Bibliographic Essay

Meaning in Architecture: A Site’s Character

The functionalism of the Modern Movement has lead to the dissolution of meaning in architecture and the landscape in favor of more utilitarian concerns. Swiss architect and second director of the Bauhaus, Hannes Meyer, clearly expresses this modern attitude of functionality: “everything in this world is a product of the formula (function times economy); all art is composition and therefore unfunctional; all life is function and therefore unartistic.”[i] The attention to landscape design remains basic and schematic in the work of prominent modern architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Mies integrated architecture with landscape by extending walls out into nature and through the extensive use of glass. Frank Lloyd Wright’s work shows a sensibility for the integration of architecture and the natural landscape. Le Corbusier, Wright, and the Modern Movement in general, were however, biased toward the natural landscape. Stuart Wrede explains the primary reason for the bias: “underlying this bias was the Modern Movement’s urge to discard history and begin at the beginning.”[ii] For this reason the traditional garden and park; an artificial construction, one that was designed with the intention to contain meaning accessible to the users, were seen as obsolete and in effect new constructions were designed for their functionality void of meaningful character.

Utilitarian design as described by the landscape architect, Laurie Olin, with its “functional and problem-solving ethic which, although socially beneficial up to a point, has in effect asserted that mere instrumentality is sufficient in the creation of human environments”[iii], but man confronts symbols of meaning everyday. Therefore the design of architecture and the landscape should foster the creation of meaning. This does not discredit everything that modernism stands for, but it looks critically at the repetition and reuse of old forms where their meaning is no longer discernable. Christian Norberg-Schulz explains the importance of meaning in architecture:

“It must be emphasized that existential meanings are inherent in daily life, consisting of the relationships between natural and human properties, processes and actions. But, if meanings are inherent in daily life, why do we have to worry about ‘making life meaningful?’ Firstly, it is necessary to become sensitive to meanings; the faculty of perception has to be developed to allow for an adequate ‘intentional depth.’ Secondly, meanings have to be made clearly manifest to make a socially valid perception possible. Hence the importance of symbolism.”[iv]

Symbolism allows for the perception of meaning, and its perception brings depth to man’s existence.  Since meaning is inherent in daily life landscape architecture and the relation of building and landscape must promote the creation of meanings through the medium of symbols. The representation of meaning in the design of architecture and landscape requires the creation of symbols. In Meaning in Western Architecture Christian Norberg Schulz describes symbolism’s importance to man:

“Any human product may be considered a symbol or tool which serves the purpose of brining order (meaning) into certain relations between man and his environment, and nonverbal behavior is just as dependent upon structured symbol systems as verbal behavior… This means that any individual is born into a system of meanings which he comes to know through its symbolic manifestations.”[v]

Since symbolism is a relevant source of understanding for man employing symbolic relationships would allow the user better understanding of a site, thereby creating connection between user and site through embedded meaning. The use of meaningful symbols may express the complexities of human existence comprehensible to the user. Only through clearly articulated symbols can man perceive the associated meanings and validate his own existence. In Must Landscapes Mean? Marc Treib refers to folk cultures that created meaningful places: “Folk cultures produce places that are almost immediately communicative, and communicative over long periods. Because their connections between form and intention are understood within the culture and evolve slowly over time, it is possible for the makers, the people, and the meaning of the place to remain in contact.”[vi] The focus of Treib’s text surrounds the question of whether or not the designer can design significance into a place at the time of its conception. Treib determines that while a designer cannot directly associate a place with significance the designer can aid making a place significant: “I do believe that we can circumscribe the range of possible reactions to a designed place. We cannot make the place mean, but we can, I hope, instigate reactions to the place that will fall within the desired confines of happiness, gloom, joy, contemplation, or delight… It would seem that a designer could create a landscape of pleasure that in itself would become significant.”[vii] For Treib meaning compares to respect it can only be acquired with time, and the designer’s prior decisions influence how it will be perceived.

In contrast to Marc Treib’s opinion John Dixon hunt agues that a designer has the ability to give a place meaning. He uses the example of the English landscape garden to illustrate the point: “like many garden traditions before it, was a coherent system of signs devised to be legible to both maker and visitor.”[viii] The success of the formal English landscape lies in the meaning embodied in its design. Symbolic references could be landscape features, structures, or written inscriptions used to reduce ambiguity. The Modern Movement has dismissed this type of landscape for its artificiality and association with the past. As a result designed landscapes and architecture have lost the genius loci, or spirit of the place. Hunt’s exploration of genius loci claims that landscapes can be valued for more than their aesthetic qualities. Hunt explains the intuition required to understand the genius loci through the works of painter J. M. W. Turner. Turner’s work creatively exaggerated certain aspects of a site to create the spirit of the place:

“What is crucial about these motifs is that country estates required of the landscape artist both a visual naturalism and an instinct for their special sense of place: on the one hand, optical and visual accuracy, and on the other celebration of something more elusive than simple topography; what the visiting eye would see as well as the special rapport that its owners and residents would have for an estate”[ix]

