An Inside Void: Architecture’s renewal in the sciences and its contemporary meaning – Tudor Manda

Tudor Manda is a graduate in Sociology and Anthropology from Université Saint-Louis in Brussels, and in Cultural Studies from KULeuven, with great interests in  diverse cultures from around the world, in the study of “other” civilisations, and the liberal arts. He is currently diving into the financial and banking industry.

taipei-101
Taipei 101. Image credit: Peellden via Wikipedia

An Inside Void: Architecture’s renewal in the sciences and its contemporary meaning – Tudor Manda

In all the big cities of the world, urban architects are making space for the imposing new-style skyscrapers. The trend started with the skyscrapers’ first appearance in the urban realm, sometime before the Second World War. However, the metropolises of the world commenced their trajectory to the heights early in the fifties. When Europe was busy rebuilding itself and the whole western world needed new values to make up for those terrible years of the war, skyscrapers seemed like a potential escape from the reality of the ground. In this article, I will focus on three main ideas. They revolve around two primordial theories discussed through the spectrum of skyscrapers – namely the texts of Jonathan Culler and Rosalind Krauss. Firstly, Culler’s text discusses the position of the skyscraper as an object in reference to its opposition in Greimas square of authenticity (a semiotic tool used to illustrate the relationships between oppositional concepts). The second main idea is based on Culler’s metaphor of the tourist in contrast with the travellers. I will aim to show how this metaphor can also be understood in the scope of the signification of skyscrapers, and the purpose and feelings they inspire. The third main idea will develop Krauss’s ‘grey zone’ argument on the differentiation between landscape and architecture. I will further this argument and underline the difference between structurally functional towers – such as inhabitable towers or offices – and structurally disturbing towers – such as sculptures or panoramic towers. Fusing these three ideas into one develops the argument to another level: the overall implications and implicit emotions a city with skyscrapers evokes to the everyday individual. To support my point, I will refer to two main articles: one by Charles Peirce on the three-step logic to the construction of a sign, and the other by Michel de Certeau on the uncanny and disturbing feelings roused in us by skyscrapers.

A square for the heights

The towering buildings hosted by many cities around the world are the fruit of many different factors. It is these which, ultimately, create the tall skyscrapers we recognise today. The Harvard magazine columnist Jonathan Shaw quotes the American architect Scott Johnson: “Today, ‘like so much in our lives, skyscrapers have become semiotic things’”[1]. It is in this spirit of change and development towards what is yet to be defined by time or collective will, that I enquire on the signification and the vital importance of our transforming cities with the building of new glass-sheathed skyscrapers. I need not mention the global impact the modern – if not post-modern – architecture on cities worldwide had with the tallest building in the world in Dubai, the Burj Khalifa. In fact, close to half of all skyscrapers in the world have been built since the Millenium, with the entire top ten by height sitting outside of the USA. Today, sky-reaching buildings are constructed not on the grounds of a particular company’s need, but on the initiative of the state and the private building industry[1]. Through the collaboration of ideas and modern development, architecture is at the crossroads of determining the state of mind, the Foucauldian episteme of the time we live in.

I would like to begin the semiotic analysis of the skyscraper by drawing up Jonathan Culler’s authenticity theory and implementing it to our case using Greimas’ square. I will develop Culler’s metaphor of the tourist and the traveller later on, but I would first like to underline the authenticity of the skyscraper as a symbol within the cityscape. He develops the idea that the figure of the tourist is one that is dependable on context,  that one tourist can always find someone more ‘touristy’ than himself, and that the idea of someone or something seeming authentic or inauthentic is only a question of perspective. The idea of the ‘tourist’ is the idea of being inauthentic, which is in opposition with the image of the ‘traveller’ – an individual that dives deep into the country’s culture he visits.

