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Extracts from:  Peter Nesteruk, A Rhetoric of Time in the Arts: Eternity, Entropy and Utopia in Visual Culture (2011).




From:  Chapter Five:  Utopia and Dystopia:

Eternity and Entropy in Twentieth Century Architecture.



Contents: three experiential parts (the lived environment, the visual field), State or religious structures and the city street and square (‘two-’ and ‘three-part’ signifying structures), the human body and the pillar, Louis Sullivan, ‘form follows function’, ‘ornament’, definition of the ‘three parts’, New York (Manhattan) and American architecture, solar evolution in new York, Entropy and Utopia, hypsosis (the solar and ideals), billboards, ‘minorities’, Historicism, the New York Stock Exchange (1904), Art Nouveau, Modernism, Art Deco, Historicism and Post-modernism, our ‘Room’, the ‘continuous present’, time and the three parts, light, the ‘rhetoric of eternity’ and the Solar, Nature & Culture (again), Ironies (antiphrasis), follies and the Arch (II), public and private meanings (the State), ideals and ideologies, Capital and Market (the Invisible God), Entropy and Dystopia, Globalisation and Global Warming.





Foregrounding the three experiential parts or layers of our built environment enables us to describe the lived experience of architecture and its meanings. Subjective experience and objective differentiation have evolved together in an intimate feedback loop whose history which reaches back through the Renaissance palazzo-form and its medieval predecessors, to that Ur-form of urban life, the Roman insula (with its differentiation between the ground story, the taberna and the apartments rising up above). The employment of these experiential parts and their temporal analogues in the analysis of the modern cityscape does not imply a formalist method allied to an assumed essentialism, rather it is due to the recognition of the evolution of experience and the history of our collective expectations and perceptions. These categories reflect the need to register the actual experience we have of buildings and the meanings this experience generates, including a set of temporal–semantic equivalents.

These equivalents, as we have seen in the preceding history of temporal rhetoric in the visual arts, are bound to audience realisation - and maybe even to author strategy, to artistic intention or persuasive rhetoric. This insight has been carried over into architecture; with the provision that the fluid context of the built environment -the 'framing' of a building- may significantly alter the realisation of its social meaning. The temporal aspects of visual culture, the temporalisation of spatial cues, are read as providing the self with its sense of presence (it sense, as well as content, of the present) and to objectify its inescapable and continuous intuition of past and future. This is the temporal positioning so necessary to identity and meaning-making in the most profound or metaphysical sense.

One highly significant symbolic aspect of temporal coding is the reference to the a-temporal, the ‘outside of time’ (a spin-off from the 'now moment’ with its inescapable 'duration', the 'eternal present' generalised into an ‘external’ fact). This sense of an ‘outside’ to our experienced temporality is intuited as a personal support, of a rhetorical (because unreachable) 'outside' of time in to which key existential, identity and other significant belief-supporting propositions can be placed, as it were, beyond the reach of history with its contingencies. The term most generally used for this most important ‘place’ is ‘eternity’, the myth time of tribal societies, the heaven and hell of ancient and feudal religions, and the universal, a-historical, or essential realm of axiomatised systems of thought. The symbolism of eternity has been read as a key player in the making of social meaning, the foundation and cement of belief systems, religions and ideology, until the twentieth century (where we shall see its form mutate, not once but twice, as new relationships of general meaningfulness take hold).

Potentially legion, or just single, the experiential parts of a building, of the built environment, or of our culturally constructed 'second nature', appear, in practice, to number two or three only (broadly speaking, the State or religious building, such as the Classical or Baroque temple, and the city street with its debt to the Palazzo style). Often a ‘two-part building’, or signifying structure, is found to consist of a section with a clear physical function supporting a section with a distinct symbolic function (sign section above entry section); or these elements may be found to be augmented into three parts: top, middle, and bottom (layers or parts themselves can also be found differentiated in this manner). The role of the solar (the top, or end point of a rising gaze) is usually the focal point of the building's symbolic message, an ideological entity underwritten by the suture of eternity with duration (and what better than a part which soars, which points, which hovers, which floats above, and behaves as both incarnation and index). The solar, therefore, is the part devoted to reflecting society's meta-narratives; the site of meaningful decoration. ‘Single part’ buildings, or unitary signifying structures, are comparatively rare, and begin with the Pyramid (considered as a unitary form framed by its base and its context as part of an extended temple complex) and may be found again, at the other, most recent end of architectural history, with the arrival of structures such as Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Gugenheim Museum (1997) and Beijing’s CCTV Building (2009).



