“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, 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…”


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).

On Form: Under the Shadow of Postmodernism

This year’s Brighton Festival features an installation ‘Under the Shadow of the Drone’ by James Bridle. The installation consists of a full scale outline of a drone, reminiscent of the chalk outlines of murder victims we used to see in crime and detective dramas. Below is an image of a previous installation and text accompanying the work in the Festival catalogue.

 In the Shadow of the Drone

“The unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, has become one of the most potent weapons of contemporary warfare. Remotely controlled by operators thousands of miles away, drones carry out aerial attacks which leave hundreds of people dead. They are one of the most controversial weapons of war, and Under the Shadow of the Drone makes them visible on our streets.”

“The stark marking out in an unexpected public space of a drone’s silhouette forces us to consider the implications of a drone attack on our own community. It raises questions about how military technology can obscure, conceal and distance us from the political and moral responsibility. It also continues the long tradition of artists bearing witness to events that governments and the military would prefer we did not see.”

I have not yet seen the installation in Brighton; however, while I find the issue and timing pertinent, the first thing that struck me was the relationship between the text and the installation. The work relies on being stumbled upon and perhaps being surprised at the scale and form of the drone seen in the context of a familiar urban surroundings. Yet, the idea that it ‘forces us to consider the implications of a drone attach on our own community’ is a stretch. It may lead some observers to do so but I cannot see how it is implicit in the work through its specific form and execution. This work, like much artistic production today, does not take form seriously enough. The ideas that underlie artworks today are perhaps more political and critical than they have ever been yet it seems that too often it is the words describing the art that does most of the work. One could argue that seeing the drone outline could lead one to think about this or that specific idea, but only in the sense that word association games can link any one thing to another. I see the installation and think ‘drone’, then ‘scary’, then ‘could it happen here?’ and so on. But I could also think, ‘drone’, then ‘dome’, then ‘Brighton Dome’, then ‘Brighton Drone’ and enjoy the word play for its own sake. Maybe this makes the work that much more meaningful – each of us starts from the installation and ends up somewhere different. But this is a now an all-too-common postmodern red herring. Anything, constructed or not, is the starting point for a set of subjective associations (think of a cloud). Clouds, however, are not art, but this drone installation is. Note that I am not disputing whether this is or isn’t art, but trying to understand how its form relates to the generation of meaning. If we buy the word association game, then anyone can make anything and it would all be of equal value. But if making something, particularly art, implies the forming of something, a construction, organisation, and putting into specific relationships forms, spaces, materials and viewpoints, then the specific form of a work is decisive. This does not mean that it says one thing and one thing only; it does mean that it sets up specific parameters and suggestions about where you take your imagination. The drone, for me, is as minimal as it can possibly be and therefore as open interpretively as it can possibly be. It constructs the loosest of possible relationships and it leaves the least amount of room for the form of the thing to add other meanings or values. About the only thing that I can think of that makes use of the specific form is the relationship between the outline and the idea of the chalk outline, relating one form of murder to another. It is possible that its precise position and orientation suggest other ideas – but by now I have become too distrustful of art to imagine it does (not at all because of this particular work but because of the general culture of art). I keep imagining what the work would look like if it were actually rendered like a shadow. How would we react stumbling across it then? Would we look upwards to see what cast it? Could the cast shadow relate to the position of the sun at a particular time of day? What would it mean at night? Anything I imagine about this work only reveals how limited it is as conceived and executed. But I could live with that if it weren’t for the text – perhaps it was not written by the artist and not his fault. But we have to accept that artworks live amongst the words they generate though critics, academics, scholars, the press and Sotheby’s.



“It raises questions about how military technology can obscure, conceal and distance us from the political and moral responsibility.”

No it doesn’t, it simply doesn’t. There is nothing in the way that the work is designed or executed that logically leads to such questions. If there is a link it is so weak and tenuous that if I stencilled the words ‘Drone Attack’ on the pavement I could lay claim to the same statement in exactly the same way. If such weak links are sufficient then it suggests that there is no real difference between the outline and the pair of words – any starting point can lead to any finishing point.


