Roland Barthes: Mythologies

mythologiesThis book has become such a classic that it is quite difficult to write about in a number of ways. For one, it has garnered so much attention and analysis that it is difficult to say anything new about it. From another point of view it may be seen as dated and surpassed by post-structuralist theory and so is considered by some to be passé. Yet, we still find many people misunderstanding language, form and meaning. The book is known in design circles but not always read or studied. In advertising it is a standard text, the starting point for understanding their discipline, even if they then move on to more sophisticated techniques and theories. The book is a collection of reprints of a series of monthly essays with a theoretical overview (Myth Today) tacked on to the end. I’ve taught the book fairly often – it’s an ideal book for this for many reasons. The essays are very short, most are two to three paperback sized pages long (only one exceeds this at 11 pages, still rather short). The essays can be read in at least two ways, as critiques of their subject matter and as examples of a theory at work (semiotics). Their length makes them easy to re-read and examine his arguments and theory step by step, sentence by sentence. They are amazingly efficient essays and they have to be given their size. The only way in which I think the book is dated is in some of their references, common in their day (the mid-1950s) but obscure today. Each essay untangles the structure of a piece of writing, advertisement, film or object to demonstrate how its specific form means more than its surface message contains. Essays can be taken individually or as a whole. As a whole it is interesting in that the idea that myth construction – hidden or smuggled meanings – exist not just in texts but in designed objects. The idea of things as signs goes beyond those things we might normally see as signs, like advertisements, and extend into objects not normally assumed to be part of a sign system. It is also interesting to see the range of meanings that can be constructed, from militaristic ideology (Soap-powders and detergents) to cultural myths (Steak and Chips) to rhetorical sleights of hand (Operation Margarine) to race (Myth Today).

From a design standpoint it was significant to learn that forms can mean something beyond their visual content – what they look like or evoke visually – but that it is also how things are structured that constructs and communicates meaning. Here I’ll stick with simpler understanding of the 1950s and 1960s and say ‘constructs’ rather than ‘situates’ or ‘suggests’ and also use the singular ‘meaning’ rather than ‘meanings’. We know that meaning doesn’t reside entirely in the form with a passive interpreter and we also know there are multiple meanings (interpretations) rather than author determined single meaning. We too often pick up on the postmodern twist to all this and mistake it for a structure-less fog of meaning and interpretation. There is something useful in understanding the underlying structure that Barthes reveals in his little book – more, I think it is essential. The more complex language and meaning models we have at our disposal (e.g. deconstruction) make no sense if you don’t understand the basics. The recent history of architecture has proven what happens when ‘new’ theory is ingested without proper understanding of context and background (e.g the deconstructivist architecture that architects are too embarrassed to refer to now).

Barthes book is important in this way – as an entry level text – but it is also important in that it shows that these operations that construct meaning cut across many disciplines (even if the mechanisms must change). It therefore becomes a simple way of starting to connect design with ideology, economy, politics, culture, and so on. It is, as I say, an entry level text that too many people entering the field of design, unfortunately, never read.


 I should say that this book was only the starting point, but maybe the most important starting point, for a journey into a whole set of other readings, not least of which were Barthes other wonderful books (Camera Lucida, Empire of Signs, The Eifel Tower). From here I could understand Eco, from there Derrida and Panofsky and on to Clement Greenberg, Alan Colquhoun, Hubert Damisch, Fredric Jameson and Henri Lefebvre, just to name a few. This is not to say that these authors are connected theoretically (some are) but that Barthes also taught me to read and to write (though that remains a struggle to this day).

