Tavoos Art Quarterly, No. 11, Spring 2001
In the winter and spring of 1974, Christian Norberg-Schulz was guest professor of Architecture at MIT and I had the chance of taking the two courses he taught during that semester. One of them was entitled “The Meaning of Architecture” and its lectures formed the basis of his book, Meaning In Western Architecture (Praeger, New York, 1975). Christian Norberg-Schulz tried to do for architecture what Heidegger had done for language. His main thesis was that “Architecture shows” in a similar way to what Heidegger meant when he said, “Language speaks.” Heidegger implied that each language speaks of a specific culture which it serves and from which it evolved, and thus there is a dialectical relationship between language and culture—each culture speaks through a specific language which is never adequately translatable and each language speaks of that specific culture.
In the same way, architecture reveals the modes of being of a specific culture, and can thus be read as a language. This was quite different from the semiological approach which was prevalent at the time and which also looked at architecture as a language where, roughly speaking, the materials could be seen as words, the structure as syntax, the resulting forms as text, and the spaces which are actually the voids in between the forms as the meaning which emerges from the text.
As Heidegger said, “man dwells in language,” CNS would say “man dwells in architecture,” which he literally does. In fact there is an old German word—buan—which means both “being” and “dwelling.” For CNS, “to dwell is to belong to a place,” which again is very similar to Heidegger’s “das Dasein ist raumlich” (“Being-here is spatial”), and for him, the main task of architecture is to “make space become a system of places, and help protect a genius loci (spirit of place) which is a synthesis of natural and artificial elements.” Therefore the importance of the landscape from which and on which man builds. This concept of “building the land” was further developed by many theoreticians of architecture, namely Kenneth Frampton, but CNS spoke of it very poetically some twenty five years before when he referred to it as the “vocation” of the landscape. He pointed out the archetypal genius loci in Nature: the harbor, the island, .… This genius loci or spirit of place, he called “character.” The character of a building emerges from those physical and spiritual concepts which make that building what it is and nothing else, and is perceived by men as a unique place. As we looked at the seminal buildings of Western architecture, it was amazing to see that a general consensus emerged from all students as to the “character” of each building.
This concept of character is very poetically stated in Heidegger’s definition of a jug in his essay on “The Thing”: “In the poured water dwells the source. In the source dwells the dark slumber of the earth, which receives the rain and the dew of the sky. In the water of the source dwells the wedding of sky and earth… The gift of the pouring is the jugness of the jug.”1 The character of the jug is not summed up in its definition of a container from and into which liquids are poured, its character is derived from the “gift of pouring.”
The “character” of buildings from which higher meanings are perceived by human beings, was always associated in my mind with Louis Kahn’s “wanting to be.” In his poetic aphoristic style Kahn says: “All that we desire to create has its meaning in feeling alone. This is true for the scientist; it is true for the artist. But to rely emotionally on feeling and to ignore thought would mean to make nothing.