Stuart Harrison


‘Words on Buildings’





The paper will examine the role of text on buildings and the motivations and architectural consequences of this approach.


Citing Labrouste’s Library Saint-Genevieve as an original precedent, the study will examine the Marion Cultural Centre by Ashton Raggatt McDougall (Adelaide), along with examples from Melbourne, such as Leo’s restaurant, St Kilda.  Is the success of the ARM project as modest public building in large suburban shopping centre attributable to the use of the word MARION on the building and landscape? Is this a contextual approach?


Both the associative meanings and the architectural devices of text as façade treatment are of interest; the apparent dumbness of the strategy is belied by such significant architects using the technique from time to time; which in addition to the aforementioned includes Frank Gehry (Santa Monica Place), Fredrick Romberg (ETA Factory) and Robert Venturi.


The degree to which architectural words are readable is of interest – if the word is clearly readable does the building adopt a more public role?  The limits of legibility, using Neil Levine as starting point, are to be discussed through the mentioned projects in particular the ARM building.


How is the treatment as cited different to signage?  Do words substitute for an architectural language no longer readable to most? How is the word architecturalised?






Comparison of Words on the Commercial

Leo’s Restaurant, Acland Street, St. Kilda & Santa Monica Place, LA by Frank Gehry

Photography by the author, 2000



Marion Cultural Centre (Ashton Raggatt MacDougal) from Road

Photography by the author, 2004






This paper examines the use of words or text as an architectural treatment on buildings. More particularly it attempts to examine the public role of this treatment and to examine architectural intentions and consequences or readings of this.


Writing was at one time written into stone (rather than paper or electronically), and used to record important cultural information: here we look at some examples that use text as a part of an architectural language that can be drawn upon. This study is does not include dates on buildings to record their construction, or headstones. The use of words or text on buildings is historically referred to as inscription, as most examples historically use this as the technique for casting words onto buildings.


At the core of this investigation is the question of whether a building can be read as more public if it uses words. Key concepts are legibility and choice of word(s); and the relationship between the use of a language of words and a more traditional architectural language perceived to be unreadable by the population at large. A traditional architectural language here is considered as the system of culturally embedded forms (such as Classical porticos and columns, Gothic windows) that can be associated and reinforce a particular social condition or historical period.


It is important in this paper to distinguish between the outlined approach and signage. Signage is the adornment of graphic wording or symbols to convey the function of a building. The buildings of interest here integrate text into them, which becomes inseparable from the project. This often takes the form of façade treatment, but can, as in the case of the Marion Cultural Centre by Ashton Raggatt McDougall, be a formal strategy for the whole project.


The Marion project will be a case study for this paper. This will be accompanied by several other projects, from Melbourne and further afield. Most of these are 20th century buildings, as the use of text in an overt way is relatively recent but with historical precedent – I will look at one key 19th century example in Henri Labrouste’s Library of Saint Genevieve of 1850. The Marion Cultural Centre foregrounds its Library program in both planning and use of the text façade treatment.


Library Saint Genevieve

The Library Saint Genevieve appears early in Labrouste’s career and in many ways can be seen as a Venturi-like decorated shed. A relatively simple rectangular box is adorned with two systems of language – a simple, evidently applied, classicism, and words adorning the principal stone band of the building’s first floor. Neil Levine’s analysis of the building in his essay, The Romantic Idea of Architectural Legibility: Henri Labrouste and the Neo-Grec proposes a reading of the building’s façade treatment as thin – in that the surface treatment of classicism and text is clearly a shallow façade treatment. It is generally accepted that Labrouste’s romanticism enables him to draw upon various languages and use them at his disposal, making them evident. The text is the most literal of these:


The 810 inscribed names on Labrouste’s library illustrate a democratic all-inclusiveness …Labrouste’s inscribed panels face an open volume and transcribe onto its exposed faces the progressive development of historical change. The meaning of that progress is open to all who can read.[1]


The proportion of people who could read at the time is considerable less than now; but all users of the building, as it is a library, would have been able to comprehend the text. Levine also makes clear that writing, or inscription, was not new in the mid 19th Century; both Boullée and Durand had used text to replace an Order, as a rhetorical device.[2] For Labrouste, the use of text was a “less rhetorical form of literary expression, as revealed in the abstract, rational, and reflexive relationship between the printed word and its adherent meaning, that was intended to dominate the architectonic form.”[3]


Spiro Kostof is one of the few writers outside of Levine to mention the role of writing, or inscription, on the Labrouste building:


His library of St. Genevieve we admire today for the metallic elegance of its reading room…But far from being a manifesto of structural rationalism, Labrouste’s design sought to give literary expression to the building program, a library of the industrial age. The exposed metal armature, the historicist masonry shell, and the inscriptions were coordinated with this in mind.[4]


What separates Labrouste’s Library with other buildings of the time is however the use of text on it. The semiotics discussed here are clear: the building is a library, the names of the authors cast into the façade both represent the texts within and is itself a text: a sort of index or catalogue than can be read from outside. This accompanied with the relatively non-hierarchal classical treatment says Public Library. The classicism of the Library is a subtle one – not a Greek highly centered and symmetrical type; a far more palazzo Romanesque evenness. Given the lateness of the building, the choice of style was open to Labrouste, and he does use a Grecian language for another word-based gateway project.[5] The simplicity of classicism, if read through a system such as Peter Kohane’s consideration of Decorum,[6] would indicate that this building is perhaps utilitarian in nature, public but not important (it was, as Barry Bergdoll points out, in the shadow of the nearby Church of Saint Genevieve).[7] It is possible that Labrouste considers the remaining semiotic work to be completed by the words on the building. In this sense, the use of words is part of a strategy. This approach is intended to clearly communicate both the public-ness of the building and its function.


