‘What is Architecture?’

The question is very direct – almost brutally direct. On the face of it, one may say, it also appears to have a very simple and equally direct answer. Perhaps it does. But if one dares to dig a little deeper, into what the question is really asking, he or she will soon be faced with a complex web of related questions, which may have answers that are neither simple, nor direct. This question is so fundamental, that despite running the risk of being dismissed as ‘trivial’, it calls into question the very definition of the discipline. It is also worth noting, that such simple and fundamental questions are usually the ones that give rise to the most complex of debates, and go on to have the greatest repercussions in the long run.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word architecture refers to the art or practice of designing and constructing buildings’. Again, on the face of it, the phrase sounds pretty simple. But let us just pick out two keywords from the definition – ‘art’ and ‘design’. Is architecture an ‘art’, or is it simply the ‘practice of designing buildings’? If it does involve art, how does the ‘art’ become a part, or a process of ‘design’? And to throw in another question in the same spirit of fundamental enquiry, ‘What is art?’ There we have it. From a single question that had appeared to have a rather simple answer, we’ve opened up multiple lines of inquiry, none of which appear to be particularly ‘simple’.

Something that we must understand is that none of these ideas and concepts ever have definitions which are timeless. What architecture means to us today is different from what it meant five hundred years ago. Meanings change over time. And it does not always take centuries for the perception and understanding associated with a subject to evolve. They evolve every day, and give rise to the various movements that echo the various positions taken by their proponents. It is an endless and inevitable cycle. This discussion is broadly aimed at examining how, through numerous ‘isms’ the idea of architecture has varied through recent history.

Let us start with our initial question about the nature of architecture. Oxford has through its very ‘simple’ definition suggested that architecture is an ‘art’. Let’s try and understand what ‘art’ is all about. In the introductory chapters of his book, Principles of Aesthetics, Dewitt H Parker paints us a brilliantly comprehensive picture of art. Art, he says is all about expression. It is the ‘putting forth of purpose, feeling, or thought into a sensuous medium, where they can be experienced again by the one who expresses himself and communicated to others’.[i] He then quickly proceeds to say that all expression is, however, not necessarily art. Any mode of communication involves expression, but does not always constitute art. The difference lies in ‘purpose’. Many gestures of expression bear a very specific purpose. When somebody calls out to someone else, the gesture has a specific purpose – to attract the attention of the concerned individual. That is not art. No matter what additional ‘purpose’ an artistic expression serves, it is, to the artist and the appreciator, an end in itself. And therein lies the difference. The author goes on to elegantly draw the distinction between art and science. Both the artist as well as the scientist directs their energies to describing the everyday world. Both try to ‘express’ and ‘convey’ the nature of the universe. But the difference lies in the domains within which they operate. From an epistemological standpoint, all we know about the ‘external world’, we know through our senses. Our sensations give rise to our perceptions, but the process does not stop there. Our environment elicits an emotional response. When we hold a flower, our eyes see, our noses smell, and our fingers feel it. But at the same time, the flower also trammels up emotion within us, and transform the sensory inputs into a beautiful experience. Science is consciously objective. It concerns itself only with the object as it is presented to our senses. Thus a scientific description of the flower will go into great detail about its ‘internal structure’ and ‘morphology’ – all attributes of the ‘object’ itself. It will not touch upon the observer’s internal response to the ‘object’. That is where art comes in. Artistic expressions are descriptions ‘not of things only, but of the artist’s reactions to things, his mood or emotion in their presence.’[ii] They include ‘the self of the observer as well as the things he observes’. When someone appreciates a work of art, it conveys a part of the artist’s emotions embodied in it, and elicits similar emotional responses in the observer. Therein lies its beauty.

Now what do mean by ‘design’? Our ever-faithful companion, the Oxford dictionary, defines design as A plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made.’ This definition is certainly quite a comprehensive one. Broadly speaking, before any object is produced, it is first planned. The details of its look and function are ‘envisioned’. This entire process is referred to as ‘design’. All is well till this point. But let us, in the same spirit of enquiry, dig a little deeper.

