A Summary and Conclusion to “Architectural Formalism and the Demise of the Linguistic Turn” \\ Jonathan Henry

The stage of architectural theory was inevitable after the end of Modernism. As a rebuttal to the lofty intents of the international style, Post Modernism grew. As the edict of CIAM (Congres International d’Architecture Moderne) laid down the rules and regulations required to consider ones work as having a place in the ‘modern’ prose, the necessity of society to break this mold became palpable. Designers, and the society at large, searched for messages and meanings in the faceless buildings of the International style. The question of “how we understand the world?” and “how do we manifest back onto it?” continued to trouble those that found no value in this modern aesthetic. Philosophers were hard at work postulating theories about mental cognition and how we interact with the world. This was to be the only way to infuse any legibility into architecture. The map they drew became the concrete basis for the shift from Modernism to Post Modernism.

Although our search for the truth in cognition has been worked on by philosophers and scientists alike, ever since the self actualized ego was born, it wasn’t until name such as Derrida and Heidegger, in the 80’s, came along that philosophical cognition was to be understood as a totally verbal assemblage. They believed that language was not only used in verbal communication but was also the very essence of cognitive thought. They suggested that all knowledge and all mental capacity originate from language and the ontological classifications of the tangible and intangible. This new thought on though became wildly popular and gave the Post Modernists the ammunition they needed to communicate their designs.

Soon, as this new understanding of humanity purveyed through society, all fields took up its cause. As the concepts ran their course, one by one, fields of research began finding holes and uneasy situations that the philosophy had no clear answer to.

Culture is an important part of our understandings of the times, ie Zeitgeist. As culture changed so did our understanding of the importance of visual imagination.  Even though other fields worked on these issues, architecture was stuck until the widespread use of the computer allowed architects to visualize their designs in new methods.  First let’s see where the rest of the fields began and how architecture eventually caught up.

“With that demise, the belief in language as the vehicle of thought (as opposed to understanding language as the mere vehicle of communication) lost its credibility and, as a result, formalism in aesthetics, visual imagination in psychology, and internationalism in historiography became viable and credible theoretical positions.” (B.Mitrovic p. 18)

During the 1970’s scientists diverged from populist topics and continued to pursue a deeper understanding of cognition. Meanwhile the philosophers and their converts were happy to become squatters in the house of linguistics. What the science community did was to begin exploring the role that visual imagination plays in our understanding of our world. The cracks in the wall began with an experiment conducted that sought to test human capacity of imagination (a mental model of the world). The experiment called for each participant to visualize a given geometric shape. They were then asked to rotate the shape and decipher the resultant shape. It took participants twice as long to rotate a shape 180 degree than it did to rotate 90 degrees. These tests concluded one result with two different explanations.

The first is that this imagined transformation occurs visually in our mind and needed some medium with which to translate, maybe even words (linguistic model). The second concluded that the transformation occurs because of our innate understanding of how object behave in space, either from intimate knowledge of these circumstances, or through primal knowledge of our environment and required no medium (visual imagination model or mental model). This mental model suggests that out knowledge of physical events invades our visual imagination. A good way to illustrate this point is by proving the negative, that without a physical basis we cannot imagine events that can be verbalized. Mitrovic illustrates this through the thought experiment of imagining a nine corner cube.  While the words make sense and we might even believe that such a thing is possible, it is impossible to create the mental image in our minds. This is where we will have to break the mold of monocognition and implement a polycongitive state. Our minds cannot function on linguistics alone if we are able to use words to create conditions our mind has no ability to comprehend.

While the scientific field continued to broaden our understanding of cognitive imagination, architecture took up the linguistic torch and ran, rarely looking back. Soon the overwhelming adoption of linguistic principals in architecture created a stifled search for other answers. The outcome of this concretized rhetoric was to secure the place in architectural discourse for the hegemonic control of the ‘parti ‘as a driver of designs. Architecture became a place where legibility of the concept, through linguistic communication, becomes the litmus test for projects in all design fields.

Changes in technology reflect changes in representation. Until the renaissance perspectives and building sections were not able to be understood until the technology of their representation was unlocked.

In the early 90’s widespread use of the computer began to change the way we think about architecture and specifically the cognition of architecture. There were new requirements to produce modes of representation that convey new spatial qualities. Axons, perspectives, and sections could not be used in the way they had been but must be appropriated to a new cognitive role. These shifting sands revived some concepts that had all but died during the linguistic brainwash. Computers coupled with this cognitive shift coalesce into the revived interest in a visual spatial imagination within the architecture community. While the computer was not the first spark of this new cognitive reality, it did mark the shift in its adoption by the architectural community.

