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SILENCE, LANGUAGE AND

ARCHITECTURE:
TECTONIC EXPRESSION AND THE SILENT
DESIRE TO BE

Daan Koch

Topic: Tectonics and philosophy: Architectonics

now there are silences and the only based on this tectonic linguistics? Or, in other words,
words make help make the are these notions of language only used in a metaphoric way
silences . I have nothing to say to express certain things in architecture? The Dutch architect
and I am saying it and that is and architectural theorist John Habraken writes the following
poetry as I need it. about this:

(1) Speaking and building are not interchangeable, nor are they di-
rectly translatable. Knowledge situated in words can be trans-
When I am moved by a built object that has been made in lated into another language, and understanding embedded in one
a very careful way, where everything is in its right place and built form may well be conveyed in another. Yet there is no reason
there is this beautiful, calm logic in the way the building com- to believe that implicit meaning or understanding within form
ponents form a whole in a way that it doesnt want to be can be fully translated into words, or vice versa. (4)
anything more than being itself, then I believe that I under-
stand the importance of tectonic expression. The tectonic Habraken questions the idea of meaning and of language in
thus only exists in the way built form is perceptible and can architecture. Therefore, it is necessary to rethink the con-
be experienced. And it is at this point, that there is a dualistic cept of, and try to change our perspective on the language of
notion in the way architecture in general, and tectonic form architecture.
in specific, expresses itself. Because, whereas the constructed This essay is an attempt to reconsider architectural and tec-
fact is in one way only a collection of bricks carefully laid on tonic expression. To get a new understanding of the language
top of each other to form a new whole; in another way it of architecture I will use the apparently counterpart of lan-
is this pile of bricks that transmits by some means or other guage: silence. During my search I discovered that the no-
meaning. This transmitting of meaning is based on language, tion of silence is very important while talking about language.
and therefore I believe that, to understand tectonic expres- Despite the fact that silence represents in one way the great
sion, we have to look at how built form can communicate nothingness from which we might not find anything, it is also
with us. indispensable in language and it opens up new perspectives to
understand the way we express ourselves.
Singing structures

