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Conversations: Architecture & Meaning

The Conversation Series

Conversation excerpts between Michael Rotondi and colleagues in architecture and academia, taken from video meetings. The following excerpts were taken from separate conversations with James Gee and Max Underwood. The dialogue has been lightly edited for text format.

Designing Sensations

with Prof. James Gee, Author and Regents' Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University

October 2020

James Gee : There was a period where people working on art and some of the stuff in architecture, especially when it was in the semiotic phase, would talk about what a piece of art or a building that you've designed communicates. As if the point of that design is like language, it's to give you a message. And this also comes from a tradition really influenced not only by semiotics but by linguistics, and by language scholars – everything is communication, everything is sending messages, it's all information. Even the way we talk about senses is you're getting information. And that is the paradigm. It's really impressed me, but it just dawned on me that that's completely wrong. I mean, I think it's wrong. I don't think you build a building to give somebody a message. I mean, they surely get information, but I assume you built a building to give them certain sensations, to move them in certain ways.

Michael Rotondi : Yeah, you're right. Architecture, it's been all of those things that you're talking about. In art, there's always been a debate between literalism and abstraction. That's probably why people would like Turner, but they may not like Edward Hopper. But in any case, in architecture, when it becomes too literal, it diminishes the experience of a place, right? Plus, who's telling you what to think?

Edward Hopper, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

J. M. W. Turner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

JG : Well, we inherited a tradition, really from the Greeks, that the highest form of art is mimetic. That the more it resembles a real thing, the more art it is.

MR : It's interesting because Vincent Scully, who wrote a book called The Earth, the Temple and the Gods, talked about the Greek’s reverence for nature, and then the question comes up – why don’t these buildings look organic?

JG : No, not at all.

MR : And he goes on, that because they had such a reverence, they didn't want to copy – there is no way that they can mimic nature.

JG : This mimetic tradition went on right to the 1930s in even Humanities departments, because humans are very taken by vision, right? It's our strongest thing. But once you get to music like Wagner and Beethoven, it was very clear to people it isn't imitating anything, right? And it couldn't. It's not giving you any message. People tried to say, “well that’s the message.” It isn't. It's creating inner sensations and emotions in you directly, and it's not mimetic. So, it's not surprising a visual species took visuality, which is inherently mimetic at some level, as this single thing of Art. And that does go back to your certainty thing, because if you listen to Beethoven or Wagner, especially Wagner – he specialized in not resolving his chords quickly – keeping a lot of tension. So, you never had certainty. But in vision, if you see something is blue, there's a sense in which since it's a private sensation, it's the only certain thing you know.

So, vision – especially when it's too clear, unless it’s vague – can be a domain of certainty in a way that most of our sensing the world really isn't, right? You would never think of smell or taste or…

MR : That’s interesting because a word that became a major framework for evaluating what you're looking at architecturally is the degree to which something creates ambiguity. It's not the confusion, but the ambiguity that creates the tension. Is it this or is it that? And then it allows you to situate yourself in the middle, and then you're the one that is trying to resolve that. Which then brings out a view.

JG : I’m glad to hear that. Because that's exactly what we're arguing. We got it mainly out of Wagner, and people like that, and then went back to the tradition. For myself as a linguist, I thought I had been trapped in this idea that meaning is always code. And code is always the grammar with parts and wholes, and you have to know where they are pretty definitively, to know what parts and wholes are. And I now see teachers, architects, artists, as designing experiences for people, designing sensation, so we get sensations from the world and we fill up our minds with them. But everybody is limited, right? Nobody had every experience you could have. And then you have a class of people like you guys, that say, “I'm going to replace the world and design sensations for you that I think will repair your world, will give you a new insight, enhance the experience as you go look for it, or how you look at your experiences.” And you're not trying to communicate a message. You're trying to change a soul, in a way. You're trying to get a person to say, “look – you can enhance your world,” because the only thing you fill your mind up with is experience.

And look at the danger we have today from people who have had too limited experiences in the world. Only talking to people who believe what they believe, and only talking to the same sort of people over and over – it's dangerous.

A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons

Connectivity and Knowledge - Portals Into Other Worlds

with Prof. Max Underwood, Architect and Presidents Professor at Arizona State University

October 2020

Max Underwood : (re: James Gee) I think what's mesmerizing to him is, you know, sort of like what Michael Benedikt is talking about – the difference between just experiencing things today, and literally having atmosphere or something deeper, such as presence and connectivity. You know, something that has deep history, that utilizes the materiality – that there becomes such a presence with it. That makes you feel comfortable. He goes, "no, no. It's just a container and shelter and function." I said, "no, but it can go further." I said it's like deep linguistics.

Michael Rotondi : That’s what I was explaining. And then I was telling him that what postmodernism was in our world is different than what it was in his world.

MU : Right – for him, postmodernism was huge, right? And to us, it was like Candy Land or the cake decorators.

MR : Yeah – I said architecture basically lost its way, it didn't have an identity. But just prior to that, a lot of people that were studying critical theory were looking for some place to situate their deep understanding that comes from taking things apart and wanting to put them back together. So a lot of them came into architecture. And then he goes, "was that a problem?" I said no, it actually made architects a lot smarter.

MU : Right! Because systemically we think, you know, both imaginatively and systemically, through problems. And having them come in and say, "well, this is how we're unpacking this really deeply with these kind of cultural connections to history, to people, to dreams or to feelings and emotions." All that was great. That's what gave it this breadth that Jim is really excited by.

MR : I was explaining to him that this is just my opinion, because I'm not a scholar, but from our point of view…and I explained to him what you just said – that it gave us a lens through which to think and to see the world, and to expand the way we think about architecture. I said what it did for them is it gave them a portal into a whole other world because they can now use their knowledge and start to take apart the architecture, but not to deconstruct it per se, and leave it apart, but to look at all of the parts in terms of what the meaning was in a much broader way than architecture would be able to think about.

He asked, was there a problem in that? And I said we had a woman that came from Classics, she was a scholar of Classics, Ann Bergren, and she was also one of the one of the people that really knew an immense amount about critical theory, even more than many architects did. I said: the problem that I began to realize, because I became very close friends with her, was visual literacy. They didn't have any visual literacy, so they would look at things and interpret them based on what they thought they were looking at as opposed to what they were actually looking at. So I teamed her up with another architect; then she became more visually literate. The funny thing is that she went back to Harvard, where she taught, to get a degree in architecture.


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