React Native Learning Curve
Architecture’s domain is that of the language: by its material presence, architecture speaks to us in a discourse of aesthetics, and the most relevant aspects of this language are perhaps not what is being said, but to whom it is being said, and more fundamentally for whom it is meant to be intelligible. Through forms that act as a spatial prose, architecture speaks all the languages of the world. However, specific works of architecture often speak a language that only a certain group of people can comprehend, and it is by this process of selective intelligibility that architecture defines power relationships between members of our society. Architecture in this sense comprises not only of physical, but also of audible walls and doors/windows that regulate the accessible and the “out of reach”, the transparent and the opaque, often in an implicit but pervasive manner such that the reception of the message by architecture’s audience is more akin to unconscious hearing than conscious listening.By being intelligible to some and unintelligible to others, the aesthetic discourse of architecture uses the domain of the language to influence dynamics of power and give spoken consent to social hierarchies.
Some works of architecture are intended to be acts of communication: in such cases, it becomes part of architecture’s function to be explicitly legible. The urbanism and policing of Paris during the 18th and 19th centuries is an example of architecture as a deliberate act of communication, through which the streets were reorganized, the buildings were given numbers, and the whole city was slowly transformed into a legible system of data meant to help the police enforce law and order. The language of the city was explicitly written and archived in the “Paperholder”, an extensive catalogue of citizen data and detailed city maps. Architecture, here the city of Paris, became an instrument of power through its legibility, in this case meant to be read and understood by the police while remaining mostly abstract for the general citizen.
Another example of architecture as a deliberate act of communication is the Panopticon imagined by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, where spatial geometry acts as a technology of legibility. A single observer, standing in the central tower, can access at a glance the full information that architecture communicates to him, here the behavior of the prisoners in their peripheric cells. Meanwhile, the prisoners are kept in complete ignorance, unable to access any of the same information and thus completely powerless in relation to the observer. Foucault associates this power imbalance with the dissociation between the acts of seeing and being seen, thus visual knowledge provided to the observer and denied to the prisoner: “in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.” He argues that the Panopticon, as an abstract mechanism, is a technology that embodies the new form of power in our modern society, a power that relies on the information made accessible to those who exercise it and “insidiously objectifies those on whom it is applied; a power that forms a body of knowledge about these individuals instead of deploying the ostentatious signs of sovereignty”. Architecture thus creates dynamics of power when it releases knowledge in a language that can only be processed by some individuals or groups, and with the Panopticon example, it does so while turning the powerless mass into the actual objects of this knowledge.
Architecture, however, is an act of communication even when it is not designed as such: if a building was doing no more than being what it is – being a house, a school, a prison or whichever building it is being asked to be, then we could say that architecture is silent. But architecture always speaks through its physical presence, its aesthetics, and we can look at the format of its language to understand how it gives shape to dynamics of power. The way a message is being said – the material qualities or the poetics of a speech, to use Jakobson’s model of the six functions of language – can say just as much, if not more, as the content of such message. The aesthetic language of architecture plays within this poetic function, using material qualities to address specific members of its audience, often triggering an emotional response and one that is more powerful than a logical understanding of architecture’s function. Referring to infrastructures, which are also vehicles of language except that they police the visible/invisible (Rancière) rather than the intelligible/unintelligible, Larkin explains that to conceive of them as forms of poetics is to rearrange the hierarchy of their aesthetic forms and their technical functions, so that the aesthetic dimension is dominant: infrastructures then become metapragmatic, or “signs of themselves deployed in particular circulatory regimes to establish sets of effect”. The Soviet communist factories are an example of metapragmatic structures that had a limited technical effectivity to produce goods, but through their physical form they had the “political power to train subjects in a particular relationship to state power […] and to represent it to the people through the object of the factory itself”.
In a way that echoes Larkin’s description of metapragmatic infrastructures, architecture, too, tends to speak louder through its form and the various effects or reactions it triggers than through its programmatic function. Works of architecture sometimes speak concurrently on multiple levels, their form producing different reactions depending on the context or the audience: the US-Mexico border wall is an example of an architecture that creates what we will call a polysemic intelligibility. The form of the wall – its tall height, its seemingly uninterrupted length, its extravagant use of barbed wire and the high-tech surveillance systems it is laden with – suggests in the collective imagination of many Americans that whoever may be trying to cross that wall is a dangerous criminal. The level of threat is being perceived as proportional to the military apparatus deployed to keep that threat away, similarly to how Davis describes the “demonological lens” of the white middle-class imagination in American suburbia. From the Mexican side, however, the same wall might trigger a completely different set of reactions, from feelings of grief for the lives lost during attempted crossings, to feelings of longing for family members who live on the other side, or feelings of powerlessness from having one’s life defined by a border. The architecture of the US-Mexico border wall participates to an imbalance of power between the people who understand it as a barrier that protects their freedom, and those who understand it as a barrier that stands between them and the promise of freedom; both sides may be completely unaware of the existence of this duality in their understanding of the same object because architecture, by failing to bring them together under a common understanding of its language, further divides their respective realities.
When describing the privatization of the architectural public realm in the city of Los Angeles, Davis speaks of a similar polysemic intelligibility by which modern pseudo-public spaces “are full of invisible signs warning off the underclass Other”. Here, only the part of the audience toward which these signs are addressed is aware of their existence and reads their meaning immediately, while “architectural critics are usually oblivious to how the built environment contributes to segregation”. Davis refers to the Goldwyn Library by Frank Gehry as an example of an architecture that simultaneously excludes the underclass while fostering paranoia and an obsession with security among the white privileged class: the fortified exterior and the opulent interior communicate different messages to groups of citizens based on their economic and social standing, strengthening a pre-existing hierarchy of classes.
Victor Hugo said “ceci tuera cela”, claiming that the printed book replaced architecture as the primary vehicle of storytelling, of language, of knowledge archiving and transmission. I would argue that words, which today fill not only books but also the virtual world of digital telecommunications, do not have the monopoly of language. Architecture, by shaping our physical world, participates to a visual storytelling that communicates ideas and meaning at a different level and often more implicitly than words, but with effects that are just as powerful. Our modern society worships its visual culture: images are present everywhere and speak louder than ever, their hegemony having a central role in the cult of digital mass media. As an indissociable part of this visual culture, architecture is more than ever to be understood as an act of communication, and not a neutral one: by a process of selective or polysemic intelligibility, architecture contributes to shaping dynamics of power in our society.