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«History and Theory 45 (May 2006), 153-177 © Wesleyan University 2006 ISSN: 0018-2656 HOW DO BUILDINGS MEAN? SOME ISSUES OF INTERPRETATION IN THE ...»

Whyte 4/11/06 11:16 AM Page 153

History and Theory 45 (May 2006), 153-177 © Wesleyan University 2006 ISSN: 0018-2656




Architectural history as we know it has been written tacitly adhering to the crudest version of the paradigm of communication: all the attention has been focussed on the design of the new forms, none on their interpretation. It is time to realize, that even within the limits of the paradigm of communication, there should be a history of meaning, not only a history of forms.2 —Juan Pablo Bonta You think philosophy is difficult enough, but I can tell you it is nothing to the difficulty of being a good architect.3 —Ludwig Wittgenstein


Despite growing interest from historians in the built environment, the use of architecture as evidence remains remarkably under-theorized. Where this issue has been discussed, the interpretation of buildings has often been likened to the process of reading, in which architecture can be understood by analogy to language: either as a code capable of use in communicating the architect’s intentions or more literally as a spoken or written language in its own right. After a historiographical survey, this essay, by contrast, proposes that the appropriate metaphor is one of translation. More particularly, it draws on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin to suggest that architecture—and the interpretation of architecture— comprises a series of transpositions. As a building is planned, built, inhabited, and interpreted, so its meaning changes. The underlying logic of each medium shapes the way in which its message is created and understood. This suggests that the proper role of the historian is to trace these transpositions. Buildings, then, can be used as a historical source, but only if the historian takes account of the particular problems that they present. In short, architecture should not be studied for it

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