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Symbolism in Architecture
Thoughts on authenticity - or lack thereof
Posted on August 1, 2023 @ 5:42PM
In a society that celebrates the inessential, architecture can put up a resistance, counteract the waste of forms and meanings, and speak its own language. ~ Peter Zumthor

From a generalized societal perspective, we have for the most part been increasingly creating our buildings and communities with a preoccupation of immediacy - short term results - rather than with a sincere concern for long term appropriateness, value, permanence or significance. Our contemporary habitat tends overwhelmingly to be created by prioritization of the impact of 'first' costs and value systems that place the priorities of individual landowners above those of the public domain. We seem to have a very limited interest in Architecture; it does not market easily or compete well with lower but more expedient standards of care. It demands that we build well, which usually means building less; it will often seem more expensive if only because it is not evaluated in a larger or deeper context. We tend think of it as an elitist preoccupation, if we think of it at all.

Perhaps more importantly, few among us seem to have more than a vague idea why such seemingly quixotic priorities may have value, much less how they might actually be attained. Instant gratification is rewarded by the market and supported by our culture. We tend to favor quantity over quality, image over substance, with little if any regard for issues of economic, environmental, or social sustainability. All these factors play a role in discouraging meaningful concern for long-term value in terms of individual works or community. All too often, the role of architects or designers is simply reduced to the literal application of decoration and ornament intended to shroud indifferent work completed in haste - functioning as an 'exterior decorator' for whoever is really in charge of design decisions. When this is our point of departure, it is difficult to imagine building a legacy worthy of our children.

The vital role of symbolism in architecture and design is especially confused in this context of unbridled commercialism by the lure of associative decoration, fast and easy, glib and disinterested ornament, arbitrary and superficial style. A proud community goes to exhaustive efforts to coat Leavenworth, Washington in shameless mythic Bavarian shtick. It has been successful as a tourism draw, so Kellogg, Idaho rushes to follow suit (with the imposition of local building codes). The language of 'the strip' or the suburb is the garish language of competing signage. Iconic 'signage' - token faux brick or timbers, carriage lamps - all of which simply adds up to vast inventories of decorated, generic buildings.

Ornament, style, and decoration all have valid roles in architecture, but they are not a substitute for it. (The ideologies of Modernist architecture merely substituted one decorative language for another). Ultimately, the ubiquity of superficial symbolism in lieu of authentic design is leaving us cynical and disinterested. We find ourselves becoming selective in our readings of our environment as we become conditioned to a low level of expectations and apply the same filters to it that we do to the rest of the saturation level advertising we swim through each day.

For example, while no one would contest that a medieval bell tower was a fine and meaningful architectural element, 'putting one in', say, a shopping center inevitably subverts its symbolic power. If the bell tower arrived by flatbed and crane, then, for all the useful things that it does (bong on the hour, orient shoppers), its significance will always include the lack of correspondence between its true history and its 'historicity', a lack that nags at and hollows the swell of nostalgia it begins. Iconic scenography as a mode of architectural design rests on cynicism about the very possibility of authenticity. When inauthenticity is seen as harmless and/or as the inevitable outcome of applying creative energy to a design problem, then cynicism becomes a necessary professional posture never quite cloaked by any amount of wit and winsomeness. No, a new building is given historical significance over and above its formal timeliness only if it brings to light the genuine history - human or natural - of its site and the circumstances of its construction. Significant buildings, real buildings, are achieved rather than provided. They are built over time by someone rather than arriving all but ready-made by strangers. [1]

A high quality environment (as opposed to a mere high stimulation environment) will have a quality of authenticity, or 'realness' about it. While this experience may be increasingly uncommon in the context of our built environment, it is readily accessible to many among us... in nature. The natural world is, for those of us who are drawn to it, synonymous with the experience of 'high quality environment'. It draws us out and engages our senses at both intellectual and pre-intellectual levels. We yearn for the qualities nature offers.

While the built environment will never have the character or qualities of the natural world, it does have its own potential. It has whatever potential we are capable of, or willing to, make. Architecture, at its best, has the capacity to communicate with us directly - at pre-linguistic, primal levels - as well as the capacity to support more pragmatic and immediate needs.

Architecture is a concrete phenomenon. It comprises landscapes and settlements, buildings and characterizing articulation. Therefore, it is a living reality. Since remote times, architecture has helped man in making his existence meaningful. With the aid of architecture he has gained a foothold in space and time. Architecture is therefore concerned with something more than practical needs and economy. It is concerned with existential meanings. Existential meanings are derived from natural, human, and spiritual phenomena, and are experienced as order and character. Architecture translates these meanings into spatial forms. Spatial forms in architecture are neither Euclidean nor Einsteinian. In architecture spatial form means place, path, and domain; that is, the concrete structure of man's environment. Therefore, architecture cannot be satisfactorily described by means of geometrical or semiological concepts. Architecture ought to be understood in terms of meaningful (symbolic) forms. As such, it is part of the history of existential meanings. It must be emphasized that existential meaning is not something arbitrarily added to man's daily life. Such meanings are inherent in daily life, consisting of the relationships between natural and human properties." [2]

We do not ask for immortality. We only ask that things do not lose their meaning.
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I believe the appropriate role of the architect is not to attempt the direct assignment of existential meaning, but to create architecture that is capable of acquiring such meaning - architecture that provides a framework for meaningful and satisfying use, and that becomes more valued, 'real', and distinctive over time.

[1] Michael Benedikt, For An Architecture of Reality (New York; Lumen Books 1987)
[2] Christian Norberg-Schulz, Meaning in Western Architecture (New York; Praeger 1974)

Author: Sam Rodell

Sam has practiced as an award winning architect for forty years, and has also built many of his clients' projects.  He is licensed throughout most of the western USA and Canada, and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) which expedites registration in other states and provinces. He was the first Certified Passive House Consultant architect in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.