Three layers to the built environment.


The three parts or horizontal layers have evolved into almost completely separate zones of meaning, each carrying a different group or range of meanings. The middle or facade has become vestigial - or else its symbolism has become fused with that of the built environment as a whole; part of the cocoon of material culture. When interrogated by the gaze the middle responds to human curiousity, a manifestation of desire which itself is concerned with desire, what is it people do behind those windows, whether shielding work place or living space? The question of how others live, not least including our ever-present sexual curiousity, is stimulated by the perusal of the window walls of the modern city, and by the experience of the suburban (bedroom) window too. The top, our solar, carries the most significant social meanings (a general absence of solar is also significant as we shall see). This is the realm of sacred meanings, of the symbolism of first and last things, and also the expression of the care put aside, or abrogated, by a society for its urban landscape and the feeling it evokes. The bottom-most level, the entry-fronting, has become the carrier of more local or immediate meanings (of information and advertising, with this latter function expanded into metaphysical meaning in state or religious buildings). For most the ground-floor strip of the city is the place of shopping, real or imaginary, of commodities and identity, as we find ourselves reflected (quite literally) in the objects for sale behind the windows into which we stare. Three kinds of space the temporality of which configures three kinds of desire (sacred, sexual, and the desire for recognition that forms such an important part of our identity) or reflects and perpetuates three aspects of human identity (religious/metaphysical, sexual/sexed, individual/collective), otherwise put; our place in the world, our place in embodied, reproductive (of bodies and things) existence and our place in the social world - three aspects of our ‘tie-in’ to the exchanges that make up the social world (ideas, feelings, commodities/objects).



Subjectivity and architecture, our ‘room’…


Whatever the configuration, the decorations (and anti-decorations) on view are the walls that enclose us. An enclosure for whose walls we ourselves are responsible; for they are at once our mental as well as our physical constructions. Fruit of mental habits as of physical labour. An enclosure, if we are outside, with an open top; a room (or jar) without a lid. This general or exterior sense of ‘room’, reflects our inner sense of ‘room’; the ‘space’ of consciousness. Inner and outer room, of course, are one, are the same (perceived signals are formed into a sense-making ‘reality’ in our brains, vision, the placing of the eyes before the brain, prove this ‘space’ with a place in the world). Whence the reliance of self on outside information or perception to form (as well as fill) the self. We feel as as if the self is separate and ‘looking on’, occupying a space in the room of our head; but we are this ‘room’ as well as the exterior replicated within it, whence space’s ability to alter our mood which gives the lie to this, that sense of separateness - or rather, this sense, our sense, of space and our time, which is us.[1]

       However our sense of identity also requires recognition (confirmation, renewal, anti-entropic ritual) given from without; individually as collectively, on a small scale (greetings) as on the intense, normally cyclic, large scale of major festivals (where the rhetoric of eternity, guarantor of identity through sacrificial expenditure comes into play). In this sense the self is a ritual structure. The basic role of ritual is to counter entropy; of the self as of the social, with which fabric, through a thousand exchanges, the self is interwoven. The experience of the outside as such, a recognition of the outside, as also a recognition by the outside, as constituting sanity within. The recognition and return of the physical outside, the architectural outside, also carries ritual force. As does the symbolism we place there. For the enclosure we inhabit is a ritual enclosure, set in a perpetual feedback loop. ‘In’ and ‘out ‘: two mirrors facing one another.[2]

In this way it is that the ’walls’ about us, of the built environment as of our visual sense (walls that are also windows), are not only experienced as manifesting buildings, layers, and features, all with potential significance for the embedded viewer; but also found to be manifesting compressed versions of this whole, each a mise-en-abime, a space yet again re-framed. Such spaces distil significance, suggest special meaning (frame), intensify meaning (ritual), as such operations or repetitions must, as with painting and photography (so all art, like the visual aspect of a poem, or a poem read, a piece of music, framed in time). Art as a window on the wall.


So it is that one aspect of the facade, of its ubiquity in street and square, not least after its growth upward, is as an extension of the walls of the soul, the well of life, the sides of our human 'room'. The ’prison-house’, not of language, but of vision; of the visual field and its role as chief perceptual support for our sense of placement in the world. This sense, if made from received perceptions, is equally culturally made and individually, culturally flavoured, so marked by our socialisation and learning, our habits, our habitus (in Bourdieu’s sense of cultural place, being positioned in a cultural hierarchy). So we continually gaze as if onto a mirror of recognition and sanity, our second nature, both received and made (‘received’ equally from nature and nurture, from input and from concepts: ‘made’ mentally and physically, as we refashion the planet after our own image). But not consciously planned (even if the God of Reason attempts such planning): our actually-achieved reality is always in excess of the Idea.

