Is architectural form meaningless? A configurational theory of generic meaning in architecture, and its limits

Bill Hillier


This paper is about meaning. Its aim is to outline something like a ‘configurational’ theory of meaning in architecture. It can be thought of as a theory of generic meaning, by analogy with the theory of generic function in architecture, outlined in Chapter 8 of Space is the Machine (1996, p.216-261). Generic function meant the basic acts that people carry out in buildings before we consider the contents or purposes of their acts, so occupying space and moving in space are generic functions. Generic meaning is equally basic, and refers to certain simple social ideas that the masses and elements that make up the physical form of a building, especially its façade, can convey by being configured in one way rather than another.

There is a caveat. A theory of meaning, generic or otherwise, does not take us very far. Perhaps the most useful outcome of the paper would be to set limits of the idea of meaning in architecture. It aims to identify these limits by distinguishing the idea of meaning from the idea of the aesthetic in architecture – or even its poetics, though, as we will see, using this term in a technical rather than rhetorical sense. These concepts, it will be argued, have a far greater potential than ‘meaning’ to clarify what can be conveyed to human minds by the manipulation of architectural form.

Full Text: JOSS_2011_p125-153.pdf