“Rather than replacing the visual means of architectural communication with nonvisual ones, the digital revolution introduced technology for developing a completely new generation of visual, analogous media that have revolutionized the way architects deal with the spatial properties of their work.” (BM p. 18)

Architecture is a slave and a building block, no pun intended, to our cognition of the world. As architects we use the people in the world to bring life to our designs/buildings. By embracing the newly accepted duality of cognition (visual imagination and innate understanding of physical properties) we must also come to terms with the difference. In architecture there are concepts that can only be experienced through words, such as program, function [linguistic intent], then there are concepts that can only be conveyed through visualization; space, atmospheric effect and complex form [mental model]. You can describe the golden ratio in words but the beauties of its effects are not empathetically felt until it is visualized. The same way that our imagination is reliant on the way we have experienced our world, so too is the visual effects that architecture creates.

The visualizations come from specific and verbalized conditions of the architecture. “The architecture is beautiful because…” “The architecture is grotesque because…” The answers to these questions are verbal visible attributes. Without our visual imagination created we would have nothing to back up these statements. These statements differ from the Linguistic statements which presume formal processes becoming legible. Our new understanding is that form is meant to be visually imagined and not process driven.

With the loss of linguistics as a driving factor, architecture recoiled to favor theory. Theory requires justification out of architecture. It requires verbal narratives to evaluate the architecture, effectively circumventing and role that visual cognitive properties could play in design. The last bastions of linguistics found safe haven in the necessity for justification of architectural design. Its justification found in its theoretical intent.

Now it is understood that architecture needs a driving force, maybe even a linguistically slanted force that drives designs to be understood as visual and aesthetic objects that utilizes visual imagination. Notions such as beauty and aesthetics are only conceived through visual imagination. While they can be described through linguistic means, they cannot be imagined without our mental model. We can describe a beautiful building that is no longer around or has never been built. This beauty only can be recreated in real time through our imagination. The requirement of physicality is not even necessary.

The physical building is a tool to relay spatial composition. The example of the Parthenon and its tweaked physicality give the visual effect of continuity of the façade, while the physicality of the façade uses varied diameter columns and uneven plinths. The physical building is not the aesthetic object of the building, but is an assistant to the visual imagination. Imagination compensates for visual physicality. Take for example the effects of perspective on the eye. The view is understood in the brain and allows us to draw a planar façade without viewing it as such.  Our imaginative capabilities do not run linguistically or verbally. These images are manifestations into our visual imagination. This imagination derived from our physical world but required a visual interpretation to allow spatial cognition. This we can call a ‘mental model’ and it comprises a total understanding of the object and not just a single vantage we are presented. Architecture is not like paintings. They require a visual imagination to produce three dimensionality, where paintings capitalize on a single vantage point.

A mental model has always been present in our cognition of physical objects or represented objects, as through renderings or spatial diagrams, but the ability to utilize and capitalize on this cognition has stifled through the social theoretical slant towards linguistics.

For more on the role of representation in architecture please refer to my previous post.

After the evolution of linguistics, after the much needed jolt provided by the digital revolution, architecture is now situated to take advantage of the concepts that have been brewing under the surface for a long time. Architecture has the capacity to utilize linguistics and visual imagination/mental model to convey the intent behind their designs. What architecture must deal with now is the misunderstanding that the built environment is the only means of accomplishment for the architectural designer. Means of cultural theory, digital exploration and more importantly the ability for the image to convey meaning all become tools in the architectural tool box. What ‘Log 17’ advocates it a lowering of the public’s pretentiousness towards the manifested object of the building and embarrassing a multi faceted and even indefinable scope for all designs.

Mirrovic suggest that, “architecture need not produce any particular ‘movement’ or ‘avant-garde,’ but, more profoundly, they cannot fail to result in a reconfiguration of the field of architectural theory and praxis, and ultimately determine new means of theorizing architecture.”(BM p.20)

Because the culture is so connected to our cognition we must not hold ourselves solely to the realm of architecture but allow ourselves to become reconfigures of society itself. It is not enough to limit ourselves to the built environment, but we must change the cognition of our world to reflect our interests. Every step further in our understanding in how we internalize our external world is one more way we, as designers, can present the concepts and ideas we have.


~ by jonathanhenry on February 28, 2010.

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