What Say You?

The form of the object must, besides making the function possible, denote that function clearly enough to make it practicable as well as desirable, clearly enough to dispose one to the through which it would be fulfilled. – Funtion and Sign: the Semiotics of Architecture

Semiotics is the study of communication, of signaling meaning. In Function and Sign: the Semiotics of Architecture Umberto Eco takes on the task analyzing how buildings communicate. Very few structures are built with the intention of communication; function is usually the primary concern. And yet, according to semiotics, buildings do communicate as well.

One example that Eco uses is a spoon. A very functional tool meant to scoop food into human mouths, the spoon is also a signal. It signifies and promotes a specific mode of eating. The spoon might also signify status, depending on its design and composition, as well as a specific use like eating soup or dessert.

Buildings are much the same. Houses signify private residence, refuge, shelter along with status and values. Building components such as arches denote meaning based upon the arch style. The most important thing to grapple with here is that these meanings come about as they are codified by society and aren’t necessarily the same for all people. The signaler, the sign and the signee all have to be on the same page for the message to be received. This theory promotes us to be conscious of what we intend to communicate with our designs and aware of the messages that others are getting from the design.

A controversial piece of architecture recently built in Salt Lake City is the new United States District Federal Courthouse. The gleaming ten story building is a technically advanced, light filled building that eschews all conventions of the traditional courthouse. While amazing in many ways, it can be argued that it does a poor job of signifying its function by being so far outside of the codified patterns for government building that the public is used to. Some people might instead interpret it is an aloof, unwelcome visitor, a Borg Cube, or an air conditioner; messages that the designers most likely didn’t intend to send.

Salt Lake City Federal District Courthouse


When designing a building it is easy and common to only think of the building will exist right after it is constructed. And yet, that building is going to exist for many years. This might be as few as 4-5 years for some commercial spaces and as long as hundreds of years or more for some buildings. Over the course of that time the intended usage, the occupants, technology, and expectations are sure to change. A building that fits tightly to the original design and that is not easily adjusted is going to be less successful over time, less cost effective, and more of burden on society and the environment. And yet, designing for something to change without knowing what the future needs will be is not an easy proposition.

In How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand, he breaks the typical building down into seven different components; site, structure, skin, services, space plan, and stuff. The site is where the building is placed and represents the most permanent part of the building. The structure is also quite permanent. Skin is more easy to change, but will still require a lot of cost. The services include the functional part of the building like electrical, water, data and air handling. These components can be integrated in ways that are easily adjusted or more challenging to adjust. Space plan includes walls, ceilings, doors and windows; components which can be adjusted without too much fuss, depending on their construction. Stuff represents everything that is brought into the space, including furniture, accessories, décor, and all of the minutiae of daily life.

Planning with these different layers of building composition in mind can greatly assist one with creating spaces that look and function well not only right after the ribbon cutting, but also decades into the future.

The Space Between

Hall – Hidden Dimension Distance and aging

The interaction between people are both fascinating and complex. Hall in The Hidden Dimension details his work in measuring the average dimensions between people as they interact. He found that there four fairly consistent zones: Intimate, Personal, Socio-Consultative, and Public.

Social DistanceIntimate – Ranging from 0” to 18”, this is the zone where lovers and people who are close will choose to be. People who are forced into this range with other people will hold themselves tightly and will be very uncomfortable; this is often the case on elevators, public transit, and airplanes for example.

Personal – Ranging from 18” to 4’, the personal range is where much of collaborative human interaction occurs. The personal bubble is protected, but conversation can be easy and quiet, it is comfortable to look at the other person and each person is within arm’s reach of the other.

Socio-Consultative – Ranging from 4’ to 12’, this is where more impersonal business happens. It is harder to be dominated by the other person and voice volume is normal.

Public – Ranging beyond 12’, this is where it becomes more challenging for people to interact. Voices have to be raised and it is more challenging to see details. There is also enough space to feel protected.

