Sign or thing
Roberta Jurčić

Is architecture a “sign” or a “thing”? Is this question even relevant today? In order to answer this, we have to begin at the beginning. The question of what is architecture or what is architecture today leads us to the question of what is its basis. Today’s architects should take a clear stand on this issue, or at least find some footing from which to tackle this question.


As already pointed out in the title of this paper, I wish to stake out a position with respect to two different views regarding the basis of architecture. The first position, put forward by architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, states that architecture is modelled after a decorated shed. The architectural critic Kenneth Frampton has interpreted this position as an “all too prevalent syndrome in which shelter is packaged like a giant commodity”,[1] in which architecture is thought of as scenography, merely representing, and leaving out any kind of structural logic; in short, architecture conceived as a “sign”. On the other hand, Frampton claims that architecture is something tectonic, ontological, present—a “thing”: “Thus one may assert that building is ontological rather than representational in character and that built form is a presence rather than something standing for an absence. In Martin Heidegger’s terminology we may think of it as a ‘thing’ rather than a ‘sign’.”[2]


The main difference between defining architecture as a “sign” or as a “thing” is the way in which their proponents (Scott Brown, Venturi in Frampton) approached the question of the basis of architecture. For Robert Venturi, the basic footing for finding the “new” resides in the prevailing architecture of Las Vegas, or in a broader sense, in today’s global architecture. His view is two‑dimensional or dual: he locates the architecture’s basis in an architectural system that is composed of space, structure and programme (the functional and useful part of the building), and one the other hand ornament, decoration and a decorative membrane of an object.[3] He also points out that both parts are intertwined (fig 1). The first example given by Venturi is the example of a duck where decoration completely denies the architectural system and where the object is turned into a symbol. The second example he gives is one in which the two parts are separated from each other in the sense that an architectural system forms a whole onto which ornament is applied independently. He names it the decorated shed. In an attempt to justify his own practice, Venturi opts for the latter.


Frampton on the other hand stresses that we should insist on the fact that architecture cannot be substituted by any other practice and suggests for its basis structural form: “If one poses the question as to what might be a comparable ground for architecture, then one must turn to a similar material base, namely that architecture must of necessity be embodied in structural and constructional form.”[4] He also stresses that by adopting such a perspective, we are moving away from a two‑dimensional understanding of architecture: “Needless to say, we are not alluding here to mechanical revelation of construction but rather to a potentially poetic manifestation of structure in the original Greek sense of poesis as an act of making and revealing.”[5] The move toward the three‑dimensional is achieved by introducing a new term, a third segment of the basis of architecture—tectonics. It is this segment that turns architecture into “something more” than merely its materiality, that turns it into art and substantiates its existence. The fundamental element of tectonics is the joint: “This brings us back to Semper’s privileging of the joint as the primordial tectonic element as the fundamental nexus around which building comes into being, that is to say, comes to be articulated as a presence in itself.”[6] From this we can conclude that for Frampton, one of the essential components of architecture is represented by the joint. “There is a spiritual value residing in the particularities of a given joint, in the ‘thingness’ of the constructed object, so much so that the generic joint becomes a point of ontological condensation rather than a mere connection.”[7]


Peristyle, the central square of the Diocletian Palace in Split, was found painted red one morning in 1968 (fig 2). The red paint, with all its revolutionary connotation, was a gesture made by the art scene of Split as an answer to the contemporary state of society, politics and culture. “The Red Peristyle”—the name of the artistic intervention—, which could be interpreted as an ornament to the Diocletian Palace, a sign, is preserved (materialized) in the photographic slides of Zvonimir Buljević. They depict a multi-layered understanding of the space of the Diocletian Palace, an understanding that the Peristyle (a thing) can also adopt the function of a sign. The Peristyle as a sign remains topical even after 1968 through the various interventions that succeeded it (Yellow Peristyle, Black Peristyle etc.).


Let us return to the beginning, to the question of the basis of architecture. In order to better understand what I am trying to point out, I wish to put forward the example of social housing building Nemausus, designed by the architect Jean Nouvel in Nimes in 1985 (fig 3). I consider this case successful since in confronting the question as to what the central issue of today’s social housing is, the architect refused to think in terms of the prevailing conviction that a flat of social housing is merely a scaled down version of a “normal” flat. This way of thinking about an apartment is actually completely erroneous if one considers the fact that socially underprivileged families very often have more family members than other families. For this reason, Nouvel defined anew what a good apartment is. He came to the conclusion that it is an apartment that is spatial, with two‑sided exposure to the sun that enables easy ventilation and with a flexible layout that allows for quick and efficient rearrangements. These principles were materialized by using cheaper constructional and prefabricated industrial elements (for example balcony doors, stairs etc.). In a similar vein and a few years later, the today very topical work of architects Lacaton & Vassal emerged.


By this, I do not wish to say that Frampton is wrong. I would even agree with him to a large extent, with the exception of a small but important difference. I think that an opportunity should be given to rethink Frampton’s joint. A joint is more than just the joint itself—the joint is simultaneously also a “dis‑joint”. I think that the beauty of the joint is not in its irreversibility, but in the possibility that it can (in the same way as it was put together) also be pulled apart or undone. Let us not forget the pair Lacaton & Vassal, which clearly demonstrates the possibility and importance of such a disjoint. In their projects, the joint is a sign. The sign of rethinking the uses of a greenhouse and the potential it holds in the field of architecture—these are, for example, duplicating living space or saving energy. In short, a new way of building within given constraints. In addition to creating joints, the authors have also taken into consideration that the buildings they design have a limited life span. Materials such as lexan or flooring elements that can be easily replaced by the user once they become worn out (as seen in the Maison Dordogne Project). Here, the joint is not considered as eternal, unchanging, joined once and for all, or as something that would determine the future (in a material sense) and from which all future generations could learn from, but quite the contrary. The possibility of change and of substitution has been placed in the very centre of the architectural object and it is this that gives it the possibility of “eternal existence”. In this case, it is the sign that creates the joint. I think that the point of the joint is not in poetics or tectonics, but in the capability to rethink it.


In conclusion, I would like to mention the Japanese temple Ise Grand Shrine, built in the 4th century B.C., as an example of the reinterpretation of the joint (fig 5). The temple is taken apart and reassembled every twenty years (perhaps as a metaphor for mortality, renewal of nature and transience of things that surround us). In this way, a thing becomes a sign. Perennial rebuilding is a way of passing on building techniques from one generation to the next precisely on the point where a sign again becomes a thing. In this sense, architecture is a continual tension between a sign and a thing: architecture is a thing changing into a sign, and a sign changing into a thing.





– Frampton, Kenneth, “Rappel à l’Ordre: The Case for the Tectonic”, in: K. Nesbitt, Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965–1995. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.

– Martin Heidegger, »The Thing«

– Venturi Robert, Scott-Brown Denise, Izenour Steven, “Learning from Las Vegas”, MIT Press 1972.

– Jean Nouvel, Nemausus, documentary film:

[1] Frampton, Kenneth, “Rappel à l’Ordre: The Case for the Tectonic”, in: K. Nesbitt. Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965 – 1995. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p. 518.

[2] Ibid., p. 520.

[3] Venturi Robert, Scott-Brown Denise, Izenour Steven, “Learning from Las Vegas”, MIT Press 1972, str. 87.

[4] Frampton, ibid., p. 519.

[5] Ibid., p. 519.

[6] Ibid., p. 522.

[7] Ibid., p. 522.