The Challenge of Architectural Meaning

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Authored by

  • Robert Nauman
    University of Colorado-Boulder
    Boulder, Colorado

Building a Context

Architecture can be a challenging subject for art history students. Often the formal elements of design become the focus of class discussion, and students become lost in the "pavement to pediment" vocabulary lists that don't seem relevant to any broader cultural issues. As these daunting tasks of memorization mount, enthusiasm for the subject wanes. As teachers, we all know that people learn best when they're enthusiastically engaged with a topic, but how do we initiate discussion or engage students' imaginations when the topic is architecture?

To address this question, I propose that you think of a topic in the arts that you really enjoy teaching. Perhaps it's the art of Michelangelo, or a work from antiquity, or a painting by Vincent van Gogh. How do you teach it? Let's say you adore Van Gogh's painting. You might convey this to students by explaining the ways Van Gogh synthesized so many aspects of the artwork he most appreciated into his own — Dutch landscapes, Rembrandt's humanism, the formal elements of Japanese prints, Millet's realism and appreciation for the peasants, and the impressionists' colors and brushwork. Maybe you read some of Van Gogh's letters to his brother, Theo, to give a sense of the passion he felt toward his work. In other words, you go beyond merely describing the work — you invest it with meaning. You create a context that goes beyond the short description given in the survey text, drawing on a visual vocabulary.

When discussing architecture, teachers often use this approach up to a certain historic point. For example, you might put the Egyptian pyramids into a broader cultural context (students love hearing about mummies, right?). Or, when discussing classical work, you might have the class read about classical mythology or view films that relate to the glories of Rome — and, given these contexts, students remember works like the Colosseum. But how does one do that with 19th- or 20th-century architecture? Here are just a few works as examples.

Example 1: Monticello

We'll begin with an easy one: Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Your survey text probably devotes a few paragraphs to this home. Fortunately, providing a bit more context is relatively easy with Monticello, and you can make your students do most of the work by posing a few questions to get them started. Have them go to the Monticello website and look at the images there. Ask them to imagine how this building would have been experienced and by whom.

Remind your students that Monticello was built early in the country's history and ask them to articulate how this might have affected the structure — how did Jefferson want his visitors to experience his estate? What does this home say about the principles upon which the U.S. was established and the founders' hopes for the future? Why are there Native American artifacts in the entry? (Remember Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase and hopes for the country's future expansion.) Why are those particular busts in the Tea Room? (They represent some of Jefferson's fellow countrymen as well as French Enlightenment personages involved with restructuring France's government.) Most texts note that the building's design draws on both English and French architectural traditions. You should also remind your students that U.S. leaders at that time, as participants in the establishment of a new country, also wanted the design to refer symbolically to this country; it does so not only in terms of artifacts related to Western expansion but with allusions to earlier republics and democratic traditions. Note Jefferson's innovative solutions to design challenges — the bedroom, for example, in which the bed is situated in a wall space. Why? Because there was no air-conditioning, and the breeze in the summer funneling through this space would create a cooler atmosphere. In the winter, Jefferson could draw curtains around it and create a small space that would be heated by his body warmth. Ask your students to suggest examples of Jefferson's practical innovations that could be incorporated into their own homes.

There is also another context here. Monticello was a working plantation that employed 130 slaves: they served the house through underground service areas so their presence would be invisible to white visitors. Help your students assimilate that information. How would the slaves have experienced Monticello? How would their experience have differed from the average white visitor's during Jefferson's era? How does one encourage a student to look at diversity or gender issues in architecture? Looking at Monticello from these different perspectives is a way to give architecture a broader, more complex context. Ask your students to imagine themselves as a house. How would they describe themselves? How would they say people would experience them and walk through their spaces?

Example 2: The Villa Savoye

Let's do a 20th-century example. We'll make this one a bit more difficult, still choosing another image found in all the surveys: Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye. Go to a website with images of the Villa Savoye (this onepage about the Villa Savoye works well). Compare this experience to the survey text descriptions. Most survey texts describe the exterior in terms of its formal elements, then note that it combines elements of classical Greece and the machine age: by the description provided, the student is led to believe that's because of the supporting columns, or pilotis, and the materials (concrete and steel). Yawn. Ask your students how they experience their homes — through an external description, or do they also experience them as interior spaces by moving through them?

Let's propose something slightly different: let's say Le Corbusier went and carried those elements into the interior of the house. Look at the photos on the website. You'll notice that the main circulation elements in the house are ramps. Why? Le Corbusier's favorite building was the Parthenon, which was reached via ramp "equivalents" — paths that wound their way up to it. The machine aspect is tougher, but fortunately Le Corbusier is also very clear in saying that one of his favorite icons of machine technology was the ocean liner. People ascended into those liners via ramps with metal railings, just like those in the Villa Savoye. Let the students use their imaginations to draw other parallels between this house and the Acropolis/Parthenon and machine technology — for example, the idea of the enclosed garden roof as a small Acropolis. Ask them something like, "What does the word 'villa' imply — what are the connections to the classical past?" Look at the materials used in the villa's construction. Point out to students that the basic construction method (like that used in the Parthenon) was a post-and-lintel system, with steel and concrete instead of stone. What does the difference in those materials imply? Stone can only span relatively small spaces (the Parthenon had little interior space); steel and concrete allow spatial freedom and larger interior spaces (such as classrooms).

Example 3: The Schröder House

Most texts mention that Gerrit Rietveld's Schröder House was built for a widow, Truus Schröder-Schräder, who had three children. The interior of the house was very much a collaborative effort between the two (Rietveld, although married, was romantically involved with Schröder, something you don't read about in the survey texts). Schröder wanted a home where she and her children could communicate as equals: thus the open spaces with sliding partitions. Most students will probably be able to envision living in a house with partitions like that and rearranging them each day according to their mood.

An excellent book on the topic of women and modernist architecture by Alice T. Friedman titled Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History discusses modern homes built by male architects for female patrons. It might be worth looking at as a model for reinvesting modern architecture with more diverse meaning than formal analysis provides. I'm not implying that by reading a few chapters in a book, you'll immediately be able to pass on information that will equip your students to score brilliantly on AP Exams. Perhaps, though, reading those chapters or something similar will help you guide students toward understanding architecture as forms that have a richness, multiplicity, and complexity of meanings. After all, that's what makes the arts inspirational: not merely their formal qualities, but the meanings they evoke that resonate within us. When we inspire our students to study the arts, we pass on to them something that will enrich their lives — in the case of architecture, by giving new meaning to the built environment. Those lessons last a lifetime.