peter nesteruk (home page: contents and index)





Solar Myths (Anthropomorphism & Architecture)




The Anthropomorphic Fallacy: buildings are like people. Yet buildings do not resemble people, nor do they behave like people; although anyone innocently perusing the reflexive history of architecture might be forgiven for thinking so (Rykwert). It is not a question of mimesis, but of function; and not just of physical function - the interaction of material with human physiology - but symbolic function; the meaning of buildings to those who dwell within them or within their orbit. Anthropomorphism and mimesis are cognitive processes lead by tautology; if one looks for similarities one will always find them. Yet these strangely convenient similes explain nothing and inspire nothing; rather they are brought on after the event to justify or explain - yet without ever explaining why (humanist vanity and a circumscribed imagination are but two contenders for this lack of cogent response). If we are looking for answers to the question why in the field of  architectural meaning, then we must look to the relationship of architecture with belief, desire, recognition as part of the larger urban context, and to the relation of these in turn with the basic forms of the human field of vision (different in every cultural actualisation). Horizontals and verticals, eye-raising (hypsosis), the direction of light in relation to the source of light, perspective and proportion (and in the grouping of meanings, top, middle and bottom, the three key parts or layers of the urban experience); these are the building blocks of architectural meaning.


Buildings are not people (despite architectural theory from Palladio to Corbusier, the anthropomorphisation of Golden Sections and other theories of proportions). Yet buildings do have faces - those complex sign-giving systems we learn to read from birth. Moreover the face of a building is rarely on its head. From the Egyptian Pylon to the Institute du Monde Arabe (Paris), from Islamic calligraphy on the body of the mosque to the Christian palazzo tradition -where the face usually takes the form of the piano nobile- the face of a building is usually found in its midriff. Architecture signifies on its stomach (in cases where a building only has two parts, entrance and sign, such as the pediment and portico tradition of classical Europe or the temple form in China and the Far East, such buildings are, and not only in the preponderance of the symbol, top heavy). The sense of the top of a building is normally reserved for an upward pointing or touching which combines architecture with sky and skyline, always a sacred relation connoting a given culture's relation to the sublime. The top, or solar portion of a building, is (in Christian architecture at least) more akin to the crown of thorns on top of its face. This part of a building, be it point or line, draws the gaze upwards and does not look back at us as does the middle (as in the case of the windows or loggia of the piano nobile or the signifying face of a cathedral West Front with its staring statues and its stories to be read like an illustrated book). The opposition of spire or minaret to watchtower or lookout only carries this distinction further upwards.


Architecture: if we live and work within its walls then when without we read its public face. Like a consciousness faced with its other(s), caught up in the constant deciphering that makes up our social being, architecture resembles the interpersonal self/other relation insofar as it is an inescapable aspect of our symbolic life and insofar as its importance to our survival demands that it maintains a suitable set of expressions - a book of stone whose predictions are to be read by all. Architecture may be said to constitute the real tablets of stone of collective meaning. The architectural face offers a co-incidence of symbol and function (of symbolic and material function) key beliefs incarnated in the mirror of matter - a reflection of our thought processes and the metasets that guide them.  Only on this level, that of the inscribed body as signifying face, can the anthropomorphic fallacy be granted some credit - and then only as effect rather than cause - as the product of our means of comprehension (the symbolic aspects of our built environment as a by-product of our attempts at self-comprehension). Everything not owed to architecture's sheltering function is a sacrifice to the realm of signs.


The same may be said of that other great anthropomorphic influence in human life: God. (Made in the image of man; rationalised as the inverse of this process - with the result that we believe ourselves to be the inferior copies). The personification of the divine is understood as an infantile - or foreclosed- aspect of intellectual development by many religious traditions. Desperate thought falls back upon its own cherished self-image as the source of final understanding. All comprehension becomes a mirror relation, a self-regarding metaphor - like our science fiction which stubbornly finds human forms wherever it boldly goes (literature and poetry especially rely upon this trope, whether in the form of crude personification or in the guise of a more subtle prosopopoeia). Architecture may indeed reveal the face of God, but not as a copy of the human face, rather as the accretion and repository of ideals and limits, as the aesthetic relation to last things. Gesture too does these things. As buildings reach for the sky so they render society's heroic self-image. As buildings draw down the sky so they delimit its fiery horizons. As buildings frame the sky so they frame the human. Whether as face or gesture, the built environment clothes finitude in the garb of infinity. (In this sense even secular architecture contains the imprint of the holy visage, the motion of the blessing hand: in the world of meaning there is no secular architecture).


