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I am puzzling over this question awhile, and I can’t find any good, clear reference on the topic without going way to deep into linguistics and getting too abstract. Can anybody explain to me if architecture can be considered a language? Linguistically speaking does it have the characteristics to be considered a language? Mies van Der Rohe use to say that if one knows the language of architecture quite well, they might be able to write poems with it. Now, this said, what would be the foundational principles from a linguistic standpoint that would allow one to “speak” in the language of architecture ? I surely doubt that a facade could be seen as a direct absolute translation of an actual text, having the characteristic of human language grammar, but if it were a language, how could it "communicate", or in general what would it be? I was intrigued by Chomsky's statement regarding language whose first function is not to communicate but to somehow produce… I'm still fascinated by the theory of universal grammar of Chomsky, and I would be be curious to understand if we, regarding architecture, could have a kind of “internal grammar” which helps us to identify sentences with no meaning (like in human language). From the SEP Article "Philosophy of Architecture":

Goodman (1985) proposes that buildings have meaning in that they function symbolically relative to properties, feelings, or ideas, sometimes through “standard” denotation, as when representing symbolically (whether as building part or whole) some other object in the world. Primarily, though, buildings function symbolically through exemplification (literal or explicit denotation) or expression (metaphorical exemplification) of properties of ideas, sentiments, or objects in the world. Buildings only constitute architecture per se, in Goodman’s view, if they bear meaning in one or more of these ways. While Goodman may have identified a denotative role for buildings, this is not clearly a semantic role.

For example in architecture there are things which within the context of our current physical terrestrial condition (gravity) are not feasible and buildable, statically. Still many “Escher” like impossible figures are understood spatially by the brain as plausible… could anybody point me in the right direction of making sense of these thoughts??

Thanks in advance.

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  • Have you seen Zaha Hadid's work? It might answer your question.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 1, 2022 at 1:32
  • 2
    It could be a language insofar as you can recognize its production rules as some finite state machine (dfa/nfa) with all your state transition functions designed correctly. Zen even advocated direct transmission of meaning outside text, the simple action that someone pickups some white flower then smiles could communicate something meaningful for someone recognizing its non-linguistic form while most people would get puzzled as this is certainly not some normal textual language belonging to some Chomsky hierarchy... Aug 1, 2022 at 3:12
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    No of course not. But not all communication is linguistic. Aug 1, 2022 at 6:02
  • Btw, in many German towns there're many architectural drawings painted on many houses' walls as it's a culture and many people like to express something via architectural paintings, if you can recognize the meaning behind it you'll more appreciate this "language"... Aug 1, 2022 at 6:12
  • @DoubleKnot when you say finite state machine, this is what you mean ? mitpress.mit.edu/books/logic-architecture
    – user40208
    Aug 1, 2022 at 6:35

6 Answers 6

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I have yet to see it in an answer presented, but to call architecture a language is just a metaphor. It's simply an implicit comparison, one that does not use "like" or "as". How do these subjects relate? One can roughly speculate:

  • Design elements are like words.
  • Design patterns are like sentences.
  • Styles might be seen as tropes.
  • The process of architecting is like the production of speech since both are creative ventures.
  • An architect's style might be like an idiolect.
  • Both the speaker and the architect are trying to have social impact.
  • Both activities are emotionally impactful.
  • Both practices have a language to describe them.
  • A large building is like a finished novel.
  • And so on...

So there is no magic here. The quotation is not a literal claim, but what is called an conceit or extended metaphor. It common for masters of a discipline to use such figurative devices to describe their disciplines because it translate the source domain of an experience that is unfamiliar into one that is universal. Not everyone understand what it takes to create a skyscraper, but even the deaf know how to translate thoughts into words.

Philosophically, metaphors are a staple of both human thought and language, and conceptual metaphors in particular are theorized, along with generative notions of grammar to extend the expressive power of natural language. See Surfaces and Essences by Hofstadter and Sander for a detailed exploration of the topic.