This divide is ubiquitous. Every individual will feel authentic in contrast to someone else from the same environment. A tourist is the embodiment of “the lowest of the low”, as they are attracted by the superficial elements of the culture they visit[2]. They are focused on the markers of a culture and are seeking the objects that remind them of the place and the moment they visited. In this respect, Culler argues, tourists are essentially semioticians’ friends, for they regard every sign within a new culture as being simply a sign referring to something yet unknown to them. Whereas the traveller explores the meaning of the sign and tries to blend in with the culture so as to understand it from within, the tourist regards everything surrounding him as a just a sign, a representation of objects, and “fails to grasp the essential semiotic function of these markers”[2].

A.J. Greimas develops the idea of a semiotic square where each corner is an ideal type of how individuals see their authenticity represented through their actions. As such, the traveller would be authentic, the white (S1), and the tourist inauthentic, the black (S2), leaving two other angles in the square for e.g. the commuter (-S2) and the shopper (-S1) who are neither tourists nor travellers. The S1/S2 line is the signification of the sign, whereas the –S1/-S2 line is the absence of signification. Whilst S1/S2 and –S1/–S2 are contrary pairs, S1/–S2 are contradictory, thus making the relationship between S1 and –S1 one of implication.

semiotic-square-1

To apply this paradigm to our case, we need to understand what kind of ‘inauthentic’ skyscrapers exist. If the new glass-sheathed skyscrapers are ‘the authentic type’ (S1) (because of an ideology prevalent in these times seen as an authentic model of new abstract architecture), then the ‘inauthentic’ (S2) skyscraper must be neo-gothic old-style tall buildings, such as the Brussels’ Town Hall tower in the Grand-Place, or the Notre Dame de Paris.

 The main reason I chose to present the first square in this way is because in the late fifties and early sixties  big European cities such as Brussels and Paris were in the midst of urban and social change. The political positioning of governments at the time was in favour of a tabula rasa of old neighbourhoods, on which a new skyline and cityscape would be built. This meant that the old architecture became inauthentic, desolate, and inefficient for the new needs of cities. The idea of building new glass skyscrapers lingers on from this first initiative. This is especially true of the new One World Trade Centre built last year near Ground Zero. Its new architecture and height is symptomatic of the current trend in architecture, along with other towers such as the Burj Khalifa and Taipei 101. In a nutshell, architecture has changed its course and everything that is old style or from an old fashion of architecture is seen as inauthentic and unappealing.

inside void 2.jpg
L-R: The Woolworth Building, Notre-Dame de Paris, and Brussels Town Hall. Image credits: Aude Vivere , Jerome Blum, and Alina Zienowicz, all via Wikipedia

Architects are now also being put to the test with the construction of tall buildings using intricate and sophisticated technology, keeping monumental structures upright. For instance, the Taipei 101 tower bears a complex system of pulleys and counterweight balls to limit any damage from earthquakes. This complex engineering, in comparison with older types of skyscrapers, is yet another reason the new post-modern skyscrapers are seen as authentic. Another example was the old 20th century concrete Martini Tower in central Brussels, which, after years of construction, gave its place to the glass-sheathed Belfius Building which now dominates the city skyline, looking as if a spaceship just landed in the heart of the European capital.

These two reasons combined – social policy and technology – justify the authentic positioning of skyscrapers in our new world. But, as the American reporter Pete Hamill notes, New York City is becoming more and more populated by taller and taller skyscrapers. More than 15 new skyscrapers are set to appear by 2020, all of which are at least 700 ft (213 m) [3]. This is not without downsides. As he writes about the effect of New York’s change with time:

“In Manhattan, the new super-thin, super-tall buildings are blocking the sky, casting long, arrogant shadows on streets once caressed by sun.[3]

“Even classic old buildings are caught in the swift tides of time, modernised into luxury residences. One of these is the splendid Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, briefly the tallest building in New York. Its majestic presence still reigns over downtown, even though dwarfed by its newer neighbours.”[3]

This leads to my second semiotic square to define the authenticity of the skyscrapers. Hamill sees the new skyscrapers as a nuisance, a bad idea, the inauthentic, and the old style neo-classical or neo-gothic 20th century buildings as the authentic, where “European craftsmen [were] working to make the walls speak”[3].