When arranging spaces is important to allocated the space appropriately to allow for appropriate interactions that will take place there. If people find themselves to be too close or too far from those with whom they are interacting, the space will become uncomfortable for them and not fulfill it’s purpose.

Other Spaces

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher in the mid-20th Century who had some interesting views on social spaces and how they relate to each other. Starting with the concept of utopias he developed what he called heterotopias. Utopias stand as ideal societies toward which humanity strives but are fundamentally unreal. The inverse of a utopia would be a dystopia where instead of everything brought to an ideal state everything would be perfectly bad. Heterotopias are a place of otherness, where momentarily one is both in the real world and in the unreal world, whether it be utopian or dystopian.

HeteroFoucault offers many examples of these heterotopias, which fall into the general categories of crisis, deviation, time, and ritual or purification.

Crisis – Places where things happen out of sight like coming of age in a place like a boarding school or a first intimate encounter in a motel room are examples that Foucault gives of crisis heterotopias. Other examples might be a hospital waiting room or even a private washroom.

Deviation – Institutions where people who are outside the norm are placed are considered heterotopias of deviation. This includes places like hospitals, prisons, asylums, and rest homes. Special education schools, homeless shelters, and detention rooms might be other examples.

Time – Museums are great example of a heterotopia of time because objects from different times and styles are present, containing time but being outside of it. Movie theatres and concert halls are also places where one can exist outside of time for a short period.

Ritual or Purification – This includes places where one must have permission to enter and make certain gestures. The LDS temple, Mason Halls, and the throne rooms of the medieval monarchs are examples of this type of heterotopia.

Foucault calls for a society with many heterotopias which both affirm difference but also acts a place of refuge from authoritarianism. Whether or not one agrees with Foucault, I think this discussion emphasizes the important being aware of the effect that the spaces we’ve designed will have on the user and the experiences that they will have there.

Thinking about Dwelling and Building

In Hiedegger’s article Building, Dwelling, Thinking he explores the question of what it means to dwell and how buildings relate to dwelling. His approach to understanding these concepts was multi-faceted, using linguistic root words and a concept he called the fourfold.

I found the linguistic avenue of inquiry to be troubling. Hiedegger asserts that “language tells us about a nature of thing” and that “language is the master of man”.  I am not comfortable with attributing that much power to human language. Also, he stays within German in analyzing the word “building”, which he claims has the same root as to the word “dwell”. With hundreds and hundreds of human language throughout time, it seems improbable that the words build and dwell always share this connection.

Another concern is whether dwelling really means to build. I am concerned that is a European-centric view that ignores how other cultures and societies have dwelt throughout time. In researching tradition Australian Aboriginal building practices for my paper on Murcutt’s Marika-Alderton House, I found it interesting how different dwelling was for pre-colonial Aboriginals. The primarily dwelt in the world as they found it with buildings being an impermanent accessory to their lives as opposed to the center of their existence. Much more went into developing the cultural, social, and religious aspects of their lives and formed the center of how they dwelt.

PhenomologyIt is in his concept of the fourfold that I can see the aboriginal framework fitting more easily. Hiedegger makes the case that humans exist simultaneously in four different realms: on the “earth”, underneath and in the “sky”, among “mortals”, and striving toward the “divine”. The connection between the fourfold and building seemed tenuous to me, but I do think this framework describes the concept of dwelling in a way that accommodates more of the human experience.

I’m not sure, based upon this reading, that building and dwelling are that strongly linked of concepts. However, I do think that it is valuable to be concerned about whether our buildings are dwell-able and what it means to dwell.

Le Corbusier’s Five Points

Le Corbusier, one of the pioneers of what we now consider Modernism, is famous for developing several concepts including the use of concrete, urban planning ideas, and new architectural principles. The essence of his views on architecture can be found in his Five Points Toward a New Architecture, which are detailed below.

Supports – Columns support the structure and elevate the building.

Roof Gardens – The flat roofs the Le Corbusier preferred called for utilization of that surface, with roof gardens being the solution.

Free-Plan – With columns acting as the structure, the architect is free to place walls in the space as appropriate without having to be concerned about loads on those walls.

