This past weekend, I was in Philadelphia for a family reunion, and like any good architecture student, I made my family visit several Important Buildings. We hit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Shalom, Robert Venturi’s Mother’s House, and Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Center. After this quick tour, I tried to explain Venturi to my father, in a perhaps misguided attempt to learn a topic by explaining it. My admittedly sketchy view of this particular flavor of postmodernism is that the architect is engaged in a literary game. The modernist obsession with functionality and industrial aesthetics had resulted in sterile, emotionless, meaningless forms, and Venturi’s work was a reaction to that. If architecture is considered as a type of visual language with grammar, words, intonation, and cadence, then that language can be deconstructed, the goal being a formal complexity that restores emotion and ultimately meaning to architectural form. While the intent of this line of inquiry may have been an architectural equivalent of “Finnegan’s Wake,” the result is more often akin to a dirty limmerick. Standing outside Venturi’s Mother’s House, quietly contemplating the flat, lime green facade, I can’t see this as anything more than a joke, and a poor one at that.
Over the weekend, I spent a good amount of time catching up with my brother, who recently began working in a lab, doing research on cognitive neuroscience. His current research area is subconscious visual communication. This involves testing psychopaths, who apparently cannot pick up subtle visual clues from facial expressions, and therefore have trouble understanding an other person’s emotional state. Call it quantifying empathy.
A few days later, I discovered that a friend of mine is studying to become a sign language interpreter, and I realized that sign language is not merely mimetic of spoken language, but in fact has an extremely complex structure, with subtleties of grammar and expression that matches the complexity of any spoken language, if not exceeding it. So, if the apparatus of cognitive perception allows for subconscious visual cues that trigger emotional states, and if the linguistic capacity of the human brain allows for a complex visual language based on signs, can this be applied to archtiecture? Can the phenomenological experience of a space be therefore quantified and reproduced?
So, if the apparatus of cognitive perception allows for subconscious visual cues that trigger emotional states, and if the linguistic capacity of the human brain allows for a complex visual language based on signs, can this be applied to archtiecture? Can the phenomenological experience of a space be therefore quantified and reproduced?