Consider this:

Disabled Parking

“This work compels us to consider the prejudices that disabled people face in everyday life.”


“This work raises questions about soldiers wounded in battle and the poor treatment they receive by their governments once they have returned home.”

Or maybe

“This installation addresses the relationship between man and machine and the emerging bionic world that awaits us with continuing technological infiltrations into the body.”

 We can think these things; there is nothing to stop us. But as a graphic or physical installation there is no inherent motivation that links the design and execution to such statements. When certain of Picasso’s forms suggest the curve of a woman’s body, a violin and a bottle all at the same time, these are not free associations but part of a deliberate context set up by the artist. If we wish to speak about challenges to how we perceive art suggested by the work of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings this supported by the material, structure and composition of the work.

Picasso Reinhardt

This may sound like a return to the idea that meaning is determined by the author or the work itself, but that is not what is meant here. The fact that forms set up interpretative conditions and delimit field of exploration and thought does not mean that it controls what the viewer takes from the work. It also does not mean that unintended interpretations or meanings are not possible. The idea that meaning is either determined by the author/maker or that it resides in the observer is a false choice that simplifies the way meaning is constructed. If we accept that both parts, form and viewer, play a role then we should be able to ask questions about the conditions set up by the form, technique and execution of a work of art.

What I see at play in the Drone installation is a method whereby an idea or concept, rich in allusions and layers, is reduced to an iconographic presentation. The iconic presentation acts as a pointer to content that it does not actually contain – that is, the allusions and layers of meaning are not actually embodied in the work; it does not emanate from the work but from its supporting documents.

Brighton Drone Madeira Drive Geographica Imaginatins WordPress

Image from

All of this is not really meant as a critique of this particular work. There may a rich set of allusions and meanings that are directly suggested by, or emanating from, the drone installation. What is being critiqued here is the implication made by the text – that one can simply ascribe thoughts and meanings and that we are completely free in this regard. This has never been the role or purpose of art. If anything, artists have always strived to say something and to speak about something through their work. But the choice to do so through a visual medium has been because it can speak in a way that is unlike written or spoken language. Thoughts are not reducible to language. A visual medium has the capacity to transmit content that eludes language; it can step outside the linear transmission of thought and act of coding and decoding. Because of this it is sometimes able to be more precise than language or deliberately less precise. But like a language, you must understand the medium, be able to manipulate it, contort it, and use its rules and limits to your advantage. This means taking form-making seriously and makes form serious business.


Finally, my interest in form and the laziness with which it is treated lies in architecture. I use this particular installation because it is a conveniently clear demonstration of the problem. But imagine that most architecture today, as it is being taught and built is doing much of the same thing as contemporary art. Solutions are produced as iconographical exercises that bear no relation to place, use or inhabitation or form is simply a by-product of a process where meaning is said to reside in narratives, design processes or anywhere that is not the form itself. In both cases, close attention to, and care for, the physical thing as the place where body and building meet, where we meet the world physically and tactilely and in turn realise our own physicality, is avoided…and sometimes, I think, feared.

“…[T]he sort of individualism that scorns and fears connections with other people as threats to the self’s integrity, and the sort of collectivism that seeks to submerge the self in a social role, may be more appealing than the Marxian synthesis, because they are intellectually and emotionally so much easier.” Marshall Berman

The Orphanage, Amsterdam, 1960 (Aldo van Eyck)

This project was once a must-see building for students, historians and theorists of architecture. It has, more recently, fallen out of visibility but is still relatively well-known. The ideas on which it was based emerged over the latter part of the 1950s and the building became emblematic of a shift in modern architecture during the 1960s. So as ideas change the importance of the building rises and falls. Perhaps it should wane now, at least as an emblem of theory, but as a building, as something to be in, it is as good as it ever was. For now, I want to write about the building and not its theory, though it may be difficult to separate the two.

