Formless Discourse: The Impossible Knowledge of Change of Use

Guggenheim, M. (2011). Formless Discourse: The Impossible Knowledge of Change of Use. Candide: Journal for Architectural Knowledge, 9-36.

This article reflects upon the lack of a formal theory regarding the change of use within buildings. A literature comprehensively categorizing change of use, in the mind of Guggenheim, does not really exist, and instead architects tend to make pointlessly specific observation or rely on metaphor as a means of describing it. Guggenheim specifically focuses on architecture writing on the subject of change of use.

Guggenheim breaks the discourse he criticizes into three different areas; namely, semiotics, sociological implications and technologies. If my thesis is to cover a system for understanding and developing architecture over time, the three criteria presented by Guggenheim for understanding change of use can be understood. As his critique is a synthesis of many arguments of other architect-writers, his point that each one of these methods of judgement is flawed on its own, points to the notion that one can better understand buildings over time (implicit in the notion of change of use) through the synthesis of these three criteria.

 

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The authors are permanently confused by the very features they observe: They only see typological change in the buildings and are unable to grasp the process-related changes. They see first a building described in terms of type, style, materials, architect; they see a second building described in the same manner. 

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Understanding buildings as technologies assumes that buildings directly affect how users act. [...] The understanding of buildings as technologies is central to architectural thinking and notions such as "function" or "type."
Understanding buildings as signs [i.e. semiotically] assumes that it is not the material aspects of the building that operate on the user, but rather its semiotic properties.
Understanding buildings as defined by interactions [i.e. sociologically] implies that it is neither their material nor their semiotic properties, but through the actions of the user that define the building.
When a building is converted, a shift occurs in the way we comprehend and describe it: a shift from noting primarily its technological characteristics, towards its semiotic and specifically its interaction-based properties. A building is erected and in our perception, its technological and semiotic properties are more or less intact, stable, and guide users. By changing its use, which can happen without material change to the building, the sociological properties take command: the building is not defined largely by its uses. 

These three characteristics present a starting point for how architecture can be understood over time. From this understanding, a building may start out characteristically defined by semiotics and technology, but changes of use tend to be more visibly noticeable from a sociological perspective. I would argue that this straightforward change of use without significant physical alteration constitutes a shift from a condition of spatial permanence and material permanence to one of spatial (or experiential, perhaps) ephemerality.

One Times Square, first in 1908 and then shown today. The change in both semiotic and sociological characteristics of the building has almost entirely erased the original technological, sociological, and semiotic intent. 

The Marienplatz in Munich, shown devastated in 1945 and the present day reconstruction. In this case the semiotic, sociological intent of the square was preserved, despite the complete substitution of all materials. The technological intent of the spaces may have changed, as a result of construction in he city center.  Is this an example of spatial/experiential permanence yet wholesale ephemerality? Part of being able to test a system, or language, for understanding architecture across time is to be able to contextualize all possible conditions within the system.

The Marienplatz in Munich, shown devastated in 1945 and the present day reconstruction. In this case the semiotic, sociological intent of the square was preserved, despite the complete substitution of all materials. The technological intent of the spaces may have changed, as a result of construction in he city center. 

Is this an example of spatial/experiential permanence yet wholesale ephemerality? Part of being able to test a system, or language, for understanding architecture across time is to be able to contextualize all possible conditions within the system.

To add nuance to this discussion straightforward typological change without significant material alteration is not always possible. Buildings subject to typological change often are subject to significant physical renovation, to the point where the material elements are demolished or obfuscated entirely. I see this in the vision for One Times Square, where all original semiotic and sociological elements indicative of the original office building have been actively erased to transform the building into a structure for the support of the billboards on the facade. This could conceivably be understood as a vision for both experiential ephemerality and material ephemerality, given how apparently little of the original building visually remains. This does pose the question of how one should characterize such material change; surely since the overall structure of the building remains intact does that overshadow the veneer of the facade? How much has really changed? When looking at experiential/spatial versus material change, it is clear that the former has unquestionably altered, but the degree with which one judges the latter seems to be self evident. In this case, to better understand buildings over time, the framework by which one does so may be better expressed by something other than literal material change. 

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Our building-specific vocabulary describes states and not processes. If we call a converted building a church, it is unclear whether we are referring to the original or resulting use. The only way out is to give a description of the process such as " an apartment building converted into a church" or "a church converted into an apartment building." [...] Due to the poverty of our language, architects have resorted to description, metaphors and other verbal tricks to refer to all examples of conversion.

This is a profound observation that ties, perhaps, into why I found the passage about the strange biological metaphors about architecture relevant to the abomination that I presented on September 26. They are, undoubtedly disingenuous and developing a language for which to explicitly discuss change in architecture that is neither reliant on describing states nor resorts to obtuse biological metaphors.

Besides failing to establish a set of terms, the literature on change of use fails to classify its object. To classify means to introduce an ordering device by selecting and categorizing objects according to features. [...] Classification has profound consequences. Whether one is considered to be a man or a woman or healthy or mentally ill has directly impacts our lives. Similarly, whether a building is considered to be a mosque or a school is not merely a theoretical question, but has implications for who can use it and how. 

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A central task of architectural writing is to bring order to the realm of buildings; the resulting architectural classification is a prerequisite for everything from the writing of history of architecture to maintaining a contemporary discourse. Change of use, however, seems to defy classification. This is not the authors' fault, but inherent in the object itself.

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[...] The analysis of literature demonstrates the limitations of only conceiving of buildings in terms of their limited dates of completion. A book, say, about "modernist hotels" implies a typological and stylistic definition about the time of a building's design and construction. Furthermore it implies that later conversions are irrelevant if not detrimental to the understanding of these buildings.
A processual view of buildings would allow for the description and understanding of buildings based on the convergence of technological, semiotic an sociological perspectives. It would try to account for the relative importance of each level at different stages in the life of a building. A processual view of buildings would not privilege the original stage in relation to all other stages, but describe buildings in a presentist mode, understanding a building as a sequence of many moments in time. 

Guggenheim's thesis in this paper is that an understanding of a building can come through viewing it as a sequence of moments in time. At the same time, he laments the notion that we must understand buildings as states. Unlike the loft—the only typology he points to that invokes a delineated change—does this notion of understanding buildings as a series of states conflict with the stated agenda? Is there a vocabulary that can immediately invoke a state of flux, or must it be seen from the perspective of a snapshot?