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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

The Fighting Temeraire