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Synonymity in Architecture

ARTHEO '14 / Philosophy, Aesthetics and Theory of Art Conference, May 2-3 2014

Synonymity in Architecture. The Similarity of Forms and a Theory of Design.

Despite all the differences in content and context, form of some buildings are similar. I called this phenomenon Synonymity in Architecture, which will be discussed here by a critical analogy between two contemporary projects: City of Culture by Peter Eisenman and the Cite De L'ocean Et Du Surf by Steven Holl.


For centuries the form of buildings and monuments has emerged out of collective socio-cultural and technological grounds and their conditions of possibilities. In the gradual progression of events and the heavy rhythm of major changes, forms were evolving moderately over long time spans. Consequently the major transformations in architectural forms have been already anticipated. Even in the most revolutionary moments, forms - restrained by the dependency of architecture on materiality and certain techniques - generally did not respond at the same pace as the rapid changes taking place in their socio-political context.

With the unprecedented shift in social and technological structures, architecture no longer tends to stay sluggish nor can remain undisturbed in its own inertia. Global physical and virtual networks have provided a boundless platform which in turn has unleashed the unmediated use of technologies beyond disciplinary boundaries. Today, by the use of advanced form-generating interfaces, once limited to small circles of prestigious and avant-garde architectural firms, anyone can generate the most sophisticated forms. Hence, the results of this simultaneous and technologically-enhanced form-making repertoire can no longer be anticipated.

In the abyss of unprecedented forms, however, common affinities are evident, i.e. certain formal patterns recur. One of the perpetually reappearing formal patterns, has emerged in the indeterminate building-ground relationships. Many contemporary projects, independent of their use or scale, have consciously destabilized the boundary between the building and its ground, to the extent that buildings are now part of the ground and the ground is shaping the building itself. By the same token, both the City of Culture and the Cite De L'ocean Et Du Surf are synonymous in their genesis. Although their synonymity is not happening in the level of a cursory aesthetic encounter, the two projects are essentially similar when approached through building-ground dialectic: a paradigmatic shift in the building-ground relationship has been iterated into a design technique.

The paper employs a two-fold process in its analogy in order to theorize Synonymity. The first level explains the main design features to discuss the design methodology residing in the common formal attributes. The next level goes beyond the design and reveals concepts about the underpinning intentions and philosophic approaches toward the building-ground dichotomy.