Indeed the facade or Middle may be read as a screen. A sheet-like, smooth surface, perhaps a wall of flesh, our world as womb, or breast if we are as infants, our home. At once the walls of our perceptual enclosure, our canyon or fold, and an image barrier ‘between’ self and reality, the ‘thing for us’ as masking the ‘thing for itself’ (Kant) the inorganic made organic, maternal (by imagination, a prosopopoeia, and in actuality, in its replication or (re)creation, within us). This screen effect is further performed by the glass curtain wall of the modern city-scape; functioning as a collective mirror, showing back to us only the inside of the collective viewing subject – inciting our desires. Reflected is the street's outside, even as we in turn reflect on the building’s inside from our own ‘inside’. Itself ‘outside’, ‘thing in itself’ parallel to that beyond the wall of representation, the hidden beyond, the figural, sublime or absolute outside – in parallel with the hidden and mysterious 'inside' of the building itself. Again parallel with our own ‘hidden workings’… masked by a screen ‘eternally present’.

Within these walls. Given ourselves as a sense of the ‘eternal present’, eternally vulnerable to our ‘room’ outside, no sooner perceived then rendering oneself, inside, its support and ideational matter of constitution. What then are the basic temporal co-ordinates of the modern high-rise city street? How do our ‘semi-present’ windows onto the past and future interact with the environment we see and that we ‘are’. If the physical foundation of our world, the place of the foundations of our built structures, offers one limit or extreme pole or our symbolic-temporal universe, one covered over, concealed from sight, then the other pole lies, at the opposite extreme, up, luminous, visible, home to our spiritual foundations. As we have seen, the upper reaches of our senses and the imagination they feed, offer heaven above and the solar regions just below - both of which call to our stare. So an initial intuition would give the value 'past' to that which lies invisible below the feet; 'down' becomes 'before'. This felt association is literally true in the geological and archeological sense, as a nature superseded, or built over, by a given culture; literally, as well as figuratively, 'below' is the place of history, the place of the buried past. A buried past that sustains, in our human imaginary, the mythic past, but also, it terms of archaeological evidence, disproves it.

The 'now' of the continuous present, our here, obviously enough, finds its analogue in the entry-fronting, taberna, or ground floor strip whose immediacy often extends into the lower facade. If the continuous present, our ‘eternal present’ is where we forever find ourselves, are forever finding our-selves, then the reflective glass strip of the urban high street, together with its shop-window contents, that which we wish, or are wished (by others) to buy, to complete ourselves with, supplying that which is missing, is its most accomplished realisation. A manifestation, which through linking the gift aspects of identity (sacrificial exchange) to the commodity exchange that dominates our social form, repeats and performs our self-constituting experience or place in the present. A confluence of self and objects we find in the superimposition of our mirror image and the clothes and other objects we would buy in the simultaneous reflection and transparency we witness in the window that both reflects and admits our gaze.

The facade as Middle, or facade properly speaking, insofar as we raise our eyes to and focus upon it, as far as we separate it from the general sense of our ‘room’ in the world, may take the past or future in the sense of our imagination depicting what has happened or will happen there, in effect the imagining of a repetition (of a repeated action - traversing past and future). So one step removed from immediate proximity as presence, as present, there, on the other side of the windows (a curiosity about other people’s lives which is often sexual in nature). The future is also implied in the eye-lifting required by the vision of the upper facade and solar as an aspect of their relative absence or distance.[3] 





The temporal insights gained from taking a given portion of the built environment, be it a building, street or square (part or whole, layer or totality) as an act of persuasive communication, as a performative identity exchange, or just ‘simply’ as a piece of rhetoric, would include the location of unintended ironies, or antiphrasis. Everyone is familiar with Shelley’s famous poem, ‘Ozymandias’ (1816), where the time-savaged remnants of a past empire bear the proud, but deeply ambiguous phrase, ‘Look on ye mighty and despair’ (intended as an act of boastful comparison of the achievements of civilisations, vaunting that of a particular tyrant, the comparison is in effect noting the inability of civilisations and particularly tyranny, including, by inference, that of the present, to endure). The ironic relation that obtains between past intention and present interpretation is one that may be found in many aspects of architectural hubris.

