An Analysis of Whyte's 'How Do Buildings Mean?'

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The following essay aims to discuss and interpret the ideas presented in William Whyte’s “How do Buildings mean? Some issues of interpretation in the history of Architecture”. Whyte’s essay looks at the ways in which architectural historians attempt to comprehend the notion of architectural ‘meaning’ and the ways in which their understanding differs from those of architects. It also discusses the ways in which architecture can be viewed as a form of language, a language that translates an architect’s design ideas and intentions through built form. The essay also looks closely at the ways in which architecture is presented using different forms of media, such as text, photographs, drawings and magazines and how these differ from physically experiencing an architectural work. Using Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum as an exemplar, this essay will analyse the ways in which the ‘meaning’ of the building is presented through the use of photographic images.

To begin, we must first have an understanding of the way in which Whyte and other historians attempt to interpret and understand architectural ‘meaning’ and how their understanding can be seen as simplistic and incomplete. For Whyte, an architectural historian, the process of understanding architecture differs from that of an architect. Architectural historians, as the following definition explains, tend to focus more on the historical moments in architecture and the effects they have on social and culture values[1]. “Architectural History is more than just the study of buildings. It is the study of the past and present and is an essential emblem of a distinctive social system and set of cultural values”[2]. This historical approach towards architecture consequently lacks an understanding of the fundamentals of architectural design. As architects we understand the ways in which architecture comes about as a result of a meticulous design process that takes into consideration context, space, materiality and experience.

To begin, we will look at an external photograph of the building. The photograph is (Image 1.) featured in Daniel Libeskind’s “The Space of Encounter” and shows the building within its surrounding context. One can see that the building is located in the city, adjacent to the pre-existing museum and buildings of Berlin. At first glance one would not think much of this photograph; however its composition provides a non-verbal representation of Libeskind’s notion of a connection between historical Berlin and Jewish culture. The photograph depicts the building in such a way which gives it dominance and respect with in its context. When depicting an architectural work, the perspective and scale of the photograph are highly important[3]. The scale of this photograph is important as it gives the viewer an opportunity to observe the building in its entirety, giving a sense of size and mass, something that they would not physically be able to experience by visiting the building. It is also important to note the cranes in the background of the photograph. They provide another element to the image that again symbolises Libeskind’s notion of acknowledging and embracing Jewish spirit and culture in the development and future of Berlin.

The following photograph (Image 2.) is also featured in Daniel Libeskind’s “The Space of Encounter”. This photograph again shows the context of the building in comparison with the pre-existing museum, this time with much greater detail. The photograph is important as it not only symbolises the connection between the past and the present, but it also shows the complex geometrical design and materiality of the building’s facade. The composition and angle of the photograph illustrates both unity and respect between the two buildings as neither one dominates the other. Similar to the previous photograph, this image also represents Libeskind’s notion of both a spiritual and physical connection between the Jewish culture and the city of Berlin. The facade of the building is a key element of the photograph. Without prior knowledge, the shape, placement and construction of the windows within the facade would seem random and unintentional. However, these windows are an abstraction of a pattern that was created by Libeskind by connecting the addresses of important Jewish residents throughout Berlin’s history on a map[4]. Another important element of the photograph is the inclusion of people and automobiles as it provides the viewer a sense of scale, something that they would otherwise only be able to comprehend by physically visiting the building.

The third photograph in the collection looks at the building at an even closer scale. The angle and composition of the photograph is crucial as it dictates how the image will be read. The photograph was taken on an upward angle which gives the viewer the sensation of looking upwards at the building. When one analyses the photograph they are presented with the idea of a building which is pointing skywards. This can be translated as being a symbolic representation of Libeskind’s notion that the building is an acknowledgement of the Jewish people moving forward and contributing to the development of the city of Berlin. The photograph also provides a detailed look at the materiality of the building. The facade of the building was constructed using zinc panels. The zinc panels serve as a symbol of Berlin’s strong industrial history[5]. When presenting architecture through the use of photographs, elements such as materiality can be helpful in portraying an architect’s design intentions to the viewer. For example, the following image of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, although simple, is symbolic of his architectural intentions. The prominence of the minimalistic white concrete facade can be interpreted as a building which embodies freedom, purity and simplicity.

The above interior photographs are perhaps the most significant in helping to translate the architectural ‘meaning’ and design intentions behind Libeskind’s Jewish Museum. The exterior photographs of the museum do not give the viewer much information on what the interior composition of the building may be like. One would think that the interior composition would be similar to the exterior perimeter of the building; however the interior of the building is extremely complex and intricate and does not relate to the exterior. The interior of the building is a collection of galleries, voids and dead ends, which provide the viewer with a sensitive and confronting experience[6].

