Chapter 10

A discussion on meaning in Architecture

Nicholas Rank


After a brief introduction to the subject of meaning in architecture, the paper will present a conceptual model of what architecture is. This model has been found helpful because it brings together the differing aspects of the process of making architecture and shows the interrelation of these parts. A further discussion of different approaches towards meaning will then lead into a section which explores in a very hesitant way where a Christian critique can contribute.

Architecture v Building - The Distinctive Difference

'A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.' So claimed Nikolaus Pevsner in his introduction to An Outline of European Architecture. One might think that buildings were being classified according to type. But Pevsner, who taught many to see the beauty in fine utilitarian buildings, goes on to say '...the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal'. Quinlan Terry has taken this approach further: '... to give pleasure, to enrich the visual world - which, after all, is the chief end of architecture'.1 Terry is happy in making such a statement, because he is able to state that true and genuine architecture is classical, and therefore arguments as to aesthetics are resolved in reference to classical precedent. But if, with most people, one does not hold to Quinlan Terry's understanding of genuine architecture, then problems of defining aesthetic appeal arise. Today Hi-Tech has elevated objects which were never designed with a view to aesthetics, and at the same time many have found great aesthetic pleasure in oil refineries and oil rigs. Then there are those many buildings that find their way into books on the history of architecture that were never designed as such, much vernacular architecture, or, for example, the much admired villages of the Dogon tribe in central Africa.

What, then is that elusive quality that defines architecture? It is because architecture is an art form (and building does not pertain to the sphere of art). A special art form, yes, but it is this that gives, as Peter Blake once said, 'that one per cent that is architecture'. Common with all other art forms, architecture has to do at least two things, and it is in performing these functions that we see it define itself as something more than building. These functions, to do with communication, are:

(i) to evoke a response or reaction, with what Bronowski calls 'a unity of appreciation'.2

(ii) to be expressive of meaning, both for the artist and for the observer (or architect/user).

So a building takes on a significant role as a piece of architecture once it enters into a communication system with me which causes me to respond in some way to it and which causes me to perceive of some meaning in its form. For such a communication system to exist the following preconditions must operate:

(i) The building (and, per se, its designer) must have something to say.

(ii) There must be visible symbols that can express this.

(iii) The observer must know how to receive these symbols.

(iv) He must be able to translate these into his own thoughts.3

A simple example of this comes from Greek architecture. I decide to design and build a temple to Diana, and wish to make it suitably expressive of her character. I would naturally build in the Ionic order. An educated Greek person would see the Ionic columns, and understand what they stand for, and would soon be thinking of the character and nature of the goddess.

So, for this communication system to operate we have to have, observer and design, a shared cultural system:

'Participation in a culture means that one knows how to use its symbols through perception (experience) and representation (expression)'.4

We need to know our language, both grammar and vocabulary, what John Summerson calls in reference to classical architecture, quoting Wren, 'True Latin'5 and having learnt our Latin we can then start to say something with eloquence, and also knowing the rules we can know how to break them, as Michelangelo and other mannerist architects did. (One problem I see with post-modern classicism is that many users of it are not sufficiently versed in 'True Latin' to distort its grammar effectively; there is a danger of cracking crude and rather boring jokes.)

'The wealth of a language lies not in its words, but in the metaphors and associations which they stir in our minds. And these metaphors, these associations, are of ideas. If we fail to recreate it for ourselves, it is because we are not at home with the basic ideas on which it stands.'6

And so we see architecture as entering into our culture, taking in more than simply fulfilling the utilitarian task that a building has to perform, or as Bronowski puts it:

'All created works ..... are extensions of our experience into new realms. All of them must confirm both to the universal experience of mankind and to the private experiences of each man.'7

What is Architecture? A Conceptual Model

I think it would be valuable here to present a model of what architecture is, accepting its role as a special art form outlined above.

Norberg-Schulz has suggested that 'architecture is a human product which should order and improve our relations with the environment.'8

In undertaking this task, a building has to fulfil itself in the following areas to create an architectural totality:

(i) Building task - the function of a building.

(ii) Form - an appropriate 3D form, physically, spacially, psychologically, culturally, etc.

(iii) Technics - to stand up, etc.9

Building Task and Technics are relatively straightforward to discuss, it is in establishing an appropriate Form for a building that problems arise, and where meaning in architecture becomes relevant.