Horizontal Windows – Long ribbon windows stretching along the façade allow for copious amounts light to enter, which was challenging with the mullioned, vertical windows of the past.

Free Design of the Façade – because the floor can be cantilevered away from the supports to a certain amount, the façade can be easily and freely manipulated with little concern about the structure.

5 PointsMost of these principles, while revolutionary at the time, are common practices and elements in today’s buildings. The troublesome thing is that these principles are heralded as “truths”, or a complete pattern that solved all design problems. In actual practice they are a little bit stifling and do not respond to all challenges that can be presented. Additionally, they fail to appropriately consider the human element and the cultural frameworks in which the exist.

Image of the Salt Lake City

In Image of the City by Kevin Lynch, 5 elements were developed that explain how people create mental maps of the cities they experience. These include paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. To help contextualize this concept I am going to look at which of these elements can be found in Salt Lake City.


PathBecause the predominant mode of travel in this region is by personal vehicle, roads become a primary means by which people experience the city. Interstates 15 and 80 are the primary means by which the city is entered and left, creating strong north/south and east/west organization markers respectively. The primary surface streets predominantly run in straight lines and connect to the interstates at most points.

Public transit routes, specifically the Trax lines, are becoming an important path element of the city for frequent users of the service. Bike paths and pedestrian zones are an unfortunately under-developed part of the city.


EdgeThe main edge in the city are the mountains to the north and east which hem in the city.
Interstate 15 acts as a barrier between the east and west parts of the city and the east portion of Interstate 80 acts as southern boundary.


The city is composed of Districtseveral identifiable districts which can help someone understand the city. These include, but are not limited to, downtown, the avenues, capitol hill, the University of Utah, Sugarhouse, 9th, central city, granary, and Rose Park.


NodeThere are a few nodes that are prominent in the city, but this is area where improvement could be made. Temple Square, the Main Street business district, 9th and 9th, and the Sugarhouse business district come to mind.



LandmarkWhile buildings like the Salt Lake Temple and Rice-Eccles Stadium act as important landmarks, I would say that street signs act as the most important landmarks in the city. This is due to the large proportion of vehicle usage and the tidy grid layout of the city.

Different people are going to understand cities in different ways and is important that all of these components be developed and emphasized as cities grow and develop. Hopefully some of Salt Lake City’s weaknesses will be improved in time as it become more of a regional center and a city that people will like to come to.

The Next Generation

In J.B. Jackson’s article the westward moving house, three homes of successive generations of the Tinkham family are described. These homes span hundreds of years, radical improvements in technology, and vastly altered social and economic realities. The article analyzes three aspects of the home and family; Socio-Cultural, Economic, and Structural.

As a recent first-time home buyer with a familial heritage similar to the Tinkham’s it seems natural to turn this lens on my own home.


The recession has had a devastating effect on the economic situation of my generation. This has led to stagnating wages, much higher rates of renting and lower rates of saving. Until recently I fit squarely within those trends. It was only a stroke of luck that allowed my exit from this state of affairs.


The increasing trend of postponing marriage or avoiding it all together has major implications in housing development. Additionally, younger generations have an interest in downtown living that their parents didn’t have. I fit squarely in both of those trends. When house shopping last summer, easy access to transit, close proximity to an urban care, and low maintenance were highly important to me.


IMG_0203aI purchased a studio condo in the Salt Lake downtown area that was next to the Salt Lake Library, 1 block from a transit stop, and close proximity to school, shopping, food, and all the amenities I need. With nine foot ceilings, large windows, open kitchen plan, white walls, light cabinetry and a half wall between the living and sleeping areas, the condo has a spacious, breezy feel that is very conducive to single living.

While this is merely a cursory look at my condo through the lense of JB Jackson’s work it points towards a changing taste in dwelling preferences and hints at the impact of economic turmoil. Another interesting wrinkle is that I don’t expect to live here for more than eight years, it remains to be seen how my own dwelling, and those of society in general, evolve as this current generation ages up.