Reading the room: The Narrative Function of Architecture 1

text: Igor Vukičević,
architecture student at the University of Novi Sad

graphics: Ela Zdebel,
urbanism student at Technische Universiteit Delft

reading time: around 15 min

“I look at a tree and the tree doesn’t tell me anything. ​ The tree does not have a message; The tree does not want to sell me something. The tree won't say to me - ‘look at me, I am so beautiful, I am more beautiful than the other trees.’ It’s just a tree - and it’s beautiful. Nothing special - incredibly powerful.” 2

Peter Zumthor

1. The idiom ‘read the room’ means to understand the emotions and thoughts of the people in the room. In this case, the room ​itself.

2. Zumthor, Peter. ​Presence in Architecture – Seven Personal Observations, Tel Aviv, 2013.

Peter Zumthor was right in his remarks about a tree as an allegory to architecture. However, just because an object is not trying to ​sell ​ us anything does not mean it is not trying to ​tell ​ us anything. That inner voice of a place or a building could simply be considered as a reflection of our own, but the forces that brought it into existence have a loud echo as well. If anything, the tree communicates with the ground and the sky on a deeper, non-verbal level. It is the voice that visionaries like Zumthor hear when they visit the site of their future project and almost instinctively get a feeling of what the core of their project should be.

On a scale between Zumthor’s neo-modernist understanding of all architecture as inanimate and the contentious postmodernist stance on architecture as a vehicle for fictional storytelling, I find myself fluctuating somewhere around the middle. Indeed, good architecture is always pure and honest, often composed and quiet, but never a blank canvas. Just because a tree is not shouting at us does not mean we shouldn’t strive to hear its gentle whispers, or that we should restrain ourselves from giving it a voice. In fact, we should make an effort so that its words aren’t distorted or misinterpreted.

This leads to a simple truth that probably may be unnerving to many ​–​ there is always agenda in design. All architecture conveys meaning, whether intentionally or not. At best it’s complex, profound and liberating, but more often than not it is as blunt as “​Buy me!”. Architecture is nothing more than an idea channeled through space ​– ​even in a perfect vacuum it could not be considered devoid of narratives. It is a man-made creation and as such it could never be a tabula rasa.

Eventually any shifts in culture or the socio-economic climate emerge on the surface in the form of architecture. If we simply consume space without examining it, over time it can even shape our core values and beliefs. We are surrounded by multi-sensory information which is continuously battered into our living environments. Architects are supposed to function as primary filters of these environments, but often spinelessly surrender their role to their private clients. This malpractice results in all kinds of spatial pollution that usually causes an erosion of overall quality of living and a damaged psyche of the population. ​Even criminally depoliticized projects, stripped of any subversive potential, communicate some ideas. Architects’ blatant lies end up being as poorly thought out as their faux crown molding between the walls and the ceiling.​ At a certain point, all the original ideas are bound to mutate and concoct new meanings in their pluralist physical contexts. Carelessly planned spaces discourage an ability we all possess ​–​ to dive into the intentions behind the appearance of our surroundings.

Design is the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of ideology and one of the best tools for social engineering ​–​ a fact that all authority figures have been aware of for millennia and have rarely shied away from deploying. Like any tool, it certainly matters who’s in control of it and what it’s used for. Historically, architects haven’t always been trustworthy ​–​ if not by ignoring, then by misusing their agency in constructing a narrative while conceptualizing space. The patrons and the investors are the true puppet masters, even though they are notoriously uneducated when it comes to architecture. It is also important to note that the owner of the physical building does not, in any way, own the exclusive right to examine the narratives of the space they purchased. This is one of many contradictions of viewing architecture as plain private property.

3. Morby, Alice. “​Fendi moves headquarters into iconic Mussolini-commissioned building” ​ . Dezeen, 2015. []

4. “'Walkie-Talkie' skyscraper melts Jaguar car parts”. BBC News, 2013.

