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Tree Green

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The leaf building in a non-urban environment, the duck building in a rural one and the pineapple building in a pineapple field are all buildings that have the shape of something that isn’t a building. We’re not fooled for a second however, since their size gives the game away and tells us that they’re too big to be what their shape indicates, and that we’re probably looking at a building.

You might be thinking as Venturi did and say that all these buildings are simply buildings that function as signs but, to nitpick, I could say that a sign is still something that’s not a building but this would be to conflate sign with signboard or billboard. The conventional architectural understanding as set by Venturi was that buildings signify meanings and he then went on to demonstrate what he thought they could legitimately signify. There was no lack of such things. Some were at the formalist end of the spectrum, such as a building signifying that it is a building, put together as a certain arrangement of elements in three dimensional space. [This was new, even though Danish modernism had done the same thing for construction and building materials.] Others signified how clever the architect was, and still others signified a novel cure to our suffering a lack of decorative motifs and devices plundered from the nobler chapters of architectural history. It’s all history now, but the process is still with us.

Regardless, buildings can only function as signs if we understand what is they’re signifying. For example, we understand that the building on the left above probably has something to do with – ugh! – “green” building, the one in the middle probably has something to do with ducks on a farm, and the one on the right is some sort of celebration of pineapples. If a building functions as a sign then all it means is that some specific association links signifier and signified. If we can’t decode the sign, then all we see is a building that looks like something not a building, but even this is subjective for it assumes we not only know what a building is or should look like, but also what leaves, ducks and pineapples are.

Jencks’ concept of “the enigmatic signifier” championed buildings that looked like different things to different people but this isn’t the same as them being signs because signs generally have something definite to signify. Jencks thought that a building that meant different things to different people was somehow “rich” in meaning when it was really just a plethora of isolated meanings. It would hardly matters now but the word “iconic” is still with us. It was apt in the sense that icons are empty vessels that people invest with meaning but wrong in that the meaning invested is always a shared one.

There’s a certain shade of green that someone I know once called, for want of the right word, “sustainable green” – which was exactly the right word. It’s the colour of sustainability logos everywhere and, if you’re in the UK, probably also the shape of an oak leaf. Sustainable Green isn’t a trivial like apple green and, unlike mint green, knows what it wants to be. Sustainable green is strong and comfortingly familiar. It’s the preferred colour of countryside property developers.

I’m probably being unfair to the leaf building above because it apparently has some amazing energy producing materials on some of its surfaces but at what cost or environmental cost I don’t know. My point is that coloring this building green doesn’t improve its ecological, environmental or energy performance. Nor, for that matter, does it being shaped like some gigantic leaf. We live in a grim era in which emotion takes the place of reason.

Chinese architect Ma Yansong is known for having once said “Feelings are Facts.” This statement no doubt gained approval because it repositions emotion as rationality, its former opposite. Clever. Most architects try to provide people with the concepts by which they would like their buildings to be evaluated. A successful design now becomes one that generates an emotional response in a viewer. We could throw the field wide open again and rephrase this as “Architecture is a machine for generating feelings.” Architecture in motion, once more.

If we live in a grim era now, from what I hear rather than what I remember, the years around 1968 weren’t all that great either. If Robert Venturi were still alive to comment on the leaf building he’d be calling it a “duck” because its shape and colour are functioning as a sign. We’ve moved on a bit however, as the purpose of this particular sign isn’t to encourage us to spend our money as entertainment in casinos in Las Vegas of all places, but merely to inform us that we’re looking at a sustainability awareness center. I’m fairly sure this building is wanting to tell us it’s a sustainability awareness centre because it’s trying so hard to do so. I dearly hope it is a sustainability awareness centre for if it’s only pretending to be a sign signifying a sustainability awareness centre, then everything starts to go a bit existential. Meanwhile, the planet burns. At what planetary cost this building has been designed to perform this pointless function I don’t know. No one ever will but, as we’re slowly beginning to realize, sustainability awareness centers didn’t work. They didn’t raise much awareness after all or, if they did, that awareness never translated into the action that was really needed some time ago now. A representation of a thing didn’t really substitute for the thing itself.

I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of them but we don’t hear much about sustainability awareness centres anymore, even as student or competition topic. If any more get built, then perhaps an ordinary building with a sign on it saying I AM A SUSTAINABILITY AWARENESS CENTRE! will do. Signs were very good at what they did and we never needed buildings to be them.

Without going all formalist or existentialist about it, buildings are better at being buildings than they are at being signes, and signs are better at being signs than they are buildings. The good thing about sign signs, is that it’s always clear what they signify, who’s doing the signifying, to whom and for what imagined benefit. It is true that all things including building will sooner or later signify something to someone then but, getting all formalist about it after all, there are some thing that all buildings can legitimately signify. They’re the age-old ones.

A building signifies that someone has the money to build it.
A building signifies that someone has the land to build it on.

After that, it’s just a matter of quantity, which is still a signifier of money and land, or at least of skill or power in acquiring them, as evidenced by recent headquarters for tech giants. Is it any wonder then that architecture concerns itself so much with the creation of signifiers for those with the means to do so? And that our notions of architectural beauty are highly corelated with the power of those signifiers?

We’ve gone from posturing to virtue signaling but the focus is still on signaling a virtue rather than actually having a virtue to signal. This was the deceit of buildings as signs. Any or all of the six architectural attributes of Colour, Pattern, Shape, Position, Orientation and Size can be used to signify something but, taking Colour as an example, Tree Green does not signify green-ness. It signifies greenwashing. A representation of a thing never did substitute for the thing itself.