Meaning for Rapoport is an active force that requires interaction and implies taking possession, establishing territories, completing it, changing it. Process, by which people impart Meanings to their environment refers to two basic concepts territorialization and the need to personalization. High Level Meaning Cosmologies, cultural schemata, world views, reflections of philo-sophical systems, the kind of stuff we find in traditional architecture -both vernacular and the sacred high style. We just express and communicate them today through different media, not through buildings or settlements any more. High level meanings in buildings have become less important because we can express them much more effectively through other symbolic systems.

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Thus, even if one accepts the importance of meaning, one still needs to ask which group we are discussing, particularly since both designers and users are far from homogeneous groups. One thus needs to ask whose meaning is being considered. In ,I wrote an article o n meaning that was to have appeared as part of a special issue of the Architectural Association Journal that was laterpublished, in revised form, as an early book on meaning from a semiotic perspective Jencks and Baird, The argument of this book hinges on this distinc- The Importance of Meaning 21 tion.

The basic question-meaning for WHOM? The question that must be addressed is: What meaning does the built environment have for the inhabitants and the users, or the public or, more correctly, the various publics, since meanings, like the environments that communicate them, are culture specific and hence culturally variable? The point made is that the meaning of many environrnents is generated through personalization-through taking possession, completing it, changing it.

From that point of view the meaning designed into an environment even if it can be read, which is far from certain may be inappropriate, particularly if it is a single meaning.

What is wrong, I argued, is that we tend to overdesign buildings and other environments. It relies on accounts in the nonprofessional press newspapers and magazines , since the universes of discourse of designers and the public tend to be quite different. The published material stresses the dissatisfaction of users with "total design" as opposed to the lavish praise this idea had received in the professional press.

The newspaper and magazine accounts stressed this element of conflict between users and the designers representing the company and, one might suggest, their own values; see Rapoport, b.

The company and its designers wished to preserve uniformity, to safeguard the building as a "harmonious environment. An aesthetician was put in charge to choose art, plants, colors, and the like to be compatible with the building, that is, to communicate a particular meaning.

The users saw things rather differently and resisted. Some even brought suit against the company I knew some people in the Columbia Records Division who fought these attempts at control-and wort.

This implied a setting that communicated that message, and that meant a cluttered, highly personalized environment.

The argument in the article then shifts to a different, although related, issue having to d o with the nature of design-of unstable equilibrium that cannot tolerate change typical of high-style design as opposed to the stable equilibrium typical of vernacular design, which is additive, changeable, and open-ended Rapoport, c, 1 9 7 7 , This then leads to a conclusion related to the need for underdesign rather than overdesign, of loose fit as opposed to tight fit, which is partly and importantly in terms of the ability of users to communicate particular meanings through personalization, by using objects and other environmental elements in order to transform environments s o that they might communicate different meanings particular to various individuals and groups.

The question then becomes how o n e can design "frameworks" that make this possible-but that is a different topic. Two things seem clear from the above. First, that much of the meaning has to do with personalization and hence perceived control, with decoration, with movable elements rather than with architectural elements. In the study just cited, many examples were given showing the importance of personalization and changes as ways of establishing and expressing meaning, ethnic and other group identity, status, and the like.

Such changes seemed important in establishing and expressing priorities, in defining front and back, in in- The Importance of Meaning dicating degrees of privacy.

A number of theoretical, experimental, and case studies were cited, and housing in Britain over a period of 10 years was evaluated in these terms.

A series of photographs of housing in London, taken specifically for this article, showed the importance of the po5,sibilityof making changes, and it was argued that not only were designers opposed to open-endedness and seeking total control over the housing environment; they seemed systematically to block various forms of expression available t o users until none were left. Finally, it was argued that when flexibility and open-endedness were considered by designers it tended to be at the level of instrumental functions what I would now call "manifest" functions rather than at the level of expression latent functions.

In other words, designers-even when I hey stressed physical flexibility-seemed strongly to resist giving up control over expression, that is, over meaning.

Thus, for example, award juries praised the use of few materials, the high degree of integration, and the high degree of consistency, that is, high levels of control over the total environment Rapoport, a: This argument also reiterated and stressed the importance of decorative elements, furniture and its arrangement, furnishings, plants, objects, colors, materials, and the like, as opposed to space organization as such, although that could be important by allowing specific elements to change.