In his 1921 story Eupalinos ou larchitecte, Paul Valry re- Language


marks how certain buildings communicate with us. Some
buildings are dumb; others have the ability to speak, and some In order to communicate we use the means of language. This
of them which are very rare, can even sing! (2) In an incredible medium tries to capture the meaning of things around us,
way, the stone and concrete works of architecture seem to and, through the help of agreements and conventions, tries to
express something more than only the materials from which transmit this meaning to someone else. Language is therefore
they were made. This expressing is based on language: the a standardization of meaning in order to transmit informa-
language of architecture. tion or knowledge; hence it becomes a medium to express
This notion of the language of architecture is widely discussed ourselves.
in architectural theory. On the one hand, we are very familiar The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote extensively
with the way a building or a building component can represent about the nature of language and meaning. He makes us
something else than it actually is. We often refer this narrative aware of how we put names on things. Naming is like putting
quality of representation to style. (3) On the other hand there a label on an artifact. These labels try to point to or replace
exists a strong similarity between architectonic structuring the thing itself by the use of meaning. But this label is only a
and linguistic grammar. But is the language of architecture naming or a representation of the thing itself. (5) Because a la-
bel or a name can never be the thing itself for which it stands, sence of silence and emptiness. From his blue monochromes
words and symbols are always used in a metaphoric way to to his poems, from his sculptures of fire to his single-tone
express something else. A symbol or a sound (the things we symphony, he searches for the nature of silence, emptiness,
can clearly experience) often points to something else then space and immateriality. The idea of silence is probably best
the symbol or the sound itself. Because of this, language is al- found in his 1958 exhibition: Le Vide in Paris. In a gallery, Yves
ways a translation, and it is therefore subject to differences in Klein demonstrates the ultimate nothingness: an empty gal-
interpretation. Everyone interprets the sounds and symbols lery. There was no art exhibited in the totally white painted
in his own way; and the built form in architecture is under- spaces of the small gallery. The gallery became an all-embrac-
stood in a similar way. ing nothingness.
Language is about understanding. But is it only sounds and In this emptiness, every visitor experienced the emptiness in
symbols that can transmit meaning and understanding? The his own way. Le Vide was the work of art, in which the imagi-
philosopher and theologian Ivan Illich gives a possible answer nation of the presence of space became the strongest. It was
to this question, when he writes: therefore no attempt to search meaning in a higher or spiri-
tual truth. It was much more a revealing of the world as it is.
It is () not so much the other mans words as his silences which
we have to learn in order to understand him. It is not so much It was art in the most liberated sense for it was no longer bound
our sounds which give meaning, but it is through the pauses that by the confines of a stretched canvas or pedestal, nor by the
we will make ourselves understood. The learning of a language is exercise of painting or sculpting, nor by the limits of thinking
more the learning of its silences than of its sounds. (6) or reasoned truths. It was nothingness with all the fullness of
life. It was an ongoing interchange between being, nonbeing, and
What we can learn about this text is the crucial importance of becoming. (10)
silence in language. But what is silence actually, and how does
it relate to architecture? And most important: why does Illich The emptiness of Le Vide was a form of immateriality and of
think that the nothingness of silence can transmit any meaning silence. It was a work of art which didnt express anything by
in some way? the use of a clear, concrete and tangible form. People could
only experience the space and the things which were just al-
Silence ready there. And through this, there exists a certain paradox
in Le Vide. The emptiness becomes full. It looks as if in the
Silence is often seen (or heard) as emptiness: the big nothing. silence, things come into being. (11)
It is experienced as the opposite of sound, the negative of This idea, in which the calm nothingness of silence opens up
matter. If we compare the idea of language to architecture, new ways to experience the world, is also clearly expressed
then we could think of the sounds being the built substance, in the (biblical) proverb of the French Carthusian Monks:
while the silences in language will refer to the architectural
space. Silence is like emptiness: an endless space. And in lan- Only in complete silence, one starts to hear.
guage, this space becomes framed by sounds and symbols: Only when language resigns, one starts to see. (12)
the walls, floors and roofs of language. This theory of silence
and space is embedded in language itself.
In literature, silence is represented by a small open space in
between two words: the backspace or in Dutch: spatie. This
word is derived from the Latin word spatium, which means
space in a very wide sense. This word is not only seen as a
space, but also as a time or a certain length of time. So the
word spatium directly relates space with time. (7)
In music, the space or pause between two sounds is known
as interval, originating from the Latin Intervallum. And it is in
this word that we can directly relate silence with architec-
tonic space, since the intervallum formed an open in-between
space in roman army camps. (8)
So, there exists a close relationship between silence and ar- The silent desire to express
chitectonic space. But is this relation only based on the dual
correspondence between sound and silence; between wall And so, I put on the board: Silence and Light. Silence is not very,
and space; between something and nothing? Or does there very quiet. It is something which you may say is lightless, dark-
exist a deeper essence in the notion of silence? To answer less. These are all invented words. Darkless there is no such a
these questions it is interesting to look at the works and word. But why not? Lightless, darkless. Desire to be, to express.
thinking of Louis Kahn and Yves Klein. (13)

