essays - silence, language and architecture


…now ________ there are silences _______ and the
words ______ make _____ help make ________ the
silences ______ . ______ I have nothing to say ____
_____ and I am saying it _____________ and that is
poetry _____________ as I need it.

John Cage

When I am moved by a built object that has been made in a very careful way, where everything is in its right place and there is this beautiful, calm logic in the way the building components form a whole in a way that it doesn’t want to be anything more than being itself, then I believe that I understand the importance of tectonic expression. The ‘tectonic’ thus only exists in the way built form is perceptible and can be experienced. And it is at this point, that there is a dualistic notion in the way architecture in general, and tectonic form in specific, expresses itself. Because, whereas the constructed fact is in one way only a collection of bricks carefully laid on top of each other to form a new whole; in another way it is this pile of bricks that transmits by some means or other meaning. This transmitting of meaning is based on language, and therefore I believe that, to understand tectonic expression, we have to look at how built form can communicate with us.
Singing structures

In his 1921 story ‘Eupalinos ou l’architecte’, Paul Valéry remarks how certain buildings communicate with us. Some buildings are dumb; others have the ability to speak, and some of them which are very rare, can even sing! In an incredible way, the stone and concrete works of architecture seem to express something more than only the materials from which they were made. This expressing is based on language: the language of architecture.
This notion of the language of architecture is widely discussed in architectural theory. On the one hand, we are very familiar with the way a building or a building component can represent something else than it actually is. We often refer this narrative quality of representation to style. On the other hand there exists a strong similarity between architectonic structuring and linguistic grammar. But is the language of architecture only based on this tectonic linguistics? Or, in other words, are these notions of language only used in a metaphoric way to express certain things in architecture? The Dutch architect and architectural theorist John Habraken writes the following about this:

Speaking and building are not interchangeable, nor are they directly translatable. Knowledge situated in words can be translated into another language, and understanding embedded in one built form may well be conveyed in another. Yet there is no reason to believe that implicit meaning or understanding within form can be fully translated into words, or vice versa.
John Habraken

Habraken questions the idea of meaning and of language in architecture. Therefore, it is necessary to rethink the concept of, and try to change our perspective on the language of architecture.
This essay is an attempt to reconsider architectural and tectonic expression. To get a new understanding of the language of architecture I will use the apparently counterpart of language: silence. During my search I discovered that the notion of silence is very important while talking about language. Despite the fact that silence represents in one way the great nothingness from which we might not find anything, it is also indispensable in language and it opens up new perspectives to understand the way we express ourselves.



In order to communicate we use the means of language. This medium tries to capture the meaning of things around us, and, through the help of agreements and conventions, tries to transmit this meaning to someone else. Language is therefore a standardization of meaning in order to transmit information or knowledge; hence it becomes a medium to express ourselves.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote extensively about the nature of language and meaning. He makes us aware of how we put names on things. Naming is like putting a label on an artifact. These labels try to point to or replace the thing itself by the use of meaning. But this label is only a naming or a representation of the thing itself. Because a label or a name can never be the thing itself for which it stands, words and symbols are always used in a metaphoric way to express something else. A symbol or a sound (the things we can clearly experience) often points to something else then the symbol or the sound itself. Because of this, language is always a translation, and it is therefore subject to differences in interpretation. Everyone interprets the sounds and symbols in his own way; and the built form in architecture is understood in a similar way.
Language is about understanding. But is it only sounds and symbols that can transmit meaning and understanding? The philosopher and theologian Ivan Illich gives a possible answer to this question, when he writes:

It is (…) not so much the other man’s words as his silences which we have to learn in order to understand him. It is not so much our sounds which give meaning, but it is through the pauses that we will make ourselves understood. The learning of a language is more the learning of its silences than of its sounds.
Ivan Illich

What we can learn about this text is the crucial importance of silence in language. But what is silence actually, and how does it relate to architecture? And most important: why does Illich think that the nothingness of silence can transmit any meaning in some way?