In the third chapter of John Heskett’s excellent book Design: A Very Short Introduction, the author attempts to deal with the apparent confusion surrounding the term ‘function’ in relation to design. The term, he says, encompasses two major aspects, namely ‘utility’ and ‘significance’.[iii] Utility refers to the practical use of an object, for which it is designed. The utility of a wristwatch, for example, is to ensure that it always displays the correct time, while providing a degree of comfort to the person wearing it. Significance, on the other hand, refers to the relationships that we develop with such objects, by investing certain degrees of ‘meaning’ in them. To the owner, a wristwatch ‘means’ much more than just a comfortable, wearable time keeping machine. Through the act wearing it, he says something about himself, and to him, maybe in a very small way, the watch becomes a part of who he is.

In the latter half of the 20th century, sociologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, through a research project titled The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, inquired into the role that ordinary objects play in the lives of people. They wrote of the ‘enormous flexibility with which people can attach meanings to objects, and therefore derive meanings from them.’[iv] No one uses an object purely for its utilitarian value. Every object has a latent meaning.

It is this ‘meaning’ or ‘significance’ embodied in physical objects that fall within the realm concerning ‘art’. Meanings are transmitted through objects. The realm of emotion, and internal response is touched upon. When a designer lays out his plans for the physical ‘working’ of an object, in order to make it more ‘utilitarian’, he is working as an engineer, within the domain of science. But when he begins to think about what the object will ‘mean’ to its user, and how it will convey feelings of happiness, or sadness, or delight, or longing – it is then that he crosses over to domain of art, and becomes an artist. No matter how efficiently an object fulfills its utilitarian purpose, a part of it will always reach out to the user through meaning and meaning alone.

The degree to which an object transmits meaning depends upon the position that the object occupies in the user’s life. There exists an unsaid hierarchy in which we invest meaning into objects. We invest more meaning in a car than we do in a water bottle. We spend months deciding which car to buy, but hardly spend ten minutes behind a water bottle. And, as is evident from the discussion so far, these decisions are never based purely on utilitarian considerations. The vehicle that we travel in is a symbol of our identity. It is statement of who we are. It occupies a relatively higher position in the unsaid hierarchy. And this brings us to buildings.

The primary function of a building is quite naturally to provide shelter. Right from the Stone Age, man has been engaged in building activity. A good building is one, which fulfills its utilitarian purpose as efficiently as possible. But that is not the end of it. Buildings have meaning. Spaces created by materials as mundane as brick and stone have the powerful the capacity to move us. Buildings have the power to make us feel happy, or sad, or powerful or insignificant. And that is when the artist in the architect comes to life, and, through such powerful expressions of feeling and emotion, transcends the realm of building and enters the realm of architecture. Andrew Ballantyne in his book Architecture: A Very Short Introduction, puts it elegantly: ‘Architecture is a gesture made with buildings’.[v] It is this gesture that Parker had referred to in trying to explain art. The capacity to convey or transmit one’s internal feelings through a physical medium – in this case, a building. The feelings are reborn inside the user when he or she encounters the built form, and for a moment, the artist and his audience become one. As Ballantyne goes on through his customarily beautiful use of words, ‘We might be thrilled by it, or calmed, feel challenged or charmed, but if we do not pay attention to those responses and cultivate them, then architecture dies in us, and the built world is an arid place’. And this is why our Oxford companion did not simply refer to architecture as a ‘practice’, but made sure to include ‘art’.

This brings us to the very core of our discussion. As mentioned earlier, no concept is ever universal. The question of what constitutes architecture and what does not depends greatly on the age in which we live, and the position we take in evaluating buildings. The dialogue between buildings and ‘meaning’ has gone through a great degree of modulation through contemporary history, and is traceable through the literature that the various movements have produced. At certain times, artistic expression has been viewed as the sole purpose of architecture, while at other times, it has been relegated to the fringes of the discipline. Let us take a look at how this dialogue has played out.

The industrial revolution changed the world in two hundred years, more than any other factor in the millennium. The postindustrial scenario brought into the fray new concepts of mechanization, mass production, and standardization. It was an age of fierce energy. The position that art occupied in this new age was a matter of debate. With an entire world order built upon the foundations of the scientific method, art seemed to, consciously or otherwise, be relegated to an inferior status. This new age had given birth to an entire new breed of thinkers. And these thinkers carried in them a revolutionary spirit. And the spell of this spirit had, before long, swept through architecture.

