»The architect as the last humanist«. The use of symbolic codes in architecture according to Umberto Eco and Ludwig Wittgenstein, by Lidia Gasperoni

Starting with Umberto Eco’s definition of the architect as the last humanist, the aim of my talk is to investigate the use of symbolic codes in architecture regarding firstly the relation between sign and symbol in Wittgenstein and secondly the difference between intuitive and discursive thought.

  1. The symbolic dimension of architecture by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco wrote in The Absent Structure that the architect has to be described as the last humanist because his use of codes is not internal to architecture. Many architectural codes are in fact of a symbolic, cultural, social and political nature and therefore the architect should embed his work in broader and multidisciplinary contexts: on  one hand the architect is a semiotician, anthropologist, sociologist and politician at the same time. By operating with external codes the architect thinks in terms of totality. On the other hand he tries to transform these external codes into an architectural language. In this sense a building cannot be thought of as isolated from its human environment, but is linked to cultural and symbolic contexts. This often implicit process and use of codes is nonetheless part of the architect’s work.

  1. The distinction between sign and symbol by Ludwig Wittgenstein

To probe the symbolic dimension of architecture I consider it in a second step from the point of view of the distinction between sign and symbol which Wittgenstein established in his Tractatus. In particular his definition of a sign as “what can be perceived of a symbol“ (TLP 3.32) and his hint of the method of recognizing the “symbol by its sign” as the consideration of the “significant use” (TLP 3.326) are crucial. The aim is to interpret thesymbolic dimension of architecture as a the reflexion of the significant use of external codes by the use of primary functions which can be understood as signs, in order to explain, for example, the different symbolic values of primary functions.

  1. The difference between intuitive and discursive understanding

In a third and conclusive step I want to take a closer look at the distinction between signs and symbols as Wittgenstein  – and Kant too – relates it to the distinction between intuitive and discursive, saying that “we can regard understanding a symbol, when we take its meaning in at a glance, as intuitive. Or understanding it may be discursive: knowing its meaning by knowing its use“ (Lectures, 1932-35). Finally I want to consider the use of symbolic codes of architecture – that for Eco turns the architect into the last humanist – as a discursive framework beyond the intuitive, direct perception of architectural values.

Lidia Gasperoni

Harvard Citation Guide: Gasperoni, L. (2015) »The architect as the last humanist«. The use of symbolic codes in architecture according to Umberto Eco and Ludwig Wittgenstein, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 21 June 2015, Available at: http://isparchitecture.com. [Accessed: 21 June 2015].

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