5. Wagner, Kate. Fuck the Vessel. The Baffler, 2019.

The shapeshifting use of spatial language

One thing is certain: the artisan, designer or architect has no agency after their project is complete. The creation is ripped out of the creator’s hands and thrown into existence. In a way, the beast is out of the cage and no public statement can bring any narrative control back to the creator or save his or her integrity. Nevertheless, understanding their original intent is crucial, no matter how the said structure gets reinterpreted over time. If the directive is missing, we often take the initiative to inscribe meanings and fill in the gaps. Some monuments like the menhirs of Stonehenge ​or the moai figures of the Easter Island engage us mostly because we are unsure of their original meaning, and are therefore free to read our own into them. They are perfectly silent, and yet contain a whole universe of semantic imagination.

However, if we ​do ​ know the intended narrative, all of our subsequent narratives are a reaction to the original one. This is clear in the case of ​Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a neoclassical piece of fascist heritage in the endless urban patchwork of Rome. Italian fashion brand ​Fendi ​recently inspired a conversation among architects by reimagining the ​Square Colosseum as their headquarters, with mannequins added to the facade alongside the existing sculptures.3 In this particular case, it is a positive example of unveiling the universal qualities of architecture that have, for decades, been buried under the narratives of its grim past.

The act of narrative-inversion can go both ways ​–​ top-down as well as bottom-up. Aside from the glamorous corporate visions for adaptive reuse of controversial buildings, there are also more grounded cases where satirical and slightly humiliating nicknames are given to authoritarian or elite buildings in order to subvert their narratives. The most famous examples are ​The ​ ​Walkie-Talkie 4 (20 Fenchurch Street) in London or the ​The Giant Shawarma 5 (The Vessel) in New York City’s Hudson Yards. Both are general public’s cynical reactions to the eyesores, aiming to strip away the power and the dominance the buildings try to impose on the urban landscapes. These are significant instances of resistance by the demos, which intuitively reacts in opposition to selfish private interests.

6. Official website of the Dismaland Bemusement Park.[]

7. Dinulović, Radivoje. ​“Ideological Function of Architecture in the Society of Spectacle”. Belgrade, 2012.

8. Aphasia, used here as a figure of speech, refers to an inability to comprehend or formulate language because of damage to specific brain regions.

9. Kushner, Marc. ​“Why the buildings of the future will be shaped by... you” ​ . TED Talk, 2014.

Another interesting example is Banksy’s ​Dismaland 6 –​ a glitchy, filthy and distorted reimagination of the well-known Disneyland​ amusement parks, which represent the peak of anachronic postmodern architecture. It mocks the dishonest idealism of its doubles that are packed with generic symbolism and semiotic clutter. Here, a work of pop-up, guerilla architecture is created in order to counter the narrative of its source material. Depending on the critical reception of a certain piece of architecture, these ‘nicknames’ and ‘artistic statements’ can also be neutral or even endearing, and are often embraced in architecture theory.

Architectural literacy refers to one’s ability to understand the abstract language of architecture ​– to read the subliminal messages that are conveyed through synthesis of its elements, details, materials and surroundings. It is a complex skill which requires both imaginative and rational thinking and there is no direct way to learn it. We can only make an effort to indirectly use our knowledge of history, politics and culture to map out and comprehend all of the invisible, soundless signifiers. Unlike the more obvious utilitarian or aesthetic functions which architects today are mostly preoccupied with, architecture’s ​narrative function 7 is a conglomerate of many –​ conceptual, poetic, promotional, educational, symbolic, ideological, political ​–​ and yet most of it somehow stays under our radar. This is how it manages to dodge critique and remain hidden in our daily affairs.

