In this week’s reading, Roland Barthes compares the functional- or use value of the Eiffel Tower with its symbolic value. He explains the latter thus: “The tower attracts meaning… for all lovers of signification, it plays a glamorous part, that of a pure signifier, i.e., of a form in which men unceasingly put meaning (which they extract at will from their knowledge, their dreams, their history).” Barthes argues that, even though Gustave Eiffel wrote long explanations of possible uses for the tower, the tower is in fact an utterly “useless monument” and that this is actually a good thing: “in order to satisfy this great oneiric function (that of being a pure signifier)…the Tower must escape reason.”
The second important “function” of the tower is that it allows everyone—the Parisian, the visitor, the common person on the street—to rise to the bird’s eye view and gain a “structural” understanding of the city of Paris. It allows us to “transcend sensation” and “read (the city)” in a manner similar to that described by Victor Hugo in Notre-Dame de Paris. This structural reading—the connection of places as they are experienced on ground level to the same places as objects on a kind of map—allows/forces the visitor to think critically. It gives the visitor a sense of agency and “initiates” him or her to the city itself.
These two functions—(i) the symbolic function and (ii) the function of the tower as an instigator of a new critical understanding of one’s place in the city—are deeply architectural characteristics. But are they enough for the tower to qualify as a piece of Architecture? Or is Architecture, as many at the GSD will argue, more about cost, comfort, convenience, utility, functionality, and other practical concerns? And if it is the former (i.e. Architecture’s symbolic function and Architecture’s role as a mediator of society and the way we think and interact), then can we do away with the practical concerns in Architectural discourse, concerns which are obviously important in certain building types, but are not worthy of discussion when we talk about Architecture as a discipline?