An example is square rooms, which allow many arrangements of furniture that long narrow rooms make impossible. It was also suggested that different elements, arranged differently, might be significant and important to various groups and that this relative importance could be studied. This would then provide two important related pieces of information. First, it could reveal "which elements, in any given case, need to be changeable by the users in order to establish and express important meanings, that is, which changes achieve personalization and what different individuals and groups understand by this term.

Second, this would then define the less important, or unimportant, elements that could constitute the "frameworks" to be designed. The very definition of frameworks, it was further suggested, could be based on an analysis of various forms of expression in different situations.

HOWthen could frameworks be defined? There may be constant needs common to humans as a species and a great range of different cultural expressions that change at a relatively slow rate. Frameworks could then possibly be defined in terms of the relative rate of change based on an analysis of past examples, particularly in the vernacular tradition. Other possible ways are in terms of the importance of the meaning attached to various elements; what is actually regarded as personalization, what degree of open-endedness is needed, and hence which areas and elements need changeability.

It may be found that few areas are critical, and changeable parts may be relatively few in number. These are, at any rate, all researchable questions Rapoport, a: The result of this argument, in addition to a set of design implications and guidelines that d o not concern us here, is that changes in expression by personalization may be more important than changes made for practical or instrumental functions; that they are not only natural but essential to the way in which people most commonly although not universally establish meaning.

Consider a recent example that both stresses this latter point and shows continued refusal by designers to accept this process. All of the changes have to do with the meanings of elements that indicate home, as well as the meaning implicit in the process of change and personalization itself.

Note that none of the changes are for practical or instrumental functions: arches in the hallway, elaborate wallpapers, a fireplace with historical associations, a doric entry portico, an elaborate front door with decorative door handles, a decorative rose trellis, and s o on. These are all clearly associational elements. The criticism of these changes reflects different schemata and is couched in typically perceptual terms: "destroyed.

The last criticism is particularly interesting in view of the historically and cross-culturally pervasive tradition of emphasizing entry. The changes documented in the cases of other modern houses, not as large or lavish, can be interpreted in similar terms.

The meaning underlying such changes becomes clear in a recent detective novel in which the whole plot hinges on a modern house built by an architect Other residents are upset; the house has a foot long blank wall of rough reddish boards, hardly any windows generally, and a flat roof, and it is composed of two cubes. The materials are "junk," without windows it looks like a tomb. Feelings run high: "Two orange crates would look better" Crowe, 5. What is a "good, normal home" or "regular house"?

The modifications they would accept define it. Thitj is clearly related to a schema, to the concept of a house. Hayward discovered, arnong young people in Manhattan, nine dimensions of home, including relationships with others, social networks, statement of self-identity, a place of privacy and refuge, a place of stability and continuity, a personalized place, a locus of everyday behavior and base of activity, a childhood home and place of upbringing, and, finally, shelter and physical structure.

The growing concern about perceived crowding, density, crime, or environmental quality implies, even if it does not make explicit, the central role of subjective factors, many of which are based on the associations and meanings that particular aspects of environments have for people, which are partly due to repeated and consistent use and enculturation interacting with any pan-cultural and biological, species-specific constancies that may exist see Rapoport, b, a.

The variability of standards, even the subjectivity of pain Rapoport and Watson, and the subjective effects of stress Rapoport, b ,leads to the inescapable conclusion that all stimuli are mediated via"symbolic" interpretation; that is, they depend on theirmeaning, so that meaning becomes a most important variable in our understanding of the environment, preferences for various environments and choices among them, the effects they have on people, and s o on.

It should be noted that perceptual and associational aspects are linked: The former is a necessary condition for the latter. Before any meaning can be derived, cues must be noticed, that is, noticeable differences Rapoport, ch. These differences are needed and are useful for associations to develop. It is therefore interesting to note that among Australian Aborigines meanings of place are frequently stronger and clearer in locales where there are striking and noticeable environmental features Rapoport, a.

Thus while the meaning of place is associational, having to do with significance, noticeable differences help identify places and act as mnemonics Rapoport, b. In any case, however, the increasing interest in meaning is due to the overwhelming and inescapable evidence, from many cultures and periods, of its central importance.

Consider just a few examples. If we wish to be more "scientific" we may evaluate their elaborate decorations perceptually and argue that they create a richerand more complex environment. Yet these decorations are significant and meaningful-their primary purpose is associational The Importance of Meaning in that they communicate complex meanings.

