From the brief for “Discipline and Meaning: Other Worlds of Architecture,” a vertical studio offered at SCI-Arc in F05
Architecture is willful. The designed object is the embodiment of purpose; when this purpose is more than simply the satisfaction of physical needs, as architecture is more than simply building, this willfulness inspires attention. Architecture, distinct from building, is located in the purpose left over from the simple production of the building. This has a formal dimension—as beauty, grace or other qualities relating to appearance, and a significant dimension—its meaning, which goes a step further to the implications of that appearance. Attention is expected and paid to both. In fact, they cannot be separated.
Attention is paid because purpose calls. Form does not follow function, which would leave it transparent to that function (ie, invisible) but intention. The intention behind the function is what is perceived, whether or not the function can be understood. Human-made form is assumed to be meaningful because it is there. Its intentional presence communicates at a minimum the intention to be present. Beyond that, immediately, lies judgment about that intention. Meaning lurks.
Yet, for some time now, popular pedagogy has stopped bothering to follow appearance into meaning. Satisfied either with the indexical mechanics of (digital) effects, judging them only for beauty or weirdness, or with the iconic production of the market, judging it for its cleverness, the discourse has become strangely sterile and shiny, leaving huge tracts of architectural relevance unconsidered.
It’s not hard to understand why. Meaning is tough. Dangerous. It’s also sloppy. It’s what got architecture into all that Histopomo silliness and the craziness of Decon. Meaning propels the ceaseless negativity of critique. Meaning begets the repression battled by the diagram. Sometimes it seems easier to just ignore it, and hope it goes away. Or let someone else worry about it. But it doesn’t go away. Form is never alone.
Trust in the autonomy of form is deluded—the form is still there as, at least, an index of intention. As such, it is there to be read, whether the designer cares or not, and so the best the formalist who condemns meaning can hope for is a reading of paucity, masquerading as openness or illegibility. This is not the object’s fault. The reading compulsion lives in the viewer. The object cannot exorcize it, only satisfy it or frustrate it.
Meaning fills the world, or at least the space opened up by perception. It’s sloppy fecundity takes it into every nook and cranny, making a comprehensive command of it impossible, and it is slippery, making it hard to nail it down in any specific instance. It is naïve to imagine mastering it (this is what gets architecture into trouble). But framed suitably meaning can be managed.
Actually, “frame” is a good way to describe architecture. The label “architecture” names a certain slice of experience, associated with certain physical objects and the culture that has arisen around them. Though the frame is not airtight or very square, as Decon proved, it is useful for corralling opinion and promoting consensus. More specifically, architecture is what is inside the frame. The frame itself could be considered the discipline. The quality or intensity of the meaning possible within the frame is a function of the clarity and strength of the frame, of the discipline.
Architecture’s problems with meaning come when the provisional nature of the frame is forgotten or denied. Its provisionality encumbers architects with the responsibility for continued maintenance if meaning is to be sustained. When that maintenance is overlooked, either through excessive confidence or indifference, and the discipline deteriorates, meaning suffers and intentionality is left hanging. Recent architectural history can be interpreted in this light as effects of fluctuations in the status of the frame: histopomo triviality and Decon wackiness as overconfidence, the diagram as dismissal, the blob as indifference.
That provisionality can be taken as a license, and the aridity of recent examples as a mandate—to consider other routes into architecture that might shed light on the relationship between intention, form, and ultimately meaning.
Consider an experiment to isolate the relationship of intention and form for study, in which the usual real world context (where everything is familiar and the architectural frame is dissolved into quotidian building parts) is traded for a “laboratory” environment. This would mean to do work on projects for sites that could not exist, except in the imagination. By removing the usual props guiding design, the crutches that take the most interesting questions out of the designer’s hands, the design process will be experienced in its purest form, as the creation of a new world. Literally. In this way the designer will see how the responsibility for maintaining the discipline can be empowering, rather than simply constraining.
Movies and texts from science fiction can provide the designer with fodder for analysis and inspiration, and sites for design. In a speculative fiction setting like these, the architectural frame is replaced by the frame of the movie or story. This removes the usual disciplinary restraints from the setting and allows design to bend and stretch from convention to better serve the plot or mood inside that story-binding frame. In such cases the role of design itself as a character in the drama may even steal the show, as in the StarWars series of films or the novel Dune.
Though gravity may not exist, or the sun never shine, that character still must be defined, through design: the frame is not gone, it’s just been moved. When the “architecture” is soft and blobular or floating in the sky there is more reason for discipline to be applied and judgments made, not less. In these environments, the lack of definition will be acutely felt by the designer, and architecture’s role in filling that void can be highlighted.
After spending some time designing offworld, where nothing is given and all gestures, however minor, must be invented, the designer will hopefully see the discipline anew, as a frame for the possibility that architecture can be a character in the drama of real life, and see that the intentions of the designer are the spark of that life.