() Inspiration is the feeling of beginning at the threshold where Kleins artworks have opened up a new way of looking and
Silence and Light meet: Silence, with its desire to be, and Light, experiencing the world. And it is this new way of looking
the giver of all presences. This, I believe, is in all living things; which can help us to understand the philosophy of Louis
in the tree, in the rose, in the microbe. To live is to express. All Kahn. Kahn doesnt interpret silence as a pure nothingness.
inspirations serve it. (9) But its neither already something. Silence is the nothingness
which precedes the thing that is. Its a desire to be: a becom-
Silence takes on an almost mystical place in the philosophy and ing. Kahn uses the notion of silence as a philosophic term to
architecture of Louis Kahn. But Kahn is not using the word as express the desire to make. And as so, silence becomes the
a metaphor for the absence of sound, nor does it mean space precursor of inspiration: something which is already present
or emptiness. He talks about Silence and the longing to be. in our consciousness. And so, silence forms an integral part of
But what does he mean by this? our experiencing and our understanding of architecture. It is
the silence which makes the architecture come into being: a
Le Vide quiet calmness in which the magic of tectonic form can reveal
itself. Its the silence which makes it possible that buildings
The French artist Yves Klein investigated in his art the es- have the ability to speak. Or sing! Or like Louis Kahn says:
direct way to interpret the way Le Vide was experi
What man makes, nature cannot make, though man uses all the enced at that time.
laws of nature to make it. What guides it to be made, the desire (12) Quotation from the film: Into Great Silence, Philip
to make it, is not in universal nature. Dare I say that it is Silence, Grning. Philip Grning Filmproduktion.
of lightless, darkless desire to be, to express a prevalence of spirit (13) Louis Kahn, 1969. Silence and Light (2). Speech
enveloping the Universe. (14) held for the ETH, Zurich. Quoted in: Louis Kahn,
Essential Texts. Norton 2003, page 236
(14) Louis Kahn, 1967. Space and Inspirations. Speech
Sources held for the New England Conservatory of Music in
Boston. Quoted in: Louis Kahn, Essential Texts. Nor
ton 2003, page 225
(1) John Cage, 1959. Lecture on Something. This poem
is mentioned in the biography of Yves Klein, by
Sidra Stich, page 142. Notice how Cage doesnt use
the normal space but different sizes of space (or si
lences) between the words or group of words.
(2) Dis-moi (), nas-tu pas observ, en te prome
nant dans cette ville, que dentre les difices dont
elle est peuple, les uns sont muets; les autres par
lent; et dautres enfin, qui sont les plus rares, chan
tent? Ce nest pas leur destination, ni mme leur fig
ure gnrale, qui les animent ce point, ou qui les
rduisent au silence. Cela tient au talent de leur con
structeur, ou bien la faveur des Muses.
- Maintenant que tu me le fais remarquer, je le re
marque dans mon esprit.
- Bien. Ceux des difices qui ne parlent ni ne chan
tent, ne mritent que le ddain; ce sont choses
mortes, infrieures dans la hirarchie ces tas de
moellons que vomissent les chariots des entrepre
neurs, et qui amusent, du moins, loeil sagace, par
lordre accidentel quils empruntent de leur chute...
Quant aux monuments qui se bornent parler, sils
parlent clair, je les estime. () Ces loges mercan
tiles, ces tribunaux et ces prisons, quand ceux qui
les construisent savent sy prendre, tiennent le lan
gage le plus net.
Paul Valry, 1921. Eupalinos ou larchitecte
(3) The word style is based on the Latin stylus, which
not only means pencil or another pointed instru-
ment used for writing, but also the way of writing
and thus of communicating. Style therefore is
rooted in language. Etymologic research
according to: The American Heritage Dictionary of
the English Language: 4th Edition. 2000.
(4) John Habraken, 1998. The Structure Of The Ordi
nary. The MIT press 2000, page 233
(5) This notion of language is based on the book: Filoso
fische onderzoekingen, from Ludwig Wittgenstein.
2nd print, Boom Amsterdam 2002. Original as a
German text: 1953.
(6) Ivan Illich, 1969. The eloquence of silence. From:
Celebration of Awareness. Pantheon Books, New
York 1970, page 45
(7) Etymologic research according to: The American
Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: 4th
Edition. 2000.
(8) Idem
(9) Louis Kahn, 1967. Space and Inspirations. Speech
held for the New England Conservatory of Music in
Boston. Quoted in: Louis Kahn, Essential Texts. Nor
ton 2003, page 220
(10) Yves Klein, Quoted in his biography written by
Sidra Stich. Cantz 1994, page 141
(11) The exhibition of Le Vide was a temporary event
which was carefully described by Sidra Stich in the
Yves Klein biography. Not only Kleins ideas, prepa
rations and execution are discussed, but also the
publics reactions and feelings about this work of
art. Since I cant re-experience the happening my
self I have used the descriptions of Stich in a very