Potential discrepancies between the idea of a past glory encrypted in the size, style, and visual rhetoric of the building, and the situation (cultural, ideological, or historical) of the present viewer who is in a position to reflect upon transformations in the building's material and spiritual contexts. The resulting contrasts may result in a critique of the past, (or the present, if the apposite tradition still continues) by means of the contradictory relation that the two historical viewpoints produce (antiphrasis). It is here that a traditional ideology, or immanent, critique would look for the disparities between an ideological proposition (a subjunctive proposition masquerading as an indicative) and a proposition describing 'actual' (indicative) social relations.

We have seen, for example, the rhetorical claims of solidity and ever-lastingness of banks and other financial institutions (including Wall Street), as configured in appropriations of the Classical and of the Renaissance extended fortified entry-fronting, some of whose symbolic affectivity did not survive the financial crisis of 2008. Then, of course, there is all and every ruin (including the latter day parodies of such, appropriating and re-duplicating, not the meaning of the original building, but of the remains, of the ruin and its retrospective meanings). But whether ruined or not, there is one architectural tradition, perhaps one of the oldest forms of architectural rhetoric, those relation to self-proclamation offers a hostage to historical fortune the world over: the Triumphal Arch. From the Roman Forum, with its arches, battered and half-sunk, its images and messages half-erased, leaning, their current state contradicting their claims to ever-lasting empire; to those constructed under the rule of Sadam Hussein, in Baghdad; and including, on a more humourous note, the depredations of context we sense in the Arc de Triomphe, Paris, - now the centre-piece of a traffic roundabout!

If we stay in Paris for two examples from the late-20th century we may puzzle at the Tschumi ‘s, Parc de la Villette, Paris, a late-modernist folly (whose experienced vacuity is in direct contrast to its intellectual readings!).[4] This reader came to pray; but could only mange a self-embarrassed smile. Returning to the arch we might then marvel at the Grande Arche (de la Defense) also a form of modernist grand statement, proposing France (by synecdoche, the whole that surrounds the capital, which it overlooks) as the site of the Modern and the Rational (all due to the modernist, minimal form of the cube, here form rather than text performs, rather than states, the meaning). So the Modern frames the nation; making of the building a physical identity proposition. Quite literally as the frame of the empty cube, ‘frames’, that is, looks back over central Paris.

Perhaps the key 21st century example of the Arch tradition and its attendant, or intended, meanings, would be the CCTV building in Beijing. Touted by its designer as the latest thing in engineering and a veritable revolution in architectural use and meaning, the resultant building is, in terms of public sign, very little more than a traditional Triumphal Arch replete with the meanings associated with such (like the Grand Arch in Paris, it bears no text, its form is the message). Indeed in the eyes of the public, it amounts to much less; as witness its nick-name, the ‘giant pants’ or ‘dakucha’). Whose act of architectural daring, becomes in effect a celebration of the conservative role of the media in the society in question, in the putative ‘modernity’ of that society’s institutions and governance. As with other buildings of state governance, modernity has been yoked to the (subjunctive) notion of endurance and legitimacy – however the very monolithic nature of such designs undermines this message. As with the putative message of transparency and access intended by the glass wall of the massive atria these institutions often possess, we only need to contrast these to the glass wall of the Strasbourg Parliament (complete with its famous ‘cracked-open’ tower) to see the difference between an attempt at using architectural rhetoric to imitate openness, and that of a pure rhetoric in the context of denied access. Perhaps finally we do indeed have a ‘society of spectacle’.

       Interpreting architecture as the carrier of a profound, indeed, invasive, social symbolism begins with its relations of second meaning, the decipherment of significant form or ornament together with their various connotations (taken in the broadest sense to include a part, the solar layer, or a citation, a pediment, or a detail, egg and dart molding). However, as with the interpretation of literature, as with the all language, indeed all communication, there are intended and unintended meanings; ‘in-coded’ meanings and pragmatic or actually-realised meanings. As we have seen in the cladding of banks and most cogently in the Baroque front (pediment or architectural sign-post), what we have is a ‘front’ with no behind, a message whose presence exhausts the structure, leaving behind the remainder, what there actually is behind, as a hostage to ‘other’ readings. This configuration has been much copied since; with a similar form of intended meaning (the ‘front’ or advertising hoarding), and a similar, and contradictory unintended meaning; that the structure, the means of expression, performs a message whose actual or pragmatic content is the emptiness of the proffered rhetoric, or content of expression.

