Ostwald, Michael J.
CATEGORIES2004 Conference Papers Social and political issues in architecture
ABSTRACT: Strategies for analysing and interpreting architecture and the city based on its association
with an abstract conception of language have been an important component of recent debate in
architecture, town planning and urban geography. The origins of this kind of approach to the built
environment can be found in the work of early linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles
Sanders Peirce who pioneered the study of semiology and semiotics respectively. Within these two
distinct but related strategies is embodied a political relationship that links the sign, its meaning and its
interpretation. Charles Jencks, in the 1960s introduced this triad to architecture, promoting a new mode
of observing, interpreting and then making architecture. This strategy, based on a model of scientific
observation and logic, has profound political implications for architecture in the way that it inscribes a
political value to interpretation. It is this aspect of structuralist readings of space that has become
contentious to a number of post-modern thinkers on architecture, and necessitated a new post-modern
semiotics that challenges the foundations of linguistics.
This paper will look at the political themes implicit in the work of Saussure, Peirce and Jencks. In
particular it will look at the way that these observational systems allow political resistance through the
opportunities for “misreading the city”. This has been a recent trend in semiotic analyses of the city,
pioneered by French thinkers such as Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau. These writers have
criticised semiotic theory for its totalising political systems proposing new models of political agency
that destabilise the inherent power structures embodied within the language of the city.