Communication through Architecture

A Final Paper, by Zach Tomaszewski

for CIS 701, Spring 2003, taught by Dr. Majid Tehranian


The growth of the World Wide Web has led to a new profession--that of the Information Architect. These specialists aim to build Web sites that are more clearly understood and more easily navigated by human users. Frequently, as evidenced even by their title, they use the analogy of architecture to explain how they structure information content to form a coherent, navigable Web site (Rosenfeld 1998).

While this metaphor seems to be providing a valuable model for building better Web sites, what are the elements mapped by this metaphor from the domain of architecture to the domain of Web design? Specifically, do we really communicate through architecture? And if we do communicate through architecture, what is the nature of that communication?

There are a number of possible communication theories that can shed light on the nature of communication through architecture. However, I believe these are inadequate to capture the complete nature of architecture. I believe that our understanding of architecture is itself a metaphorical understanding, and it would be most fruitful if we recognized it as such.

Communication through Architecture

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).

Architectural elements can also convey different connotations or emotional feelings. For example, a gate in a wall serves the same function of restricting passage through the portal. However, there is a difference of feeling to a wooden gate to a small walled garden, a wrought-iron cemetery gate, or a steel gate in the enclosing wall of a prison. Through their style, building materials, and environmental context, they provide different connotations.

Adrian Forty, in his book Words and Buildings, describes the various aspects of architecture that have been discussed over the years. These same aspects, or references to them, can also be communicated by architecture. They include: character, context, design, flexibility, form, formality, function, history, memory, nature, order, simplicity, space, structure, transparency, truth, type, and users.

With all these examples, it seems clear that we can indeed receive information through architecture.

The Nature of Architectural Communication

Though we may agree what we can communicate through architecture, how is that communication achieved? The first hypothesis that comes to mind is that architecture is a kind of language.


Websters defines a language as "a systematic means of communicating ideas or feeling by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings" (Gove 1976). Susanne Langer (a philosopher and semiotician whose work will be discussed below) defines a language is a vocabulary of words and a syntax used to combine them into meaningful propositions (1951). Aristotle had a similar view that meaningful words were combined into propositions that had truth values (Ackrill 1963). It seems then that a language consist of words and a syntax to dictate their combination into larger, meaningful structures.

At first, it seems architecture fits this description. A number of writers have broken down architecture into its components. One example list is Forty's, already mentioned above. William Muschenheim in Elements of the Art of Architecture (1964) breaks down form, space, and surface into mass, volume, plane, line, solid, void, proportion, size, scale, light, shadow, harmony, contrast, continuity, balance, enclosure, height, depth, light, extension, texture, pattern, color, ornamentation, and facade. Others, such as Roth (1993), have generated similar lists. J.N.L. Durand mentions more intuitive (at least to the layman) components, such as supports, walls, opening, foundations, floors, vaults, roofs, and terraces (Forty 2000).

Besides having these component "words" common to all constructions, there are certain rules on how they should be combined. Part of this is constrained by physical necessity: stairs are of little use if they don't reach a viable destination; roofs have to be supported by walls or columns; etc. Part of the rules are conventionalized, such as the rules of using the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders in developing new designs (Clarke and Crossley 2000). Later thinkers, such as William Mitch, have broken down these order rules in terms of a Chomskian grammar (Hill 1999). Durand thought this was exactly how architecture should be taught--as a grammar of a language (Forty 2000).

A number of architects and writers have held this view--that architecture is a symbolically-representitive language and that buildings can be read as texts (Forty 2000; Roth 1993). As Umberto Eco claimed, "Architectural language is an authentic linguistic system obeying the same rules that govern the articulation of natural languages." (Clarke and Crossley 2000, p.2). There are additional arguments for this view. One is that any communication must surely require a language as its medium. Additionally, many linguistics, semioticians, and symbolic interactionalists have claimed that mental functioning is essentially linguistic--the logical manipulation of meaningful symbols (Littlejohn 1983). Surely if thought is basically language, any product of such thought would embody many of those same linguistic characteristics (Clarke and Crossley 2000).

