On Representation in Architecture: From the Figure to the Background or Pacts to Generate Context Nerea Calvillo

Representation in architecture is one of the classic questions that has been dealt with throughout history but which acquired a cultural relevance in the latter half of the 20th century that has been latently maintained till the present. From a disciplinary perspective, the capacity for architectural communication was traditionally attributed to typologies—organizational structures associated with architectural styles that provided buildings with attributes such as seriousness, elegance, or conviction. At a moment in which perspectives from other disciplines were incorporated, however, the framework expanded enormously. Philosophical concepts related to phenomenology or the deconstructive project were applied, seeking—via Derrida—a direct transfer of structures of language to architecture with the ambition of making it capable of transmitting messages. While these attempts created styles, they were not able to demonstrate their communicative ambitions. A few years later, analytical processes such as semiotics or iconography were incorporated, putting the tools on the table for fully dealing with the subject of representation.

Is it a duck? Is it a nest? Is it a building?

In 1972, architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown co-authored with Steven Izenour the marvelous Learning from Las Vegas,1 a research project undertaken with professors and students from Yale in 1968, in which, through an unbiased analysis of the emerging American city, they detected the iconic and communicative dimension of architecture and rescued the capacity for modernist representation from its catacombs of functionality, aligning it with the cultural and artistic triumph of popular culture.

In this text, despite certain semantic exchanges, the interest of architecture as a symbol and architecture as a sign are compared. Two strategies can be identified within the framework of architecture as a symbol: iconic and symbolic representation. As iconic representation, architecture has the same shape as the object it wants to represent, like the famous example of the restaurant in the shape of a duck. There exists no mediation or abstraction, and that very same immediacy validates the project. On the other hand, iconic representation is based on metaphors emulated by the architect, which either express themselves or construct a symbolic shape, such as the nest of the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. Representation in this case is left in charge of the popular and professional media, which emit the data so it can be “correctly” (and above all, globally) interpreted, as if it were a shampoo ad.

On the other hand, Venturi and Scott Brown championed the idea of architecture as sign, converting it into a generic container supporting iconography. Although this proposal did not have much success in the academic arena, we have seen how it has developed in cities throughout the world, reaching extremes such as in Hong Kong, where buildings are devoured by advertisements to the point of disappearing. Yet the disciplinary acceptance the development of this idea had at the end of the 1990s is interesting—what the authors call “technological skins” have given rise to singular proposals, such as the West Gallery mall in Seoul by UN Studio, and have flooded cities like Shanghai with monoliths encased in flashing LEDs.2 But in both cases architecture is denied the ability to communicate itself, as presentation still takes place through text or image.

If architects recover the ornament, invert the terms of high/low architecture, undo the figure of the architect as builder of images, defend the common, collective, and repetitive against singularity … their proposals do not stop being a critical and almost propagandistic position, far from the methodological study of iconography in painting undertaken by Panofsky. They do not consider through which processes, media, and content the built environment can emit (not transmit) information (not messages) to a viewer. Neither has there been any subsequent study of the mental processes that inform the images a project builds, nor of the implications that perception has on the construction of this image. That is to say, the mechanisms of representation in architecture have not yet been explicitly analyzed.

Background noise, radio with interference

To do so, we return to 1972, the year in which Gregory Bateson published Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a work that condensed his research on ethnology, psychiatry, and communication.3 Bateson understood that the essence of communication is the creation of redundancy or pattern, predictability, information, and/or the reduction of chance through restriction, emitted by the code and not the message. This conceptual system forces us, therefore, to see the art object or the built environment simultaneously as something internally provided with a pattern and as part of a greater universe that also has a pattern, knowledge, culture, or some aspect of it.

This means that there exists no reality independent from and outside of representation, but it is part of it or, in other words, the object and its representation are the same thing and therefore simultaneous.4 Moreover there exists no message to decode through a shared language; rather, representation consists in the creation of a context that instead of needing a single, unique mediated representation (a mediatized time) is capable of building partial and fragmented microinterpretations that widen the perspective of the object, a task which can now be undertaken in architecture.

The context can be built through pacts the project establishes with what surrounds it: references, cancelings, incorporations, expansions or activations, or references: forms of behavior, of movement, of socializing … and these parts can be undertaken in the physical environment, or in institutions calling for it, or with history, or with users … The difference is that these pacts are not explicit, as Venturi and Scott Brown proposed, but activated in the mind as the project takes place and connects what is perceived with other fields of the material, social, economic, and cultural environment, while remaining aware that as these pacts are silenced the physical condition of the architectural elements takes second stage and gives way to its performative capacity.


All the constructions thus far mentioned are personal and psychological, but a question remains as to whether architecture can become a collective representation and a motor for action.

We can rescue an acceptation of representation linked to the political and legal sciences, which refer to the kinds of legitimate groupings of people around a given theme, or an acceptation linked to science and technology that presents the subject to be discussed to the people who are going to meet. Representation, therefore, also corresponds to systems of grouping and to ways of presenting questions. It corresponds to places and to strategies of simulation. It could be a space of collective property in which different visions of the city are expressed, in which agreements and limitations are built between the different social groups and interests under permanent construction, but in which the identity of difference is always guaranteed as the guarantee of one’s own identity.5 It could be a place that gives a voice, which allows the making of decisions, and therefore confers the condition of a citizen on those who use it. Is public space the place for re-presentation?


1 / Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, The MIT Press, Cambridge 1972.

2 / Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2004.

3 / Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2000.

4 / And therefore representation and interpretation are the same thing. Steve Wooglar, Ciencia: Abriendo la caja negra, Editorial Anthropos, Barcelona 1991.

5 / Agustín Hernández Aja, Ciudadanía y espacio público: Participación o segregación, Fundación Cesar Manrique, Madrid 2003.