The first question to address is whether we do in fact communicate anything through architecture. According to Websters, to communicate is “to convey knowledge or information of; to make known” (Gove 1976). The primary purpose of architecture–by which I mean the design and construction of physical buildings–is to provide for the basic need for human shelter. But, besides providing shelter, architecture does seem to also provide information.
The primary information communicated by architecture is generally the building‘s function. This can be seen through as simple example: Driving down the street, you see a single-level building with a great quantity of glass along the front, a tile-floor and permanently-placed plastic-coated furniture inside, a long counter that can be seen from the main entrance, a large parking lot out front–even without the Golden Arches sign, you can tell you’re passing a McDonald’s, or at least a fast food restaurant. A completely different message is sent by an out-house, or a barn, or a church. We can differentiate between commercial and residential buildings, industrial and institutional. Yet we can determine this based solely on the visual perception of the buildings.
Buildings also convey information about their internal structure, which is vital for successful wayfinding (Passini 1992). Their ornamentation can tell (or at least refer) to stories or folklore, as with cathedral iconography (Clark and Crossley 2000). Their construction can give clues to the history of the people who built them or about the people they were built to commemorate (Forty 2000).
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