While Hunt was praising a painter, Turner, for his understanding of genius loci designers could apply the same understanding and sense of the spirit of the place. The Woodland Cemetery, located outside Stockholm, designed by Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz captures the genius loci and gracefully joins architecture and landscape. Treib speculated on where the magnificence of Woodland came from: “Perhaps the power of this funeral landscape ultimately derives from an almost animistic feeling of pre-Christianity that addresses the forest, the land, and the heavens as a primeval setting. Perhaps the design also tapped into something basic to Swedish religion and culture.”[x] Asplund and Lewerentz ‘s design combined ideas about the soul of and the emotional content of the landscapes and the buildings of the cemetery.  The design borrowed from archetypal Nordic landscape images created by the romantic German painter Caspar David Friedrich such as: “the deep evergreen forest with graves set in the wilderness, the church with surrounding churchyard, and the dolmen and earth mound on the heath surrounded by oaks, and the wayfarer’s cross… Friedrich’s landscapes… took on transcendental and symbolic dimensions.”[xi] Symbols such as the earth mound related directly to cultural history in this case being ancient burial mounds of the past. In Nordic history there was also a tradition of woodland cemeteries; cemeteries where graves were protected within the shade of dense Nordic forests. Asplund and Lewerentz connected to the culture’s past to create strong symbols that were accessible to the visiting public.

In Laurie Olin’s article Form, Meaning, and Expression in Landscape Architecture Olin defines two categories of meaning in landscapes. The first category “natural” or “evolutionary” builds meaning and significance over time through use and custom, the second category “synthetic” or “invented” references meaning from work of the past, therefore the meaning of the second category is diminished since the meaning taken from one site does not necessarily have the same meaning on another site. [xii] The second category Olin defines for creating meaning is the one under which most designers operate and a reason new designed landscapes have lost their meaning. Forms that were significant on one site loose their meaning when reused in another place. Marc Treib’s article, Must Landscapes Mean?, acknowledged the return of designers’ interest in creating meaningful forms in the 1980s: “[designers] began to display a new interest in making form, and many of them claimed that these new forms would be meaningful.”[xiii] Treib classified five approaches to landscape design that created meaning: the neoarchaic approach often referred directly to Neolithic sources, the genius of the place used the spirit of the place as a means of rooting landscape to its particular place, the Zeitgeist identifies landscape architecture as art as something representing “the spirit of the times”, the vernacular landscape approach draws from the “real” world but by referring to the vernacular the original meaning is not preserved, the didactic approach is one of teaching and should inform the user about the natural processes or history of a place. For both Olin and Treib the past’s importance lies in its place as a point of departure for future study and design. Previous examples of landscape design have not become irrelevant simply because times have changed. Certain meanings associated with previous designs may no longer speak to a culture in the same way, but the way in which the designs meant must be understood as a way to embody new meaning in the landscape.

In conclusion as an important connection for man to landscape and buildings in relation to landscape symbolic relationships must be embodied in designed landscapes. The Modern Movement lead to the dismissal of meaning in landscape because their significance belonged to another time and place. Symbolic relationships give places meaning, something man confronts on a daily basis and that structures man’s existence. Therefore the element of meaning should not be removed from landscape in favor of spaces configured purely for use. Marc Treib presented the argument that meaning is not something that a designer can imbed in design, but that meaning is something that takes time to accrue. The designer can aid in a place gaining meaning with time, but that designer cannot directly give the place a desired meaning. John Dixon Hunt presents the counterpoint through the example of the English landscape garden one with visible meaning intended by the designer from the project’s origin. The genius loci must be understood for a place to achieve meaning as Hunt points out through the painter Turner: genius loci is something that a designer may need to understand intuitively. The Woodland Cemetery presents a modern example of a landscape which embeds symbolic meaning in the design. Asplund and Lewerentz connected to meaning in the Nordic culture as a way to create widely understood meaning. Lauire Olin and Marc Treib each created classifications of ways landscapes mean. Treib’s classification can be understood as one that grew out of Olin’s, it framed five approaches to creating significance: the neoarchaic, the genius of the place, the Zeitgeist, the vernacular landscape, and the didactic approach. Olin and Treib’s articles both respect history as something to be taken to advance the design of landscapes; not one to be forgotten. Symbolism is one of the strongest ways in which man can perceive meanings and relationships that create this should be employed in designed landscapes.


[i] Hannes Meyer, Bauen, Bauhaus.

[ii] Stuart Wrede, Landscape and Architecture, Perspecta. pp. 196

[iii] Laurie Olin, Form, Meaning, and Expression in Landscape Architecture, The Landscape Journal.

[iv] Christian Norberg-Schulz, Meaning in Western Architecture, pp. 222

[v] Christian Norberg-Schulz, Meaning in Western Architecture, pp. 222

[vi] Marc Treib, Must Landscapes Mean? pp. 99

[vii] Marc Treib, Must Landscapes Mean? pp. 100

[viii] John Dixon Hunt, Gardens and the Picturesque. pp. 217

[ix] John Dixon Hunt, Gardens and the Picturesque. pp. 235

[x] Marc Treib, Must Landscapes Mean? pp. 99

[xi] Stuart Wrede, Landscape and Architecture, Perspecta. pp 199

[xii] Laurie Olin, Form, Meaning, and Expression in Landscape Architecture, The Landscape Journal.

[xiii] Marc Treib, Must Landscapes Mean? pp.

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