However, further study shows that there are problems with this view. First of all, the "words" of architecture are not arbitrary symbols. They are constrained by the laws of physics (Clarke and Crossley 2000). They are determined by the form of the building, which is in turn determined by its function (Hill 1999). Even when an architectural element references an object--such as in a sunflower motif or a sail-shaped form--it is by imitation (Hill 1999). In a normal language, a symbol should be replaceable by a definition or synonym composed of other symbols in the languages (Langer 1951); this is rarely possible in architecture. These objections all suggest that architectural elements are much more like signs than the meaningful symbols required of a language.

Secondly, as Richard Hill (1999) points out, a systemic order does not equal a grammar. With a grammar, changes of syntax either changes the meaning of the proposition or else results in an incorrect and meaningless collection of words. This is not the case with architecture. Instead of being constrained by rules of meaning, architecture is systematic because of its physical constrains.

Additionally, architecture is nowhere near as specific, flexible, or expressive as a language (Clarke and Crossley 2000). But most importantly, a language's primary function is to communicate. Architecture's primary function is to provide shelter. (Architecture's primary purpose is debatable depending on your stance on architecture verses buildings; as I stated early, I am assuming the two are basically synonymous.)

Presentational Forms

So it seems that, though architecture is similar in many ways to a language, it has a number of "deficiencies" that prevent it from being a language in the traditional sense. However, there have been a few non-traditional takes on language. Susanne Langer's presentational forms is one such view.

Langer posits that there exist presentational forms. Unlike traditional discursive languages in which the component parts are read sequentially, presentational forms are perceived as a whole. Their component parts may be differentiable, but they are not meaningfully separable. (An analogy is a written word--while one can break the word into component letters, the letters do not contain any of the meaning present in the original word.) A painting is a good example of a presentational form. It is possible to determine different colors or shades, but sections of a painting do not have meaning in themselves. They can not be translated or defined into other symbols in the same medium. Most art carries meaning through such presentational forms. Such forms as music are highly connotative and only slightly, if at all, denotative.

Viewing architecture as a presentational form clears up some of the objections raised about architecture as a traditional language. It still carries meaning, but that meaning does not rely on its having meaningful parts or a grammar to connect those parts. This new model returns us simply to the definition of communication--to conveying information--without the entanglements of being a language. It denies the assumption that communication can only occur through a language.

This may be a clarification of the architecture-as-a-language debate, but it is not terribly helpful in its own right. If meaning is not conventionalize within meaningful component parts and then combined to form greater propositions of meaning, how do presentational forms signify their meaning? One solution is Langer's--that these presentational forms reflect "morphologies of feeling", invoking such patterns of internal experience as motion, rest, tension, release, agreement, discord, and change. Certainly we could accept that, while having no standardized denotative meaning, presentational form can still imply highly connotative meanings.

But this is still inadequate for two reasons. The first is that, while not completely accurate, the idea that architecture consists of components and a grammar seemed to have some validity. It plays no real part if architecture is only a presentational form. Secondly, presentational forms do not give a complete view of architecture either. They do not explain why form is determined by function, or how people can conceive the design of a built structure as is necessary for wayfinding. In short, saying that architecture is a presentational form may suggest how it communicates connotations and emotional aspects, but it does not aid at all in understanding its primary function of providing shelter.


Forty (2000) points out that every cultural endeavor has been claimed as a language at one point or another--film, painting, music, sculpture, fashion, etc. He points out that there are a number of gradations in the comparison between architecture and language. First, there is the difference between is and like--that architecture is like a language in that it has meaning as well as components that are systematically joined, verses architecture is in fact a language, with all the features thereof. There is a difference between carrying meaning and having a syntax; the two, as shown by Langer's presentational forms, are not necessarily synonymous. And there is a difference between seeing architecture as literature--a completed composition within a language--and seeing architecture as linguistic--a generative form of communication.

Forty also reviews the historical motivations for claiming that architecture is a language. One is that it discourages invention. Just as an eloquent speaker does not coin new words for every use but creatively combines the existing symbols within the syntactic rules, so should an architect follow the conventions of his day. A second motivation is that it places architecture in the realm of art, rather than simple utility. Architecture can be like poetry or literature, and so carry such attributes as character, style, rhythm, and truth. A third is to describe the origins of architecture--to claim, just as in language, it is more useful to discover the rules of generation than to dogmatically trace and emulate the historical roots. A fourth is that it proves architecture communicates. Victor Hugo felt that buildings could be read as texts, and that Gothic architecture was the most complete and permanent form of social record until being replaced by the book. A fifth motivation is, as we've seen, to show that architecture is an ordered system, like a grammar. Finally, if architecture is a full-fledged semiotic system, then it carries meaning.