Marshall Berman: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

BermanIn many of the posts so far there has tended to be an implicit if not explicit critique of postmodernism. This does not come from blind denial of postmodernism as a valuable way to view theory, if not the world, but rather from impatience with the way in which modernism is portrayed in many early postmodern treatises. Open critiques of modernism have tended to fall away in recent years as postmodern views and methods become more and more commonplace. Despite this, the foundations of many postmodern approaches lie in a flawed critique of modernism and as such it handicaps the value of what postmodernism has to offer (see my entry on ‘Under The Shadow of Postmodernism’ for an example). My critique of postmodernism should not be taken for an uncritical defence of modernism – rather, I see much of what is valuable in postmodernism to be already present in modernist thinking. Marshall Berman’s book ‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’ is one of those texts that cemented my understanding of a much less monolithic, objective and self-referential modernism. Berman’s writing on early modernist writers reveals an open, vibrant, lively and uncertain modernism that is very much focused on human concerns, feelings and emotions. There are other key texts that have given me a view of a much more flexible and ambiguous modernism – David Harvey’s ‘The Condition of Postmodernity’ for example. Berman’s book is fascinating in that it focuses a great deal on literature, yet it is very much literature that focuses on the city and how people came to grips with an emerging modern metropolis. Its key figures are Goethe’s Faust, Marx, Baudelaire, various writers in St. Petersburg, and ends with Robert Moses and modernism in New York during the 1960s and 1970s. In the process I became a fan of Gogol and Dostoevsky. It is a rare thing for a writer to use references in such a way that not only do you pick up and follow the point being made through them but also develop an appetite to devour their work directly. This is due to Berman’s enthusiasm for the characters he writes about. Berman is a self-declared and open Marxist (Marxist Humanist, according to him) which might suggest a good deal of theory and political/economic critique. Yet, even the chapter on Marx is all about dazzling prose, metaphor and a dynamic vision of modernism, which far from dismissing capitalist or bourgeois ingenuity, celebrates it more than its proponents. When Berman writes about Marx we understand him as a person, coming to grips with something complex, admiring its strengths while being insightful enough to see its dangers. Berman verges on making reading Marx fun! It is, perhaps, a view taken by Berman and few others, but it’s invigorating. Berman in turn takes our contemporary condition in a similar way – describing the difficult, violent and frightening reality of our current world order, while seeing within it the possibilities for coping, creating and finding meaning within it all. Berman followed up ‘All That Is Solid’ with ‘Adventures in Marxism’ and despite the more overt interest in Marx is actually a more personal book. We get a sense of Berman the teacher, son, father and husband and see how he himself has navigated through his own life as an unrepentant modernist.

While Berman teaches us a lot about the potential of the modernist mindset – and I have drawn much from him – I could never attain the optimistic outlook he has. The fact that he can remain optimistic, however, is sometimes enough. If he can manage it, despite his much deeper understanding of how difficult and destructive our situation is, then somehow I can trust in it, even if I can’t quite see it yet.

I’ve been cryptic about exactly what it is that Berman says in his books – but this isn’t a book review and this is one of those books where it’s best to retreat to the cliché – ‘You have to read it for yourself’. What I can say is that these early characters that Berman describes, along with their ideas, demonstrate that the problems of identity, belonging, plurality and fitting into a world that is radically changing at such a pace that it never stands still enough for you to figure it out are not new problems but now more than a century old. The relationship between objectivity and subjectivity is not one of opposition (modernism was objective and postmodernism is subjective) but of evolving interrelation. Rather than insisting on seeing postmodernism as some erasure of modernism it is more productive to understand the close parallels between the two. In this way we can learn from the past and its experiments (failures and successes alike) and see where we stand as part of history. This provides us with the capacity to be critical about what we do – it is the absence of this critical self-reflection, by overemphasizing the subjective, the contingent and the present, that most disturbs me about postmodern practices. Believing that we share nothing with our early modernist explorers means we have nothing to compare ourselves to, resulting in ahistorical, formalist and self-referential results – the very characteristics that were used to damn modernist thinking in the first place.

Adrian Forty: Words and Buildings

If Roland Barthes teaches us (in his Mythologies) that language is always pointing somewhere else beyond the literal meaning of words, Forty reminds us that even the basic definition of common words is muddied simply through their constantly changing and evolving history. Words and Buildings, A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture is a reminder that even though we think we know what we mean by simple words such as space, form, order, function or user, there is, in fact, very little agreement on their use. Forty’s book is a very limited dictionary, comprising only 18 words, but these words are central terms in the discourse of modern architecture. And because they underlie much of the theory (and what we think we know about modern architecture) the fact that their meaning is muddled is problematic. What can we actually say we understand about modern architecture if the architects who proclaimed modernism base it on a new attitude towards space and form, when no actual agreement on what these terms mean exists? Forty does not just reveal subtle differences between different polemicists use of the word – he digs deep enough to demonstrate that in some cases the philosophical underpinning of the words are diametrically opposed.

Forty’s method is to take us through a etymological journey for each word, starting with its first appearance and often how its underlying premise is based on either Platonic or Aristotelian roots. Forty fleshes out the historical circumstances that lead to changes in the meaning of each word, and these are illuminating, as you become aware of how architecture and its language struggle to keep up with new ways of thinking about the discipline.

For me, the two most significant words Forty discusses are ‘form’ and ‘space’. These very central words have some of the most complex and difficult history. There are some interesting repercussions to this. One is that the dismissal of modern architecture of often based on the way in which modernism focused on space and form at the expense of other criteria. Yet, if what is meant by space and form is questionable, here narrow and there very wide, the basis of the critique of modernism comes under question. What we find is that despite the caricatural and simplified accounts of modern architecture and its interest in space and form we have in fact a much more complex history and variable meanings to the terms and hence what modernism itself was. A second repercussion is that some terms, particularly ‘form’ have in themselves come under a great deal of attack and negative connotation. Again, the complex history and less than clear and universal definition of what form means leads us to question what it was about the word or concept that was so offensive. Or was it that only a particular meaning and use of form was deemed negative and problematic, and if so, what do we lose when the word as a whole with all its variant meanings is denigrated?