As such, in this square S1 is the dominant prowess and the architectural art of (neo-)classical and (neo-)gothic tall buildings, such as the Woolworth building, whereas S2 would be the modern glass skyscrapers such as the Gherkin, The Shard or the ‘Walkie-Talkie’ in central London. The square would be drawn up as shown below with (-S2) and (–S1) respectively being neo-gothic towers and functional factory towers. The new meta-terms for S1+S2 would be something that is white and black at the same time, authentic and inauthentic, such as the gothic churches whose towers reach high in the skies and yet still retain the gothic architecture in Western Europe (and somewhat in the USA). The common meta-term for (-S1)+(-S2) would be the neutral and seemingly ugly and useless towers of the city: such as flagpoles and old abandoned towers. As for the meta-term between S1+(-S2), it would be the warm structures architecture sets up as being part of the arts. Finally, the S2+(-S1) meta-term would simply be the opposite of S1+(-S2), that is, the concept of architecture as a cold science, a mere method of building tall buildings, more of a form of engineering rather than arts.

semiotic-square-2

This proves that Greimas’ square of authenticity is subject to change through time, but is also dependent on the perspective adopted. We can decide if we regard skyscrapers as a positive symptom of social and economic change, or if they are inauthentic as a way of dealing with new needs.

The key to understanding the implications of a sign such as a skyscraper, whether glass-sheathed or old-styled, is to look into what a skyscraper resembles most. What defines a skyscraper and its core structure, as a work of art in architecture and overall human culture, is the willingness to reach the skies. As the Russian academic Natalia Zlydneva argues, the tower can also be considered through the point of view of the natural landscape. It appears as a human invasion into scenery with the purpose of adapting some upright oriented shapes in the wild […] to human habitat[4]). The whole structure of the tower is to infer an upward movement to the skies, denoting a sense of growth and dynamism to the entire surrounding area. The skyscraper dominates the environment around it, and implies the articulation of two distinctively opposed concepts in human culture, such as Earth and Space, or horizontal versus vertical. According to cultural anthropology, she underlines the elementary, mountains-inspired, upward motion pushing humans to build standing structures higher than nature could ever accomplish. It is the most basic and universal of human images[4].

Defining how to consider and analyse a towering structure such as a skyscraper also has its political connotations. As I have demonstrated, we can reflect on tall buildings according to Greimas’ theoretical tool in three distinct ways – all three being valuable to understanding the whole concept.  

The imminent feeling one gets from interacting with a skyscraper, whether we are entering one for the first time or we simply work in one, is crucial to understanding the semiotic signification and the overall representation the towering building presents to passers-by. Hamill is rather sharp in defining this feeling:

[New York’s] architectural face is colder, more remote, less human, seeming to be sneering. […] From the viewpoint of a card-carrying member of the street-bound rabble, most of these new buildings are examples of engineering mastery, not architectural beauty.”[3]

“The entire island of Manhattan, from Inwood at the top of Battery on the south end, seems to be glistening with new buildings, their glass facades blinding us all on sunny days.”[3]

His notes are quite enlightening in understanding the feeling of skyscraper’s presence in a city. A massive construction teeming with lights and mirrors, dominating its environment with its abstract and seemingly meaningless architecture, is intimidating and austere to the outside viewer – ultimately, the consumer. The passer-by is essentially the consumer of the façades and the architecture of the skyscrapers. She or he is the sole individual who will judge its structure as art and whether it is in accordance with its time here.

The architecture of glass-sheathed buildings is austere and cold, but not only that. Culler’s argument turns around the figure of the tourist, which is that of an individual who does not understand the meaning of objects and signs in the culture he visits, and buys keepsakes that are the essence of what it is to belong to that culture. As such, he seeks what is the most German element of Germany, for instance, without realising that Germans never buy the said object. It’s as if the object they search for is the one that combines everything they imagine being German is all about, without appreciating the fact that it is what Germans do that determines what German culture is[2].