Moreover, second, or figurative, meanings may be scrutinised for any affective role they might have played in the culture of the building's period of construction and its period of 'newness'; when it was regarded as historically original, before it became historic - before it became 'history'. Such a temporal reconstruction, or 'translation', may of course involve a complete transformation in the nature of the affective meanings posited to the past. These reconstituted meanings can then be contrasted to the meanings made by the present cultural viewpoint of the observer. The ironies which such a relation may produce are heightened by the further contrast of the implied future of the building's time of construction and first consumption (the past's projected future), and this relation's reduplication in the yet further, still unattained, future as seen from the present. We can see this clearly in the case of an originally up-town building, now in a down-town area, the fate of many of Sullivan's works in Chicago, as in the case of the, once massive, 19th century bridge (imperial, triumphal, like the Arch whose form it is some ways shares), now dwarfed, made to look squat and ugly, by the recent light and elegant, design of the modern bridge.  A contrast to the statement of an everlasting Empire - made shortly before its dissolution.

Such operations also involve a comparison of 'implied futures', where the present viewer's sense of the future, either extrapolated from some aspect of the building or related to the dominant ideas of the present, is contrasted against the particular sense of a future as implied by the past (by the building and its symbolic meanings as a product of this past, or by the ideology dominant at its time of construction). This comparison, between the past's projected future and the possible future trajectories suggested by the current cultural context, in effect the building's self-proclamation to future viewers, is a veritable hostage to utopian and dystopian readings. Not long after the communist take-over of power in China, we saw the building of grandiose state institutions on Tian’anmen Square; however their style is the central Asiatic, or desert style with a flat roof and extended colonnade, in complete opposition to local traditions, exemplified by a variety of ingenious pointed roof designs (as found, for example, in the neighbouring Forbidden City). The then new structures of governmentality echoed the structures built by the centralised despotic states of the distant past. Style may also be read as oracular; presaging the growing desertification of global warming.

Finally, readings given to architecture, based upon the implied, normative, socially accepted, dominant or cohesive role of architectural temporal symbolism (whether taken as ideal or as ideology, recommended or realised), may be opposed by an actual, appropriative, or resisting form of experience, reading, or consumption. This opposition or discrepancy, which we normally gloss as the public-private opposition (in the sense of public as opposed to individual interpretations, rather than of behaviour in public space as contrasted to that in a private space) has been described by Emile Durkheim under the term homo duplex, and, more recently by Micheal Taussig under the concept of the ‘Public Secret’: both contrast ‘official’ meanings to personal versions of the ritual, myth, narrative or symbol in question.



See also: Articles on Architecture on Website.




Copyright, Peter Nesteruk, 2011.

[1] See the following for recent attempts to retheorise ‘architecture’ from the point of view of the user, and as communication (even ‘intense communication’ - as Bataille would say): Mark Kingwell, Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City (Viking, 2008). Christian Norberg-Schultz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1980) FP in Italian, 1979. Alberto Perez-Gomez, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science (Cambridge: MIT, 1983), and Polyphilo, or the Dark Forest Revisited: An Erotic Epiphany or Architecture (Cambridge; MIT, 1992). Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge: MIT, 1992).

[2] With respect to the ritual element in our experience of architecture, see Ritual: The Princeton Journal: Thematic Studies in Architecture, Vol One, (Princeton: PUP, 1983). Ritual here is used not in the sense of general experience, but of architeture as incorporating features that suggest or echo ritual forms – as a rhetorical ornament. If Michael Graves, 'Ritual Themes in Architecture', does find for ritual as a basic concept for understanding architecture; it remains nevertheless for him mainly a font of ideas for composing architecture, to make it striking (pp. 52-56). Most of this study is based upon interiors, or decorative forms, on the uses of ritual for interior decor.

[3] The relative absence of the facade and solar when compared to the experience of the fronting suggests that they might be interpreted as connoting the past; indeed, this is what a historical (or literal) description of a facade or solar might involve. As the figurative (as opposed to literal) past, the facade and solar might be read as the repositories of the sacred in architecture. The reasons why the future is the tense to be preferred when evoking the sacred will be made apparent in what follows.

[4] Bernard Tschumi, Cinegramme Folie: Le Parc de la Villette (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989). Mark C. Taylor, Disfiguring: Art,Architecture, Religion, (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press, 1992) p. 247.