Architecture and Meaning
Detail: Edward Hopper, Notre Dame de Paris, 1907.
Why do old structures matter?
What can we learn by going beyond names, styles, and dates?
If architecture is a pattern language, what can we read about ourselves in the form of our buildings and cities?
Portland’s Grand Central Passenger Station — now know as “Union Station” — was designed during the 1890s by architect Henry Van Brunt, of Van Brunt & Howe. Van Brunt was noted not only for his work as an architect, but also for his thinking about and writing on architecture. Numerous articles of architectural critique penned by him appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. In them, he shows his own sensitivity to the meaning of architecture beyond pure decorative arts, but also as an expression of the society from which it sprang:
The Cathedral of Paris, to take a familiar example, if it were properly analyzed… would be found to contain not only all that is essential to know of the spirit of the Middle Ages in general, of all the monastic orders, of the decay of feudalism, of the birth of civil liberty, but in specific detail all the religious, social, and political life of the time; and this, not so much because it is a great municipal and ecclesiastical monument, not because it was deliberately intended to express the history of the times in which it was built, but because it is a work of art, unconsciously expressing that civilization in terms the most exalted and beautiful within the scope of the builders.
(Van Brunt, Greek Lines, 1893, p. 137.)
Van Brunt’s perspective on architecture is one that I greatly sympathize with, and feel is too often lacking in modern architectural histories. This is especially true in the realm of historic preservation, where public education often does a fine job of describing when a particular structure was built, and by whom, but so often fails to connect with the deeper meanings. This is the locus of my research into architecture and architectural history: uncovering the intentions and the meanings behind our built environments.
Influential Books on this Topic