I studied in the orphanage for about 6 months in 1991. Half of it had been converted into an architecture school (the Berlage Institute) while the other half continued to operate as an orphanage. It’s a good deal of time to get to know a building and a unique privilege when it’s one as significant as this one. I wasn’t hugely knowledgeable about Team 10 or structuralism at the time so my initial response to it was as a place to work and study. I was asked once by a tutor during my undergraduate study in NY whether I had ever been in a building or space that changed how I thought about or saw space. At the time I didn’t have an answer. The tutor’s own answer was the Salk Institute. Mine is now the orphanage.

It is, for me, a beautiful, gentle, supple and profound space. Un-heroic, but clear. It cradles, supports, and invites you to explore and wander. This is because of the interaction between its labyrinthine movement pattern and well-defined ‘rooms.’



An excessive use of glass and collapsed spaces used to create layered spaces can sometimes lead to an overly busy or ‘noisy’ feel to architecture. The layering that occurs at the orphanage is never overwhelming. The visual spatial extensions of the orphanage are somehow rooted and never upset the stability of space you are in. It might be said that van Eyck has figured out a way of layering spaces without creating ambiguity. You are in one space, between two, or in another, but you always tend to know just where you are. Vistas sometimes extend through six spaces or more through alternating inside and outside spaces yet they remain distinct. I think that this is immensely difficult to achieve; much more so than a complex, dynamic, ambiguous, indefinite and destabilising space. These last few adjectives are not accidentally the same ones that so much of today’s architectural pedagogy seems interested in embedding in the minds of students.

Minimalism, details and materials

The limited palate of materials (concrete, glass, brick and render) suggest a minimalist approach. And indeed the detailing is subdued but I would never call the orphanage minimalist. There is a tendency in minimalist architecture to erase things – as if the architecture wishes to become a drawing. This tends to create an artificial exaggeration of details –, exaggerated even in their absence or fetishistic precision. Put another way, minimalism screams ‘DESIGN’ while detesting elaboration. The materials and detailing at the orphanage tend to just ‘be’ – columns sit on a concrete plinth, windows abut columns. There is neither a celebration of the joint nor a repression of detail. Bits of reflective materials or coloured tile are scattered about in a decorative motif, but one that feels more like a folk tradition than an architect’s polished aesthetic. Elsewhere thresholds are sculpted encouraging sitting or pausing while being no more than concrete discs, all the while avoiding a lapse into brutalism. Neither brutalist nor minimalist, perhaps the orphanage is simply style-less.

Working there

My account cannot be taken for that of a lay person. I was there as an architecture student. But I wasn’t there specifically to study the building – it was a place to work. And as a place to work I found it very satisfying but also mysterious. The spaces were designed for children but not in such a way that adults felt like giants. It was nevertheless domestic and cosy in scale. The building adapted well to use as studios, offices, lecture spaces and exhibit space. But as we were only 16 students and had about half the building, there was more space than we could use. I used to enjoy wandering around the internal street, into spaces that were empty, not yet converted or re-inhabited. It never felt like a ruin but more like a walking around a quiet village on a Sunday. Curiously, this is the kind of feeling evoked by many of the archival images, even when populated by children.

Materials and Structure

It’s hard to avoid studying a building you spend a lot of time in and I did try to take account of how the building was made and designed. The restricted palate of materials was allied with a straightforward structural system. Concrete columns support vierendeel concrete beams. These support one of two differently sized concrete domes. The domes are either solid or punctured with circular openings. The spaces between the columns are filled in with brick, transparent glass, or glass blocks. The floor is either carpeted (always in ‘rooms’) or paved in stone (circulation areas). Generally the brick is plastered (always in ‘rooms’) or left bare (circulation areas). Windows are punctured, square or rectangular openings that frame limited views, or are entire walls of glass, bringing the exterior inside. One of the more beautiful details is the frosted glass inserted in the concrete beams. These glowed, even in overcast weather. The French architect Henri Ciriani observed that this detail made the building lighter in two ways – the glowing light magnified the general sense of visible light while it also made the joint where the wall and roof met less solid and hence made the roof appear to float and seem lighter.

