Peter Wilson in the Empire of Signs

Mark Dorrian*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

This article explores transformations in Peter Wilson’s work by reading his Japanese projects of the late 1980s in relation to Roland Barthes’s Empire of Signs. The specific account it develops is constructed around the entries Wilson produced for the 1978 and 1988 Shinkenchiku Residential Design Competitions. What makes this a comparison of particular interest is that the competitions, a decade apart, were run under nearly – but not quite – the same brief. The first was set by Peter Cook, who called for projects for a ‘Comfortable House in the Metropolis’. This idea was then taken up for the second by Toyo Ito, although he inflected it with an emphasis on the ephemerality of the physical under the effects of new electronic communication technologies. Drawing on Barthes’s observations, the article argues that – across these years – Wilson’s work moves from an approach grounded in metaphor to a mode that is increasingly ideogrammic, and that this is supported by, and reflected in, the way that his drawings change. Here, I claim, the submarine – allusions to which become prominent in Wilson’s work in the period – comes into focus as the key transitional device. Importantly, Wilson’s submarine is not a tool for plumbing depth conditions; rather, it is quite the opposite, insofar as it acts as a figurative cipher, an ideogram in its own right, for the act of screening out relations and drying up metaphoric fluidity. In its conclusion, the article brings the 1988 project into contact with earlier ideogrammic experiments within modernity, including the drawings of Henri Michaux and the reflections of Sergei Eisenstein on cinematic montage and compound ideograms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)688-709
JournalThe Journal of Architecture
Issue number5
Early online date26 Aug 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 26 Aug 2021

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Peter Wilson
  • Roland Barthes
  • architectural theory
  • architectural drawing
  • Japan
  • ideograms


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