To “mean something” means to have a significance; an entity (physical object, mental construct, symbol, word, drawing, etc.) means something to someone because of its innate significance to the person (or group of people), that arises out of the person’s or group’s association with that entity. Without any association, the entity would lack significance, and regardless of it holding meaning or not, it would not “mean anything” to the people.
Associations come from a “social contract” between people, which essentially is a common agreement on the meaning of something to them (Broadbent). We know what we know because of our cultural conditioning, which forms the memories of events in our lives (from something as simple as learning the alphabet to experiencing a World War.)
The strongest associations come from our memories of events. Architecture helps signify such events and evoke such memories/associations through its syntactics, that is, through the formal arrangement of architectural elements, usage of materials and organization of spaces.
By creating spaces for reflection or using structural and material elements to call to mind a traumatic experience, the following three buildings communicate a specific meaning – the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany and the Bundeswehr Military History Museum Extension in Dresden, Germany.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama was completed in 2016 (opened to the public on April 26th, 2018) and was designed by Mass Design Group. The memorial square at the heart of the six-acre park signifies the racial terror and inequality that Black Americans were forced to face at the hands of White Americans from 1877 to 1950 (Cotter).
There are 800 six-feet high black slabs that loom over the entire space; these slabs are of the same size as that of a coffin (EJI). The tombs act as symbols depicting each county in the USA where a racial terror lynching took place (EJI). By hanging these tombs from the canopy as opposed to laying them on the ground, visitors are forced to take an effort to strenuously look upwards to witness the sheer scale of the tragedies.
The whole array of tombs looms over the entire ground plane, constantly signifying its presence and evoking a sense of mourning for those underneath it. The color black enhances the experience of pain and suffering; large black walls along with the darkness of the space inside are symbolic of the countless number of people who have suffered. The memorial not only evokes a sense of mourning, but also one of awareness and reflection in the minds of visitors, regardless of the color of their skin or their race.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was designed by Peter Eisenman in 2005 in Berlin, Germany. Heavy slabs that resemble tombstones are symbolic of death and can be associated with the horrors of suffering and pain. Eisenman’s design is a vast expanse of 2711 concrete slabs on a 204,400 sq. ft. site in Germany (Craven).
The memorial signifies the tragedies of genocide of Jews during the Holocaust. By placing each slab close to one another, visitors walking through the tight paths feel cramped up and claustrophobic; such negative emotions conveyed by the spatial arrangement of the repetitive element give an experience of the density of the crowd in a concentration camp. Though each slab is of the same base dimension, an undulating path is created by varying height; this signifies the uniqueness of each Jew, yet their similarity as a crowd of people.
The use of a monochrome, heavy element creates a sense of pressure on visitors, as if the weight of the dreaded souls of the murdered Jews was towering down upon you. In the previous memorial, names signified counties and explicitly generated an association in people’s minds; by having nameless tombs in the whole field of slabs, Eisenman depicts the anonymity of the victims (Craven). The memorial has an information center below the field, from where one can look upwards and see coffers in the ceiling slab, indicative of the tombs that lie above, reinforcing the sense of being in a graveyard.
The Bundeswehr Military History Museum Extension was designed by Daniel Libeskind in 2011 in Dresden, Germany. The museum stands as an explicit representation of the violence and destruction of war-torn Germany (ArchDaily).
The original museum built in 1897 uses a very classical architectural style, especially with the use of stone, to depict the country’s authoritarian past (ArchDaily). Libeskind’s deconstructivist proposal uses concrete and steel to “wedge” through the old building, representing the emerging of a free, democratic Germany from the clutches of its past (ArchDaily).
Glass as a material signifies transparency, openness and the avant-garde; this is also interpreted in the skewed organization of spaces and thematic display of artifacts, versus the old museum’s classical, symmetric planning and chronological display of items. The building is a place of learning and reflection, for local citizens and visitors alike.
In “A Plain Man’s Guide to the Theory of Signs in Architecture”, Geoffrey Broadbent argues that syntax for its own sake with no semantic dimension is a failure. Each of the built forms discussed above use syntactics in the form of spatial organization, variation in heights, repetition of volumes and material finishes, and even contrasting volumes and materials, to convey their meaning.
They are not functionalist or zero-meaning in their approach as the use of syntax is meant to unfold a deeper semantic dimension. This draws upon another one of Broadbent’s arguments that the exterior is the signifier and the interior is what is signified. Regarding each of the examples considered, the exterior elements (color, material, volume, arrangement) are the signifiers that signify the meaning depicted by the spaces within.