The German architect Adolf Loos was one such early revolutionary. In his classic essay 1908, Ornament and Crime, he advocates a bold, and fearless move away from ornament and constraints of ‘style’ in buildings. He argues that ‘the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects’.[vi] Primitive ‘uncultured’ societies, just like babies, fancy decoration and ornament. They tattoo their bodies, just like the tattooed inmates of modern prisons. A country’s culture, he argues, may be assessed by the extent to which its lavatories are smeared with erotic symbols, where people give way to inner urges. According to him, the modern age has freed itself from this primitive mode of existence. ‘We have grown finer, more subtle’, and do not need to be slaves of primitive urges of plastic decoration. Ornamentation leads to a waste of labor, money and material. He argues that if a person pays as much for a smooth pair of shoes as he would for a heavily ornamented one, the time and material saved in producing the former belong to the workman, and hence works towards his upliftment.

Even though he does not explicitly talk about what objects ‘mean’, the overall sense of his argument clearly betrays his stand with respect to meaning and art. The exact nature of the relationship between ornament and meaning is very different and complex line of inquiry, but what is clear is that ornamentation is carried out ‘over and above’ the utilitarian value of an object. Ornament does not enhance or diminish its purposefulness. It is carried out as an end in itself. And that puts it in the realm of art. The ‘primitive urge’ that Loos looks down upon with disdain is the human urge for artistic expression. It manifested in different forms in different societies and at different times, but the core essence of this longing always remains. By glorifying the utilitarian value of objects, while actively criticizing this urge, Loos is smothering the artist. ‘Meaning’ is being relegated to the background. This fierce spirit is echoed in the office of Goldman and Salatsch that he designed in Vienna. The simple façade stands out through a total absence of ornament, and rejects all the historical elements and moldings that ‘meant’ so much to Viennese citizens at that time. Even the windows lacked projections, earning it the nickname ‘building without eyebrows’.

This revolutionary spirit, echoing the triumph of utilitarianism over meaning, soon gained a firm foothold in mainstream architecture through ‘modernism’. Le Corbusier seemed to drive the final nail into art’s coffin when, in his book Towards a New Architecture, he famously remarks, ‘a building is a machine to live in’[vii]. The machine was the product of the new age of industry and mechanization. It could achieve results that the human body could never achieve, and it could run efficiently and tirelessly for hours on end. Corbusier rides high on this spirit of mechanization. He glorifies the role of the engineer, and states that the inherent harmony is already present in work ‘governed by economy and conditioned by physical necessities’ Architects need to break free from petty decoration and style, and embrace clear forms derived from the universal laws of nature. They need to follow the path of the engineer.

Very surprisingly, almost contradicting such a bold and emphatic argument in favor of the new spirit, Corbusier seems to hold on to the importance of meaning, in architecture. He states that an architect, through his works, ‘realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit’, thus placing his work well within the domain of art. His job, Corbusier says, is to move us through his play of forms and shapes, to arouse emotion within our beings, and to touch our hearts. And this purpose is evident in his work, be it the Chapel at Ronchamp, or the Legislative Assembly at Chandigarh.

You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: “This is beautiful.” That is Architecture. Art enters in.’[viii]

Despite what Corbusier may have imagined architecture to be with respect to art, meaning had taken a backseat throughout modernism. And it was working. The Second World War brought about destruction on an unprecedented scale in European cities. The reconstruction period readily embraced the principles that modernism had preached for long. When people die, and cities are razed to ground, art does not stand a chance. New houses needed to built to shelter the millions rendered homeless. The world did not need meaning. It needed the machine. But as the years passed by, and the trauma of war began fade into people’s memories, reactionary movements began to emerge. Movements spearheaded by individuals tired of the artless, meaningless built environment. One such individual was the influential architectural theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz.