This also applies to jewely, body decorations, clothing, and other elements of material culture. Even the space organization of such buildings and their relations to the larger environment the house-settlement system have meaning and operate in the associational as well as, or more than, in the perceptual realm. This, of course, makes their real complexity greater still-their complexity is both perceptual and associational. Thus in order to understand "primitive" and vernacular environments, we must consider the meanings they had for their users Rapoport, , a, b, b.

For example, in the case of India, it has been shown that all traditional built environments are basically related to meaning that as in that of most traditional cultures is sacred meaning.

Architecture is best understood as a "symbolic technology"; it is described as vastuvidya, the "science of the dwelling of the gods," so that cosmology is the divine model for structuring space-cities, villages, temples, and houses Lannoy, ; Sopher, ; Ghosh and Mago, ; Rapoport, b.

Of course, other traditional settlements are only comprehensible in terms of their sacred meanings, for example, ancient Rome Rykwert, , medieval Europe Muller, , China Wheatley, , Cambodia Giteau, , and many others see Rapoport, b.

Yet the purpose of this remarkable manipulation of the full potential range of perceptual variables in all sensory modalities-color, materials, scale, light and shade, sound, kinesthetics, temperature, smell, and so on-was for the prlrpose of achieving a meaning, an associational goal.

That goal was to give a vision or foretaste of paradise, both in terms of the characteristics imputed to that place and in terms of the contrast with the characteristics of the surrounding urban fabric. The full appreciation and evaluation of the quality and success of that design depends o n an understanding of its meaning and the way in which perceptual variables are used to achieve and communicate it.

Many more examples could be given, but the principal point is that historical high-style examples, as well as the preliterate examples described in point 1above, must be evaluated in terms of the meanings they had for their designers and users a t the time of their creation. This point was, of course, made with great force for a whole generation of architects and architectural students in connection with Renaissance churches, when they were shown not to be based on purely "aesthetic" consideration-that is, to be in the perceptual realm-but to be important sources of meanings and associations expressing important ideas of neoplatonic philosophy Wittkower, Unfortunately, the lesson seems to have been soon forgotten, even though its significance seems clear for various types of environments.

Consider two such types-urban space and vernacular design. Urban Space. Regarding urban space, it can be pointed out that since sociocultural determinants are the primay although not the sole determinants of such organizations, it follows that meaning must play an important role in mediating between the stimulus properties of the environment and human responses to it Rapoport, e. This applies not only to built environments but to standards for temperature, light, sound, and so forth-even to pain.

The reason, and the result, is that images and schemata play a major role in the interpretation of the stimulus properties of the environment. Sociocultural schemata are the primay determinants of form even on those scales and in turn affect the images and schemata that mediate between environments and people. Urban form and whole landscapes can thus be interpreted. In many traditional cultures sacred schemata and meanings are the most important ones, and cities in those cultures can be understood only in such terms.

In other cultures health, recreation, "humanism," egalitarianism, or material well-being may be the values expressed in schemata and hence are reflected in the organization of urban environmerits. Hence the differential impact of past or future orientation on English as opposed to U. Hence also the possibility.

The Importance of Meaning over long time periods, from Plato through Botero to the Utopian cities of our own day, of discussing the city as an ideal, a vehicle for expressing complex meanings. This also helps explain the transplanting of urban forms by colonial powers as well as by various immigrant groups. The centrality of schemata and images encoded in settlements and bearing meaning is constant; what varies is the specific meaning or schema emphasized or the elements used to comrnunicate this meaning Rapoport e: This also explains the different role of cities in various cultures, the presence or absence of civic pride, the varying urban hierarchies, and the very definition of a city, that is, which elements are needed before a settlement can be accepted as a city.

Similar concerns influence the way in which urban plans are made-and whether they are then accepted or rejectedand also the differences among planners in different cultures qnd at different periods as well as the differences between planners and various groups of users Rapoport, e: Wlthout elaborating these points any further, I would just add that further work has only strengthened, reinforced, and elaborated these arguments about the primacy of meaning in the understanding of settlement form see Kapoport, a, 1 9 7 7 , 1 9 7 9 b , c, and so on.

In the case of preliterate andvernacular design similar points need to be made, although clearly the specifics vary.


The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach



10. “meaning and built environment”, Amos Rapoport


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