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Borbála Jász and Zsolt Bátori: How Buildings Communicate: A Speech Act Theory Based Object Act Theory
Workshop on Communication, Art, Media: Probing Impacts and Intersection, the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA), Philosophy of Communication Section, Lisbon, October 14, 2017.


ABSTRACT. Architects, art historians and aestheticians alike tend to assume that talking about how buildings convey communicative content is based on a well-developed architectural language. This language is canonised to the point that its speakers can easily discuss questions concerning architectural styles, conventions, functions, etc. Architectural intentions are readable on different levels and layers, depending on the contextual and art historical knowledge of the viewer.


In this paper we would like to suggest that the problem of architectural meaning is considerably more complex, and its underlying conceptual framework is in need of further development and refinement. The reason for this is that much of the terminology used for describing architectural meaning is ad hoc or insufficient. (1) On the one hand, if we consider what kind of communicative contents might be conveyed by buildings we might immediately start discussing tradition, beauty, durability, social status, utility, quality, functionality, brand, and the like. (2) On the other hand, the issue of what is often mixed with how conveying architectural meaning is carried out. For instance, the variety of architectural means, such as the usage of different materials, forming elements (symmetry, rhythm, proportion, etc.), location and applied arts might be easily confused with the aforementioned conveyed contents of what a building can communicate.


We partially rely on some of the concepts suggested by Nelson Goodman in his paper How Buildings Mean (1988). By analysing the architectural language and terminology he distinguishes denotation (depiction, representation) from exemplification, expression and mediated reference. These are examples of different communicative means and levels of producing architectural meaning.  Goodman’s system is a promising account of what can be communicated with buildings, but the how aspect is not explicit in his theory. The typology is not embedded in a conceptual framework of communication.


We propose a conceptual framework for architectural meaning on the basis of the speech act (Austin, 1962, Searle, 1969) and picture act theory (Kjørup, 1974, 1978, Novitz, 1975, 1977). We extend the theory of speech acts and picture acts to include objects in general and buildings in particular. Our theory of object acts accounts for the production of architectural meaning on the basis of how we understand interpret architectural locutionary acts (buildings) in the context of their production and use. The various types of contents, or what is conveyed by buildings, will be accounted for and analysed in this conceptual framework in order to provide a systematic theory of the rich variety architectural communication.

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