Structuralism

“You can examine a poem as a ‘structure’ while still treating each of its items as more or less meaningful in itself. Perhaps the poem contains one image about the sun and another about the moon, and you are interested in how these two images fit together to form a structure. But you become a card-carrying structuralist only when you claim that the meaning of each image is wholly a matter of its relation to the other. The images do not have a ‘substantial’ meaning, only a ‘relational’ one.”

Terry Eagleton

I don’t want to spend too much time trying to define what structuralism is for those that don’t know. I’m certain Wikipedia does a decent job. But it’s worth noting that it is no longer a commonly used or valued theory. As Eagleton suggests, it is primarily concerned with the structure of things. Its founder, Fernand de Saussure (1857-1913), has since come under a lot of fire, along with the structuralism itself. It is claimed it is hermetic, overly scientific, that it doesn’t account for history, that it is overly concerned with form, and so on. A lot of the criticism is fair, except it is characteristic of lazy and poor uses of structuralism, and less accurate with respect to Saussure’s development of the theory. Architects tried to turn structuralism into a design method, when its roots – in linguistics – were to describe and define. That is, it was an analytical device not a creative one. That’s the first point I’d like to make about structuralism. The other is that a good deal of its misuse came from people who never bothered to read Saussure. For example, he doesn’t ignore history; he is quite clear that it an axis of knowledge that is perpendicular to structure. That is, history is concerned with change over time whereas structure is interested in how parts relate at any given moment.

So what is so interesting about this theory? For me it has been the emphasis on relationships – that is, not so much on parts and/or their origin, but on how various parts are relationally structured and to what extend this generates a context for meaning. Put in architectural terms, form and space, if understood as something you experience (move through, use, absorb), can only be appreciated as a set or series of relationships. For example, solid to void, movement versus pause, open versus closed, heavy versus light. Now here we have one of the problems with structuralism in that it often sorts the world into a series of polar opposites. But this is not necessarily a given characteristic of the theory. When Saussure says that ‘dog’ has the potential for meaning because it is different from ‘cat’ it is also simultaneously different from ‘dot’ and ‘cog’ not to mention ‘asparagus’. Similarly, a wall is related simultaneously to the space in front and the space behind and any other elements surrounding it (another wall, opening, column). Yet, the fact that structuralists have tended to analyse the world in terms of binary opposites has been enough for some to dismiss the whole enterprise, lock stock and barrel. Seeing the world ONLY as a series of binary oppositions is problematic, to say the least, but seeing the world as containing binary oppositions is perfectly legitimate.

Although another critique suggests that structuralism separates the object of analysis from the world its emphasis on relational structure means I never look at a work of architecture on its own. No matter how iconic and unique a piece of architecture sits in relation to its surrounding context, and in fact, it is this way of looking at it that exposes the weaknesses of iconic architecture. But we can take the relational analysis further. A particular work can have structural relationships to its predecessors, that is, to a historical context. I need not stop at looking at the work as a physical thing either – I can look at the structural relationships of use or occupation or of the rhythms of practice in space. The important thing to keep in mind is that it is one way of looking at the world – a rather incisive one, but only one.

I said at the outset that structuralism doesn’t have much active currency today, supposedly because things like post-structuralism and deconstruction have superseded it. The idea that theories ‘replace’ one another in chronological succession, however, is suspect. Structuralism has its problems, as does phenomenology, but it doesn’t stop one from learning about your object of inquiry by looking at it from a particular perspective. What is the point of looking at a calendar and deciding that because one came after the previous one is now useless? Yet this is largely the reason for the lack of interest or understanding of structuralism. It is passé, its time has passed, and it has expired, gone sour. I believe that the current lack of understanding of, or interest in, architecture as a spatial discipline and as one which is concerned with dynamic relational issues is due to popularity of theories limited to those which are newest. The emphasis on materiality and technical experimentation of surfaces has largely taken us back to a way of seeing architecture as merely and exclusively symbolic. And overly relativistic interpretations too often end up saying that architecture (and film, art, culture, society, subjects and objects) is fluid, ever-changing, fragmented, and relational. To what effect and for what purpose is of no interest. Note I’ve used the term ‘relational’ just now – but this is in the sense that one says ‘everything is dynamically related to everything else and so there is no point in trying to make sense of it.’

In the hands of Roland Barthes structuralism became something that taught us that detergent advertisements were slippery, yes, but also ideological and one could unpick and describe some of the multiple meanings that images and words were carrying. Barthes never claimed such meanings were the ultimate or absolute ones, but his analysis of the structure of the advertisements were compelling because they revealed underlying structures. They were describable if not permanently fixable. In a lot of ways the way I use and think about structuralism sounds like what others call post-structuralism – but though they are related if also somewhat opposed in the world-views they engender, I never found post-structuralism satisfying. This is probably for the same reasons that structuralism itself fell out of favour; the lazy and sloppy misuse of its best ideas by too many critics, theorists and historians (not to mention architects). But even amongst its most talented advocates there was always a tendency to make things evaporate through post-structural analysis. Architecture becomes the fluid and constantly shifting sum of all its discourses (drawings, words, images, buildings, texts, experiences, memories). Yes, all of these are part of architecture, but they don’t all work in the same way all the time. There are moments when the physicality and thingness of a work of architecture has an impact and in which photographs and words and text have no bearing. Again, it is from Barthes that I learned to be very attentive to the detail, grain and texture of things, not because they contain truth or ultimate meaning but because there is content there. It does something.

For me structuralism simultaneously roots me in the real world while pushing me to see the invisible threads of the many relational vectors that pass through any object. It, in the least, provides me with the possibility of beginning to speak about things even if only to question the very words and ideas I am saying.

Other notes:

There is whole area of architectural semiotics and even a design school called ‘structuralism’. The first suffers a great deal from both a visual bias (what things look like rather than what they do) and a tendency to claim ‘absolutes’ (‘this is how it is’). The second is not without interest – there is much to admire in the work of Hertzberger, Candilis et.al., and others – but it’s easier for me to take it as a design approach that happens to share the same name. It is important to be attentive to the shifts in the theory when it moved from linguistics to anthropology to architecture. My interest and use of structuralism can be seen in my appreciation for Bois (see this) – for example, when he asks what it is that cubism does that no other previous art practice did before or when he does the same for de Stijl. This exemplifies both the relational approach and interest in specificity that I found valuable and illuminating. My understanding of structuralism also underlies my unease with the way subjectivity and unhinged notions of creativity are privileged today (see this) and are linked to my critical attitude towards interdisciplinarity (and this). It’s not a recipe and I don’t use it as a formula – Bois reflecting on Barthes death wrote: “I am indebted to him for what painters call ‘studio techniques.’ No, not a method, but a thousand practical formulations, which may eventually become ideas, but are general enough to address all contexts…”

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