburbs, where the majority of independently situated family houses are found today. As population increased, technology responded. By the late nineteenth century the construction of houses had become a major architectural subject, studied by ranking architects. Small one-story dwellings, each on its own tract of land, proliferated especially in America. Large ornate houses became fairly common, closely adjacent to neighbors in the older cities, standing alone in the newer towns and the suburbs. Distinctive styles of domestic architecture rose in popularity and waned shortly thereafter.
Houses that broke with historical architectural styles were slow to be accepted. As early as 1889 the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959) built a house embodying new concepts of spatial flow from one room to another. He and others, both in Europe and in the United States, soon moved towards a domestic architectural style of metric forms and simplified surfaces largely free of decoration. Contemporary changes in painting and sculpture were allied to this movement, and by the 1920s modernist architecture, though by no means universally accepted, had arrived. By the 1950s the modernist house—a more or less standard, one-floor, two-or three-bedroom house—was commonplace in North America.
Sacred places are sites where humans believe they can secure some form of contact with or proximity to the divinities. The codes that relate to these places are also interconnected with the kinesic and proxemic codes of the signifying order. In a Catholic church, for example, a confessional is felt to be a very intimate enclosure. Therefore, it cannot be lit or be made amenable to social interaction. It signifies a space in which one is expected to look into the dark depths of the soul. The altar area is perceived as more sacred and therefore less traversable than the area containing the pews. As a table for eating spiritually along with Christ, it was once put against the wall of the church with the priest facing it and with his back to the people. This removed the priest and the whole Mass from the people, making it more detached and ethereal. The language spoken was Latin, which further imbued the whole ceremony with a far-removed and, yet, seemingly spiritual quality. Nowadays the altar and the priest face the faithful. Interaction is encouraged by this new configuration. There is a greater feeling of “communion” among the people, not just of “communion with God.” The change in the orientation of the altar reflected, clearly, a change in emphasis on the part of the Church and its faithful.
Every culture has its designated sacred spaces, usually with some building on them. The place and building are designed for worship of the deities. In tribal societies, one building was enough to host the congregation; but in large urban societies, many such buildings are needed. These all have the same goal of making the individuals of a culture feel that they have entered a special place. Indeed, the word church originates from New Testament Greek ekklesia, meaning “those called out,” i.e. those called by God away from their daily life to form a new and spiritually deeper relation with the divine.
The salient characteristic of all sacred spaces is that they are designed to impart a feeling that they do not belong to the real world, that they are places where the divinities can be reached, and where miracles and supernatural events are occasionally expected to take place. The Madonna appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858, and the grotto where she carried out Her dialogue with the peasant girl has ever since been considered sacred and thought to be able to cure disease and bring spiritual healing. Similar places exist throughout the world.
Building styles and practices are inevitably influenced by the available technologies in a culture, but the primary functions of buildings remain the same the world over—to protect against intrusions, to circumvent gravity, and to avoid discomforts caused by an excess of heat, cold, rain, or wind. The codes that relate to buildings and their designs are called architectural. Architecture is to building as literature is to writing practices. Buildings are, indeed, like works of art, testifying to the nature of the society that produced them.
Beyond shelter, buildings are constructed with certain broad social purposes in mind—as signs of identity, status, power, sacredness, etc. Temples, churches, mosques, for instance, are designed to allow people to celebrate the mysteries of religion and to provide assembly places where gods can be propitiated and where people can be instructed in matters of belief and ritual. Fortresses and castles are designed with defense in mind. Palaces, villas, and skyscrapers are created to display power and wealth.
Architectural practices mirror social organization and lifestyle. A proliferation of building types, for instance, reflects the complexity of modern life. In large urban centers, more people live in mass housing and go to work in large office buildings; they spend their incomes in large shopping centers, send their children to different kinds of schools, go to specialized hospitals and clinics when sick, linger in airports on the way to distant hotels and resorts, etc.