To live in aphasiac ignorance is tempting, but we must dig deeper than the surface. 8 Architecture may appear mute, but behind the comforting silence there is a whole spatial language which progressively evolved through every era of human development. Architecture never lies, it only hides the truth behind its discrete, cryptic symbols. If we manage to decipher them, architecture won’t ever be able to deceive us and we would become more open to fresh, new ideas. This is why massive concrete walls of brutalism failed to appeal to the masses that were accustomed to graceful (and perpetually recycled) Doric columns from ancient Greek architecture 9. Like any visionary feat in history, brutalism demanded a reprogramming of our aesthetic and symbolic norms and went beyond our visual perception by discarding architectural tropes. It failed because it proved to be too ambitious for its time. We were (and still are) architecturally illiterate as a society and those of us who aren’t are selectively rejecting to broaden the vocabulary. Why do we desire a chair that is adjustable to every curve on our body and yet leave the development of our neighbourhoods to city planners and the magical invisible hand of the free market?

10. Shen, Yiling. ​How Will Future Generations Respond to Modern-Day Memorial Architecture?. Archdaily, 2018.

11. Quinn, Dave. Men Spark Outrage After Bringing Blow-Up Doll to Ground Zero Ahead of 9/11 Anniversary. Yahoo, 2016.

12. Hatherley, Owen. Concrete clickbait: next time you share a spomenik photo, think about what it means. The Calvert Journal, 2016.

13. Monumental Atrocity of Capitalism. Antifašistički Vjesnik, 2018

14. The most well-known example is the microbusiness ​Yunicorns

The monumental importance of ethics

The text and the dramaturgy coded into space is most obvious in the typology of memorial architecture where you are, by design, invited to read between the lines. The architect carefully drew these lines to lead us to understanding the memorial’s official narrative, relying on our basic grasp of its visual and tactile language. That language evolved throughout the last century, as our understanding of tragedy greatly expanded after WW II. Memorial sites conceptually shifted from an idea of celebration of the victims’ heroism to evoking uncomfortable thoughts of their tragic demise. 10 The narratives went from historical specifism to emotional abstraction. Rather than grand places of hope, contemporary memorials serve as sublime spatial scars which disrupt the routine of everyday street life. Even the atmosphere itself is designed to provoke specific emotions and lead us to behave a certain way – usually to pay respect and quietly contemplate. However, even the most brilliant masterpieces of memorial architecture can be misread, either benevolently or malevolently.

One eerie example is the case of Daniel Libeskind’s ​9/11 Memorial ​ at Ground Zero in New York City, where a man brought an inflatable sex doll and threw a bachelor party just days ahead of the tragic event’s anniversary. 11 This confirms the notion that underlying narratives are fluid and unstable and can never be fully controlled or perfectly preserved from endless reiterations. No matter how improvised and temporary they may be – the space ‘remembers’ these occurrences and the new layers of meaning leave a mark. This is why monuments are essentially different from all other building types – they inevitably bring ethics into focus, front and center. Unlike for other forms of architecture, we even use the term ‘deface’ when speaking about these acts of dissent and we ‘victimize’ the site in order to draw a line between morally right and morally wrong.

Prescribing a narrative can also terribly backfire because we don’t have the proper education or even the confidence to consciously decode the messages it tries to deliver. The fascination with ‘alien’ post-Yugoslav monuments we cringingly refer to as ​Spomeniks is a testament to our intimate urge to ignore and erase architecture to a meaningless, empty shell.12 Even further – a surreal, photogenic object that is ours to perversely fetishize and commodify. Other than the infamous advertising campaign for sunglasses 13 that was filmed at the ​Jasenovac memorial ​ , we also see these monuments being sold as merchandise – from ‘cool’ figurines to ‘stylish’ T-shirts. 14 Capitalising on iconic architecture is not a new phenomenon, however it is far more ignorant and insensitive in the case of monuments that serve as stark reminders of anti-fascist struggle, war crimes or even genocide. Designed by Bogdan Bogdanović, the ​Jasenovac memorial ​ site, which lies on the border between modern-day Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, is dedicated to commemorating the victims who were killed during World War II in the concentration camp of the same name. It is this basic information that should be taken into account whenever we try to put a price tag on any work of architecture or use it as a marketing gimmick. In other words, we should be extremely careful when we add new layers of meaning, because any uneducated or clumsy move can have major consequences. Every new narrative alters our perception of the space in question. Ultimately, it can even be considered an act of historical revisionism. How can a network of monuments commemorating death and suffering be watered down to a series of mere ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic’ forms?

