Lecture delivered at the conference Symptom Design at Libera Università di Bolzano, Italy. For the conference that dealt with the role of design in contemporary society, I described Charles Jencks‘ semiotic approach to architecture as a failed attempt to determine the meaning of architecture scientifically—failed because Jencks‘ never achieved a critical position towards semiotics in his approach. Never the less, his 1977 book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture is important to see why semiotic methods can’t be transferred 1:1 to architecture.
Charles Jencks is seen as one the main representatives of the architectural theory of the post-modern. His The Language of Post-Modern Architecture can practically be considered as one of the theoretical founding tracts of post-modernism. The book distinguishes post-modern architecture from architectural modernism in terms of cultural and architectural history by transferring the term post-modernism from the study of literature to architecture.
Jencks bases his approach on semiotics, which he regards as the fundamental science. The object of semiotics is the analysis of signs and sign processes of all kinds. The basic idea is that sign processes are involved in everything we do. Thus, if we wish to understand what we are dealing with when we address something, we have to understand the sign processes with which we deal with this something. This is of course also applicable to architecture, for which Jencks proposes the idea of “archisemiotics”.
In order to demonstrate the semiotic bases and methods on which Jencks develops his theses, I will exclude two aspects of his approach. First, the cultural-historical and architectural-historical aspects of Jencks’s approach will not be explicitly addressed here. And, second, no account is taken of the non-uniform structure of semiotics. There were – and still are – numerous different approaches, methods, models and theories in the development of semiotics, for instance the different branches of semiology and semiotics, language-centred and general approaches, or dyadic and triadic sign models. Nor is the main purpose of this contribution to place Jencks in a historical or systematic context.
The idea is instead to demonstrate and reconstruct Jencks’s semiotic technique on the basis of certain examples that he gives in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. The examples themselves are to be the starting point for approaching the idea and the value of Jencks’s proposed semiotic perspective on architecture.
Jencks’s semiotic approach
Jencks holds that language is the paradigmatic sign system: “Language dominates all sign systems”. Architecture can therefore be understood in direct analogy with language and thus reconceptualised in semiotic terms, with architecture based, instead of words, on “visual codes”. Just as different languages have been spoken and used by different groups of people in different epochs, different architectural codes have been used at different times by different groups. Jencks calls these “semiotic groups”: “usually a complex mixture of ethnic background, age, history and locale”. Jencks’s main analogy is that each of these semiotic groups thus ‘speaks’ their own ‘architectural language’.
For Jencks, all of these different architectural languages are in principle completely transparent: “[w]e can make a componential analysis of architectural elements and find out which are, for any culture, distinct units”. The task of the semiotic componential analysis is thus to find the basal expressions of an architectural language and to assign it the contents that characterise it. The idea underlying this conception of language is as follows: language can in principle be understood as the relationship between something that designates (the significans) and something that is designated (the significate). In the same way that a word stands for a certain meaning, a particular architectural element – an architectural expression – must, according to Jencks, also stand for a certain architectural meaning: “architecture must have a signifying reference”.
Based on this conception, architectural theory should according to Jencks make use of archisemiotics in order to establish architectural corpora for various semiotic groups. These corpora can be imagined as giant lexicons that list, for the various semiotic groups, which architectural expression stands for which architectural meaning. With these lexicons at hand, believes Jencks, the dual and multiple coding of architecture in the plural intermixed fields of post-modernism can be deciphered.
Architectural theory and semiotics
Of the possible questions that arise from the examples given by Jencks for the application of his semiotic component analysis of architecture, I would like to emphasise two in particular. The first is whether and if so how we can connect semiotic component analysis with architectural design and making. What role can it play in the design of something new if an “architectural sign can only be completely analysed a posteriori, in a context”? The second is whether and to what extent the analogy between architecture and language actually works. Why should we assume that we can differentiate between expression and meaning in architecture in exactly the same way as in language? (This question is made all the more poignant by the fact that there are numerous arguments in the philosophy of language and in linguistics that it is also not possible in language to differentiate categorically between expression and usage.)