The aesthetic response to buildings and architectural space is complex. It differs from that of sculpture or painting because the observer can be inside the art text (the building) or stand outside it. It is affected by the emotional responses the observer may have to the materials used, by the way they have been assembled, and by the lighting conditions. Features such as windows, doors, floor design, and ceiling height, too, affect the observer aesthetically. Movement through the spaces within a building also has narrative force, since the parts of a building are interpreted as being as structured as the parts of a sentence or a novel. Buildings are thus “read” as texts with annotative meanings.
Consider how the height of a building can convey a specific kind of meaning. This minimal unit of meaning of an architectural code can be called an architecteme (in analogy with phoneme, kinestheme, etc.). The cities built during the medieval period had one outstanding architectemic feature—the tallest building noticeable along their skyline was the church. The spires on medieval churches rose majestically upwards to the sky. This design feature reflected the fact that there is something overpowering about looking up at tall buildings, making one feel small and insignificant by comparison. The height of churches thus came to symbolize the power and wealth of the clergy. But, as the clergy began losing social clout after the Renaissance, cities were gradually redesigned architecturally to reflect the new cultural order. Today, the tallest buildings in sprawling urban centers are certainly not churches. The tallest structures in cities like Dallas, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles are owned by large corporations and banks. Wealth and power now reside literally and symbolically in these institutions. Inside these mammoth structures the social dynamics mirror an up-down conceptual system: the jobs and positions with the lowest value are at the bottom of the building; the more important ones are at the top. The company’s executives reside, like the gods on Mount Olympus, on the top floor. The atmosphere on this level is perceived to be rarefied and other-worldly. This architectural symbolism is the reason why we use such expressions as to work one’s way up, to make it to the top, to climb the ladder of success, to set one’s goals high, etc.
Historical Sketch of Western Architecture
The Assyrian city of Khorsabad, built during the reign of Sargon II (722–705 BC) and excavated in 1842, is one of the oldest city sites to have been found, and has become the basis for studying the architecture and social order of the Mesopotamian world. Many of the architectural trends in the West trace their origins to the building styles and practices of ancient Greece and Rome. Both were noteworthy for grandiose urban design, as exemplified by the Parthenon (448–432 BC) which crowns the Athenian Acropolis and Hadrian’s Villa (125–132) near Tivoli.
From the fourth century until the early Renaissance, Christianity dominated social systems, including architectural trends, prompting the building of many new churches. Byzantine churches, domed and decorated with mosaics, proliferated throughout the Byzantine Empire. The secularizing trends of the Renaissance brought about a revival of the principles and styles of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. The Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) was the first to revive the classical forms, championing a new architecture based on mathematics, proportion, and perspective. In 1418 he was commissioned to build the dome of the unfinished Florence Cathedral. His design for the dome was a great innovation, both artistically and technically (Figure 7.1).
Brunelleschi also developed the technique of perspective in Western art and architecture (chapter 3, §3.10). In the sixteenth century, Rome became the leading center for architectural innovation. Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican was the most important of many sixteenth-century architectural projects. Toward the middle part of the century such leading Italian architects as Michelangelo, Baldassare Peruzzi, Giulio Romano, and Giacomo da Vignola started the trend of using the classical Roman elements in ways that became known as the mannerist style, characterized by arches, columns, and entablatures that enshrined the techniques of perspective and depth in Western architecture. The best known architect of the period was the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), designer of the great oval piazza in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.
In the eighteenth century a new style arose, called rococo, reflecting a new affluence and elegance in society at large. But little less than a century later, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, a new world order came into existence, accompanied by architectural trends that set the stage for the growth of industrialized building trends and the widespread use of cast iron and steel. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the American architect Louis Sullivan (1856–1924) and his apprentice Frank Lloyd Wright (1869–1959) designed the first true skyscrapers. The “art of the modern skyscraper” was an invention of the so-called Bauhaus school (based in Weimar, Germany, around 1919–1925), which brought together architects, painters, and designers from several countries to formulate the goals of the visual arts in the modern age, under its first director Walter Gropius (1883–1969). The Bauhaus style prevailed throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and most of the 1960s. Often referred to with the term modernism, its approach can be seen in the chaste elegance and subtle proportions of the Seagram Building (1958) in New York. Gropius wanted to rebuild the landscape by stripping it of its past symbolism, substituting a geometrically pure style that intentionally excluded references to the past. The Bauhaus School envisioned a working-class architectural landscape. Buildings were to be fashioned as box-like forms so as to eliminate all the symbols of traditional power. Out of this movement, modern office towers, housing projects, hotels, and other public buildings were built with the same basic cubic blueprint.