(II) Buildings are not pillars (Sullivan). Equating the palazzo form with the classical pillar was designed to permit decoration whilst denouncing decoration; to embellish physical functionality with symbolic functions by arguing for their fundamental nature. Yet the architect himself suggests that to be the bearer of a culture's more important collective meanings is a fundamental part of architecture's nature, that communication is a part even of its most basic social function. Architecture always exists as sign, in addition, or even prior, to its role as shelter. Furthermore pillars are not people (anthropomorphism again). Although they can be made to look like people (or is it people that look like pillars)? Over and above the history of the caryatid, this analogy appears to be particularly true of the proportions adopted for nineteenth century Historicist pillars, with the proportions of the lowest segment suggesting the demarcation between leg and body. But despite historical antecedents (the fluted lower portion on some classical pillars and their imitations in the Renaissance) these are new proportions which arrive with nineteenth century Historicism (for example, Rome's Piazza del Popolo in its final form, Vienna's Ringstrasse, Haussmann's Parisian Boulevards and similar forms in every major European city from Porto to St. Petersburg). But these proportions have a very different point of origin, one based upon an increasing scale and distance, of grandiosity and the demands of an expanding point of view. Magnificence, the need to be impressive, to be the mirror of the Imperial State, these factors explain the proportions adopted - and not a human measure with its classical antecedents. In the interior of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, the pillars that obey this rule seem strangely out of context; because originating in the heroic proportions of the exterior. Test: when buildings get still taller (as in Sullivan) these proportions are abandoned in favour of whatever the context demands (the leg is quickly abandoned in favour of the knee, and then the boot). Need we remind ourselves that capitals (heads again) support roofs and floors; only in ruins are they exposed gazing up at a sky they can not see.


(III) Buildings are not male sexual organs (are not phallic - at least, not always). Not all buildings are found standing alone, whether in fact or in theory (an anthropomorphic synecdoche -part for whole- also a figure without ground). The individual building: tumescent stone; standing apart from those that touch one-another. Immediate proximity expresses the opposite or complementary metaphor in a sexual-figurative binary which nevertheless encompasses the truth that many sacred buildings do stand out and stand up, whereas many secular, that is private dwellings discretely touch. Beyond these figures lie the aesthetics of trans-building; an aesthetics of three parts, transferring from vertical to horizontal the dominant axis of description; the vertical remaining as a symbolic deixis drawing upon gravity and light for its force. Architecture does indeed touch itself (as we might say moving from Freud to Irigaray in our strategic use of metaphor), but the important lines of contact are no longer those of legal entities, units of ownership, or ground rent, but those of the horizontal layering of the urban environment (not possession but perception dictates the lines of division). The lines of meaning run across buildings (and are operational even in buildings said to 'stand alone', beyond the building is its context, beyond this is the context of our architectural memory). The three parts of experienced architecture owe a large part of their significance to their relationship with temporality. Temporality and extra-temporality in architecture represent between them the twin poles of a mode of life, a way of being, a society and its conception of itself (with a future and a past, as well as a present) complete with a meta-set of sacred elements, its sanctified universal exterior and support; that part of every culture, every belief system, of every means of making a 'world', that relies upon 'eternity' as its safe haven and anchorage, a place set aside untouched by the storms of sublunary contingency.  Buildings are not penises (with apologies to Freud and psychoanalysis) although, as we have seen, they may be phallic, whether in their actual form or in the form of the theoretical edifice used to trace their silhouette. The confluence of the figures of 'heads' and 'standing alone', suggests that the (not only) Western ideology of independent masculinity as model for human consciousness may not be far away.



(IV) Buildings are not egos. Self-sufficient. Monuments to individualised consciousness. Fruit of humanistic endeavour, motivated only by rational self-interest; the fundamental unit of the Enlightenment. The second form of standing alone transposes the synecdoche up into the realm of prosopopoeia - with ego psychology as the modern method for the making manifest of the spirit. This reprise of the anthropomorphic synecdoche in architecture, like the masculinist model, ignores the collective role of language, culture and social life. Marlboro man is offered as the poster equivalent of a deracinated (neo-) liberal ideal (actually neo-conservative in content), as of its manifestations in architecture and their apologists. The burnt offerings of materials and health reveal the truth of the sacrificially supported identity that coughs behind the bravura of independence. Autonomy and civil rights confused; freedom (and profit) put before responsibility (if not defined against it); pioneer self-sufficiency obviating the need for welfare provision. Always the negated relation to the Other as ground for the identity of the Same. Like the late-comer who, ignoring all context, obscures a view or skyline, or clashes with the neighbouring style(s) of the street or square.  Or the space cleared around a tower block (where the connections to others of its kind are invisible, like language or radio waves, or are hidden underground).


(V) Buildings are not their origins. A skyscraper does not contain the hidden traces of the cave or the tree. Architecture is not a tent made from branches and leaves which has somehow forgotten itself, forgotten its origins (and so fallen into inauthenticity) and which now requires, as a condition of cure, a return to this basic form - though much architecture may have begun in this way (such is the vision of Laugier, the French theorist of classical architecture). Ultimate origins rarely have anything to do with present experience. Unless yoked together under the sign of metalepsis - a figure where distant cause is taken for present effect - and then the reference to occluded origins as occult revelation conveys more information about the source of the information proffered than the source either of architecture or of its modes of meaning.




                                                                                    Copyright 2002 Peter Nesteruk