PRINT December 1980

The Writing of the Walls

But the world, mind, is, was and will be writing its own wrunes for ever, man, on all matters that fall under the ban of our infrarational senses for the last milchcamel, the heartvein throbbing between his eyebrowns, has still to moor before the tomb of his cousin charmian where his date is tethered by the palm that’s hers. But the horn, the drinking, the day of dread are not now. A bone, a pebble, a ramskin; chip them, chap them, cut them up allways; leave them to terracook in the mutthering pot: and Gutenmorg with his cromagnom charter tintingfast and great primer must once for omniboss step rubrickredd out of the word press else is there no virtue more in alcohoran. For that (the rapt one warns) is what papyr is meed of, made of, hides and hints and misses in prints.
James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, 1939

Architecture began like all writing. It was first an alphabet. A stone was set upright and this was a letter, and each letter was a hieroglyph, and on each hieroglyph rested a group of ideas like the capital on the column. This was the way of the first peoples, everywhere, at the same moment, across the surface of the whole world. One finds the “raised stone” of the Celts in Asian Siberia and in the pampas of America.

Later on words were made. Stone was superimposed on stone, these granite syllables were coupled together, the word tried out some combinations. The Celtic dolmen and cromlech, the Etruscan tumulus, the Hebrew galgal, are words. Some, the tumulus especially, are proper names. Sometimes even, when there was plenty of stone and a vast site, a phrase was written. The immense pile of Carnac is already an entire formula.
Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris

THE IDEA OF A “speaking architecture” that would tell the observer what a building was by means of direct visual signs has been a recurrent dream of modern architects. In the 18th century such an architecture was demanded by the rapid expansion of the architect’s role in society, the proliferation of new building types with no classical precedent, and the threatening aspect of “the people.” The new professional architect, his career a result of talent rather than birth, served a patronage much wider than the courtly, aristocratic or religious circles of previous eras. He was forced to transform his means of expression to identify, for example, a factory, a school, a prison, an asylum, a hospital. And these new institutional structures, whether concerned with improved production, social order, uplift or health, were expected to communicate in a way that went beyond the simple identification of function. The didactic program of reformers and philosophes called for an environment that would, following Locke and Condillac, instruct, moralize and lead to happiness: buildings, no less than laws and religious precepts, could become a veritable “school of morals” if the signs they offered to the people were legible and evocative. The “language of the monuments” should be clear for all to read.

In the 19th century, when it became obvious that the internal structures and efficient functioning of these social machines were more important than any external expression, the notion of architectural language was transferred to the reading of historical styles, treated by antiquarians like so many tongues and set out in their elements and combinations in the style manuals like so many textbook examples of grammars and lexicons. The ideal of the legible monument now depended on the proper deployment of historical allusion; the correct “aura” hung on the structural frame of the building, like clothes on a shop-window model. The reading of such allusive edifices now demanded considerable scholarship, far beyond the comprehension of an emerging industrial proletariat. In the romantic metaphors of the “organic building,” the “people” were not to be satisfied by distant, enlightenment signs or moral maxims; they would, as builders and creators in their own right, participate in building the social edifice. The “productive” models of Ruskin and Morris envisaged significance as an internal state of mind, a property of the maker, rather than a message to the reader. Other theorists, like Victor Hugo and César Daly, understood the implacable realities of mass society and, taking their cue from the printing trade, called for an architecture that would learn from books in developing new significant forms that could be read by an entire populace.

In the 20th century, modernism attempted to shake off the yoke of historical styles and to find a language that would transcend the differences between national and local tongues. Like the 16th- and 17th-century graphologists, who searched for a universal writing that would unambiguously express ideas, the modernists turned to abstraction, to a language of primary forms and calculable signs. Modernist architects concentrated on the internal mechanisms of their speech as technical means of expressing technical facts. The ideology of Taylorism, as a positive science of production, here found its common ground with the analytical frames of formalism.

