Gaudi's Architecture: A Poetic Form

Article excerpt

How does architecture construct meaning? Is architecture a visual language? In this essay, Antoni Gaudi's architecture is examined as poetic discourse.

Gaston Bachelard attributes two functions to language: signification and poetry. He believes that "the poem, which interweaves real and unreal, [...] gives dynamism to language by means of the dual activity of signification and poetry" (xxxi). For Bachelard, the "real" is found in "signification" or in the utilitarian aspect of language, while the creative aspect is found in the "unreal" or in a "poetry" that "awaken[s] [...] the automatism of language" (xxxi). Furthermore, he places poetry "a little above the language of signification"; where its "linguistic impulses [...] stand out from the ordinary rank of pragmatic language" (xxiii). How are we to apply utilitarian and poetic language to architecture? Michael Graves, in his article "A Case for Figurative Architecture," compares common language to the internal structure of a building, that is, pragmatic, constructional, and technical requirements. Like the verbal language that combines verbs, adjectives, and nouns in a particular way to create meaning, arc hitecture's syntax combines the basic elements of physical structure: walls, floors, ceilings, doors, and windows, in order to construct the building. On the other hand, Graves states that poetic form in architecture is receptive to issues external to the building, and integrates the myths and rituals of society: "Poetic forms in architecture are sensitive to the figurative, associative, and anthropomorphic attitudes of a culture" (86). Buildings rely on the technical realm to be built, but not necessarily incorporate the poetic realm: a figurative language full of metaphors and symbols. Antoni Gaudi's architecture is sensitive to both: the "real" or utilitarian aspect of the common language and the "unreal' or creative, aspect of the poetic message. His buildings, three-dimensional texts, interweave a constructive narrative where textural, chromatic, and decorative inferences, as well as radical changes of form and materials, produce a poetic discourse rich in metaphor, symbol, myth, and ritual, a unique sty le rooted in his Catalan origins.

To approach the architectural narrative of Gaudi's work, it is important to analyze how buildings carry meaning. According to Umberto Eco, any object, architectural or not, can communicate a message. The theory of signs of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Peirce's general theory of signification are important tools for explaining the transmission of meaning. For Saussure, meaning emerges from the combination of two parts of a sign: a signifier (such as sound or visual image) and a signified (a mental concept). The relationship between word/image and concept is arbitrary and conventional. A social contract interrelates particular signifiers to particular signifieds. How can we relate the double articulation of the Saussurean sign to architecture? What do we imply by the term architectural sign? Saussure, in fact, draws an architectural analogy to illustrate how the linguistic unit of a sign relates to each other and how the message is established: "A linguistic unit is like a fixed part of a building, e.g., a column. On the one hand, the column has a certain relation to the architrave that it supports; the arrangement of the two units in space suggests the syntagmatic relation. On the other hand, if the column is Doric, it suggests a mental comparison of this style with others (Ionic, Corinthian, etc.) although none of these elements is present in space: the relation is associative" (654). An architectural sign, the linguistic unit, can be any part of a building that relates to other parts through a syntagmatic relation or a relation of contiguity and to other styles by association. In Gaudi's work, the syntagmatic relation of linguistic units (columns, windows, walls, ceilings, doors, e. …