Background and Everyday

Many of the aspects I’ve described tend to make the building underwhelming as a thing to look at or as a ‘thing in itself’. It is a building that retreats into the background and lets you get on with what you have to do. But if you are sensitive to beautifully made spaces it can blow your mind. Then when you start to realise the simplicity of the means used to achieve this it feels like a real achievement. To be clear, the domesticity, everydayness, un-heroic materiality and detailing are never cheap. It is, however, a solid and clear place. It makes one understand what van Eyck meant when he said that he was more interested in place than in space – though by this he meant the idea of space understood as a purely abstract idea and substance. It is, for me, the tactility of space that makes this place what it is.

So, how did this project change my mind about space and architecture? It made me realise that too much architecture was (and is) made to be looked at. It also made me question the idea of a ‘critical’ architecture intended to destabilise expectations in order to question the status quo. Again, this kind of architecture puts a lot of energy into making its inhabitants look at the architecture and be continuously aware of it. The orphanage was neither critical nor status quo – it offers the possibility of an architecture which supports without resorting to nostalgia, pastiche, or the visually familiar. The project reassures me that modern architecture was a worthwhile project – and remains so.


Yve-Alain Bois

Bois is the most influential figure on the way I think and write about architecture. Yet, Bois himself rarely writes about architecture – he is an art historian specialising on 20th century abstract art. He has written extensively on Mondrian, Picasso, Matisse and Barnett Newman among others. The fact that he does not write about architecture means that his work is taken as a model rather than a reference for findings or results that I happen to agree or disagree with. In Bois I also find an ally for certain topics that I have been investigating: an interest in the role of form, a desire to understand the definition or specificity of things, a sceptical and critical approach to postmodern theory and methods, and an interest in modernism as more complex, fluid and open idea than is generally accepted.

Before going further, a clarification is in order. If you have read the entry on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ you might suspect a contradiction in my use of art theory to inform ideas about architecture. The short explanation is that it is possible to turn to art, science, sociology, literature, music or anything else, in order to test ones understanding of architecture without having to believe that architecture is any of those things. If you accept that architecture (like any other field) has its own intrinsic properties then you must remain attentive to its specificity when you compare it to work or theories in other fields.

This involves a certain amount of ‘theoretical borrowing’ which Bois warns against. Bois’ method relies on paying close attention to the object of inquiry, its specific form, in order to determine what theoretical approach is most productive [1]. This is the opposite of what many believe about theory, which is that you adopt one and arrive pre-armed with it to all your objects of inquiry. The theoretical borrowing Bois critiques refers to borrowing and applying without adaptation and without first consulting the object under scrutiny. So for example, one decides that deconstruction is a rather cool way of analysing texts and that it should produce interesting results if applied to architecture. The two pitfalls are 1) not allowing for the differences in literature and architecture and 2) assuming that deconstructing an object will tell you the most important things about that object. It will tell you something, but it may not be the most significant or meaningful aspect of the object. This is, in fact, what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s in architectural discourse [2]. This does not mean that you can never borrow, adapt or translate theory developed in one area to another. Bois arrived at a reading of Matisse’s work that showed how it operated very close to some of Derrida’s deconstructive tenets. That is, it was ‘close’ and mimicked ‘some’ aspects. This is very different than simply applying deconstruction ‘to’ Matisse’s work or suggesting he was a deconstructivist.

The most important aspect of Bois’ work, for me, is his attention and interest in form. Depending on your background, experience and age, you may not be aware of the extreme negative connotations associated with the term ‘form’ and ‘formalism’. If your work is called formalist it is shape making, self-referential, and made without reference to history or other external factors. It is another way of saying something is meaningless. There are differences in the use of the term in art history as compared to architectural discourse. In art history it is largely to do with a way of reading art such that you focus on the object without reference to anything outside it (biography, history, technique, culture, site, etc.). In architecture it generally refers to the work itself. That is, in the first it is a fault in the way something is analysed and in the second it is a fault in the object itself. In both cases there were never really many practitioners of formalism in that strict sense [3]. Instead, what is really being critiqued is an interest in form. What Bois does, however, is more than just be interested in form; he is concerned with how the thing produced by the artist contains the ideas that the artist is interested in. This is where the battle lines are drawn. Bois is often at odds with those that claim that the meaning of artworks resides somewhere besides the object itself – in personal biography, in purely subjective arenas, in observation, or processes, for example. These areas may matter, but ultimately, if an artist chooses to make something, that thing has a role to play in what it means. To deny that the product matters or suggest that it is of minor importance is problematic.

