Sunday, October 6, 2013

Buildings and Spaces as Signs

In his book Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things (2008), Marcel Danesi discusses how buildings and public spaces embody meaning.  Aspects of buildings and spaces such as their location, name, height, and design can all influence their role as signs.  The combined meanings of these aspects will influence how people think about and behave in specific buildings and spaces (Danesi 2008:150).  As Danesi points out, one will dress and behave differently in a church than they will in a restaurant (2008:151). 

Butler Library
Changes in behavior will occur in different spaces within a building as well.  For example, a person in Butler library will most likely keep conversation to a minimum, silence their cell phone, and refrain from eating or drinking if they are in a section of the library where these activities are prohibited.  If one is studying in the café downstairs, however, the person will probably be more likely to eat, drink, talk to others, and keep their cell phone on.  This difference in behavior is due to the features of both areas; one has bookshelves and desks, while the other has café style seating and sells coffee.  These differences in behavior, however, are also due to the rules that the library staff has placed on eating, drinking, and noise levels throughout the library.

National 9/11 Memorial
Throughout the book, Danesi shows how the history of particular objects, like cigarettes and high heels, will influence their meaning.  This can also be applied to buildings and spaces.  In NYC, Ellis Island and Ground Zero are both places where history has heavily impacted their meaning as symbols.  Interestingly, both sites now have museums and attract tourists due to their significance in United States history.

Statue of Liberty
In addition, Danesi also states that buildings and spaces can operate as signs for specific groups (2008:151).  Buildings and public spaces located in NYC operate at different levels as communal signs.  The Statue of Liberty, for example, is not only a sign of NYC, but is also a sign of the United States of America.  While its design is less familiar globally, the Freedom Tower could likely become a national symbol like the Statue of Liberty.  Buildings and spaces that are specific symbols of the city include the Empire State Building, Central Park, and Times Square.  

Low Library
It could be said that Low Library is a symbol of the Columbia community since it is located in the main area of campus, and has a distinctive design with columns, steps, and a domed roof.  It is also home to the university’s visitor center, shares the name of a former university president, and is on the New York City Register of Historic Places (Columbia University 2013).  As previously noted, such characteristics impact the meaning of a building.

Buildings and public spaces thus demonstrate many of the overarching themes of Danesi’s book.  We attribute larger meanings to them from their characteristics and histories, which in turn influences how people think about and act within them.


Columbia University
2013 A Brief History of Columbia. <>.

Danesi, Marcel
            2008 Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to 
            Semiotics. USA: Palgrave Macmillan.


Katie Bennett said...

I don't mean to belabor this point, but this post made me think of the way people "misuse" spaces that have supposedly inherent social codes built in. We talked about the subway systems, and how warning signs may signify misuse or disobedience. You say that people in Butler "most likely" will conform to specific behaviors restricted by the space they're in, but I have seen multiple "disobedient" actions in all of the libraries. Whether it's talking loudly, eating in a "non-eating" zone, or not keep their cell phone on silent, students seem to constantly be pushing the boundaries set in place. Danesi does discuss social codes within spaces, but not really what happens when/if people ignore them. Today, in a Duane Reade, I saw a behavior I found completely unacceptable for the space it was taking place in. Pharmacies sell medicine, cleaning products, sometimes food, and are generally clean, well-lit, hygienic-feeling places. However, today I saw two older, well-dressed women opening nail polish bottles, painting a finger to test the color, and then put the bottles back! Their aloof attitude seemed to suggest they considered this a normal behavior, while I, and others around me, were looking around with surprise and concern. No one said anything, mostly I think, because we were unsure if a social code was truly being broken. I had never experienced something like that, and even though I was disgusted and disturbed, I left trying to justify it in my mind ("maybe people in New York do this regularly?"). I would like to discuss more how ambiguous situations like this would be addressed by our class, and by authors like Danesi.

Becky Fisher said...

I agree that a further a further discussion of social codes would be beneficial. I think both Katie and Brett are discussing a very interesting point which is that social codes change and you can you confront them while they are in process of changing. I remember, at the beginning of the school year, there were small signs around Lehman Library saying something along the lines of, "Drinks with sealed lids are NOW allowed in the library." This lead me to question, "How was there a time when people would study without coffee?" (I am a coffee addict.) It seems, however, that there might not have been. People must have been bringing it in anyway and the social code became unenforceable. Does anyone know if this is true? Were all drinks banned in Lehman last year?
I think relates to questions about the "misuse" of social codes. Which is the social code? Is it the rules on the signs or is it the pattern of behavior displayed? When are you a social deviant? Is it when you bring coffee when you aren't supposed to? Could it be the person hanging the sign and banning coffee in room of coffee-drinking students?

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