The reception of architecture

Interior archway, people, dinosaur skeleton

Meryl Streep’s embarrassing acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards reception this week didn’t go down all that well, but the pistachio-crusted pistou ravioli was very well received.

(She acknowledged everyone except the Iron Lady herself, and only apologised for “trampling over England’s history.”)

Reception is a major issue in the arts. Talented artists receive awards, lavish events receive guests, audiences receive speeches, and diners receive what’s on their plates.

The arts and humanities have spawned a field of study known as “reception theory” or “reception aesthetics,” that addresses how a work of art, literature, or a building is received, and how or why this reception varies over time.

Interior archway, people, dinosaur skeletonArchitecture can even claim the word reception for itself, at least as a spatial category: the reception area (or foyer, lobby) is where  visitors are welcomed, bidden farewell, and through which they return.

Reception is also a term used by Plato in Timaeus. There the word is hypodoche, the receptacle of all being that prefigures the Intelligible and the Sensible, and from which the Intelligible and the Sensible emerge, a term on which Jacques Derrida makes play in his essay “Chora.” But, returning to the reception of art …

In the age of social media it’s easy to adopt numbers as the best indicators of how a work of art or an entertainment is being received: received well, badly or with indifference. Recent reviewers of the television series The Queen’s Bodyguard remarked on the numbers of Tweets for and against the programme, mostly against.

A practice has emerged whereby audiences comment on a tv show, sports event, or any other major event while it is happening. If you want to communicate instant opinion to others then you include a likely keyword and precede it with “#” to create a hash tag: #bbc, #downton, #eastenders. The Twittersphere is there to be mined for opinion, representative or otherwise. Twitter supplements other readily available reception indicators such as BARB‘s viewing figures.

The reception of architecture is not so susceptible to numerical assessment. Buildings are one-off impositions rather than consumer goods of choice. If building users don’t like a building then they can’t change the channel. Unlike bad comedy, people have to put up with the architecture they are served. Building users might choose to enter or avoid certain places (shops and cinemas) because of the quality of the goods or entertainments they contain, but only in rare cases because of the quality of the buildings.

Architecture has time on its side. There are many buildings that were badly received 50 years ago that now appear on heritage listings. Buildings once thought highly suitable also get torn down. The main point of reception theory is that reception varies over time, and according to circumstances. Reception is historically situated.

This is one of the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s key points about interpretation. Reception (which to say evaluation, interpretation and even understanding) is historical. He calls this historical contingency of reception Wirkungsgeschichte, sometimes translated as “history of effect”: “Understanding is, essentially, a historically effected event” (p.299).

If reception is not static, and varies over time, and according to historical contingencies (the mood of the times) then it’s also something that draws on repetition. Like the role of the reception area of a restaurant, hotel, office building, theatre, or home, it depends on and supports comings and goings, and repeat visits.

Gadamer describes the process of interpretation as a movement which “has no goal which brings it to an end; rather it renews itself in constant repetition” (p.104).

The summation of opinion is therefore never the end of the matter. Recognising this point might provide consolation for the not yet recognised or acknowledged, in other words the custodians of the inconspicuous and the everyday.

Also see The quantification of the intellect and What are audiences for?


  • Derrida, Jacques. 1997. Chora. In J. Kipnis, and T. Leeser (eds.), Chora L Works: 15-32. New York: Monacelli Press.
  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2004. Truth and Method. Trans. J. Weinsheimer, and D. G. Marshall. New York: Continuum. Second, revised edition. Originally published in German in 1960.
  • Jones, Lindsay. 2000. The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison; Volume Two: Hermeneutical Calisthenics: A Morphology of Ritual-Architectural Priorities. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Plato. 1965. Timaeus and Critias. Trans. D. Lee. London: Penguin.


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