Bois’ approach does not mean that things outside the object are not taken into consideration. For example, his work on Picasso looks at his relationship with Braque and his take on Pollock doesn’t ignore the process behind the paintings (dripping paint rather than application with a brush). What the formalist approach entails is a close reading of the product to see how it embodies, represents or otherwise results in various meanings. In the case of Pollock, we discover how the paint drippings are woven to create not just contradictory optical results (different spatial interpretations) but physical ones (dripped lines that go over and under other dripped lines). Such analysis does not lead to closed and absolute findings, as is often claimed, but explain how it is that multiple interpretations are actually possible (optical, material, compositional, technical, etc.).

Nor does this approach treat everything in the same way, as suggested by the stance against ‘theoretical borrowing’. As a result, Bois has developed various models that explain the significance and distinctness of artists normally thrown together under stylistic labels. One is the ‘technical’ model, where the process plays a signifying role in the final product (e.g. Pollock) and another is the ‘perceptual’ model which makes work which relies on how the viewers optically take in the work (e.g. Newman). These models, generated from the work itself, cut across the stylistic and historical categories of ‘abstract expressionism’ that normally encapsulate Pollock and Newman.

What is interesting is that this approach goes beyond what things look like despite being about close observation. Bois argues that the negative connotations associated with form and formalism is not to do with being intrinsically bad ideas, but with having been practiced so poorly. That is, what has passed for formalist critique has simply not been rigorous enough, it has not looked closely enough at its objects [4].

Now I have not said much about architecture. I think that the value of what Bois is doing with regard to art history is obvious for architecture. If the form of an artwork can be shown to play a central role (this is not the same as saying it is the most important) then surely the form of architecture, the building and its spaces, must be equally if not more significant? Yet architectural production and pedagogy has shifted largely to a focus on design process, when not devote solely to its representation. Concepts have become more important than design results. Creativity in coming up with ideas is celebrated over resolution. Presenting your work in new and innovative ways trumps the content of the proposal itself. For some, there is a belief that a ‘correct’ process guarantees a ‘correct’ outcome. In all of these, form – in our case, a drawn proposition for a building form, but form nonetheless – is secondary when not irrelevant.

I don’t have the room and time here to go into how and why the form of architecture is significant – see the entry on Michel de Certeau’s ‘Everyday’ for a taster. This is not, specifically, what Bois helps me with. The surprising outcome is the number of ideas that can be contained within, pass through or be evoked by form. For many, the idea in being interested in the problems of proportion, spatial relationships, specific dimensions, material resolution, joints, details, surface articulation and so on is seen to be an interest in empty things. That is, they are seen as disconnected artefacts that cannot produce meaning in themselves. To design with these things in mind is to leave the world behind. Yet, isn’t this a kind of naïve utopian belief? Who really believes that one can operate entirely within a vacuum? Robin Evan’s has shown how the formal arrangement of rooms reflects the societal structure of its time (see ‘Figures, Doors, and Passages’). To work with shapes, articulations, configurations and hierarchies of a plan is to work on the structure and order of a society. To be interested in the composition of a façade is to engage with the representational and symbolic systems (and beliefs) of your culture. To put it another way, I believe that to work on form is to work on representations, beliefs, structures, orders, and hence society and culture itself. What then, does it mean to be disinterested in form?


Bois’ work is quite extensive so for those interested in reading further below are short introductions to some key texts.