A sense of nostalgic loss underlies all these attempts to construct a language that would express architectural ideas unambiguously and universally. “The language of the monuments was clear to the ancients,” wrote an 18th-century commentator, “where it is obscure to us.” Deciphering the ancient meaning of buildings was not merely a matter of antiquarian interest; it was a question of trying to restore the foundations of architectural symbolism. Nietzsche expressed the sense of the entire 19th century when he dryly noted that “stone is more a stone today than formerly.” From the most ancient times, when a single stone might be invested with powers, significance and communicative value, through the religious epochs of Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Middle Ages, the historians of architectural language saw the building as participating in society; as embodiment of value and expression of idea. Even in the more self-conscious Renaissance, a building might still imitate, in the most profound sense, a natural or social order. But gradually in the modern period the messages of the walls withdraw from social participation and lose their significance as symbolic carriers of social values. “We no longer understand architecture,” continued Nietzsche, “at least by no means in the same way as we understand music. We have outgrown the symbolism of lines and figures just as we are no longer accustomed to the sound effects of rhetoric, and have not absorbed this kind of mother’s milk of culture since our first moment of life.” Whereas everything in a Greek or Christian building once had a meaning, referring to a higher order of things, a “feeling of inexhaustible meaning which enveloped the edifice like a mystic veil,” now any meaning, if it can be identified, is assumed and discarded lightly, like the mask of a party-goer.

The pathologist of this modern condition was Victor Hugo. Nietzsche’s insight was also that of the Faustian hero of Notre Dame de Paris, Claude Frollo, as he stood, one arm pointing to a printed book lying on his desk, the other gesturing toward the cathedral of Notre Dame. His celebrated prophecy, “This will kill that. The book will kill the building” has been, since 1832, the watchword for architecture’s dilemma in an industrial society ruled by the economics of production and the ubiquity of the book. Hugo’s argument was, on one level, devastating. Buildings, until the invention of printing, were, Hugo claimed, so many stone “books”—the chief means of cultural expression and communication. Architectural “writing” was in the end simply too clumsy, expensive and static. Its audience was limited and no longer participated in its values.The new Babel tower was, as Borges has since pointed out with equal effect, the Library. It was significant that Henri Labrouste, the first architect of insight fully to accept Hugo’s conclusions, and who indeed probably shaped them to a degree, spent his life working on the form of this tower—first with the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève, then with the Bibliothèque Nationale. But on another less obvious level, Hugo’s meditation went far beyond the simple “killing of the building” read into it by outraged social architects like Victor Considérant. It was in fact a highly sophisticated elaboration of that most modernist of perceptions: the textual nature of objects. For Hugo’s aim was not to destroy architecture, or to deny it a place in the development of the new republican world; rather it was to examine, however relentlessly, the conditions under which architectural signification was now forced to operate. The question was not only, “How did architecture once speak?” but “How might it speak in the present?” Hugo as writer is concerned with examining the procedures and forms of writing in 1832; to do this he examines them in 1482.

Frollo is an alchemist; he experiments with the material universe to gain knowledge of the eternal. He is also a connoisseur of decipherment, poring over texts, interpreting emblems, decoding hidden, ancient wisdom. His hero is Nicolas Flamel, a 14th-century alchemist, student of the occult and hieroglypher. To Frollo, the secret for which he searched resided in the stone hieroglyphs left by previous ages. To the modern doctor, scornful of such hermetic pursuits, who asked him, “What are your books?” he answered by pointing to the black hulk of Notre Dame, “like an enormous two-headed sphinx sitting in the middle of the town.” A sphinx, a riddle, an enigma to be deciphered: such was the architecture of the Middle Ages by the time of Gutenberg. Hugo emphasizes that the nature of the architectural “book,” long the repository of knowledge (and communicator of faiths), was already changing in 1482. The printed book to which Frollo points was a text that would no longer simply remain the preserve of a few cloistered scholars, but would become the generalized mode of understanding; scripture, which was faith and Word, was now doubled by an alphabetic text that would in the end become the only text.

Such an argument, put forward in the period when the Egyptian hieroglyphs were themselves being deciphered, by such Egyptologists as Jean François Champollion, seems hardly extraordinary; even the self-consciousness of printing’s impact on writing, and on culture in general, was already fully present in Balzac, and in Restif de la Bretonne before him. What was surprising was Hugo’s systematic analysis of architecture as writing, a kind of script.