As such, individuals perceive and understand the buildings through the way they link them to something that resembles it. Skyscrapers made of cold steel: the mirror-like glass resembles shining knives, transparent and public glass, and mirrors. These objects all entail similar ideas of penetrating the intimate parts of private life, individualising actions, people, and their habits. It aligns with the unwelcoming, inhuman, and alienating dimensions of glass walls and doubt-inducing mirrors. They feel as though the people working inside them are losing their humanity, and those who do not belong to a skyscraper are alienated. There is no freedom of belonging in such a building. Its main purpose is to intimidate, individualise, and dominate the emotions.

Similarly, the people working inside the building might be feeling the exact same way: they themselves do not understand the building or its meaning, and so feel alienated. Its size is not only dominating, but also superfluous: what could so many people be working on in such a big banking, financial or government building? Or rather, what institution needs so many people to work in the same spot for? Both the tourists and the employees are faced with the corporate culture’s collective secret; in a way, only those having worked there long enough understand what this is all about and how the architecture and overall structure of the outside and inside of the building is to be comprehended. The tourist may link the feeling of skyscraper to the figure of the man’s suit: the embodiment of austerity and cold human interaction. Everyone working in one wears one, and they all seem pressed by time.

Finally, the fact that the skyscraper’s façades are made with glass is not neutral. On the contrary, it gives a mirroring effect to the rest of the area, but also to the light of the sun. This makes the building almost nonexistent, a mirror of its surroundings. It does not create any emotion other than bewilderment, and pure housing for daily corporate work. It is the pinnacle of what post-modernity and its departures do, in a way: it repeats, it simulates old fashions and ways of conduct. The skyscraper itself, though, cannot stand for anything. Its only statement is intimidation and austerity, all the while blinding you with the sun’s rays and the surrounding architecture.

A fine line of steel and stone

inside-void-3
L-R: Brancusi’s Beginning of the World, Rodin’s Gates of Hell, and Brancusi’s Infinity Column. Image credits: Artists Rights Society via Dallas Museum of Art, artinthepicture.com, and Cycling Tour 2016

Many articles have dealt with either the construction of the skyscraper or the reaction one gets from interacting with them. Krauss’s theory deals with the fine line that differentiates between landscape and architecture, and how the distinction between one and the other is not clear-cut. For instance, when dealing with ancient monuments and artworks such as Incan land drawings or post-modernist sculpture, where does sculpture finish and architecture start? Essentially, both are ways of art. As she states, sculpture took a rapid turn to the abstract after the Second World War. The preliminary elements to such a move were already felt through the end of the 19th century with Rodin’s two pieces Balzac and Gates of Hell.

As she discusses the new age of sculpture that arises with the end or the limits of modernity:

Sculpture, it could be said, had ceased being a positivity, and was now the category that resulted from the addition of the not-landscape to the not-architecture [5].

Many examples come to mind, but I think the most prevalent one is the one she mentions, namely the sculptural heritage of the Romanian artist Constantin Brâncuși. With his ‘Beginning of the World’ or ‘The Kiss’, he divided the arts into new components, and diversified the realm of sculpture to abstract art. He incorporated the base of the sculpture in a way that makes it the “morphological generator of the figurative part of the object”[5]. It gives the sculpture a home, a place to sit on that is its own personal space on which to exist[5]. The sculpture relevant for us, naturally, is his ‘Infinity Column’, towering in a few cities of Europe and Romania. It is the pinnacle of abstract sculpture. As this illustrates, the difference between sculpture and skyscrapers is two-fold: functional, and artistic.

Architecture took on the same division, in a way. Sculpture fragmented itself to fill up the void between landscape and architecture. Skyscrapers are the symptom of architecture also being drawn to fill up that void. As I mentioned before, skyscrapers reflect whatever surrounds them, and interact with consumers in a cold and austere way. It liberates the mind of any constraining way of thinking about that piece of art, whether architecture or sculpture. Skyscrapers exist as a clear statement to the world, being built on (as is sometimes the case for these buildings) a sort of larger structure where the official entry sits, upon which the skyscraper stands – in the same way Brâncuși did with his artworks. As a tower, both the Infinity Column and the skyscraper are a symbol of universal masculinity. But they are not the only ones that have imposed their dominance on the landscape for time immemorial, nor are they the only way of creating a sort of symbolic violence, in Bourdieu’s terms. The pyramids are what is left of some of the greatest civilisations on the planet: the Egyptians and the Mayans. These structures have stood up for millenia, and have become ultimately part of the landscape. They reached for the sky in an attempt to dominate and intimidate the surroundings. Mimicking the mountain peaks, they created tall structures, as we do with our skyscrapers[4].