Painting As Model

This is Bois’ first book – a collection of previously published essays. My copy is nearly falling to pieces, with only one or two essays not getting frequent re-reads. The introduction called Resisting Blackmail sets out Bois methods and position with respect to postmodern theory as fashion. Matisse and ‘Arche-drawing’ looks at the relation between Matisse’s drawings and paintings suggesting an investigation that parallels some of Derrida’s propositions about the relationship between speech and writing. The De Stijl Idea is probably the best essay on De Stijl anywhere. It pursues one of three definitions possible for the movement – De Stijl as an idea (the other two are De Stijl as a journal and De Stijl as a group of persons). The distinction sounds simple but once you read it you realise that everything else muddles up the categories and hence any understanding of the movement. Strzeminski and Kobro: In Search of Motivation is a fantastic overview of two unknown Polish artists from the 1930s who define some rather interesting parameters for architecture. This has been a very influential essay and I will be writing on this separately. Piet Mondrian, New York City looks at one painting by the artist and is a masterclass in detail formal analysis. Perceiving Newman uses the ‘perceptive’ model to show how Newman’s work toys with our sense of seeing. This particular essay uncovers how the (simple) surface image of things can often mask complex structures, processes and meanings. Ryman’s Tact does a similar thing for this artists who has only ever painted white canvases. Painting: The Task of Mourning looks at the then current post modern fashion for pronouncing the death of ‘X’ (painting, capitalism, authorship, etc.). It is fairly theoretical but a good overview of early postmodern thought. Painting As Model is based on a review of a book by Hubert Damisch and provides a kind of overview of both Bois’ and Damisch’s approach to painting (and form).

A Picturesque Stroll Around Clara-Clara

This is masterpiece of research and writing that takes in theories of the picturesque, the work of Robert Smithson and Le Corbusier, and the idea of parallax, all in the development of an analysis of one sculpture by Richard Serra. It is, I believe, the best overview of Serra’s work in general. This essay also demonstrates the complexity of formal analysis and dispenses with any ideas that it is ahistorical, limited, closed off and non-contextual.

Piet Mondrian and the Theory of Architecture

This essay was a revelation as I had no idea when I first read it that Mondrian had theorised about architecture. It is wonderfully detailed and brings out the fine complexities of his thought – not always consistent or perfectly formed.

The Semiology of Cubism

This is one of Bois’ ‘definition’ essays – that is, where he attempts to define a term, concept or thing (The De Stijl Idea is another). This essay demonstrates the benefit of formal analysis in trying to understand what makes something unique. Whereas many historians fall over themselves trying to define what the earliest cubist painting is, or what is transitional, and so on, Bois answers the question by asking: ‘What does cubism do that no other type of painting did before it’. So while some paintings ‘look’ cubist, they in fact do little more than Cezanne had already done. Once the underlying characteristic is found we learn that the first cubist work isn’t even a painting.


[1] In some cases objects defy existing theoretical categories and lead to the development of new theories. These objects are called ‘theoretical objects’, a term borrowed from one of Bois’ mentors, Hubert Damisch. Theoretical objects are said to emanate theory that redefine our understanding of an area or mode of production. Photography is an example of a type of production that generated its own theoretical models.

[2] There was also a fatal flaw in the way deconstruction was adopted by architects. Developed by Derrida as a method of analysing texts for the complexities of meaning, architects turned it into a method for designing. Worst of all, they assigned it the role of communicating directly one particular set of beliefs: that the world was fragmented, irrational, fluid, contradictory, and indeterminate.

[3] In art history, Clement Greenberg is the main culprit although Bois has shown how he wasn’t really a formalist, i.e., he wasn’t very attentive to the specific conditions of the object but rather focused on what it appeared to be. In architecture it’s harder still to identify such formalists. One might suggest that the paper projects of Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk of the 1960s and 1970s fits the description, but their projects were always self-consciously theoretical or pedagogical.

[4] Bois picked up this ethos of ‘looking closely’ from his teacher Roland Barthes, who advocated looking at things in their ‘fine grain.’ Roland Barthes and his book ‘Mythologies’ is in the queue for a future entry in this blog.