Familiarity Forms in Architecture

Ambiguity in the Familiarized Form

With the manipulation of form going beyond limits of our own recognition, its identity becomes blurred and disorienting – our inability to draw obvious visual relationships inhibits the signification of meaning. The subjectivity of the user in deciphering familiarized figures becomes a crucial factor in generating associations to the accumulation of known parts. Mark Foster Gage’s design of the West 57th Street Tower in New York City illustrates this effect where the familiar architectural fragments combine in unprecedented ways to generate a new form that is reminiscent of a familiar figure but disorienting in its exclusivity.

With reference to figure 1, the building is composed of an array of architectural fragments that climb along the four corners of the building, with elements jutting out to form the colossal winged balconies midway along the length. [14] The scattered collection of forms draws upon the Art Deco heritage of the city, extracting visibly recognizable icons of eagles, machines, and fine tracery.

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In his reinterpretation of the Kitbashing technique originating from film-making, Gage collides these previously recognizable forms of the past as a means to produce models of an unfamiliar nature to the present and future. (figure 2) While paying homage to the values of the individual entities of the past, Gage is able to produce a new reading of the extracted icons in the present, evoking a certain level of familiarity but also producing new meanings from past objects. As a result, the building becomes impossible to read symbolically, as no singular meaning has been prescribed to it.

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Due to the sheer quantity of familiarized forms that have been combined, the significance of each has been reduced.

As described by Gage, people can look at the project differently and create their own meanings because it has so many symbols that it became impossible to be symbolic. It’s overloaded with potential symbolism. Therefore, meaning can’t be extracted from it. [16] The built form is not transparent in its role as a communicator, and does not aim to be understandable in a glace, but instead exudes an attitude of mystery that requires second thought from the user’s interpretation. The seemingly randomized collision of forms produces personalized meanings for the user with reference to their own relations towards the hybridized object. With the misreading of form dependent on the user’s own dissecting of the hybridized form, understandings become unpredictable and surprising as a result.

Misreading Through Time (Anachronistic associations)

Ambiguity Through Subjectivity of User

In like manner, the accumulation of knowledge throughout time permits our distilling of it through a retroactive lens of selectively picking and choosing specific information to use in generating meaning. With reference to Christian Norberg-Schulz, the perception of form and its respective meanings in architecture are informed culturally ” they are results of cultural intentions. [17] Norberg-Schulz further inferred that forms of the past shouldn’t become a basis for replication, but information from history should instead begin to reveal relations between present problems and solutions. As a result, the linear means of anachronistic associations would propel misreading with meaningful symbolic references in mind. In identifying the relations between formal differentiations and functional differences, meanings belonging in the past begin to apprise form, and misread meanings based on present knowledge on past information begin generating new, unpredictable meanings for the future. With Norberg-Schulz’s study on Gestalt psychology in understanding the notion of perception, he saw architectural space as the composite result of our thought processes, with influences from environmental factors or external images. These unique processes begin to inform the way man positions himself in understanding his orientation to the world and each individual understanding denotes architecture’s tightly knit relation with cultural significance. [18] He stressed on the layering of interpreted connotations where the meaning of a work of architecture therefore consists in it gathering the world in a general typical sense, in a local particular sense, in a temporal historical sense. This would go on to inform how such misreading of meanings could manifest into the reintroduction of perception and history as crucial roles in defining how we know. [19]

In relation to the Portland Building by Michael Graves, it embodies potentials for misreading through time in its deliberate aggregation of recognizable forms taken from their respective eras. In denouncing a shift towards a richer and more comprehensible means of design, Graves borrows and thus reconstructs familiar figures and meanings from the high traditions of the Renaissance past in propelling the generation of new meaning with present knowledge. [20] The reinterpretation of values from borrowed references of the past in Graves’s use of Classical elements such as over-scaled keystones and pilasters (figure 5) attempts to strike a balance between abstraction of form and creating relevance amongst users. As Graves had once stated, we can’t have any purposeful ambiguity in our language unless there are abstractions. But at the same time we run the risk, if we are not figurative enough, of losing our audience.

