Michael Hays tell us that George Baird’s essay “ ‘La Dimension Amoureuse’ in Architecture” is the presentation of an alternative interpretation of architecture and the architectural role in culture against the “scientism” of modernism—the belief that a “singular correctness” in architecture could be achieved through a strict and exclusive adherence to the programmatic requirements to find form. Baird’s alternative “preliminary semiotics of architecture elaborates the basic structuralist insight that buildings are not simply physical supports but artifacts and events with meaning.” (N.B. Between us squirrels I’m guess that structuralist note is going to bite us in the ass after a few weeks of this project.) Baird’s argument is unleashed on two buildings that he claims represent the false dichotomy of architectural methodology in the 1960s: Cedric Price’s “Thinkbelt” and Eero Saarinen’s CBS Building. I’m going to wait to discuss the specific application of semiotics to these examples after working through the theoretical meat, since the theory is important and not necessarily these two buildings. For now, suffice it to say that the “Thinkbelt” is a “life-conditioner”—a term Price himself used—composed for “purely utilitarian ends” under the belief that architecture’s purpose is service. On the other hand, the CBS Building is an object, “Architecture itself,” designed as a Gesamptkunstwerk (from the envelope to the ashtrays), and Saarinen its Gesamptkunstler—wish is too amazing a word to leave out.
It’s important to note that Baird himself immediately admits that the relationship between semiotics and architecture were obvious to him because of the contemporary academic climate. (This may seem a pointless thing to include here but the admission is populist to its core, throwing off the pretention of his discovering something so fundamental and overlooked, so I’m telling you in hopes that you’ll calm the fuck down in the face of semiological architectural theory.) Nevertheless, semiotics inherently looks at “all social phenomena as communication systems; not just the obvious ones such as literature and films, but also kinship systems, culinary customs, clothing habits, and, of course, architecture.”
Firstly Baird discusses the relationship between the semiotic fundamentals langue and parole of Ferdinand de Saussure, predicated by his specific investigation into the “problem of modern designer’s (i.e. Price and Saarinen) attempts to assume privileged positions over others by replacing architectural langue with individual paroles. The langue is the “code” of a social phenomenon, its collective and/or unconscious aspect. Alternatively, the parole is the langue’s counterpart, a phenomenon’s specific “message”, its individual and/or conscious aspect. Hays initially points out that, in architecture, a particular architect’s work may be considered a langue or that all of architecture may together be considered a langue and individual works the parole, which is the position Baird takes.
Then we get schooled in the semiological communicative medium: the sign. (Remember, semiotics is primarily concerned with the inherent communicative aspect of all ‘social phenomena.’) The sign is the mediator between the signified and the signifier, between the object/idea in reality and people. (This semiological issue is based on an historical philosophical problem: the idea of reality “as it is” and whether or not we can understand it. The sign—words, memes, icons, images, buildings, films, &c.—may be understood as the way around that problem.) And signs “make up the langue of a social phenomenon.” So if we are to think of the langue as a “code”, like html, then signs are all the possible elements composing that language. Or, for example, if we take the English language as a langue, then all possible words past and present are the signs, each capable of developing meaning over time. The English language parole is the combination, in a phrase, sentence, paragraph, of specific signs from the langue in order to communicate a specific meaning.
How signs distinguish their meaning from each other is the critical part of this discussion. Signs carry meaning through “their mutual interrelatedness” and along two different operations depending on the context. Firstly, all signs in a langue distinguish themselves through substitution: “to understand a sign means (…) to be aware of the set of alternative possible signs from that code that could conceivably take that sign’s place.” 2) A sign in a parole increases specificity by the signs around it in the specific message, or through contiguity. Substitution is the bucky ball approach, where all signs are interrelated. Contiguity is a piece of chain link…kind of.
[The critical element of this is ambiguity. Even through these two relationships, signs are not absolute, neither over time nor at one moment, and their ambiguity is essential for one reason: irony. Baird doesn’t deal with this explicitly, but implies that a healthy langue preserves its capacity for “sustained irony,” meaning that irony is the test of value, is a critical element in the legitimacy and overall value of any language.]
Substitution and Contiguity are further clarified by equating them with Metaphor and Metonymy—an equation that clarifies the relationship of semiotics to both architecture and language. Mies and Scarpa are summoned to illustrate:
[The Farnsworth House emphasizes] the pole of metaphor, not only because of the reductive substitution form the norm ‘house’ which that design involves, but also because each element which remains is thereby supercharged with metaphorical significance. On the other hand, works like Carlo Scarpa’s renovation of the medieval palace of Verona (…) emphasize the role of metonymy, since they do not substitute reductively from their norms, nor powerfully metaphorize their individual elements, but rather build up their significance out of the assembly of relatively diverse parts.
(We may note that an equally important set of words may be “reduction” v. “assembly,” or “exclusion” v. “inclusion.”)
Then Baird introduces Claude Perrault’s 17th century dichotomy between “positive” and “arbitrary” beauty, and transcodes it onto semiotic theory, thereby sweeping all of architectural theory since 1683 into one ongoing division between these two sides, structured by a semiotic apparatus. Positive beauty is based on the desire to “get to the bottom” of architecture via reductive substitution. Arbitrary beauty, on the other hand, is based on customs, tastes, and style. Its proponents endeavor to “correlate all [of architecture’s forms] to the greatest extent,” thereby achieving authenticity and comprehensibility through contiguity—the assembly of an inclusive number of signs to communicate a specific meaning.
The radicalization of both of these, of Positivist and Arbitrary beauty, of Substitution and Contiguity, of Metaphor and Metonymy, is exemplified in the Thinkbelt and the CBS Building. The Life-Conditioner is radical substitution at its best, where every recognizable reference to academia or learning is substituted for nearly invisible, non-distinct industrial space. It is the extreme exclusion of all unnecessary treatments, where one may learn without any influence from the architecture. On the other hand, everything is designed in the CBS Gesamptkunstwerk; its message of the “simplest architectural object” is recorded in the contiguity of objects of all scales designed for simplicity. Baird points out that these two are the same in that they are completely incapable of communicating those goals because both efforts have completely excluded the architectural langue and so have no way to communicate. Both the Thinkbelt and CBS are endeavors to supplant the architectural langue with a single parole, which renders recognizable signs unrecognizable out of a too much ambiguity. The division, Baird claims, since Perrault has led to these two “bankrupt” schools of architecture.
Hays points out that through this and his parallel relationships, Baird “seems to anticipate postmodernism’s classification as a kind of revenge of the parole—of the specific utterance, of dialectics, and ideolectics, of the shimmering metonymic surface—against general autotelic and self-reflexive techniques.” In short, Baird’s parole became the historically recognized weapon of postmodernism, seeing architectural objects as specific conduits for meaning—especially in their assemblage of arbitrary contiguity, in their “shimmering metonymic surface”—over modernism’s positivist scientism. But in a semiological architecture theory, the interpreter’s job is “to show how the conventions of architecture enable works to produce meaning,” implying that the practice of architecture is (merely) exploiting the architectural langue (past and present) with the specific goal of producing meaning, and for that meaning to be comprehensible.