It is realisations like these that make this one of the key books for any student or practising architect today. This is not a book that is going to date or age – many of the words continue to be used with yet new meanings and concepts applied to them and the book reminds us  that maybe we do not communicate clearly enough what we mean by them. The book challenges us to be clearer about words we take for granted and to understand their historical contingency. But it also raises the question of whether the various critiques we have had of this and that kind of architecture have merit when the words have never been recognised in all their complexity.

 It is worth noting that Words and Buildings does not only consist of the mini-dictionary, but also includes six essays dealing with words and language in various ways. One of the most significant is ‘On Difference: Masculine and Feminine’ which charts the history of the gendered meanings of architectural terms. This essay neatly gets around many of the more simplistic feminist critiques of architecture (all towers are phallic, etc.) and demonstrates how the very language we use to talk about architecture privileges derived terms associated with perceived male qualities over those that refer to stereotypical female attributes. We discover that women architects (Forty cites Zaha Hadid) may be no less guilty in propagating the idea that strength, clarity, angularity and muscularity are better than things which are ambiguous or indirect. This is not flawed because women are actually ambiguous or indirect but because the tradition of these and other qualities have picked up negative associations simply on the fact that they were once considered female traits. ‘Describing the Social’ is another key essay that shows how language lets down the attempt by architects to engage with the social side of architecture.

Though the book engages with many philosophical ideas and origins of concepts it is in general accessible to undergraduates, even if all that is gleaned on the first reading is that key concepts and words are not as clear cut as them seemed. Subsequent readings reveal more complexity making the book one that continues to challenge you as your understanding of architectural history and theory grow.

Manfredo Tafuri: Architecture and Utopia

I bought my copy of Architecture and Utopia in 1991 or 1992 so I’ve been carrying this little book around for about 20 years. I mean literally carrying it around – I tend to pick it up two or three times a year to dip into. I often take it on holidays or on long train rides. For those of you who know the book you may not think much of my holidays now. It is small – both in dimension and total pages – and I always have the impression that I will read it all the way through and understand it all. I fail each time. But that is the beauty of this little book. This is a book that still has scholars and theorists scratching their heads. So it is worth warning you that you need a fair bit of knowledge of architectural history to make sense of this book. The reason for this is not that it written in philosophical or theoretical speak but because it is about the history of architecture over the last 250 years. More than that, it is a challenge to that history is generally written. Specifically it addresses the relationship between architecture and capitalist development (as suggested by its subtitle ‘Design and Capitalist Development’). It is, as such, a political critique, and a harsh one at that. Tafuri has been accused of having written the most pessimistic analysis of architecture ever put on paper, but it’s not because he particularly wants it to be that way. When you start to understand this history, and specifically the ineffectiveness of avant-garde approaches, you are not left with much hope. This critique has been important to me because I have argued that architecture is de facto a utopian act. That is, to design is to project into the future. You always build with the intention of resolving something or bettering a situation. I don’t think any architect would admit to wanting to make things worse or even leaving things as they are. Tafuri’s articulation of how architectural production is caught up in political economy shows how every attempt to break through the grip of contemporary ideology only acts to reinforce it. I do not necessarily disagree with this idea. It is important to be aware of what is actually achievable rather than be under any romantic illusion that architecture can transform or even critique society, political or economic reality. This doesn’t mean that what one does is futile; a sober approach to what is possible means you don’t waste energy with unrealistic goals. Although Tafuri’s critique is quite convincing there are other ways in which architecture contributes – through an engagement with everyday practices, for example – and which make architecture a positive and worthwhile activity. Continue reading

Steen Eiler Rasmussen: Experiencing Architecture

This little book, now largely forgotten, used to be recommended reading for first year students. The fact that is has been forgotten, or fallen out of favour, says something about the way architecture is perceived today. I’ll come back to this critique at the end. First I think it’s best to focus on what is useful about the text. If you find yourself cringing somewhat at what may feel like old-fashioned or overly simplistic ideas, then jump ahead to the critique at the end.

The interest in this book starts with the title, Experiencing Architecture, especially given the original publication date, 1959. This is a very early instance of a popular book focusing on how we experience architecture rather than the thing or object itself (what was the most common approach at the time). As such it is somewhat phenomenological and it surprises me that it isn’t still recommended even by advocates of that particular approach. Personally I find Pallaasma tiresome and rather essentialist (if not absolutist) in his approach to phenomenology. Rasmussen maintains an interest in form while allowing for (and even giving greater importance to) the experiential side of architecture. I find this in-between or negotiated position more satisfying and convincing.

In the end there is no substitute for reading the book for yourself, but I think it worth quoting a few lines and providing an outline of the book (something I said I would not do). Continue reading