Volume 1, 2008
Aesthetics and Philosophy of Arts
Curtis L. Carter
Symbol and Function in Contemporary Architecture
The focus here will be on the tension between architecture’s symbolic role and its function as a space to house and present art. ‘Symbolic’ refers both to a building as an aesthetic or sculptural form and secondly to its role in expressing civic identity. ‘Function’ refers to the intended purpose or practical use apart from its role as a form of art. As an art form, it serves important symbolic purposes; its practical purposes are linked to serving individual and community functions requiring the delineation of space. In the present context of museum architecture, certain museum buildings are more likely to be seen as a sculptural object than as functioning buildings. The reasons for this development derive in part from unresolved issues pertaining to the respective roles of symbolic and practical
function as is seen in the analysis of architecture provided by G. W. F. Hegel, Rudolf Arnheim and Nelson Goodman. The vocabularies of contemporary architects such Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava do not follow the abstract geometrical patterns of Le Corbusier or Louis Kahn who envisioned a universal vocabulary of architectural forms derived from industrial technical forms that underscored Modernist conventions in architecture.
By looking at this issue in the contexts provided by the theoretical discussions of Hegel, Arnheim and Goodman, it is possible to see more clearly the importance of examining with a critical eye the relative place of symbolism and function in museum architecture, and to question whether current museum practice has gone astray in allowing the sculptural symbolism to become the dominant element. When either its symbolic or its practical aspects are out of balance the result is sure to be unsatisfactory architecture. If the past is a reliable guide, it works best when the symbolic (sculptural) and the practical in architecture are worked out in harmony with each other.