'Today the architect bears the ...... responsibility for making science as well as art visible and familiar, and for having each influence and enter into the other. Architecture remains the crossroads of new science and new art' (Bronowski).10

Meaning and Form in Architecture

When observing a building we assimilate the form and seek to find some way in which we can relate to it, looking, in other words, for meaning in the form.

There are at least three levels or types of meaning to be found in architecture.

(a) Psychological meaning.11 & 12 Based on psychological brain activity, in which certain forms are seen to have a significant meaning to human make-up. For example relationship to basic platonic shapes, etc. It is suggested that psychological meaning should be permanent and the same for all people.

(b) Symbolic meaning. Each society or culture establishes certain symbols which hold meaning for that society alone (eg Black for Death). These meanings can be lost (what is the meaning of Stonehenge?) or changed (meaning of Gothic Cathedral from church to museum).

(c) Meaning expressive of function. Function (not simply the building task, but the total cultural, psychological and social function) will be reflected in the design, giving a depth of meaning to the form. A Law Court is more than simply a building for judicial hearings; in our society the building form symbolizes (i.e. means) - law and order - equality - justice - democracy, etc. However, the form will only be meaningful if we relate to the function.

'.... one cannot have significant form without significant functions.'13

Or, as Rapaport would put it:

'.... meaning is not something apart from function, but is itself a most important function.'14

Meanings associated with a built form are arrived at in one of two ways.


Consciously designed in content or meaning. This can be lost over time, or the understanding of the meaning change.


Attributed to a design by society, but not intended by the designer.15

Realization of the fact that the content that we, as architects, intend a form to have can either be lost or changed by society, should be a humbling experience. We need to learn that society will take over and adopt in its own way our buildings. As an extension of this humbling experience we need to realise that society might find buildings more meaningful that have not been consciously designed by an architect (i.e. vernacular architecture). We need to be aware of the danger that popular meaning systems and our specialist one may not coincide.

'.... architectural critics and historians have pointed out that the real functions .... of an entire building, could be quite different from those expressed in its design and perceived by different people.'16

There is a danger that we, as architects, speak a specialist language that is unknown by the layman. If they do not know what our symbol system is they will not find the meaning we intend, or, as Robert Venturi puts it, '.... architecture that depends on association in its perception depends on association in its creation'.17 So there is a danger that we will fail to communicate to the observer/user of our buildings, and our buildings will not operate on the level of a communicative art form (as discussed above) but may fall into the category of building.18

So, a designer needs to address himself or herself to the important question of whose meaning is being discussed, the designer's perceptual understanding or the user's associational understanding. Is there sufficient understanding of the process of changing meanings? Is the architect developing an architecture which really says what he or she wants to say? 19

Roles for Meaning

I wish to discuss three important roles for meaning in architecture which I believe should colour our own thinking as we approach design. These ideas come from writers who are not Christian, and to some extent represent modern humanist values, but I believe they show ways in which our designs can take on a significant role in the built environment.

(a) Architecture can give identity and structure within the environment.

Kevin Lynch, in his seminal book The Image of the City, analyses ways in which elements of the physical environment help us to structure and understand the City. This, Lynch believes, is vitally important if we are to live satisfactorily in the modern city. He identifies the important concept of 'Imageability' which he defines as 'that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer' (p9).

Throughout his book Lynch identifies several key terms for elements which enable us to structure our image of the City (path, domains, etc). These need not be buildings but it does help us understand the role purely architectonic elements can have in giving identity.

(b) Architecture can help people to establish a foothold in their world.

Christian Norberg-Schulz has been the person most responsible for presenting this view. In several of his books he develops the thesis that architecture enables people to establish an 'existential foothold' giving them a 'meaningful existence'. A Christian might argue a certain limitation of this view, but I feel that it is nevertheless of importance because his concept underlines the importance of architecture to a society. I can do no better than quote at length from the preface to his book, Meaning in Western Architecture (Studio Vista 1975):

'Architecture is a concrete phenomenon. It comprises landscapes and settlements, buildings and characterizing articulation. Therefore it is a living reality. Since remote times architecture has helped man in making his existence meaningful. With the aid of architecture he has gained a foothold in space and time. Architecture is therefore concerned with something more than practical needs and economy. It is concerned with existential meanings. Existential meanings are derived from natural, human and spiritual phenomena, and are experienced as order and character. Architecture translates these meanings into spatial forms .... Architecture ought to be understood in terms of meaningful (symbolic) forms. As such it is part of the history of existential meanings. Today man feels an urgent need for a reconquest of architecture as a concrete phenomenon ....'