It is helpful to realize is that language is certainly not the only metaphor used to illustrate architecture. Forty also cites a number of science metaphors. One is that of the human circulation system, which is helpful in understanding the paths taken by vehicular and pedestrian traffic, as well as by air currents. There is also a high incidence of terms from both static and fluid mechanics used to describe the appearance architecture. These terms include tension, stress, compression, torsion, shear, equilibrium, centrifugal, and centripetal.

Hill (1999), in his criticisms of viewing architecture as a language, notes that music would be a better analogy--particularly the notions of harmony, discord, contrast, and rhythm. He notes that architecture also has a number of similarities to sculpture and painting, which reminds of us of Langer's discussion of presentational forms.

Forty (2000) examines a number of differences between drawing and language. Drawings are exacting, where language can often be vague or ambiguous. Language differentiates between meanings, while drawings presents a unity. Meta-language cues are absent in most drawings, unlike in speech and some writing. Language presents content linearly, while drawings present it simultaneously. These are significant differences, and certainly echo many of Langer's differences between discursive and presentational forms. Yet architecture has be described as being a discursive language and a presentational form, as well as a number of other things. This is contradictory.

However, while it may not be both language and presentational form (or literature and shelter, or circulatory system and a static mechanical system), it can very well be like all these things. As Forty points out, "Even if architecture is not a language, it does not lessen the value of language as a metaphor for talking about architecture" (2000, p.84).

Metaphorical Understanding

And so it seems, if we are to understand architecture, which can be so many different things at the same time, we must investigate the conceptual metaphors we so casually use to understand it. By conceptual metaphor, I am referring to the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (1980). Though I wish I could include all of their fine work here, a summary will have to suffice.

Lakoff and Johnson postulate that our cognitive system, as evidenced by the language we use, is largely comprised of cognitive metaphors. A metaphor is a systematic, partial structuring of one concept in terms of another. These metaphors form a vast but coherent system that shapes our understanding of the world. These metaphors frequently go unnoticed as they are such an integral part of our thinking. One example they give is the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. When we speak normally and literally about arguments, we use the language of war: we take positions to defend; we attack our opponent; we either fortify or abandon weak positions; we choose different strategies and lines of attack; we eventually win or lose. We have already seen how, when people speak of architecture, they use the language of other domains--balance, rhythm, contrast, impression, etc. Normally, we do not note that architecture is simply like these other domains, such as language or presentational forms, but assume that is actually is these things.

Because metaphors are partial structurings (if they were complete mappings, the source and target domains would be synonymous), metaphors both highlight and hide certain features of the target concept. We have seen this particularly clearly in Forty's examination of the motivations behind and variants of the language metaphor--that is, preventing innovation, granting architecture the status of art, determining origins, and explaining how syntax and meaning play a role in architectural communication.

But this metaphor also hides features. For example, architecture has primarily a utilitarian function, not an artistic one; and its primary purpose is shelter, not communication. These aspects are hidden by the ARCHITECTURE IS LANGUAGE metaphor.

Lakoff and Johnson posit that some conceptual metaphors are more basic than others. This is because, ultimately, our conceptual structure is grounded in our interactions with the world. And it seems that experiences of physical processes and objects are more clearly delineated than those experiences of emotions, organizations, or intellectual abstractions. Thus, we use these more basic metaphors to understand more abstract concepts.

Our conceptual system of metaphors determines our understanding of new and existing concepts. This understanding in turn determines how we relate to the world, and what we understand to be true.

The power of Lakoff and Johnson's findings are that, once we realize we are using conceptual metaphors, we are no longer unwittingly bound by them. We begin to see them everywhere. The fields of language and communication, for example, are both shaped by metaphor. Communication can be seen as a rule-based "language game". It can be seen as a system, like a living organism responding to its environment. Shannon and Weaver's model of information is basically that all communication is analogous to a phone call, with the same factors of source, channel, message, noise, etc. present. Linguistic grammars even use terms inherent to architecture, such a form and structure, to describe the format of sentences and the relationships between their parts (Littlejohn 1983)! This abundance of different theories is because language and communication are abstract concepts, and they occur so frequently and in so many different contexts. A single metaphor cannot highlight or help us understand all their aspects.

