Way back in 1978, at the dawn of postmodernism, the architect and social critic Charles Jencks noted how bad most architects are at gauging public reaction to their work.
Unlike many architects, Jencks recognized that laypeople, rather than perceiving sly aesthetic references to history or some other arcane theoretical underpinning, often associate unusual architectural forms with things that are closer to their personal experience.
To cite a common example, while modern architects considered the monotonous window grids of their high-rise buildings to be the apotheosis of form following function, critics and cartoonists routinely lampooned them as grid-paper charts or huge filing cabinets.
Architects often despair over such misinterpretations of their work by less high-minded observers. While Frank Lloyd Wright saw the circular, outward-leaning shell of his Guggenheim Museum (1959) as an organic spiral for the display of art, others saw it as a gigantic beige toilet.
Likewise, when Philip Johnson fielded ironic allusions to Georgian architecture in his postmodern, broken-pedimented AT&T Building in Manhattan (1984), many laypersons instead perceived a towering Chippendale wardrobe.
It’s natural for people to associate an unusual shape with something more familiar, and this is one reason that popular nicknames for famous buildings stick so easily. Hence, when famed architects Pietro Belluschi and Luigi Nervi designed San Francisco’s ultramodern Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption (1970) — topped by a towering white cruciform roof resembling a giant washing machine agitator — locals lost no time in christening the church Our Lady of Maytag.
Then again, there are designs so unusual that they stand as a sort of Rorschach test not merely for the beholder, but for the architect as well. Jorn Utzon’s celebrated Sydney Opera House, finally completed in 1973 after years of controversy, provides a renowned example. It has perhaps invited more interpretations than any other building in history, having been been compared to everything from seashells and sails to angry alligators or trios of copulating turtles.
In the case of the Sydney Opera House, however, it’s not really clear that Utzon himself understood the singularly evocative form he’d created. He’d unexpectedly won the competition for the building’s design in 1957 — notably, with a set of drawings that was conceptual at best — and one can only presume that the design bubbled up from some intuitive place deep in his subconscious.
Utzon later coined the term "additive architecture" to describe a design approach based on the growth patterns of nature, and no doubt he already had such a paradigm in mind when he created the opera house’s unforgettable form. It may be this very ambiguity in the architect’s intentions that has led to such a rich variety of interpretations — an architectural Rorschach for everyone who beholds it.
Then we have the even less conventional work of architects such as Frank Gehry, whose later buildings are commonly described as having exploded, collapsed or been wrecked by a tornado. What these descriptions say about the architect’s mind probably remain beyond our reach, but what they say about us is no less interesting.