Silence is often seen (or heard) as emptiness: the big nothing. It is experienced as the opposite of sound, the negative of matter. If we compare the idea of language to architecture, then we could think of the sounds being the built substance, while the silences in language will refer to the architectural space. Silence is like emptiness: an endless space. And in language, this space becomes framed by sounds and symbols: 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.
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 architectonic space, since the intervallum formed an open in-between space in roman army camps.
So, there exists a close relationship between silence and architectonic space. But is this relation only based on the dual correspondence between sound and silence; between wall and space; between something and nothing? Or does there exist a deeper essence in the notion of silence? To answer these questions it is interesting to look at the works and thinking of Louis Kahn and Yves Klein.

(…) Inspiration is the feeling of beginning at the threshold where Silence and Light meet: Silence, with its desire to be, and Light, the giver of all presences. This, I believe, is in all living things; in the tree, in the rose, in the microbe. To live is to express. All inspirations serve it.
Louis Kahn

Silence takes on an almost mystical place in the philosophy and architecture of Louis Kahn. But Kahn is not using the word as a metaphor for the absence of sound, nor does it mean space or emptiness. He talks about Silence and the longing to be. But what does he mean by this?


Le Vide

The French artist Yves Klein investigated in his art the essence of silence and emptiness. From his blue monochromes to his poems, from his sculptures of fire to his single-tone symphony, he searches for the nature of silence, emptiness, space and immateriality. The idea of silence is probably best found in his 1958 exhibition: Le Vide in Paris. In a gallery, Yves Klein demonstrates the ultimate nothingness: an empty gallery. There was no art exhibited in the totally white painted spaces of the small gallery. The gallery became an all-embracing nothingness.
In this emptiness, every visitor experienced the emptiness in his own way. Le Vide was the work of art, in which the imagination of the presence of space became the strongest. It was therefore no attempt to search meaning in a higher or spiritual truth. It was much more a revealing of the world as it is.

It was art in the most liberated sense for it was no longer bound by the confines of a stretched canvas or pedestal, nor by the exercise of painting or sculpting, nor by the limits of thinking or reasoned truths. It was nothingness with all the fullness of life. It was an ongoing interchange between being, nonbeing, and becoming.
Sidra Stich on the work of Yves Klein

The emptiness of Le Vide was a form of immateriality and of silence. It was a work of art which didn’t express anything by the use of a clear, concrete and tangible form. People could only experience the space and the things which were just already there. And through this, there exists a certain paradox in Le Vide. The emptiness becomes full. It looks as if in the silence, things come into being.
This idea, in which the calm nothingness of silence opens up new ways to experience the world, is also clearly expressed in the (biblical) proverb of the French Carthusian Monks:

Only in complete silence, one starts to hear.
Only when language resigns, one starts to see.
film: into great silence


The silent desire to express

And so, I put on the board: Silence and Light. Silence is not very, very quiet. It is something which you may say is lightless, darkless. These are all invented words. Darkless there is no such a word. But why not? Lightless, darkless. Desire to be, to express.
Louis Kahn

Klein’s artworks have opened up a new way of looking and experiencing the world. And it is this new way of looking which can help us to understand the philosophy of Louis Kahn. Kahn doesn’t interpret silence as a pure nothingness. But it’s neither already something. Silence is the nothingness which precedes the thing that is. It’s a desire to be: a becoming. Kahn uses the notion of silence as a philosophic term to express the desire to make. And as so, silence becomes the precursor of inspiration: something which is already present in our consciousness. And so, silence forms an integral part of our experiencing and our understanding of architecture. It is the silence which makes the architecture come into being: a quiet calmness in which the magic of tectonic form can reveal itself. It’s the silence which makes it possible that buildings have the ability to speak. Or sing! Or like Louis Kahn says:

What man makes, nature cannot make, though man uses all the laws of nature to make it. What guides it to be made, the desire to make it, is not in universal nature. Dare I say that it is Silence, of lightless, darkless desire to be, to express a prevalence of spirit enveloping the Universe.
Louis Kahn



- this essay has been presented and published at the conference: Tectonics, making meaning at the Technical University of Eindhoven (NL) - isbn: 978-90-386-1186-0 - 2008

- this essay has been published in the book: architecture.ehv 08.09. Publisher 010 - isbn: 978 90 6450 716 8 - 2009


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