In the same way, I think we need to look at the conceptual metaphors we use to understand architecture. Some kernel of it seems to be grounded in our experience--that of form and structure. No where else do we experience form or structure as immediately and concretely as we do in buildings. This source domain is used in understanding other target domains, as in the metaphors THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS, SENTENCES ARE (GRAMMATICAL) STRUCTURES, and ORAGANIZATION OF INFORMATION IS A STRUCTURE.

But beyond this basic function of providing a sheltering structure, architecture serves a number of additional functions. It embodies the history of its construction and the society that produced it. It reveals its intended use through its appearance, which can be apprehended all at once, like a presentational form, or broken down into related, component parts, such as in a language. It evokes an emotional, connotative response in those who interact with it.


We have seen that, though its primary function is utilitarian, architecture still communicates to its viewers. That is, it can give indications as to its function or history, as well as evoke a connotative response. Theories to explain this would cast architecture as either a language of symbols or as a presentational form. Yet architecture seems to fit both to some to degree, and neither to a complete degree.

It is most helpful to realize that "language" and "presentational form" are metaphors to help us understand different aspects and ways of relating to architecture. Nor are these the only metaphors possible. Architecture also seems to have its own core of direct experience that is not metaphorical--that of form and structure. Indeed, this is the source for conceptual metaphors in other domains.

In answer to our original query of how can architecture be used to understand the organization of information, it is by application of what we know about structure and form. Other aspects of architecture--history, emotional connotation, environmental context--play far smaller, if any, roles in our understanding of informational organization.

Realizing that architecture is a multi-faceted discipline, highlighted by a number of different conceptual metaphors aids our understanding of it in itself, but it also aids the actual study of architectural communication. For one, it provides us the same findings as any work that assumes that those metaphors were absolutely true--that architecture is a language or a presentational from. But it also alerts us to be wary of situations when the metaphor is weak and to when a different metaphor would serve us better. Secondly, a metaphorical understanding of architecture highlights those areas unique to architecture--particularly those involving form and structure. These can be studied directly, as with wayfinding tests to determine the functionality of a structure (Passini 1992) or through environmental psychology experiments on how people conceive and utilize space. Where findings from other presentational form disciplines, such as painting and sculpture, are inadequate, connotative studies specific to architecture can be performed with semantic differential-like tests (Littlejohn 1983) of both architectural elements and completed works. Rather than limiting us to a single, insufficient view of architecture, a conceptual metaphor framework allows us to alter our conceptions to better fit the problem, as well as give us clues to what aspects of architecture might share similarities with other disciplines.

Proposal for Further Study

Language and presentational forms are helpful in understanding architectural communication. Yet when architecture is used as the source of a metaphor to understand another domain, it is primarily its experientally-based, core aspects of form and structure that are being used. So, in order to discover how we can understand the organization of information on the Web as architecture, we have to 1) understand how people normally conceptualize and navigate space and form and 2) how those conceptualizations can be mapped to similar patterns in information.

For the first--how people understand and utilize space--we can turn to studies in environmental psychology, wayfinding, and urban planning. For example, Romedi Passini, in his book Wayfinding in Architecture (1992), reviews Kevin Lynch's study of city structure. Lynch discovered that, when people navigate, they rely on paths, nodes, landmarks, edges, and districts. Passini feels that these same five elements are utilized in internal built structures--such as airports and shopping malls--as well. Here is a possible mapping of those same physical features to features of the World Wide Web:

ElementArchitectural DescriptionWWW Element Translation
paths the channels of transport, such as roads, elevators, paths, etc. links, as they are how we travel between points on the Web
nodes entry and focus points, such as squares, intersections, circles, and other open places since link paths lead to and from pages, web pages seem to correspond to nodes
landmarks physical reference points, objects of note, buildings, mountains, towers, stores page content, images, labels
edges linear elements not used as paths; especially important as borders, such as rivers, coastlines, walls, etc. edges do not seem to exist on the web; the closest approximation is strong site image, but this is only noticeable once it has been crossed
districts medium to large areas with recognizable flavor or distinction sites, sub-sites, and differentiated areas of a site

