‘The Lesson of the Toilet Bowl’ in Signs, Symbols, and Architecture [Charles Jencks / 1980]
The less of the toilet bowl, a favourite among architectural semioticians, brings out the coded nature of denotation to a sharper degree. The toilet bowl seems at first a good example of the modern architectural dictum ‘form follows function’, because its shape, material and surface are determined roughly by its use, and this shape is in some respects beautiful, or at least highly sculptural.
A functionalist architect would admire it (and the bidet and urinal, both of which have been illustrated as exemplary in modern aesthetics by Le Corbusier and Duchamp) for its direct response to requirements and because it constitutes a ‘word’ or ‘phrase’ of a new, unambiguous language. The hope of modern architects was to build up a complex universal language based on such indexical and iconic words. They believed the ‘functions’ of these diagrammatic objects would be transparent, or obvious to everyone. This has not proved the case.
In the south of Italy, in a new housing estate for a rural population, the toilet bowl has been used as a cleaning tank for grapes. The peasants suspended a net inside the bowl and then flushed water at the grapes until they were clean. In Northern Greece, where peasants also relieved themselves in a customary way in the countryside, the toilet bowl was used as a fireplace to hold burning wood (the shape corresponded to the traditional hole in the ground used for this purpose). To put out the fire and clean up, they also flushed the toilet. Urinals have been used by Africans to take a shower and the bidet is used in so many ‘extra-functional’ ways that it constitutes a sign of this unconventionality in French farce. It denotes sin, and only connotes washing yourself. The supposedly primary function has been displaced by the supposedly secondary function, or connotation.
Umberto Eco and Maria Luisa Scalvini, who discuss these distinctions, thus oversimplify when they place use and denotation prior to aesthetics and connotation. As we see, one man’s denotation is another man’s connotation and it is a kind of cryptic functionalism to claim the priority, or historical genesis, of use over symbol, first function over first idea. Who really knows whether man first invented architecture when he ran into a cave to escape the rain (Eco’s version of the origins of the primitive hut myth). He might have had the idea of playing with the beautiful patterns of leaves and conceived this first before realising that it could be used next as an umbrella or building.
Since such functionalism is so ingrained, even among semioticians, we shall give several more examples to dispel this logical monster. As we have argued, the ‘actual function’ of a building can only be perceived through a code, hence the use of inverted commas which might always surround its use, but which will be henceforward dropped. The actual function can be an idea as well as a use. Thus the cross denotes Christ and Christianity (according to one code) as well as connotes them, and the triumphal arch denotes celebrations and triumph as well as its use—to pass through in procession. We must expand the notion of actual function to include ideas and social customs and only distinguish denotation from connotation as a matter of degree and learning: habituation, stock-response and frequency of use tend to turn connotations into denotations just as they turn metaphors into clichés.
Take the example of the trompe l’oeil, or the architectural lie (Eco first pointed out the relation of lying to all sign behaviour; they are both actions of substitution).
Must there always be a real object for there to be denotation? Can we not say the trompe l’oeil townscapes denote conventional objects, i.e. refer to real things? The fact that these things may not exist does not necessarily make them connotations; it can make them a special class of denotata—phonies.
Part of the enjoyment of trompe l’oeil consists in the contradiction between the denotation ‘this is a real thing’ and the connotation ‘the thing is an illusion, it doesn’t exist’. Aesthetic codes, as Hjelmslev insisted, are pre-eminently connotative semiotics.