Meaning in Architecture: Why, Why Not A Face?

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Stare at it in its whole glory.

“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law. Louis Sullivan

“I have come to the conviction that once one embarks on a concept for a building, this concept has to be exaggerated and overstated and repeated in every part of its interior, so that wherever you are, inside or outside, the building sings with the same message.” – Eero Saarinen

“I didn’t want anything pretty: I wanted to have a clear statement of a way of life.” – Louis I. Kahn

“The search for ‘meaning’, ‘narrative’ and ‘metaphor’ is the disease of our time. It is time to question the necessity for meaning in architecture once again. We have a choice: architecture or revolution.” – Sean Griffiths

“It is the peculiar task of architecture to reach meaning: the human habitat is pivoted around meanings, not objects.” – Romaldo Giurgola

“The complex and contradictory is of preference in architecture because it promotes richness of meaning over clarity of meaning.” – Robert Venturi

“It is true that architecture depends on facts, but its real field of activity is in the realm of significance… Architecture depends on its time. It is the crystallization of its inner structure, the slow unfolding of its form. That is the reason why technology and architecture are so closely related. Our real hope is that they grow together. Only then will we have an architecture worthy of its name: Architecture as the true symbol of our time.” – Mies van der Rohe

.    .    .    .    .    .

There is a particular reason why I chose to render both the essence of the quote and its respective author in boldand that is to give prominence to the idea that I believe that in architecture, we must never forget that nothing ever said is absolute. This is what was said, I chose to quote them, nothing more and nothing less. Not absolute, not even if they are named Mies van der Rohe, or Louis Kahn or Robert Venturi or Louis Sullivan or Eero Saarinen or Romaldo Giurgola or Sean Griffiths.

But, in respect to their wealth of view and of their acquaintance with architecture, in this essay below I will not format any of my authored ideas in bold; I am but a University student in an Architecture school after all. Perhaps—in some twenty years—if, or when I reach a status of equivalence to them, I will come back to this essay and put my ideas in bold and set theirs in normal textface.

.    .    .    .    .    .

Now that we’ve established the context of this short piece, let us discuss: What is ‘meaning’ in Architecture? Why, or why not a human face? Who brings forth the idea of ‘meaning’ in architecture: the architects or the laymen?

On the one hand, it may be the architects that intend for meaning in the buildings that they design. In the same breath though, it may be the laymen that attributes meaning from what is experienced. Yet for an inconceivable reason, it seems that architecture that purely and strictly vows to marry ‘practicality’ with ‘structure and materials’ can (and will) never exist. As van der Rohe subtly puts it, the real significance of architecture is in its significance. It is within this realm beyond our imaginations of something so… tangible, something so haptic, that the ramifications of architecture truly develop. It is in this pursuit of comprehension that we mould meaning in architecture just as we mould architecture from the earth.

In other words, it is not about a building with a face that greets you, it is about what it means to have a building with a face greeting you.

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740-1 Tatedaionjichō, Nakagyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 604-0012 / 〒604-0012 京都市中京区衣棚通二条上る竪大恩寺町 740-1 顔 のいえ

That is the address of the real life Squidward housepositively not yet popular with viewers of Spongebob.

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Click here for Google Street View. Grand.

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                                                         The approach.
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                                   There it is! Must scare the passerby.
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                                                   Looking West of the Face House.
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                                                                          & East.
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                                                          Directly opposite.

顔の家 (Kao no ie) ‘Face House’ in Kyoto, Japan was architected by Yamashita Kazumasa around fourty five years ago in 1975 (and with this, I cannot resist the temptation to make a joke about how the face has aged so gracefully after four and a half decades; perfectly healthy flawless skin). It is believed that the house was designed for a graphic designer that still resides on the second floor, whereas the ground is occupied by  ‘creativeooo’ studio and workshop. Not much else is known about it.

In this contemporary age we might begin to prepare for the eventuality of an architectural modernism evolving into something akin to a brutalist revival with its void of external meaning, or equally an architecture that manifests once again the politics, technologies and material culture of the present world. If there is such an obsession with the artificial imposed meanings that our buildings bearand that our attention is ever so shifted to the material conditions of our current realitythe Face House is certainly a ploy that seems so distant to comprehension, yet somehow, so familiar in feeling.

It is remotely possible that if  you henceforth perceive all façadesmost likely only achievable with similar domestic, small and lean housesas human faces, where the ‘mouth’ is the ‘door/entrance’, the ‘windows/apertures’ the ‘eyes’ and where the ‘nose’ and ‘ears’ are an optional inclusion to the face, a rapid loss of joy will occur (upon this practise of anthropomorphism) when looking at this Face House for the second time. So of course, it is only natural to try and further interpret it by looking at the architectural drawings (which only the axonometric and plans can be found, courtesy of Architectural Review).

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“I first thought it was just one person strangely dangling their legs over the edge of the building, but now it looks more like someone is leaning and waving over the building or being pushed over by another person.”
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It is difficult to see Kazumasa Yamashita fully championing Louis Sullivan’s aesthetic credo of “Form Follows Function” given that the protruding nose serves no function except for allowing a sliver of light in.

Unarguably, the primitive purpose of architecture is to ‘provide’ accommodation to mankind, as ‘shelter and protection’ is a necessity for survival, and this is free of paradox. What the Face House intends is then perhaps for the idea that communication is a ‘why not’ function for architecture. And again, as Mies suggests, the realm of significance. The marriage between the fleeting idea of ‘what the building looks like’ and ‘what the building offers’ allows for the notion that the appearance is able to employ an enriched experience to the inhabitants, passerby, imaginaries. It is somewhere in a dimension completely alien to wrapping our mortal, vulnerable bodies with protective clothing that later on developed to what we know today as fashion. Therefore, is meaning unnecessary? Is it something with such transient permeability that it is necessary for it to exist in order to construct ‘architecture’, but so little in value beyond it, that it is not a determining obligation? Whatever the difference between my interpretation and yours is, the Face House in Kyoto, Japan has cunningly let me fall into its ruse of thinking about Meaning in Architecture.

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In a rather dreary setting (in the most common possible sense), its eyes follow you still.


Thanks to the Architectural Review, Robert G. Hershberger for his journal “Architecture and Meaning”, Megan R. Dufrense for her blog environmentonthemove as well as Sean Griffiths for his article “Architectural meanings are nothing but fictions”.

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