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.