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Architecture and Language: Constructing Identity in European Architecture, c. 1000-c. 1650. (Reviews).

Georgia Clarke and Paul Crossley, eds., Architecture and Language: Constructing Identity in European Architecture, c. 1000-c. 1650.

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiii + 65 pls. + 237pp. $75. ISBN: 0-521-65078-X.

The title promises a theoretical orientation, but the editors of this useful volume of essays make clear that the emphasis is on the exploration of multifarious ways in which architecture and language come into contact in specific historical contexts. In their introduction the editors note the deep division, among cultural analysts, between proponents of the idea that language is a model for symbolic systems in general, including architecture, and those who emphasize the "generic differences." This volume has it both ways, dealing with architecture and language as much as "architecture as language."

The issue of identity flagged in the volume's title comes especially to the fore in the essays on medieval architecture. Three are concerned with the expression or construction of (proto-) national identity in architecture. Peter Draper contextualizes the emergence in England of a distinct version of Gothic in relation to the complex adoption of vernacular language (both English and the local version of French) for official and literary purposes. Caroline Bruzelius assigns a stronger degree of intentionality to the Italian resistance to Gothic as a fully realized architectural system; the latter, she argues, had become associated with the Angevin espousal of French Gothic in the Kingdom of Naples, i.e., with a foreign, colonizing power whose projection of power in Italy had earned the resentment of the peoples of the peninsula.

Objections readily come to mind. First, as Bruzelius herself notes, the Angevins themselves soon abandoned French Gothic, while the major surviving French Gothic structure of Angevin Naples, the choir of the Franciscan church, reflects Franciscan rather than Angevin preferences. More seriously, the buildings cited as prime examples of a hated foreign style are located either in remote places (by definition, as Cistercian monasteries), or in the environs of the area set aside by the Angevins for market functions, noxious industrial activities, and executions. Finally, it's nor clear why Italians should find Gothic structure objectionable, but not Gothic signs (i.e., traceried windows and other ornamental elements). What is lacking here, and elsewhere in the volume, is recognition of the importance of the receiver, or audience, in linguistic or other forms of communication.

Both Achim Timmermann and Lindy Grant discuss ekphrasis as a significant point of contact between language and architecture. In his discussion of a famous literary description of the temple of the Holy Grail, Timmermann's concern is partly historiographic, reminding us that the scholarly perception of national identity in art has rarely been unaffected by the nationalism of a scholar's own milieu. In other words, the study of art and its reception -- including scholarly reception -- can hardly be separated, especially when nationalist ideology is at stake. Further, in his disassociation of the Grail Temple from large-scale Gothic constructions, like Cologne cathedral (he posits instead a connection with filigree miniature architecture, as in reliquaries), Timmermann implicitly opposes any totalizing interpretation of a culture, as in the recourse to such familiar notions as "organization of consciousness" or "mentality."

Many such analytical models draw on a crucial distinction in semiotic/linguistic theory between langue and parole, between language as a synchronic system, and language as diachronic utterance, devolving in time. When the editors refer to the diachronic aspect of spoken language, it is in relation to the aesthetic theories of Suzanne Langer, not the semiology of Ferdinand de Saussure and his followers. But the Saussurean emphasis on parole as utterance encourages us to think of language not just as a medium of conscious communication, but as communicative event; e.g., Frenchness might be revealed by the declarative sentence "I am French" or by a tell-tale accent. The volume implicitly raises important questions about the relation of these contrasting forms of self-identification.

Further, all parole depends on a deep logic of some kind, even if the Saussurean langue may seem unacceptably self-contained. Clearly, changes occur more readily at the level of parole, eventually producing a shift at the level of langue. This seems to be the medieval pattern; Grant, for example notes the halting efforts of medieval writers to give verbal expression to their experience of architecture (unique in the volume, her interesting discussion of architectural description in legal transactions suggests the desirability of a comparative historical account of legal language about buildings). The essays on Renaissance architecture, on the other hand, stress the emergence, prior to practice, of formalized discourse and explicit protocols of design. Crucial in this process was the study of ancient buildings and technical writing, certainly, but also the diffusion of ancient rhetorical theory. Here langue precedes and determines parole.