Towards the end of this book, Norberg-Schulz argues that people are able to gain a foothold in the world, find an identity, by their ability to 'abstract and generalise' from the physical world around them, to establish as a consequence '.... the laws which govern natural and human processes'.

To some extent we can see Norberg-Schulz's ideas as a philosophical development of Lynch's. He makes extensive reference in his writing to Lynch, and is attempting to flesh out Lynch's sociological conclusions. He explains the need to understand the role of culture in establishing a symbol system (as discussed above) and of the specific role a place can take in a system of meaning (cf. Lynch).

'.... my image of the town where I live gives meaning to its elements, be it buildings, streets or squares. A public existential space is constituted by the most stable, common properties belonging to a large number of private existential spaces' (p420).

In his book Intentions in Architecture, he develops a slightly different theme, discussing the importance of 'judgment' to help us 'understand' the world around us. (p27ff). Faced with an unusual situation (eg. in an exhibition of abstract art), we find it difficult to judge, we lose our understanding, our position in the world is less secure. It is partly because of this that there has been a reaction against modern architecture.

'One of the reasons why the public reacts against modern architecture, is simply that it does not offer any new visual order as a substitute for the "devaluated" styles of the past. It has certainly created a new "vocabulary", but so far no hierarchy of meaningful "signs" which may serve the purpose of expressing the way of life of a society' (p21).

I have made considerable reference to Norberg-Schulz's ideas because I believe they give a valuable understanding of the role of architecture in a society, and therefore how an architect should perceive of his or her task.

(c) Architect as enabler, to allow the user to bring their own meaning.

The third writer whose ideas I would like to discuss is another American, Lars Lerup. In his book Building the Unfinished (Safe Publications 1977) he proposes that the architect comes to a point where he leaves off and another takes over.20 Like Norberg-Shulz, he suggests the role of meaning in architecture, but stresses a different emphasis, that the user brings the meaning.

What is important here is how the dwellers construe particular buildings, how they take buildings into account. In other words, people are not responding organisms but active individuals who in their approach to things produce meaning' (p20).

Lerup makes mention of Habraken's concepts of 'supports' to propose that the architect should approach design with the attitude of 'building the unfinished', allowing the user of a building to complete, with their own 'habits and actions'. This whole approach is typical of the currently popular psychological view of architecture, that works on the assumption that architecture is more than the physical environment.

'Space is experience - not a noun but a verb. The physical in-between plus people's occupation of it is space' (p150).

The Consequence of Building - The Role of Meaning

There are therefore certain clues as to the way that architects should practise their art in light of the consequence of meaning as a major component in the make-up of architecture. I wish to conclude with a few comments on the consequence, set against a hesitant Christian critique. Hesitant, because I am now moving into a new ground, much of what has gone before is established theory.

(a) Our Architecture is reflective of our culture and society.

'The architect does not work in a vacuum. His or her products are solutions to problems coming from the environment .... The architect works in "situations" .... made up of economical, political and social conditions, of cultural traditions ....'21

Norberg-Schulz makes plain here the consequences of our action. As we work we produce designs which reflect our world view.


John Stott named an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount: Christian Counter-Culture. We must be aware of the prevailing secular culture of our society and reflect the counter-culture that comes as a consequence of following Christ.

Economic, political and social conditions.

There is an increasing Christian critique of the current economic and social make-up of society.22. We must design in awareness that our designs reflect the economic and social order. What are the consequences of building for speculative developers, for certain sectors of industry, for development in inner city areas, etc?


I hinted that Christians might not accept whole-heartedly Norberg-Schulz's ideas. As Christians we already have a sure foothold in the world, and we do not need to look for created objects to give us that understanding. How do we see the role of meaning in our design? And what consequences does that have for a secular society which uses our building?

(b) Our Architecture can give hope and human scope.

Lerup's ideas suggested ways in which we should approach design to enable the user to take over. This is in contrast to the determinist approach to design that believes in the very strongly prescriptive role of the architect. We should be humble in our task.

(c) We must accept change of meaning.

The discussion above has pointed to the way that meaning can change over time. We must be aware of the consequences of this, and again accept our role with humility, but gratitude if a society does take over a building and ascribe to it its own meaning systems. However, another consequence of this could be that a society or culture could ascribe to our building meaning that we would feel counter-Christian. Is it possible to insure against this?

