Architectural Dilemma and My Murmurs

Every culture gave names to the objects during the centuries to supply the communication & sharing in itself. The words that are serviceable to define the objects bring together some concepts that constitute symbolic meaning and communication during the history, created their own complex system in every culture by changing continuously with perceptions & interpretations. The reason that I call this system complex is because every society has its own perception, identity and sign systems.

Most of us benefit from some innuendo’s and from the different meanings of words instead of the direct meaning to tell something to another in our daily life; shortly we supply our communication in different and indirect ways. For example, in friendship we have too many special words or mimics that remind us an event or a joke we shared a while ago. These words provide easy communication between two people in society. This example is given for two or group friendship that knows each other very well. What about if we think of the whole society? Is it different? Absolutely not. Here it is the word ‘semiotic’  that  defines this system: The name of the whole sign systems that is serviceable to set up communication either written, oral or linear… etc. inside the society.

Umberto Eco is a semiotican as well as being a fictional writer. He also played a bridge role between the semiotic theories of Saussure and Pierce. According to the semiotician’s, culture produces signs and/or attributes meaning to signs. And specific semiotic systems are called codes. Umberto Eco basis his own semiotic system on specific and general codes; and wrote not only about the subjects, media and linguistic but also interested and wrote about ‘the architecture in time’. According to him there are primary and secondary functions in Architecture. The functions named primary are the architecture’s form as ‘functional objects’ and the secondary functions as ‘symbolic objects’. Eco defines that the structure that an architect designed must be open for secondary functions while it provides the variable primary functions. The problem we come here face to face with is that we have to know the culture very well and set up the communication in right ways to give the right symbolic meanings of the structure we designed, to the users. Because if we try to put a value and a new approach that couldn’t be proprietored by the society, it would not be possible to supply the structure’s sustainability which causes problem in perception, although we implement the primary functions successfully.

Umberto Eco mentioned to this subject many times while telling the external codes and the mass communication in architecture; and as an example he gave Le Corbusier: He says that the reason of unacceptance of Le Corbusier’s design of street type was uncomforted in known city design is that he put forth a fiction free from known typology & codes.

Architecture is a profession that an architect must set up creativity in her/his designs on codes that provides continuity in the society perception. However beside this, the structures must carry the symbolic meanings that make connotation to the users as much as it gives answer to the user’s needs. If so, is the culture coming from past has to capture the architecture in a totalitarian construction?

For example Egyptian pyramids is perceived with its secondary function (which is the power & destiny of dynasty) more than primary functions (which is a tomb). It is a part of the sign system by connoting the monumentality, based on astronomical and mathematical symbolism. It is perceived today same as it was before when we are getting closer to the Egyptian culture by researching. What will happen if we try to apply a new and totally different approach to existing codes today which is also totally away from expected primary and secondary functions of the culture? The pyramids still live because of the closeness of that time’s religious beliefs or ?..

Umberto Eco says that Le Corbusier is an anthropologist, a sociologist, a psychologist and an ideologist while designing the modern city life in the future more than an architect while he criticizes him. He puts design that I refer to call as a utopia in this way. But if we have to turn back to the question I asked, haven’t the Le Corbusier’s suggested brave and creative but at the same time unaccepted design which is free from known codes, become/became a part of our lives in spite of all our past values? Or if I have to ask the question in an other way; Isn’t the new approaches, although at the very first time we do not accept, start to be adopted during time and start/started to form a new semantic system?

It is also like this in art which accepted as human’s most free action. Yes, although art is an action that forms existing codes over again and although sometimes it uses some elements that disregard these codes, it cannot mostly break the system’s chain. However some artist, who couldn’t be understood at their time like Picasso and Dali, can find life after their death in a new system that we name. Architecture is separated from art because architects differ from artist; aim their products to be functional also. Still  in a form of Eco tells, couldn’t it be open to creativity and couldn’t it break the system of rules that society suggested? I do not think so, because the 21st century people will insist on to make real their utopia’s while time passes; like we see in Le Corbusier example. And the system will start to change and shape itself undoubtedly like we see in today.

Consequently this change is different from past. Like Eco says, the stone age people examine the shelter concept functionally and communicational when he took shelter in a hollow to protect himself from falling rain. After that, by recognizing the entrance of the hollow, he developed the concept of entrance- permits passage to inside. By time all these architectural objects recall to his mind, connotes like family, security & group and symbolic meanings belonged to shelter formed a code system. Finally function is a thing that is practical, desired, known, easily perceived and something answers to needs. And if we think of after thousands of years, our time; we’ve already a code system that came from our ancestors. The society develops its being by this system and protects its integrity. But in another way, society insists on a new system which is basis on the thought ‘I am like nobody’. If that is so, where is the solution?

I think beside the all technical communication problems living in architecture, the basic of the problem is lies in the ambitions and lack of satisfaction of being human. Because none of the systems we try to form in these clays are having the same reason and expectations that our ancestors had while forming the system of the past. It is mostly like this for the architecture. To define something as a sign, it has to have a physical, it must refer to something other than itself and it must be recognized as doing this by other users of the sign system. I think what Umbero Eco tries to tell for architects in whole article is this. However time changes and we try to break down besides interpreting whole over again, to complete the circle that we own and perceived it in today’s condition, not to loose our identity. Still, although we are instant and devious to form new systems, we are also intolerant to the new approaches.

In the whole article, while Umbero Eco tells the meaning of the code & sign system in architecture; and the past communication of architecture with primary and secondary functions; and how the architect can supply these functional and symbolic needs, he does not talk about the dilemma’s solution I felt into while I was reading. Because in architecture while I am defending the new and free approaches and believing that chain must be broken down in some where, my one side says that to approach the truth we have to assimilate the past and interpret it in our today’s conditions. And I think this is the point where paradox starts in me…


For more details please read: Eco, U. (1997), “Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture”, pp. 181- 204, Rethinking Architecture : A reader in cultural theory (ed) Neil Leach, London and New York,Routledge.


One response to “Architectural Dilemma and My Murmurs

  1. Good Architecture should balance the primary and secondary functions.However, to be famous secondary functions usually take priority over the primary functions. At the onset of Modern Architecture, Le Corbusier and his contemporaries were analytic in arriving at the primary functions. Many of the interpretations of the secondary functions from the primary ones were subjective.These subjective interpretations were the distinguishing characteristics among the masters. Architecture must be placed in space….time….and the other dimensions to be relevant to the present and situated in the continuum of the past to the future

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