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  • Thanks! I found interesting this link, here it is written (against the argument of architecture as language) that architetture is an allographic artform, even if i don’t undertand here the reference to plans as notational schemes. plato.stanford.edu/entries/architecture/#ArcLanNot
    – user40208
    Aug 1, 2022 at 23:22
  • And by the way, always in the same article you can find that much as being done over defining architecture at compositional level as a set of rules and grammar, so in theory it would be possible to set a certain compositional workflow as a language, in the sense of having a grammar and a syntax. What is not clear is why a certain grammar and syntax should be more appropriate compared to another…
    – user40208
    Aug 1, 2022 at 23:31
  • Well that's fascinating, thanks. : D "The architectural language thesis, in its various forms, is widely discredited in recent philosophy of architecture." I suspect any program to create a literal architectural language would fail for the same reason as Leibniz universal characteristic. It's tough to meaningfully create a map from serialized graphemes of a grammar to diffuse intuitions and feelings that are mere associations of subjective experience. Take the word love, which is used by essentially contested. That's tough enough. But now you want to extend that to impressions?
    – J D
    Aug 1, 2022 at 23:38
  • There simply no reason to use or adopt such a language from the perspective of participants of a language game. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_game_%28philosophy%29
    – J D
    Aug 1, 2022 at 23:40
  • But thanks for the fascinating question! : D
    – J D
    Aug 1, 2022 at 23:40
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Taken literally, no. Architecture is roughly the practice/art/science of designing buildings, we do not typically use the word "language" to refer to such practices. Nor does it meet the criteria for either a formal or natural language.

However, architecture- as with any discipline- may have its own technical terms, such technical terms along with the natural language they are embedded in constitute a language, perhaps called "Architectural English". Of course, there are many other such augmented languages "Mathematical English", "Chemical German", etc... what one does when one utters something in the language is then dependent on ones philosophy of linguistics or language more generally.

Pulling directly from model theory, we can now say that a buiding is a model of the set of sentences that describe it. For example, we allow (a) the building is an apartment in a residential area (b) its target market base are young techies (c) it is gray. A poem is just a particularly interesting result of such a model: Given some set of constraints, a poem is a very elegant building that meets all constraints and then some. We can also find nonstandard models, these correlate perhaps to your Escherian drawings.

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No.

Architecture is a discipline, a branch of knowledge, a set of knowledge facts that are intended to solve specific problems.

A language is a set of rules and symbols, and architecture is much more than that. An architect uses languages to communicate ideas, that's probably what the quote above tries to express. A formal language is a language based on a set of logically consistent rules.

From a simple standpoint it can be said that the responsibility of an architect is the conception, and the responsibility of an engineer is the actual construction. Architect is who masters the client needs; conceives, thinks, creates the idea, and formalizes the concept using a formal language producing some result (e.g. the System Architecture Document). Such result is intended to be communicated to the stockholders in order for the job to be accepted and started. The person in charge for the actual construction of the object is the engineer, who solves the technical constraints that appear during the process, in close coordination with the architect.

In my domain (I am a sysarch), I study and propose ideas about technical client requirements, propose the structure and dynamics of a system, and communicate them using formal languages like UML or just simple mathematical models. The engineers take the load of actually building such systems. For that, it is imperative for both teams to master the formal languages.

The message that Mies van Der Rohe tries possibly to convey is that of communicating ideas, feelings, with his art. So, he uses the allegory of architecture being a language, possibly considering his works as the symbols of the language:


"I'm not working on architecture...I'm working on architecture as a language. You have to have a grammar in order to have a language. And then you can speak in prose. And if you are really good, you can be a poet."

- Mies van der Rohe

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  • To a kid with a grammar, everything is email.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 1, 2022 at 17:39
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Of course! In at least a few senses, none of them metaphorical.

Architecture is a language of enclosure, space, softness, holes -- it involves topological functions as well as psychoanalytic ones.

But at the most basic level -- as an abstract function related to construction and composition of human dwellings -- perhaps the idea that architecture expresses itself in such culturally and geographically specific ways, depending on local conditions, also suggests something like a linguistic structure, independent of the topological language itself. As an aspect of cultural evolution, the built environment is in many cases perhaps the only language ancient humans can speak to us with; but if we are prepared to listen with an archaeologists' ear to what it says, we may be surprised at how clearly it distills a way of life.

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'Language' might be defined as something like:

'A system of communication which, when properly understood, enables people to derive reasonably consistent meaning from a given communicative intent'.

