Mario Gandelsonas, “Linguistics in Architecture,” 1973.
Gandelsonas’s essay, originally printed in Casabella in 1974 and reprinted as the ninth essay in Architecture Theory, is a breath of fresh, concise air, clear and purposeful and convincing. For all intents and purposes, it is a critique of Structuralism and the mishandled appropriation of linguistics by architecture theorists. (In fact, its publication followed a more specific critique by Gandelsonas and Agrest of Charles Jenks and George Baird for that very same mishandling.) Gandelsonas’s primary goal is to examine the consequences of Eisenman’s application of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory to architecture in a clear and scientific manner in order to begin offering a new theory of Architecture.
Gandelsonas’s thesis is achieved by two fairly simple operations. Firstly, he sets all previous architectural ‘theory’ aside by arguing that it is, in fact, “theoretical ideology” and not really theory. Theory is scientific; its knowledge is concrete. Ideology, on the other hand, is circular; its purpose is to enforce a particular belief. Confusion about what defines theory and ideology, he points out, is one reason why the previous applications of linguistic theory to architecture have failed. This allows him to delineate a “theory of Architecture”—the proper noun—with clear scientific rigor.
The second operation is the division—linguistic and architectural—of semantics and syntax. First developed for linguistics by Chomsky, Peter Eisenman applies this pair to architecture, along with its implications. For our purposes, architecture’s semantic dimension is the link between a building or its parts to meaning (social, aesthetic, functional, &c.). A column reads as holding up a building, for example. Architecture’s syntax, though, is the organizational play of architectural and structural elements. Historically architecture has been semantic, focusing on semantic variation or reconfiguration. Post-Modernism, notably, had more or less finally exhausted the possibilities of semantic variation. What was left, what had been flying under the radar, and what Eisenman’s architecture was concerned with was architectural syntax.
This is all a quick blip in Gandelsonas’s essay. Embracing this division simply enables him to 1) evaluate a (legitimate) application of linguistic theory to architecture, 2) to take, from that evaluation, clear points that will lead toward a theory of Architecture. In its linguistic origins, syntax is universal and irreducible, is the underlying abstract elements of language. Because it is universal, and presumably present in all language, Chomsky reasons that syntax proves the existence of deep structure—a kind of universal skeleton of language and linguistic use. Eisenman, too, argues for the existence of an architectural deep structure.
But there are specific implications of a linguistic deep structure that do not translate one-to-one into architecture, and Gandelsonas believes Eisenman has overlooked these in his eagerness to define his own work. Specifically, Gandelsonas notes there are three critical implied elements of deep structure that are problematic for architecture: creativity, intuition, and universality. Their architectural functions are simply not equivalent to their linguistic functions.
From creativity Gandelsonas gives of rhetoric, “a discourse built upon another discourse.” In short, the design process is composed of two simultaneous dialogues. The first is the “functional meaning” of whatever object/project—a house means house, a pitcher means pitcher, a jacket means jacket, all with an identity that is present from the beginning to the end of the process. The second dialogue is the formal evolution of whatever that object/project may be that can function independent of the first dialogue while ultimately developing it further. “The term ‘house,’ for instance, has a constant meaning [first], while houses may be given different forms [second].” Rhetoric is the functioning of multiple meanings and forms within a single project. This bit seems to be the most fascinating (to both Gandelsonas and myself) and, now clearly and scientifically articulated, seems to have the most to offer to a new theory of Architecture.
From intuition—initially an ideological notion—Gandelsonas gives us “worked intuition.” If intuition is a universal element in linguistics, it certainly isn’t in architecture and design. (Otherwise everyone would actually be a “designer,” instead of just believing themselves to be one.) (SHADE.) Instead Gandelsonas gives us an evolving problem solving process that develops through work. With the notion of universality in architecture Gandelsonas gets vehement, and I’ll let him sum it up for us. “The notion of universality—the classical nature of architecture—(...) is one of the key constructions in bourgeois ideology. Any notion which is linked to the idea of ‘man’ as an ecological or communicative animal which ides, among other things, the concept of social class and the particularity and limits of Western culture to which this notion is related must be considered ideological.”
Regarding this essay, I am ecstatic to find myself reading something other than inclusive Structuralist confusion. And Gandelsonas’s vision of architecture’s future at 1973 is clear. A theory of Architecture must be careful about what it appropriates from other fields, and while linguistics absolutely has insights about how architecture functions, what it is, and what the architectural/design process is, it must not be mishandled. In material terms this at least explains to us what Eisenman was doing with his architecture, and how designers, architects and architectural theorists began to recover from Structuralism and from Post-Modernism, which at this point had become its own beast to be handled. If Post-Modernism was about the communicative field of social and cultural values and exploiting that field as a means to reclaim architectural autonomy and form, then Gandelsonas is showing us an architectural theory that has begun to see past that struggle, a theory of an Architecture that is already autonomous. Perhaps, anyway. Stay tuned.