Between about 1965 and 1980, architects started to reject modernism, which they found to be too monolithic and formulaic, promoting a new style that came to be known as postmodern. The postmodern architects wanted to inject individuality, intimacy, complexity, humor, and irony into building design. The American architect Robert Venturi (1925–), for instance, defended the new vernacular architecture—gas stations, fast-food restaurants, etc.—and attacked the modernist establishment with incisive criticism. By the early 1980s, postmodernism had become the dominant trend in American architecture and an important phenomenon in Europe as well. Its success in the US owed much to the influence of Philip C. Johnson (1906–). His AT&T Building (1984) in New York City instantly became a paragon of postmodern design (Figure 7.2).
The postmodern office towers built during the 1980s aspired to a similar high stylistic profile, striving for an individualistic flamboyance. Vivid color and other decorative elements were effectively used to build everything from office towers to private houses. Today’s new office buildings emphasize high-tech and glamorous professions. Once again the city landscape, and thus the mindscape that it mirrors, are changing.
The origin of cities is to be found in super-tribal settlements that came onto the scene around 5,000-6,000 years ago (chapter 1, §1.5). To protect themselves and their food supplies against predatory nomads, animals, and changes in climate, the people in these settlements built their dwellings within a walled area or a naturally fortified place, such as the acropolis of ancient Greek cities. Because the availability of water was also a key consideration, these early settlements were usually located around, near, or along a river. Gradually, the expanding configuration of buildings and spaces of the settlement created the need for a specialization of labor. Markets developed in which artisans could exchange their specialties for other kinds of goods. And the powerful religious sphere contributed crucially to the intellectual and educational life of the early cities, making them centers of commerce, learning, and technology.
The spread of the city in Europe was a result of the breakup of feudalism. At the beginning of the sixteenth century Europe had six or seven cities of 100,000 or more inhabitants; at the end of the century it had twice as many. During the seventeenth century, although the population of Europe remained stationary, that of the cities increased. But it was not until the late nineteenth century that the process of urbanization, i.e. of more and more people moving into cities at the expense of rural districts, became a general trend. Its principal causes were the development of the factory system, improvements in transportation, and the mechanization of agriculture, which reduced the need for farm labor. Many modern cities have, in fact, been planned as industrial centers near sources of raw materials. In 1890, barely 16 percent of the population of the United States lived in cities of 100,000 or more. In 1990 just over one-fourth of the population did so, and three-fourths of the total population lived in cities and towns of 2500 or more.
City design reflects cultural values, beliefs, and emphases. In ancient Greece, religious and civic citadels were oriented in such a way as to give a sense of aesthetic balance to the inhabitants—streets were arranged in a grid pattern and housing was integrated with commercial and defense structures. In the Renaissance, the design of cities around piazzas was in sharp contrast to the narrow, irregular streets of medieval cities. Renaissance city planners stressed wide, regular radial streets forming concentric circles around a central point, with other streets radiating out from that point like spokes of a wheel. To this day, the downtown core is known as centro in Italy, reflecting this Renaissance view of cities as circles.
After the Industrial Revolution the concept of the grid started to gain a foothold on city designs. The grid system of design conveys rationalization, efficiency of movement, and facility of localization. But since the middle part of the twentieth century, many new city designs have emerged. Hotels and other recreational buildings (e.g. casinos) are taking on some of the symbols of power that were once associated exclusively with the banks and the corporations The city of Las Vegas is a classic example of a city designed to cater to the craving for recreation and consumption. The tall hotel towers that mark its landscape are symbols of a world of fast money, quick recreational fixes, and consumerist delights.