Whilst the pyramid has become part of the natural landscape – Egypt’s landscape cannot be pictured without them – the skyscraper has become part of the city landscape. However, with the advent of the ‘anthropocene’ era – a new epoch in which planet Earth has been transformed so much by human activity that it we have entered a new geological era – one can argue that the skyscraper and tall buildings will also become part of the natural landscape. We have moulded and changed our natural environment so much, taking for our inspiration nature’s high mountain peaks, that we cannot distinguish anymore between the pure landscape and the pure architecture. The latter will dissolve with time into the former, in the same way the former has dissolved in the latter through the art of architecture and the science of engineering.

This is crucial for skyscrapers not only because they are new to the cityscape, but also because, paradoxically, they don’t bring anything new. It’s a form of not-architecture representing a certain workforce, in a building mirroring its surroundings. It wants to be accepted, and the way it does so is by reflecting whatever it is surrounded by.

I have discussed up until now the semiotic meaning of a skyscraper through three main perspectives. First, I addressed the building through the spectrum of its authenticity and how it is positioned in Greimas’ semiotic square, depending on the adopted viewpoint. Secondly, I elaborated on the overall meaning the ‘tourist’ figure has in Jonathan Culler’s article, and how it can also be interpreted in our case. These two arguments have been supported by Pete Hamill’s article on the overall emotion New York City’s new skyline provides to the consumer. Finally, I dealt with Krauss’s article on the differentiation between landscape and architecture and the fine line that divides them. I have tried to show that the new skyscrapers are nothing more than a new type of abstract sculpture, bridging the gap between that which is landscape and  that which is cityscape.

The void the skyscraper creates inside and around us is symptomatic of a much deeper void inside the art of architecture and art in general, one which needs to be filled. We have yet to redefine the core of artistic visual art, and by extension architecture. As the first form of art, it was the first to be corrupted or compromised by the sciences, and the engineering tendency of making art. It created a void that is currently being supplemented by the sciences. It is not a bad thing, but art creates meaning, and feelings, and emotions. It defines humanity, defines our interactions with our peers, with ourselves, with our unconscious and our repressed parts of ourselves. It is not a blank canvas for the sciences to try out art, it is a way of fashioning an identity.


Endnotes and bibliography

[1] Shaw, Jonathan. ‘Skyscraper as Symbol’. Harvard Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Jan. 2016. http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/05/skyscraper-as-symbol , accessed on the 9 Jan 2016.

[2] Culler, Jonathan. ‘The Semiotics of Tourism’. Framing The Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions. University of Oklahoma Press. 1990

[3] Hamill, Pete. ‘New New York’. National Geographic: ‘Mary: the Most Powerful Woman in the World’. National Geographic (Magazine). December 2015.

[4] Zlydneva, Natalia. ‘The Tower as a Semiotic Message’. Koht ja Paik/Place and Location 6 (2008): 83–90. Print.

[5] Krauss, Rosalind. ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’. October. Vol.8. (Spring, 1979) on JSTOR.

de Certeau, Michel. ‘Walking in the City’. in During, Simon. The Cultural Studies Reader 3rd Edition. Routledge. 2007.

Merrell, Floyd. ‘Charles Sanders Peirce’s Concept of the Sign’. Peirce, Signs and Meaning (Toronto Studies in Semiotics). University of Toronto. 1997.

The Nerdwriter1. The Next Era of Architecture. Jan 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zs57jh7kHcI&list=FL5VLJlVpOfwru11QoPDA odw&index=2 , accessed on the 11 Jan 2016.

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