In his blog post this week, Steven Munger wrote about the meaning of cast concrete lawn animals. He said in part, "Both of the articles, Bickford and Duncan, deal with semiology, how we read and interpret the world around us through symbols, and interpret these symbols as social constructs. "
As any student of non-verbal communication will tell you, there are very few people with so little ego that we don't care how others perceive us. And even without an audience, we're sending messages to ourselves as well. How many of us have a "power shirt" that we wear when we're going to a crucial meeting or interview? That's only partly there to impress the clients; more importantly, we feel more powerful merely putting it on.
So a concrete goose can signal "love of nature, but under control" in a suburban boxwood hedge, and a Van Heusen button-tab shirt can give us more confidence on some mornings than our college degrees. It seems likely to me that all of our objects carry meanings. (How those meanings are read by others is an entirely open question, of course, but we do intend something when we accessorize our bodies, our hair, our cars, our offices, our homes.)
In her book House as a Mirror of Self (a book based on nearly 30 years of her academic research and private consulting), Clare Cooper Marcus asserts that the exterior of the house (and our choice of the neighborhood it resides in) represents the messages that we intend to send others -- "I belong here," or "I've made it economically," or "I'm vivacious and unconventional," or "go to hell." She also believes that the interior of the house is equally laden, and that the further we go into the private regions of the house, the more we're "talking to ourselves" -- affirming the things we hope to be true.
My partner and I have this problem quite a lot. I have an image of myself as unconcerned with material things, and I try to keep my apartment as free from extraneous objects as I possibly can. My rule of thumb is that if I haven't used it in the past six months, I probably shouldn't own it. My partner (who lives four hours away) has an entirely different set of material connections -- she has many, many things that hold memories and meanings, and regularly accumulates more. So when she visits me or when I visit her, we're entering not merely the other's home, but the other's value system and identity.
All of this material meaning represents a problem of sorts for the professional designer. Unless you spend your career exclusively designing isolated vacation homes, all of the work that you do will affect the meanings of entire neighborhoods or communities. The Apple Store you'll be working on will become a paragraph in the short story that is the commercial Back Bay. The new academic building you're working on will be a phrase in the composition of the campus.
Architects are interested in buildings -- as designed objects, as technical solutions. That interest is what drove us into the field. But I think that it's not a generally shared interest. I'd argue that most people are interested in the story, and where they fit into it. The meanings we "send" are not the same as the meanings that are "received," just as the meaning sent by the plastic lawn deer wearing the Christmas wreath ("This suburban house represents living in nature, or at least nearer than I could in my old city apartment, and I attend regularly and carefully to the state of my belongings") is not the same as the meaning received by those of us in the more educated class ("this is a house occupied by a taste-deprived hick with too much time on their hands").
So how can your work make sense within someone else's story? Does it matter whether it does or not? How much do you want to change the story through your work? And can you read the story well enough to be able to make your paragraph comprehensible within it?