(The result of this divergence is an unacknowledged mobilization of the traditional periodization -- so often challenged in recent scholarship -- of medieval and Renaissance culture in terms of the self-consciousness attributed to the latter. The exception is Deborah Howard's sophisticated essay on Scottish architecture, fore grounding the theme of national identity. Indeed, Howard evokes a cultural substrate that remains relatively constant in spire of changes of architectural language, or at least idiom. Architecture provides a system of signification for the expression of a "text," but it is not that text. In fact, Howard stresses non-architectural (e.g., literally textual) elements that allow a building to be "read," as well as formal elements that carried particular associations at certain times to certain audiences.

(This important observation recalls a further distinction of langue and parole: the former is sui generis, but parole is inevitably mixed, involving, e.g., gesture and tone. Even -- or especially -- in the Renaissance, even with its passion for normative protocols, buildings "communicated" typically through combinations of diverse elements, including such fashionable items as inscriptions and emblems. This is hardly apparent from the other essays on Renaissance architectural design and discourse. Cammy Brothers discusses the imitation of ancient architecture in early sixteenth-century Rome, tracing the emergence of an explicitly formulated rule or grammar (Serlio is crucial, in her view). Paul Davies and David Hemsoll discuss the transfer of the new Roman style to Northern Italy in relation to debates about the use of vernacular language and its elevation into a literary language. They track the emergence of an "idea of eloquence" as a model for a theoretically informed architecture, even in the work of an ar chitect (Sanmicheli) who did not himself articulate a theory, at least verbally.

(For Brothers and Davies/Hemsoll the relation between architectural discourse -- notably the evolving classical norms -- and practice is relatively unproblematic. This is not the case in the essays of Payne and Pauwels. Payne demonstrates the close ties between the new genre of architectural writing and other literary production, insisting that the former can be fully understood only within a context of evolving theory in various cultural domains. This emphasis on a "text-chain" suggests that, for all the impact of theorizing on Renaissance practice, distinct historical trajectories were in play; as in Timmermann's essay, the emphasis is on cultural tendencies rather than a uniform cultural moment. Payne also refers to the ideological aspect of architectural prescriptivism, especially in the nascent academies. Her stress on the place of architectural discourse within the cultural politics of the emerging early modern state, with its "diplomacy of taste," is shared, to a degree, by Christy Anderson's account o f the triumph, albeit short-lived, of the courtly classicism of Inigo Jones in seventeenth-century England -- i.e, of a universalizing, theoretically informed architecture contrasting with a prior "flexible" design practice.

Such flexibility is related to the decomposition of classicism, as a coherent system, traced by Yves Pauwels. Especially in France, the reception of ancient architecture was centrally a matter of a rationalizing "reduction" of a complex and allusive legacy, making it available for appropriation and, as Pauwels stresses, creative adaptation. He relates architectural practice and even writing not to high-flown literary and theoretical culture, but to the application of "common places," a part of ancient rhetoric given new prominence in the Renaissance. Such recombination of elements draws attention, again, to the issue of the relationship between langue and parole; thus in English architecture before Jones, as Anderson shows, classicism remained largely a matter of superficial ornamentation. Nothing could be further from an integrative approach to architecture, e.g., that of Alberti, for whom, as stressed by Caroline Van Eyck, architecture was a form of communication and deserved to be treated with the seriousn ess given by the ancients to oratory and moral discourse.

A final observation. Apart from Howard, none of the essays reveal familiarity with modern semiotic theory, though some, especially Payne, have a sophisticated grasp of the intellectual culture of the period studied. Some awareness, at least in the introduction, not only of key distinctions made by de Saussure, but also of the multiple factors involved in verbal communication, as in the classic analysis by Roman Jakobson, would have helped clarify matters. For all the indisputable interest and quality of the volume, these absences draw attention to the unfortunate persistence in the study of past architecture(s) of hermetic boundaries between circumscribed approaches and methodologies.
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Author:Burroughs, Charles
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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