There has to be some balance between what is figurative, what is associational, what is understood as symbolic in terms of its figural association, and what is multifaceted in the sense that the abstraction allows the several readers to read what they want into the composition. [21] Graves’s formal choices in the Portland Building reflected a nostalgia for culture, where the architecture becomes an image in itself, not only as an homage to the past, but as an attempt to create a continuation between the past and present. It was in his creation of architectural form through means of semiotics that allowed Graves to re-establish the thematic associations invented by our culture in order to fully allow the culture of architecture to represent the mythic and ritual aspirations of society. [22]

The suggestion of historical depth and nostalgia in Graves’s work allowed for misreading based on the user’s perception and thus created potentials for new meanings to be understood. The ambiguity of meaning opens up possibilities that may not have been considered through the sole intentions of the designer as a dictator of meaning.

Misreading through memory

Our collective memory as shaped by cultural background and upbringing dictates our abilities in deciphering architectural meaning. With regards to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory on the collective unconscious, archetypes recorded throughout history stand to guide users in experiencing, feeling, and observing patterns of a similar nature. These collective memories, thus, allow users in discovering a multitude of meanings from our built environment. [23] With this in mind, the critique towards modernism’s abstraction and stripping of meaning formed the basis of Charles Jencks’s belief in our inseparable relation with connotation stemming from dominant cultural preconceptions. As stated by theorist Geoffrey Broadbent, all buildings symbolize they inevitably carry meaning. [24]

In relating knowledge and language as crucial elements in forming our perception of the built environment, Jencks theorized the production of meaning as a result of the user’s projection of their observation in relation to past experiences. This layering of collected knowledge in parallel to the reception of new ones curate a series of individual understandings that become valuable in deriving significance from the built environment. Jencks argued that the man-made world is built up of fragments from the past. We live in a pluralist world confronted by competing philosophies, and knowledge is in an ad hoc, fragmented state prior to some possible synthesis.[25] Thus, the relation of unexpected recognition of objects of the past amidst knowledge of the present evokes a sense of new found familiarity that is unique to misreading through memory. As a result, understood meaning fluctuates between the designer’s intent and user’s reception, and such layering of vague and indefinite meanings from one’s perceptive readings gives rise to a subjective evaluation that is complex in nature, but builds potential for a richer understanding of our built environment.

Ambiguity in the flattened symbol

Nevertheless, the misreading of form through pure iconographic ideologies leads to the flattening of complexities. With reference to Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s distinction of buildings into decorated sheds and ducks, the misalignment of meaning between authorial intent and user interpretation leads to the distortion of architecture by an all-inclusive symbolic form. With the phenomenon of blatant symbolism exhibited at the forefront of architectural form with little disguise in introducing a subtle layer of coded meaning, users tend to misread built forms as pure and iconographic symbols. There is a flattening of meaning into one that is purely literal and direct where the built form is read at the surface level with flawed relations to the user’s known references. The CCTV headquarters in Beijing demonstrates this point where the twin tower connected on the ground and roof as a twisted loop stands an allegory to the 24-hour cyclical nature of the news industry, while the irregular grid on the building surface is representative of the forces travelling through the innovative structure. (figure 3)

Albeit OMA’s rational and inventive approach, users interpreted the building through an iconographic misreading as a pair of trousers, and conveniently nicknamed the tower big boxer shorts. Along with the misreading also came a mild denunciation of the building as part of the influx of designs by foreign offices, with locals demanding more focus on the domestic architectural arena and raising questions on the nation’s reliance on imported ideas. [26] As another illustration of this phenomenon, the Fangyuan Buliding by C.Y.Lee architects (figure 4) offers a similar perspective where the building form’s resemblance to an old Chinese coin is immediately recognizable. With regards to the designer’s intent of creating a hybridized object of Eastern and Western ideals, the imagery of an ancient Chinese coin is combined with modern materials of steel and concrete, and the true shape of the figurative image is represented honestly through the building form.[27] Although this may be true, the implications of object-oriented ontology reassess the role of objects within our built environment and reveal their positive implications.

