The opposite of architecture

Bitumen and paint dispensing vehicle with vats labelled "hot material"

If the universe requires antimatter as well as matter then surely anything is entitled to an opposite. With architecture it’s easy to identify candidates for the role. “Anarchitecture” could be a kind of anarchic practice against orderliness. If architecture is building something then its opposite probably involves pulling it down.

If people think architecture produces iconic, spectacular, canonic, well-formed and acceptable structures for human habitation, then its opposite could be humble, impoverished, marginal, unsanctioned, badly built, possibly unliveable and unacceptable structures … perhaps like shanty towns, camps in front of banks, the unclassified, or things that we might think are buildings but on closer inspection are not, or even things that have no ambition to present as buildings at all: quarks, head lice, copper wire, custard, and collections of objects that look like flies a long way off (Borges).

Bitumen and paint dispensing vehicle with vats labelled "hot material"To play around with opposites is to play with language. That people who are good with words have little trouble thinking of an opposite to just about anything indicates how wired up we and/or our world are for binaries.

Writers have conjured with the opposite of: falling, sex, cabbage, things, love, politics, trees, fish, and architecture (Google them). There’s also a party game where people shout out words in succession. Each new word has to be an opposite to the one they’ve just heard. (It’s easiest with verbs and adjectives.)

But some think that this is how language operates anyway (as binaries), and if architecture is a language, then it’s rife with, and even sustained by, oppositions. At least, this is the Structuralist view of language, which aligns closely with the idea that architecture is a language.

Ferdinand de Saussure (the parent of Structuralism) identified the importance of difference as the driver to understanding words (ie working out what a word or sentence means). What could be more usefully different and important than the way two similar words sound almost the same (eg pin and pen). He went so far as to say

The sound of a word is not in itself important, but the phonetic contrasts which allow us to distinguish that word from any other. That is what carries the meaning (p.16).

This is about subtle differences; but also oppositions, ie difference-max.

The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss translated de Saussure’s observation into a recognition of the binary structure of all cultural phenomena, including myths. Think of hot/cold, male/female, in/out, raw/cooked, or the more esoteric: born of human lineage or born from the earth (the myth of autochthony).

From the ridiculously obvious to the sublime, architecture illustrates such dual structuring perfectly: inside and out, solid and void, traditional and modern, form and ornament, material and immaterial, sacred and profane, oriented to heaven and fixed to the ground, facing the light and retreating to/from the dark. The game even extends to pitting one opposition against another (light/dark versus inner/outer shadows). In architecture opposites get transformed; they also struggle for supremacy.

Why do people think it sufficiently important to label the front and the back of a rectangular building with different words (“front” and “back”) whereas the other two sides don’t have a single word for each? The question concerns not only the way people talk about buildings, but also the practice of designing.

It requires concerted action on the part of a designer to pay attention to things that are not readily discriminated in language (via a particularly well-established opposition), and to thereby resist the obvious.


  • Borges, Jorg Luis. 1964. The analytical language of John Wilkins. Other Inquisitions 1937-1952: 101-105. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.
  • Evans, Robin. 1970. Towards anarchitecture. Architectural Association Quarterly, (2) 1, 58 and 69.
  • Karandinou, Anastasia. 2011. No-matter: theories and practices of the ephemeral in architecture—PhD Thesis. Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Structural Anthropology 1. London: Penguin.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1983. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. R. Harris. London: Duckworth. Originally published as Cours de Linguistique Générale, Payot, Paris in 1916.
  • Tschumi, Bernard. 1994. Architecture and Disjunction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Also see Transilience, and other posts about non-place and language. I’ve also added a piece about Aldo van Eyck and Structuralism (16 March 2012).


  1. Interesting post!
    The notion of architecture as a dual structure, ordered vertically, is discussed in Gaston Bachelard’s ‘The Poetics of Space’. “here there is a rationality to the roof and an irrationality to the cellar” (Bachelard 1958, Pg. 18) Dark and light. Top and bottom. Perhaps buildings like the Scottish parliament building suffer from a common language barrier, there is no discernible front, back or side (x2) and so we have difficulty archiving their memories.

    1. Thanks Jonathan. Of course, the roof and the cellar … and corners, drawers and wardrobes. In his chapter “the dialectics of outside and inside” he says “simple geometrical opposition becomes tinged with agressivity” (p. 212). This perhaps highlights the difference between a phenomenological approach (Bachelard) and that of the Structuralists. He also calls such obsession with opposites a “geometrical cancerization of the linguistic tissue of contemporary philosophy.” I don’t think he was keen on Structuralist binaries.

      Bachelard, Gaston. 1964. The Poetics of Space. New York: Orion Press.

  2. Good post, Richard. Perhaps the idea of opposites can also serve to understand the difference in the making of architecture relative to different cultures? In the West, we are predominantly concerned with light. ‘The sun never knew how wonderful it was until it fell on the wall of a building’, said Louis Kahn, and ‘Architecture is a learned game of forms assembled in the light’, said Le Corbusier. This narrative, however, is quite different in Eastern cultures. Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki has written about the praise of shadows and darkness in traditional Japanese inhabitation. He went on to metaphorically distinguish Western and Eastern cultures as the former striving for clarity and the latter cultivating subtlety. It is then possible to see, by looking at such contrasting perceptions of architecture, how much the study of space can tell us about the way we are wired.

    Tanizaki, Junichiro. 2001 (first published in 1933, Japan). In Praise of Shadows. London: Vintage.

  3. I’ll look into shadows. Thanks Roberto for the recommendation. Another binary issue: does modernity’s ocularcentrism allow a space for sonic oppositions: noise versus silence? Are these anything like light versus dark, or is it more subtle than that? Does sound belong in the shadows?

  4. iatromante says:

    Hi Richard, what if we shift the locus of architecture from the real to the fictional, opening greater possibilities for the subject, while simultaneously rendering it void(at least from the point of view of a built environment profession)?

  5. Shifting from the real to the imaginary sounds interesting … if in fact that’s a “genuine” distinction. If we follow Derrida then we are hovering over the void in any case, at least by my reading:

  6. Dave Thomas says:

    regarding Saussures quote ‘The sound of a word is not in itself important, but the phonetic contrasts which allow us to distinguish that word from any other. That is what constitutes the meaning’ conjures up prosody , I’m reminded of Steve Mithen’s remarkable book ‘The Singing Neanderthals’ and his suggestion that the prosody of infant directed speech is universal to mankind…

    1. Thanks for the reference Dave. I’ve just browsed it. “Mama” and “yuk” look as though they are available for Structuralist analysis: nurture and disgust looks suitably binary, and the idea of a universal language (deep structure) is not alien to Saussure … though the idea of an original language might be. I’ll keep reading …

  7. johnireton says:

    I wonder how the quote from Saussure can be reinterpreted in the case of onomatopoeia. Surely in this case the sound of the word is vital to the phenomena. The signified can then also be seen as the signifier. Granted it is still ‘just’ a word, a word that changes through languages.

    1. Interesting point. Saussure talks about onomatopoeia on Page 69 of the English edition of Course in General Linguistics. It looks as though the whole text is available free online at Google Books. In his words: “onomatopoeic and exclamatory words are rather marginal phenomena, and their symbolic origin is to some extent disputable.”

      “Wauwau” (German for “woof woof”) does sound a bit like “meow meow.” So if his argument about difference in the case of ordinarily arbitrary words is valid then it must apply to onomatopoeic words as well. On the subject of meowing, Saussure’s reference to the diabolical, and as a diversion, see

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