language ¦ syntax

by Adriana Mogosanu

The readings address linguistic theory’s emergence as a highly influential system of thought during 20th century, from which architects derived a methodological framework to produce theories and objects. Theoretical developments in linguistics influence structuralist and deconstructivist movements in architecture, notably Saussure’s “system” based on humanistic thought, Chomsky’s generative grammar or Derrida’s deconstructionist notions. In linguistics, the paradigm shift starts with Saussure’s view of laws as providing meaningful, credible explanations, satisfying models of thought. Jameson’s “The Linguistic Model” situates Saussure’s thought in the context of pre-war, descriptive linguistics under the hegemony of New Grammarians, and tracks the evolution of his methodology to arrive at the notion of a “system” comprised of synchronic and diachronic dimensions. Saussure challenges the credibility of contemporary methods of investigation rooted in historicism and its codification, as he begins to distinguish between causes that are external to a phenomenon, and those that are intrinsic. In his search for meaningful explanations to the phenomenon of language, and in the absence of an object of study, he arrives at a distinct view which encapsulates previous methods and produces a counterpart that is liberated from historicism. By introducing the notion of a “system”, based on values rather than units, complete at all times, with synchronic and diachronic dimensions, “he is able to function within the realm of two mutually exclusive forms of understanding”, addressing both the structural and the historic. The System is understood in terms of values and relationships, based on perception of identities and differences. “What distinguishes a sign is what constitutes it”.

Patin’s “From Deep Structure to an Architecture in Suspense” follows the transition in Eisenman’s architecture and design theory, from his concern with creating an autonomous architecture, rooted in the syntactic dimensions coined via Chomsky to reaching a state of conflict, aporia, leading to a decentralized notion of architecture. Eisenman’s early work seeks to generate meaning by structuring space though the inherent logic of forms. His early architecture relies on the absorption and interpretation of linguistic notions into design through his theoretical writings, which become “descriptive and prescriptive”. As his design process veers towards post structuralism, his work becomes a fictional text, dependent on a misreading. No longer seeking autonomy, his architecture aims to be generative, revealing and actively participating in the interpretation of social construct and cultural context. The text is further concerned with how architectural theory bridges concepts from linguistic analysis to speculate on notions of meaning, culture, power, looking at aesthetics and autonomy in art. As minimalist art achieved its goal of autonomy, independence from context, its interpretation as an art object became increasingly dependent on institutionalization. The museum curates, plays an active and coercive role in the viewer’s experience of space and interpretation of art, but is itself an invisible apparatus.
Eisenman looked to Derrida’s deconstructivist theories to formulate an architecture that is able to reveal the museum apparatus in the Wexner centre, to make the internal conflicts visible, to challenge the autonomy of aesthetics in objects presented.

Dutta’s “Linguistics, Not Grammatology” broadly situates the discussion of linguistic models in architectural discourse and education in the postwar period, with an overview of the streams of thought generated through introduction of new concepts and vocabulary stemming from the study of language. These surround the tension between the natural and artificial, creativity and technology, the reduction of nature to machine, cybernetics and notions of organism. Architectural design is placed uneasily as a boundary science, concerned with using the machine for design but not designing the machine itself. The discussion gets centred from the broad sphere of debates surrounding the linguistic model to land on architectural education, particularly at MIT, where academic trends at the institution were permeated by notions of behaviourism, belief in organic grammars, and a general sense of pedagogical confusion.
It is fitting then, to look at Discourse, Porter’s dissertation at MIT as an applied example of problem solving tendencies in design schools during that period. Discourse is a computer language, a programmable assistant for designers. Porter finds that distilling the process of design into a usable descriptive code that can be the translated into program becomes as problematic as writing and developing the program itself. Tension arises at the movable boundary between human and computer fields of action, where the action of the designer itself is not well defined or pre-determined, and the process of the designer is mutable and will be influenced by the computer. Discourse’s intended capacity to help the designer achieve a sense of mastery, to aid the designer’s communication with himself comes somewhat in contradiction to the necessary disruption provoked within design behaviour by externalizing part of a typically interior process. Furthermore, design is not only concerned with manipulating and decision making based on data, but also contains a visual investigative and productive dimension. How does the visual exist within such a codified symbolic realm of data and concise descriptive entities? Porter describes in depth the process of design, but acknowledges there is a limitation to how much those visual tools can be translated into the program.

Due to the absence of an object of study per se, the study of language called for a distinct methodological approach and produced particular analytical models distinguishable from other disciplines. Its’ methods for parsing intrinsic phenomena down into morphological parts, systems thinking, transformational rules, generative capacity, processes based on signs, signifiers found a particular appeal in a field of design concerned with aesthetic and formal autonomy, in the context of intellectual movements shifting from descriptive processes based on extrinsic, contingent influences and historicism, to intrinsic, universalist laws and finally tending towards their deconstruction. Assimilating linguistic tenets into architectural theory was perhaps symptomatic of a concern for creation based on a nuanced understanding of the world that is not subordinate to external causality, a search for methods and vocabulary to conceive of creation as stemming from intrinsic laws, in a relational manner.

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