As we can see, the metaphor is not perfect. The mapping is not complete, particularly when it comes to edges on the Web. Another complication is that paths/links have no length on the Web. In this way, Web pages are more like indoor rooms, connected by doors and elevators, than they are like a city structure. There is no chance to look around or to orient oneself while traveling along a link. A user is either on one page or another. This makes the use of landmarks difficult. Landmarks are largely useful because they can be seen from a distance and provide positional clues. However, a landmark on one page cannot be seen from another page. (The direction-finding aspects of landmarks could be simulated by providing identifying icons related to certain districts or pages with links to those pages--sort of a "This way to [landmark]" sign.)

Though he admits the use of Lynch's elements in wayfinding, Passini considers three other aspects of structure to be even more important. These are spatial organization, spatial enclosure, and spatial correspondence. Spatial organization is simply being able to grasp the principles on which spaces are construed and related. If a scheme has been closely followed, people will be able to predict the structure once they recognize the scheme.

Rosenfeld and Morville, in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (1998), also discuss adherence to a scheme when organizing information. They identify such schemes as exact (as in alphabetical, chronological, or geographical organization) or ambiguous (as in topical, task or audience oriented, or metaphor-driven) or some combination of these. Use of such schemes then leads to a hierarchy, hypertext/web, database/tabular, or linear "structure" of the information.

Passini's spatial enclosure is the way that external boundaries give a clue to internal structure. For example, when a building has a rectangular perimeter, people assume that the inside structure is also rectangular. In cases where rectangular buildings have a triangular internal circulation, major wayfinding difficulties are reported. This is difficult to map to Web sites because there are so few edges online, and a Web site's boundaries cannot be seen from outside the site.

Finally, spatial correspondence is how one area lies in relation to another. Though literal spatial relations have no meaning in hypertext, we could do more to show correspondences between parts of the site within the entire organizational structure, much as rooms are related to each other within a building.

So we can see how a review of the two fields of architecture and information organization reveals interesting metaphorical parallels. Lynch's urban features can be mapped to Web site elements. Passini's structural organization, enclosure, and correspondence can be compared to Rosenfeld and Morville's organizational schemes and structures. Other areas of spatial cognition should be explored--such as how people navigate either linearly, based on signs, or spatially, based on environmental structure. Passini's (1992) system for placing signs in a structure could be used to build navigation on top of a Web site scheme. Also important are how structures can be revealed through maps, and how people then use and understand those maps.

Besides these core spatial aspects of architecture, the other aspects of architecture we've explored may also play a small role. It may be possible to "read" a Web site's structure as a history to learn more about the people who created it--what they value and what influences affected their design. Certain structures may have different emotional connotations--for example, linear sites may be seen as easier yet unsophisticated.

But we've also seen that metaphors are only partial mappings. To fully understand the Web, we will have to rely on other metaphors as well. Just as with architecture, we may think of a Web page as presentational form, perceived as a whole. We can think of the Web as a collection of documents or a Web site as a book. By understanding these diverse metaphors used by both designers and users, we will be able to "import" some of the techniques and findings of other disciplines, generating new design methods for the Web. The ultimate measure of the success of this study is if we can build clearer, more usable Web sites.

Works Cited

Ackrill, J. L. Aristotle's Categories and De Interpretatione. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1963.

Clarke, Georgia, and Paul Crossley, eds. Architecture and Language: Constructing Identity in European Architecture, c.1000-c.1650. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Forty, Adrian. Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Gove, Philip Babcock. Ed. Websters 3rd New International Dictionary Springfield, MA: G&C Merriam Co, 1976.

Hill, Richard. Designs and Their Consequences: Architecture and Aesthetics. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1999.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Langer, Susanne. Philosophy in a new key: a study in the symbolism of reason, rite and art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951.

Littlejohn, Stephen W. Theories of Human Communication. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1983.

Muschenheim, William. Elements of the Art of Architecture. New York: Viking Press, 1964.

Passini, Romedi. Wayfinding in Architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.

Rosenfeld, Louis, and Peter Morville. Information Architecture for the World Wide Web . Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 1998.

Roth, Leland M. Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning. London: Herbert Press, Ltd., 1993.