The Communicative Mode of Architecture

June 4, 2012

Essay by Sam Jacob, architect and director of London based architecture office FAT.


Mas issue communication the communicative mode of architecture 01

Liverpool Pavilion. © FAT.

We can think of architecture as just another form of cultural practice. And like them, it too is a form of media. Its literal media may be the material it specifies: brick, stone, glass steel, concrete or whatever. But it becomes a medium in and of itself through the way it arranges these materials. The arrangement of these materials into form and space turn them, like the arrangement of words on a page, pixels on a screen, or paint onto canvas, into information. We can think of architecture, then, as a concentration of information assembled into built form.

Like other forms of media, it communicates the information it contains. The signs and symbols that decorate it are designed to broadcast information, explicitly communicative in the case, say, of the number of the building, its name, its fidelity to an organization or institution. Equally the aesthetic choices an architect makes position it within taste cultures, affiliating by association with brand identity, lifestyle and aspiration or cultural position. In less explicit ways, architecture communicates through the instructions it issues to us. Buildings tell us that we should walk here and not there through the positioning of a corridor, that we should sleep in just such a room and eat in another, with the light falling in just such a manner over a table of particular proportions. In doing this, architecture is communicating to us a particular idea of use and experience. Buildings are a record of the process by which they came into the world, a precipitation into material form of the circumstances of their commissioning, of their financial and social ambition, of the politics of occupation that their briefs embody.

Yet, despite its super dense informational quality we have difficulty in recognizing architecture as a communicative medium. It is, just as Marshall McLuhan wrote of a light bulb, information. But just as with McLuhan’s bulb, we fail to recognize it as information because of the way that it presents its data.

Unlike other forms of media, architecture exists in the world that is, for want of a better word, real. It occupies the same space as us. Broadly speaking, other forms of media occupy a space adjacent to our world. We may gaze onto or into them, we can eavesdrop on them, but we may never enter. Art, for example, exists within the space of the frame or within the artificial conditions of the gallery. Film exists on the surface of the screen. Theatre occupies the space of the stage, and so on. In these sites, the media constructs a fictional version of the world-often entirely convincing, once we suspend our disbelief-within which the narrative takes place. The fictions that are possible within these worlds may mimic our world, but their consequences are contained. In a play, the murderer may be caught, but the actor who plays the murderer returns to the safety of their home night after night.

Architectures consequences might be real, but it is just as fictional as other form of communicative media. It originates with the invented and imaginary. Its imaginary origins include, obviously, the acts that characterize architectural imagination: the gestural sketch and the idealized render. Here, we recognize architectures ability to imagine, to fictionalize, to have visions. Yet we can also characterize other aspects of architectural production and processes as a form of fiction. Laws that govern aspects of architecture: building control, planning and so on are agreed fictions. Economics of development are the result of ideology-an idea, a thing imagined, taken with the scientific literalness to the point where it becomes indistinguishable from the real.

Like law, like ideology, architecture too has the ability to become indistinguishable from the real. Without frame, screen or stage to contain it, the built environment is an entirely fictional, completely real landscape. It transforms its own fiction into something that looks and feels exactly like fact. Architecture naturalizes its imaginative origins so completely that it becomes the world we occupy. And in doing this it naturalizes the fictions that it contains. The explicit content that architecture carries, the signs and symbols that represent the power and wealth the engender it, become further fixed in the world, made solid fact by the inherent real-making quality of architecture as a medium. Architectures embodiment of ideology, transformed into solid stuff, makes that too more real, naturalizing the politics that bring it into the world.

Architecture’s communicative quality is made unrecognizable because of the gravity that draws it into the realm of the real. It no longer feels as though it is communicative, no longer seems that it is saying something, that it is performing or transmitting information because of its apparently inert quality. Yet of course it continues to communicate, to say, perform and transmit.

The mode and the content of architectural communication is limited by its own quality as a medium. That’s to say, it is impossible for it to carry the same forms of narrative as other kinds of media. Without the ability to suspend our disbelief, its range is limited. Unlike an actor, it can’t become the thing that it is portraying. It is impossible even for a replica with the greatest fidelity to its original to actually become the original. Even the most fictional of architectures, say, theme park castles or heritage style homes, can’t escape their own fate. Their narrative quality simply can’t generate the escape velocity to enter a different conceptual space. Instead, they can only communicate their attempt to escape the realm of the real, their efforts to become something else and to enter the spaces that other media occupy so effortlessly.

The communicative mode of architecture finds itself in a strange condition. On one hand, it is fictional, on the other it is impossible for it to become fictional. Caught between these two positions, architectures is condemned to communicate, to embody, its own state. The medium, as we have been told, is the message, and in architectures case, the message always remains real.

What can, what should, a communicative architecture communicate? There is an argument that architecture should attempt to acknowledge its fictional quality, that it should articulate the economic and ideological forces within which it is forged, that it should make their attempts to naturalize themselves through architecture visible. This acknowledgment is a form of resistance, a means of frustrating the desire of power and capital to become the world we inhabit. It should recognize that the content that it can communicate is limited, that the constraints of it as a medium will frustrate its theatrics, and that overly dramatic stylings will be undone by our ability to see through them.

Perhaps, if architecture can’t become something else, communicative architecture has only one potential subject: itself. Here, the fictions that bring it into would also be the narrative that it articulates. In doing this, architecture can exploit its own condition of being simultaneously fiction and non-fiction. In telling this us this story, it tells us the story of the world it is in the process of manufacturing.