15. Livingstone, Josephine. Why Brutalism and Instagram Don’t Mix. The New Republic, 2018

16. Gunter, Joel. ​Yolocaust': How should you behave at a Holocaust memorial?. BBC News, 2017.

17. Hatherley, Owen. However brutal, the Yolocaust website gave meaning to Berlin's Holocaust memorial. ​ Dezeen, 2017.

Not all architecture is turned into economic capital – often times it is also turned into social capital. In the hashtag culture and the age of quazi-minimalist Instagram accounts that are littered with ‘worm’s eye’ perspectives and Dutch angles of contemporary facades, with almost no information or context given in the image captions, it is unsurprising that our understanding of architecture is tremendously superficial. 15 We have grown accustomed to equating the act of physically experiencing spaces with the act of scrolling down the pool of visual representations of those spaces. ‘Starchitects’ exploit this and use it as an opportunity to produce even more trivial architecture. The already blurry line between actual photographs and hyper-realistic renderings seems less relevant than ever.

This is the same culture that gave us ​Yolocaust ​– artist Shahak Shapira’s website that reacted to hip young people taking selfies at a memorial site. 16 By juxtaposing photos of kids playing hide-and-seek with archive photos of malnourished Jewish children, or people jumping between concrete blocks with dead bodies from concentration camps, he authentically reconstructed a haunting narrative of the memorial which its architecture lost over time. 17 The memorial in question is, of course, Peter Eisenman’s ​Holocaust memorial ​in Berlin which was designed to resemble a vast graveyard, but has gradually become a prosaic public space where tourists and influencers come for breezy photoshoots. Eisenman, like Zumthor, believes architecture should by default be “​a place without information”. He applauded the use of the space as an ordinary city square and was even opposed to coating the concrete with special graffiti repellents. To him, unlimited reckless freedom over the narrative is more important than the literal purpose of the memorial – which is deeply troubling in a political climate that is once again seeing the rise of the far-right. Pretending that a metaphorical graveyard has no coded meaning is just another case of an architect avoiding responsibility. The real dilemma here is whether we should treat it with equal respect to how we treat actual graveyards or is it ‘just a metaphor’?

Our contemporary predicament rewards us for our thirst for power and pleasure, but not for our quest for meaning. We see the ‘Yolocaust effect’ normalizing past atrocities and numbing our innate need to explore how an object’s narrative has changed throughout its history. In order to analyze and interpret something, one requires prudence and maturity. An awfully self-indulgent, but seemingly innocent act of whipping out a selfie stick at a memorial site can be vastly different from an artistic reinterpretation of the same place. Nothing should be banned or forbidden, but before we make any move we should accept that the narratives around us are interlinked with morality, and so we must take a brief moment to consider the possible implications and outcomes of such acts. Do we really need to play ​Pokémon GO ​ everywhere? Can we feel a place without documenting ourselves in it, in a continuous symphony of shutter sounds? Can we ‘read the room’ before we act?

Like books or music, the spaces we visit and occupy are narrative mediums that use text and subtext in order to communicate something ​to ​ us and ​through ​ us. Unlike in fiction, public memorials were often built in response to actual terror and human suffering. Even in contrast to all other building typologies, the scenically designed material structure is only there to lead us to understand the raw, unadulterated, immaterial sensation of the thematic subject it portrays. It can either condemn or celebrate – and invite us to do the same. If the memorial’s message is not heard loud and clear, its silence could be deafening.