Deeply influenced by the works of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Norberg-Schulz subscribed to the view that architecture had many more aspects over and above its utilitarian purpose. In his work titled Genius Loci he looked towards a ‘phenomenology’ of architecture – an inquiry into the meaningful relationships that we forge with our built environment. He inquired into the several layers and degrees of meaning that spaces are invested with, which are not necessarily associated with the utilitarian value of ‘shelter’ or ‘use’. That is when a space becomes a ‘place’. Heidegger had written of the concept of ‘dwelling’ in his essay Building, Dwelling, Thinking. A man may exist within the confines of a space, but that does not necessarily mean that he is ‘dwelling’. As Norberg-Schulz remarks, a man dwells ‘when he experiences the environment as meaningful’[ix], that is, when the space provides him with an ‘existential foothold’. The term ‘Genius Loci’ translates to ‘Spirit of a Place’, and it was an understanding of this existential dimension that the book aimed at. Architecture, according to Norberg-Schulz, ‘means to visualize the genius loci, and the task of the architect is to create meaningful places, whereby he helps man to dwell.’[x] Norberg-Schulz left behind a lasting legacy as an architectural theorist. Genius Loci greatly influenced architects and thinkers in Europe and the Americas, making ultimately paving way to the rise of the postmodern movement in the 1970s. Meaning had once again taken center stage in the built environment.

Roger Scruton, in his 1979 book, The Aesthetics of Architecture, digs deep into architecture and its dialogue with ‘aesthetics’. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy, which may loosely be described as a study of the principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty.’[xi] He is critical of the mechanized approach to design, where architecture is reduced to engaging with a set of identified parameters so as arrive at an optimum design ‘solution’. He argues that there is a fundamental difference between the physical ‘needs’ of human beings, such as food, light and shelter, and his ‘values’ which defines the being, and which the being lays claim upon. The aesthetic value, he says, is built upon these claims. To conceive of the world as one in which there are only ‘needs’ and no ‘values’ would ‘reduce architecture to a species of problem-solving only by fundamentally misrepresenting the architect’s purpose.’[xii] Seen in the context of the larger picture, the entire debate is, in fact, a dialogue between utility and significance.

Today, as the years have passed, our ideas surrounding architecture have also evolved. As mentioned earlier, this constant evolution is an endless and inevitable cycle. The ‘spirit’ of today’s age is very different from that of either modernism of the 40’s and 50’s, or postmodernism of the 70’s and 80’s. Contemporary thinkers and theorists have taken a more accommodative and critically reflective stand. We have begun to realize that no conceptual or theoretical position can be coated in black or white. There are always certain aspects of all ‘isms’, which are relevant today, and others, which are not. It is up to us to build upon those, which we feel are relevant, and to discard the rest. We have become open to the fact that architecture is greatly influenced, and controlled by a number of factors. It is, as Jeremy Till has put it, a very ‘dependent profession’, riddled with contingencies. As he argues in Architecture Depends, we cannot afford to ‘detach’ ourselves from the realities of the world. We have to actively engage with all contingencies in order to make architecture happen.[xiii]

We must realize that the Utility and Significance are not binary opposites. They represent undeniable realities of human existence. The former, in a way, exposes our basic instincts of survival, reminding us that we are, at the end of the day, all children of the earth. The latter, on the other hand represents our inner longing to transcend the mundane boundaries of our physical existence, and to try and seek meaning in life. We may often be caught up in the dialogue between the two, but we should not forget an undeniable fact – it is this quest for meaning, in the face of the unknown, that makes us human. That is what we live for. For if, through the very process of everyday survival, we lose sight of what we survive for, then why do we survive?


[i] Parker, De Witt H. The Principles of Aesthetics. New York: F.S. Crofts, 1946. Print.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Heskett, John. Design: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

[iv] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Eugene Halton. The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981. Print.

[v] Ballantyne, Andrew. Architecture: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

[vi] Loos, Adolf, and Adolf Opel. Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays. Riverside, CA: Ariadne, 1998. Print.

[vii] Corbusier, Le, and Frederick Etchells. Towards a New Architecture. London: Architectural, 1946. Print.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Norberg-Schulz, Christian. Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. New York: Rizzoli, 1980. Print.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] “Definition of Aesthetics in English:.” Aesthetics. Oxford. Web. 04 May 2016.

[xii] Scruton, Roger. The Aesthetics of Architecture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1979. Print.

[xiii] Till, Jeremy. Architecture Depends. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009. Print.


Meaning and the Built Form: Changing perspectives in contemporary history and theory

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