(d) Is a Christian Architecture possible?

Defining architecture, ascribing meanings, is a joint task between designer and user. Accepting that we live in a post-Christian society, and that the majority of people who respond to our buildings (not simply users but those who pass by) will not have a Christian world view, and therefore not be able to share a Christian meaning, can we ever create a really Christian architecture? If we attempt to, it will fail because the majority in society will be unable to relate to this.

(e) Christian and Non-Christian Meanings.

In the light of the above, and bearing in mind the fact that most sources quoted in this paper are not specifically Christian, but nevertheless ones which I can largely accept, is there a major difference between Christian ascribed meaning and a humanist one? This is not to deny that there are major differences in humanist and Christian philosophy, sociology and psychology, but does architecture bridge the gap in the way it communicates, because, as I have suggested, communicating understanding is as dependent on the receiver who interprets as the speaker?

These tentative suggestions are put forward to generate discussion. They need amplification and many others may well be developed. We have a privileged role in society as designers because of the way we can 'speak' to society through our design. What is the meaning of what we say?

'What you should try to accomplish is built meaning. So get close to the meaning and build' (Aldo Van Eyck).

'By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures' (Proverbs 24: 3, 4).


1. Quinlan Terry, 'Genuine Classicism', in RIBA Transactions 3, p12.

2. Jacob Bronowoski, 'The Shape of Things', essay in The Visionary Eye, MIT 1978, p39.

3. Amos Rapaport quotes a more comprehensive set of necessary elements for effective communication as:

1. a sender

2. a receiver

3. a channel

4. a message form

5. a cultural form

6. a topic - the social situation of the sender, intended receiver, place, the intended meaning

7. the context or scene, which is part of what is being communicated but is partly external to it - in any case, a given.

In The Meaning of the Built Environment, Sage Publications, 1982.

4. Christian Norberg-Schulz, Meaning in Western Architecture, BBC 1963, p3.

5. John Summerson, The Classical Language of Architecture, BBC 1963, p3.

6. Jacob Bronowski, 'The Imaginative Mind in Science' in The Visionary Eye MIT 1978, p28

7. Op. cit. p32. Jacob Bronowski, 'The Imaginative Mind in Science'.

8. Christian Norberg-Schulz, Intentions in Architecture, MIT 1965, p22.

9. This is Norberg-Schulz's definition, but it accords with many others, notably Vitruvius/ Wootten, Makintosh, Venturi, etc.

10. Jacob Bronowski, 'Architecture as a Science and Architecture as an Art', in op cit p56.

11. Psychological and Symbolic meanings are defined in Brian Lawson's How Designers Think, Architectural Press 1980, p144.

12. Panofsky has identified three levels of meaning, which relate to the meanings defined here. I find that the definitions I have used are more easy to apply in an architectural context that Panofsky's.

His are:

(i) Primary or natural subject matter.

(ii) Secondary or convential subject matter.

(iii) Intrinsic meaning or content.

13. Malcolm Quantrill, Ritual and Response in Architecture, Lund Humphries 1974, p48.

14. Amos Rapaport, The Meaning of the Built Environment, Sage Publications 1982, p15.

15. Rapaport suggests that designers react to environments in perceptual terms, whereas lay people (the users) react to environment in associated terms. A Rapaport op cit p19.

16. J P Bonta, Architecture and Its Interpretation, Lund Humphries, 1979, p14.

17. Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, MIT 1977, p131.

18. The problem of communication between architect and lay person has been discussed in two recent books - one rather heavy, Robert G Hershberger in Meaning and Behaviour in the Built Environment (ed. Broadbent/Bunt/Llorens, John Wiley 1980) - the other rather light, K W Smithies Principles of Design in Architecture, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981, p4.

19. Rapaport identifies an extensive list of questions in assessing the importance of meaning, and whether it works. His list could be used as a check-list for designers. A Rapaport, 'Debating Architectural Alternative' in RIBA Transactions 3, p109.

20. A similar view has been discussed in Glen Robert Lym's A Psychology of Building Prentice Hall 1980.

21. Christian Norbert-Schulz, op cit p21.

22. A recent work in this area is Paget-Wilkes, Poverty, Revolution and the Church, Paternoster 1981.

From Christian Dimensions in Architecture and Planning, ed. Ian Davis, UCCF Leicester, 1984

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