Hugo was implying not only that one might read from architecture the cultural and moral, political and social ideas of a time, but that architecture itself originates as writing. This proposition, while tentatively hinted at in the writings of a few 18th-century antiquarians,was, for the most part, entirely at odds with the enlightenment idea of an architecture originating in fundamental need, structure or form. That architecture might be in its most primary sense a mode of expression was, to the pragmatic and idealist architect alike, a radical departure. Certainly “visionary” architects, like Boullée and Ledoux, had investigated the possibilities of a renewed symbolism; even Neo-classical academics like Quatremère de Quincy had referred to architecture as a kind of “ocular language.” But all had based their definitions on an architecture that was, as the philosophe d’Alembert put it, “the embellished mask of one of man’s greatest needs.” To make of this “mask” itself a first principle was to go against all rational morality. Hugo, turning the enlightenment on its head, was claiming that architecture in essence was rhetorical, not functional. He writes the history of architecture as script. In its origins, it was the necessary supplement to an oral tradition, an aid to memory. Like writing, according to Destutt de Tracy in his Elements of Ideology (1800), architecture was invented “to make signs durable, to communicate ideas from a distance.” Before tools, rocks themselves were identified as the carriers of tradition; these were then raised upright, combined with each other in circles, laid across each other; mounds were constructed to perpetuate the memory of the heroes buried therein. These were the first letters, words and sentences. Gradually, as mythology, thought, and the resulting symbolism became more and more complex, buildings were built which were books. The Temple of Solomon was paradigmatic; it was not only an illustration of the sacred Word; it was container and contained all at once. In its form, the inscriptions on its precinct walls, and its final precious cargo, the ark, the Temple was the Word in Stone. Hegel was to describe the same sense of identity between idea and representation as the essential quality of “symbolic” architecture; such an identity was, for both Hugo and Hegel, a social characteristic. The makers of the Temple of Solomon, or, in Hegel’s example, of the Tower of Babel, could not see themselves separately from their buildings. The symbol participated fully in the nature of what it represented. Subject and object were fused.

But gradually, as buildings became the servants of use and power, the domination, religious or secular, that they displayed on their walls was calculated according to the requirements of the ruling caste—signification became deliberate and instrumental. From the Egyptian temple to the cathedral of the early Middle Ages, this caste of priests dominated through inscription. Only when the sign shifted to the castle was the cathedral liberated for individual expression: feudalism was emblematically displayed in the fortresses of kings and lords, while, for a brief moment, secular life “invaded” the cathedral precinct, with patronage (the merchant class, the bourgeoisie) and with creative power (the mason and the apprentice). Under the guise of an old “hieroglyphic” framework, the stories of the Bible were told with freedom and license: they were no longer bound up in esoteric symbolism, but spelled out in full for all to read. The cathedral was the great popular book, created for and by the people. Until Gutenberg.

For Hugo the middle of the 15th century marked a watershed in the expressive techniques of society: gradually all the power of signification drained out of the building; gradually the force of the book, distributed en masse, gained predominance. The artist-sculptor of the cathedral was replaced by the stonecutter; the utilitarian techniques of geometers triumphed over art, until geometry itself “showed through like the bone structure of some emaciated invalid.” Naked, architecture was forced to don clothes—styles or motifs—to cover its nude and wasted frame. But the sickness was permanent. Everything that was social, collective, expressive of the powerful impulses and ideas of society had deserted it; henceforth it would be a slave dominated by “the law of literature, which once received the law from it.” We might feel justifiable nostalgia for this inevitable fact, a sense of loss for the once-proud book of stone; but this is offset by the newly emergent Babel tower of books, no doubt destined in its turn to fall prey to another means of expression, but which, until that time, was the proudest tower of all.

Here, however, we have to consider what Hugo meant by the “dominance” of literature over architecture; a thought which, in his own terms, had “two faces.” On the one hand there was the cultural argument, plain to see; but on the other was a more subtle understanding of architecture itself. For if indeed, architecture had, until Gutenberg, been a kind of writing, it could hardly have stopped being writing on the invention of printing. It was, after all, still readable. Rather, with the ubiquity of the printed text, architecture had changed its form of script. No longer hieroglyphic, nor openly pictorial and narrative, its “reading” now had to follow the laws laid down by the printed page.