Architecture is in one sense an art form; a highly pragmatic, interactive, and intimate art form. Art - or much of it - can be seen as a language according to the definition provided above, in that it according to some ideals provides (at least, to many of those who study it) a kind of cumulative system of communicative devices which frequently draws from the past and contributes to a growing glossary of ideas, albeit in terms rearranged to extend the scope of what the language might communicate both directly (via literal depiction) and indirectly (via metaphor and technique).

Architects who emerge from study of architectural history will often incorporate/reference (intentionally or unintentionally) the architectural language of the past into their designs, whether by inclusion, omission or both. Elements of the brutalistic, the postmodern, the gothic, the Bauhaus, the deconstructivist (etc, etc) will often persist into contemporary styles whilst also simultaneously fading; giving way to new expressions of the evolving language much as some words and phrases cease to be used whilst new ones emerge.

Some of the ways in which a building might communicate something consistently to any architecturally literate people who encounter it include:

Intent: What is the building trying to achieve? What are its purposes?

Context: How does it communicate with its environment, including to those who routinely view/interact with it? How does it compare/relate to other buildings? How does it differentiate itself? Does it maintain a continuity with what has come before or has it shed any pretence of tradition in an attempt to identify itself as something almost entirely new?

Form/Aesthetic: What is it trying to achieve, visually? Does it seek to pay tribute to architecture past? Is it conservative? Is it futuristic; attempting to recommend and forge a new direction? Does it seek to blend in? Or to draw attention to itself? Does it seek to cooperate with its environment and/or to defy it? What does it communicate about the architect? About the client? About the priorities of the local government?

Function: What functions does the building prioritise? Does it emphasise form over function, function over form, or does it unite both? How does it facilitate communication by the occupants, communication with the exterior, communication between spaces? How does it utilise the outside world (light/shade/heat/cold/vision/concealment) to shape the experience of residents?

There are but some of the ways in which architecture seeks to communicate. A person who has studied architectural 'languages' of the past will often be capable of interpreting the language of the present, even if he or she has not been privy to intents and priorities of the designer. They will recognise in aesthetic references, the use of materials and the manipulation of space much of what an architect is trying to express.

Each architect can also be said to communicate via their own language. And, much in the way that architecture as a whole might communicate in some consistent ways, their work might come to be recognised and 'understood' to a degree by others, even without introduction or instruction.

So, if architecture is to be considered a language, is it a universal language? No. Does it communicate as consistently to the population as a national language or a regional dialect? No. Does it constitute a kind of lingo through which like-minded individuals (professionals and civilians) might express themselves and in turn receive a reasonably consistent comprehension and appreciation? Yes.

Related reading:

Is Art a Language?.

The Language of Architecture.

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Architecture is arguably a language in the sense that it is arguably generated by a grammar. This does not make architecture a language in the sense that English or French are languages; rather it is a language in a sense derived from the theory of computation, where "language" is a technical term, much like "energy" is a technical term in physics that doesn't mean the same as it does in common speech.

Theory of Computation

string: a sequence of zero or more characters such as "abc", "izjjjjt", "x", or "".

language: a set of strings

Natural languages such as English and French are far more than a set of strings. Theory of computation abstracts away all of those other features in order to focus on just the structure and on what sorts of computation methods can describe those structures.

A grammar is a particular way of specifying a language. There are different kinds of grammars, but here is a simple example of a context-free grammar:

S -> "0"
S -> "1"
S -> "(" S ")+(" S ")"

This grammar describes simple expressions for adding binary numbers. The language includes "0", "1", "(0)+(0)", and "((1)+(0))+(0)".

It has been claimed that architecture can be described by a grammar much like this. To the extent that this is true, architecture is a language. Of course, this twists the definition around a bit. Originally, a language was described as a set of strings and a grammar was defined as something that generates a language, but once you understand what a grammar is, you can define a language as something that is generated by a grammar.

If a language is anything that is generated by a grammar, and if architecture can be generated by a grammar, then architecture is a language. Of course this has nothing to do with meaning. This definition of language is strictly base on how it is generated. Meaning does not enter into it.

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  • Yes, that is what somehow i meant, thanks for explicating it. There are actually many people thinking that it would be possible to describe architecture at compositional level, as a set of rules and a grammar. Apparently it is not so clear why a certain grammar or syntax should be more preferable over another. plato.stanford.edu/entries/architecture/#ArcLanNot
    – user40208
    Aug 1, 2022 at 23:26

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