Associate Professor of Architecture, The University of Oregon
Author of "The Culture of Building", Former Student and Colleague of Christopher Alexander
"hdavis" at the darkwing.uoregon domain with an edu extension
Architectural Facts in Search of a Language
Form Language Symposium - Dresden, June 2001
I would like to develop some ideas which I think may be important to Hajo Neis´ idea of form language. This talk is rather speculative. My hope is to begin a conversation which will help to bring together a few familiar ways of looking at architectural language which are not normally considered within the same framework. Obviously the attempt at seeing architecture as a linguistic system is not new. If I am introducing anything new, it is simply the idea that different points of view each have their own validity, and there is something to be gained by exposing one point of view to the insights of the other. In this way, unhelpful ideological barriers may be breached.
Let me begin with some general observations.
First, my own concerns are with the languages that are shared within a particular culture, and how those languages change from culture to culture and from typical situation to typical situation within cultures. In this regard, I am interested less in the personal rule systems that individual architects follow – if such systems can even be called languages – than I am interested in the formal rule systems that are commonly understood, and which define the architecture of particular cultures. These rule systems may be shared by architects. But my own work has been in the realm of vernacular architecture, and most of the examples in this talk are in vernacular architecture, which is also characterized by shared rule systems.
Second, the reason we need to be explicit about form languages at all is that implicit, shared understandings have almost completely broken down. To be sure, explicit statements of architectural principles go back at least as far as Vitruvius. But the contemporary building world is characterized by an unprecedented diversity of buildings. This diversity is not necessarily unhealthy, but it is accompanied by an almost equally wide diversity of theoretical frameworks. This makes conversation, much less common agreement, extremely difficult. This is perhaps more of a problem in the United States than it is here, but even within the architectural community and the community of architectural education – not to mention the community that includes clients, contractors or bankers – words do not necessarily have the same meaning to different people. I would claim that we need a form of discourse that is understood by more people, and that would therefore lead to more agreement in the judgment of buildings.
Another way of putting this is that if we are talking about an appropriate form language for our time, or place, or even for particular places, we are talking about shared understandings, and some kind of cultural transmission, even in the context of an architecture that might include individual expression. The question is, if such shared understandings exist, what is their nature and how can they be most useful.
And third, with this subject we are inevitably talking about the question of representation and of abstraction of things which cannot always be seen. Of course, a building is ultimately a real artifact in the world, tens of meters high and made of stone and brick and mortar. It has a tangible reality, and although the interpretation of its reality might differ from person to person, it exists. Any means of representing it – a plan, a model, a computer fly-through – is only a particular and selective projection of the actual thing. We can be more or less complete in representing the finished thing. But in the final analysis the success of a building is measured not only by its reality, by what it is – which can be represented fairly completely with plans, sections and elevations at different scales – but by the experience of its reality, which I would claim often cannot. Of course, the ability to predict that experience is one of the main jobs of the architect. But even if the architect is ultimately successful in that prediction, what the architect does not necessarily have is a set of tools for sharing all aspects of that experience.
Four Approaches to Architectural Analysis
What I want to talk about straddles the boundary between the language of architecture, and the kind of language used to represent architecture. I want to use some examples of vernacular courtyard buildings in different cultures to describe the possible relationships and convergences among four different approaches to architectural analysis. These approaches have stood apart from each other for various ideological and intellectual reasons. Yet, I would claim that in their individual attempts to analyze configurations, they have demonstrated certain similarities of intention, along with the means to together deal with more aspects of architectural experience than any one of them could do alone.
The four approaches are the following.
First, the compositional/typological approach as put forward by the Kriers, for example, in the 1970s and 80s, as the continuation or revival of two centuries of architectural thought, and which still forms the basis for much criticism and discourse. Variations of this approach are used also by various people studying urban morphology in Italy and France.
Second, the approach of space syntax as developed by Bill Hillier at the Bartlett School in London, which has found favor in various urban design and large institutional projects, mostly in the United Kingdom.
Third and fourth, two approaches of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues in California. These include the pattern language, developed during the 1970s, and the latest development in his work which is much more based in an idea of unified form than the earlier pattern language. This new work was published in 2004, in a four-volume work titled The Nature of Order.
Each of these four approaches has pluses and minuses, if we are looking for an accurate and comprehensive method of description and analysis, that includes form, the qualitative aspects of rooms, and the experience of buildings. What I would like to ask, is what is to be gained by combining these approaches, so that the positive aspects of one will help to compensate for the negative aspects of the other. Such a synthesis might help point the way toward a form language that has the capability of bringing together various disparate modes of architectural thought.
I would argue that the lack of such a language, that can be shared among architects and between architects and lay people, is one of the major factors that has contributed to the split among various sectors of the contemporary building culture. That split is perhaps more severe in the United States than it is in Europe, but there is no doubt in my mind that architecture suffers from serious problems of communication.
This paper is a speculation, based on observations about these approaches I have made over the last several years. As examples, I am using different variations of vernacular courtyard houses, in different cultures.
Let me begin by trying to describe each of the four approaches, using the example of a courtyard house, built several hundred years ago in Tunis. It is a "classic" example of a house in a North African Islamic city. It consists of a courtyard, open to the sky, and with rooms arranged around the courtyard. The house is entered through a door from the street which leads onto a passage configured so that there is not a direct view of the courtyard from the street. This is to protect the privacy of family life, and particularly of women. There are one or two rooms that do not enter directly from the courtyard, but most rooms do. In addition, the door is the only opening on the street side; all light at the ground floor is obtained from the courtyard.