Hugo’s story of the “descent” of architecture from fullness to dryness evidently parallels another modern fall: that of rhetoric itself. It was not accidental that Nietzsche had referred to the loss of understanding of the “sound effects of rhetoric” side by side with his perception of loss of meaning in architecture. Since the late 17th century, rhetoricians themselves had deplored the gradual decline of their art, its progressive restriction from a full theory of social speech that enfolded the five great divisions—invention, disposition, elocution, memory and action—to one that simply comprised the stylistic rules of elocution alone. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, what had once been rhetoric, an art of the pulpit, law courts and court, was turned by the efforts of categorizing scholars into a rule-book of tropes, or figures of speech. If the old principles were taught at all, it was evident that these dried-up figures hid little of the bony skeleton of an outdated art. Hugo, in Notre Dame, makes the connection between architectural symbolism and rhetorical power quite clear: there are no more great sermons preached in the cathedral, which remains an empty hulk sheltering a deformed bell-ringer and a mad alchemist; the rhetoric of the law is spoken to the deaf.

Again Hugo’s point deserves closer attention: to him the preservation of what remains of rhetoric is no more significant than the repetition of old hieroglyphic forms in architecture. No matter how elaborate the theory of tropes, no matter how one worn-out style after another conceals the nudity of architecture, the force of cultural development would give the lie to such efforts. He was not after revival out of vain hope of nostalgia; without full social participation, this would be at best an academic gesture, at worst a false mask covering, on behalf of deceiving interests, a reality that stood for all to see. On the other hand, if speakers or architects would learn from their 19th-century present the conditions of their speech, if they would accept the domination of the book and tailor their products accordingly, within the entirely new parameters of signification this represented, then the possibility of an authentic art still remained.

It was, of course, in order to escape the reduced play of the restricted rhetoric that many modernists refused any speech beyond the almost silent internal play of language itself. The have preferred to work within an abstract order where “meaning” resides in the shifts, distortions, juxtapositions and substitutions of a systematic kind; withdrawing their work from the marketplace in order to assert its “silence” in the world on the level of a mathematics, or a calculus. Like Hugo’s friend Henri Labrouste, who tried to derive an architecture from a consideration of pure structure, modernists have recognized the dominance of the arbitrary sign, the alphabetic code. Unlike Labrouste, who in the full realization of Hugo’s thought also tried to signify, rhetorically, the impact of printing on architecture by inscribing on the outer walls of the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève a list of the books it contained, modernists have removed even this pale sign. If the “subject” of 18th-century architecture parlante was a threatening people, and that of the early 19th century a triumphant people, then that of the 20th century modernist has been one that needs no longer to be persuaded by rhetoric, one that after Nietzsche overcomes, becomes universal, by will alone. Abstraction, by removing the architectural object entirely from the subject’s domain, by enclosing architecture in itself, thereby allows the subject free, and presumably “joyful,” play.

Recently, with the collapse of the modernist belief in abstraction, a so-called “post-modernist” sensibility has looked once more to the figurative possibilities of architecture, indicating its desire to return architecture to the marketplace, if not the agora. The modernist subject, unhappy on the edge of the abyss, has withdrawn from the leap to universalism and freedom from the object. The subject of “postmodern” architecture seeks warmth and consolation. Its “popular” identity is legitimized by the semantics of mass consumerism; its historical roots are established by elaborate allusions to antique or humanist genealogies; its comfort ensured by houses that look like houses, streets that are as they used to be, apparently unchanged artistic “values.” But, it must be said, this “new” subject lives in a fragile theater. The scenes that support its illusions, that “ward off or absorb shock,” are of the flimsiest stucco or paint; the “values” that wrap its surroundings with so much instant aura are themselves little more than worn-out conventions. Confused once more with the object, will not this subject itself soon be on sale?

The generative idea, the word, was not only at the base of all these buildings, but it was also in their form. The Temple of Solomon, for example, was not simply the binding of the sacred book, it was the sacred book itself. On each of its concentric enclosures the priests could read the Word translated and made manifest to the eyes, and thus they followed its transformations from sanctuary to sanctuary until they were able to grasp it in the final tabernacle in its most concrete but still architectural form: the ark. Thus the Word was enclosed in the building, but its image was on its envelope like the human figure on the coffin of a mummy.
Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris

Anthony Vidler, an architect and historian, is presently director of The European Cultural Studies program at Princeton University.