In utilizing the theoretical ground of Tom Wiscombe, he once stated that things are not transparent to knowledge, they do not reveal themselves all at once. They are only accessible obliquely, through hints, allure. [28] The above mentioned buildings evoking misreading through their form exist as semi-transparent entities where their meanings are not fully transparent to the knowledge of the user, and such understanding is dependent upon the user’s own cultural or educational background. The meanings as interpreted by the user, and as intended by the designer pose to be equally as valid, where the kitsch allows for architecture to be readily accepted by the general public. The easily acceptable iconography grounds the familiarized form as a relatable object, where the redefinition of traditional or vernacular forms masks architecture into becoming effortlessly accessible. Furthermore, the iconographic misreading of form is telling of design intents within Chinese culture where projects often put substantial emphasis on figurative concept. Regardless of the mismatch in figurative reading from the users and formal intentions of the designer, the importance of this allegorical reading in striking a connection with users alludes to the roots of figuration in Chinese culture and its positive association with newly introduced foreign architecture. As a result, architecture becomes a medium in reflecting societal values at certain periods of time with the misreading of form as a basis in reflecting the cultural milieu of that era.

Accessibility of Ambiguity

With misread meanings in mind, one may argue that there is a limitation to the impact of ambiguity on broadening the scope of possibilities in deciphering coded meanings in our built environment. The embedding of historical and referential meanings within built form restricts the scope of understanding within a specific circle of people that possess a certain type of knowledge to decipher the implanted meanings. Such meanings may also become unclear and blurred in nature where form no longer follows function, forms become overly complex with a lack of clean lines, and ornament is used in unnecessary ways. As an illustration of the illegibility of design intent, the Portland Building by Michael Graves (figure 5) attests to this notion of misinterpreted meaning where the building received mixed criticisms from the mismatch between designer intent and user reception. Contained with a civic program, general users lacked the knowledge in deciphering the building’s embodiment as a symbol in bridging the lost connections between the past and present, and its role in establishing thematic associations driven by the local culture.

It was heavily misread and later criticized by its users for its superficiality in its incorporation of a high traditional aesthetic that borrowed elements from the past, yet lacked inherent function applicable to the present time of the building’s construction.[29] Appreciation towards the built form only came later from architectural critics such as Vincent Scully who applauded Graves’s use of color in generating a somber atmosphere with a hint of sorrowful character and the manipulation of form in evoking feelings of nostalgia and suggestive of age. The acknowledgement of embedded historical depth and nostalgia that stood in opposition of Modernism’s ahistorical timelessness[30] was one of the few appraisals that came with the building in a positive light amongst the critics of the discipline. With this in mind, on the opposite end of the spectrum are architectural forms designed by firms such as BIG, making use of iconographic diagrams in producing authentic statements as frozen gestures. (figures 6 and 7)

Though the legibility of meaning is clear and made accessible to all, the dictated reading by the designer prohibits any form of misreading and oversimplifies architectural intent. Though one can say the simplified means are able to communicate with a wider audience, such meaning lacks dimension that in turn excludes any further construction of richer understandings of culture and thus, becomes objective and one-dimensional in its connotation. If ambiguous meanings were clarified and made legible to all, our built environment would become overly simplified and decipherable to a point of banality. Such oversimplification would restrict any means of open-ended imagination, where meaning becomes learned knowledge instead of interpreted understanding.

Meanings would be reduced to objective facts rather than subjective connotations. 6. Conclusion All in all, misreading brought about by form through ambiguities in the difficult whole and familiarized form stand as a means to generate new readings of borrowed elements in the past. In their roles of creating a continuum between the past and present, time-based associations work to evoke levels of familiarity in new forms, and thrive on accumulated knowledge that propel our abilities to decipher embedded meanings and borrowed references in a new light. The ambiguous misreading of our built environment allows for a disordered, yet multidimensional understanding of embedded connotations through a subjective lens.

With the emergence of designs prioritizing simplicity in their conceptual origins, the inherent neglect of ambiguous meanings stemming from contemporary firms such as MVRDV prioritizes a representation of architectural ideas to the public domain. Their favor towards diagram oriented design overly simplifies and flattens meanings into a form of consumable product that prioritizes clarity in its communication of ideas. Albeit popular followings on their diagram-oriented means of generated design, architecture embedded with ambiguous meanings that allow for fruitful misreading would give rise to a more dynamic, and unpredictable means of design generation amidst the commercially driven array of projects with heavy emphasis on economic efficiency at the forefront of our discipline today.

Cite this page

Familiarity Forms in Architecture. (2019, Aug 20). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/familiarity-forms-in-architecture-essay

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