Both of the above photographs illustrate the importance of materiality within the building. In contrast to the exterior zinc facade, the interior of the building is constructed with reinforced concrete. The photograph on the right hand side is of the ‘Holocaust Void’. The ‘Holocaust Void’ runs in a straight line through the entire length of the building and is not accessible by visitors. The void can only be viewed by crossing one of the 60 bridges located throughout the building. Libeskind designed the void to emphasis the feeling of absence felt by the Jewish people throughout the war[7]. Both photographs are particular in not providing the viewer with a sense of location or context. This technique creates a sense of confusion and discomfort for the viewer, something which is symbolic of Libeskind’s intentions of portraying the emotional and physical hardships endured by the Jewish people. The photographs put a strong emphasis on the materiality of the building. Both photographs show the reinforced concrete which is used throughout the building. The dull and gloomy aesthetic quality of the concrete embodies a sense of isolation and detachment from the outside world. The colour and composition of the photographs are all about providing the viewer with a translation of the architectural experiences embodied within the building.

In conclusion it is evident that media, especially photographs, can be used to develop and create an architectural language which can be used as an analogical tool to understand and translate the architectural ‘meaning’ of a built form. Through the careful composition, scale and detail of a photograph, the design intentions of an architect can be translated in order to provide the viewer with an understanding of the meaning embedded into the building. The Jewish Museum is a fine example of the way in which this can be achieved. The collection of photographs featured in this essay all embody and symbolize the emotion and spirituality which is experienced when visiting the building. The building itself is a journey, a spiritual and physical journey which sets out to confront and discomfort the viewer in order to recognise and celebrate the spirit of the Jewish people within the city of Berlin.

Reference List:

  1. Arnold, D, Ergut, E, Turan, B 2006, ‘Rethinking architectural historiography’, NY USA, pp. 5
  2. Arnold, Dana 2002, ‘Reading Architectural History’, Routledge, Florence USA, pp. 1
  3. Whyte, William 2006, ’How Do Buildings Mean? Some Issues of Interpretation in the History of Architecture’ History and Theory, Vol. 45, No.2, pp. 154
  4. Whyte, William 2006, ’How Do Buildings Mean? Some Issues of Interpretation in the History of Architecture’ History and Theory, Vol. 45, No.2, pp. 157
  5. Whyte, William 2006, ’How Do Buildings Mean? Some Issues of Interpretation in the History of Architecture’ History and Theory, Vol. 45, No.2, pp. 158

6. Kim, Eric 2011, ‘Eric Kim Street Photography, viewed 19 June 2013 <http://www.ericimphotography.com>

7. Artinger, Kai Dr 2013, Remembering a lost museum: The first Jewish museum and modern art collection of the world’, viewed 20 June 2013 <http://artdaily.org/>

  1. Libeskind, Daniel 2011, ‘Jewish Museum Berlin’ viewed 20 June 2013 <http://www.daniel-libeskind.com>
  2. Edwards, Steve 2006, ‘Photography: A Very Short Introduction’, Oxford Great Britain, pp. 85-122
  3. Stead, Naomi 2000, ‘ The Ruins of History: allegories of destruction in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum’ Open Museum Journal, Vol. 2, pp. 4
  4. Jewish Museum Berlin, ‘The Libeskind Building’ viewed 22 June 2013 <http://www.jmberlin.de>
  5. Jewish Museum Berlin, ‘The Voids’ viewed 22 June 2013 <http://www.jmberlin.de>
  1. Libeskind, Daniel 2011, ‘Jewish Museum Berlin’ viewed 22 June 2013 <http://www.daniel-libeskind.com>

Image Reference List:

  1. Bredt, Bitter 2011, Studio Daniel Libeskind, viewed 20 June 2013 <http://www.daniel-libeskind.com>
  1. Bredt, Bitter 2011, Studio Daniel Libeskind, viewed 20 June 2013 <http://www.daniel-libeskind.com>
  1. Ziehe, Jens, Jewish Museum Berlin, ‘Lines Without Order? The Facade of the New Building, viewed 22 June 2013 <http://www.daniel-libeskind.com>

  1. Bragaia, Flavio 2010, Arch Daily, ‘AD Classics: Villa Savoye / Le Corbusier’, viewed 21 June 2013 <http://www.daniel-libeskind.com>
  1. Radenz, Tom 2012, Renderdonkey, ‘Angles’, viewed 22 June 2013 <http://www.daniel-libeskind.com>
  1. Robner, Marion, Jewish Museum Berlin, ‘The Voids’, viewed 22 June 2013 <http://www.daniel-libeskind.com>

1


[1] Arnold, D, Ergut, E, Turan, B 2006, ‘Rethinking architectural historiography’, NY USA, pp. 5

[2] Arnold, Dana 2002, ‘Reading Architectural History’, Routledge, Florence USA, pp. 1

[3] Edwards, Steve 2006, ‘Photography: A Very Short Introduction’, Oxford Great Britain, pp. 85-122

[4] Stead, Naomi 2000, ‘ The Ruins of History: allegories of destruction in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish

Museum’ Open Museum Journal, Vol. 2, pp. 4

[5] Jewish Museum Berlin, ‘The Libeskind Building’ viewed 22 June 2013 <http://www.jmberlin.de>

[6] Jewish Museum Berlin, ‘The Voids’ viewed 22 June 2013 <http://www.jmberlin.de>

[7] Libeskind, Daniel 2011, ‘Jewish Museum Berlin’ viewed 22 June 2013 <http://www.daniel-libeskind.com>

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