The decision to add the text, was, according to Bergdoll, a late one;


As the scaffolding was to come down in August 1848, he ordered the workmen to carve the names of authors whose works were contained in the library onto the panels under the reading windows. It was as though the library catalogue itself generated a new form of architectural ornament.[8]


In a contemporary example, just the word ‘Library’ might be used, or even ‘Saint Genevieve’, but the intention is clear: text used to make public the building by extending its contents, that of the bourgeois library, into openness of the street. The words signify both the role of building to those who can read and those not; words are generally recognisable as that which is contained in books by all. Labrouste was attempting to make a sophisticated modern building that could be understood and read, and was located within an urban context in which it was not the dominant part. [9]


Modernity and Text: Romberg

Swiss-trained architect Fredrick Romberg is partly credited with the design of Australian Pavilion for the 1940 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington. Harriet Edquist argues that “the external lettering and ornament reflect Swiss practice”.[10] Nationality, or place, is established by the use of text; and in this case a map of Australia as well. The design, a mix of a stately classical tendency and an austere modernity reflect a contemporary sense but do not place the building – the writing completes the intention.


The original scheme (1957) for the ETA factory by Grounds Romberg & Boyd (with Romberg acknowledged as primary author) shows the acronym ETA integrated into the building, the letters sitting within the infill spaces between the building’s steel frame. Here the letters are flush with the façade, and do not sit clearly proud of it as in the final (built) scheme. As the first scheme was not developed to the level of construction systems it is not possible to determine to what level the characters would have been integrated into the walling, but the renderings clearly suggest that there was little formal or material separation between them and the structural frame. The built scheme features large lightweight letters that have a strong and distinctive relationship to the main building. Helen Stuckey suggests that the building was one of the first to use supergraphics in Melbourne.[11] It can be suggested that the large letters were the intention of the architect as they appear integrated in the original scheme.


The structural bracing is another ‘character’ on this façade – it was coloured metallic gold; the ‘ETA’ letters were bright red. Both elements however clearly brighter than the main façade, together forming a something like ‘> ETA’, where ‘>’ is the structural cross bracing. The curtain wall façade represents modernity, the mass produced, suitable for a new post-war factory and offices. The bracing and text elements communicate both the name of the company and a strong link to the road, an acknowledgement to the speed that the building will primarily be viewed at, due to its adjacency to the major road. Here, the text is used to extend the intentions of the project.


American Post-Modernity and Text

The use of text has occurred frequently in the work of Venturi & Scott-Brown. This is usually in two types; the name of the place and building, such as ‘Trenton Fire Station’ or the name of  a company as in the ‘Best’ supermarkets. Venturi approaches the use of words from both a position similar to signage - the post-war American commercial vernacular; and the semiotic discussion of classicism as demonstrated in Complexity and Contradiction.


In this case, the detachment of the text elements from these Venturi buildings is conceivable - at one level the architects are including signage as part of their scope of work. This recognises the importance of signage (and the way buildings are commonly seen) in the modern city and the ability of the architect to extend their design to include this vital element. The separation of the words from the Venturi buildings would be similar to what has occurred at the ETA building – where the letters have been removed – the project slips back into its context and becomes undistinguishable.


The first stage of Frank Gehry’s independent architectural practice was based in his home town of Santa Monica, part of the metropolis of Los Angeles. Living and working in Santa Monica, most of the early Gehry work is there and in neighbouring Venice Beach. The largest project in Gehry’s home town was Santa Monica Place, a large shopping centre in the heart of the suburb. Gehry understood the potential of the type as he had worked for American shopping centre designer Victor Gruen (who also wrote numerous books of the topic including Shopping Towns USA). The complex consists of a suburban internal mall-based centre on a relatively dense site. The multi-story car-park of the centre is of interest here – one main wall facing into a primary road into Santa Monica has cast on it ‘SANTA MONICA PLACE’ in enormous letters. The car-park is of conventional open slab and column concrete construction – the ends of the floors are open. Gehry adds, as part of the scheme, a displaced semi-transparent skin, two metres out from the edge of slab. The space in-between contains occasional stairs – but is essentially open. The second façade system is of chain link metal loops with varying densities to mark out the characters. The openness of system continues to allow natural ventilation into the car-park, but the chain is dense enough to make the words very readable. Here, the normal hierarchy of shopping centre pedestrian entry being demarcated as the principal element on the façade is rejected – the conventionally neglected car-park façade becomes both attractive and inherently public – all can read it, enter and comprehend it.



Leo’s restaurant is a privately owned building with a public presence. In Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda, it has a façade composed from brown brick and clear finish aluminum framed glazing. The simple orthogonal lettering is made with brick, the spaces between the characters and the different arms of the characters are glazed. The word is not clearly readable, most people do not tend to notice the letters. This is partly due to the proximity of the word to the viewer. At the distance from the immediate footpath only the vernacular of the brick and glazing is readable, but from across the street when looking toward the shop-front is a view of the word is clear. Within the restaurant, it is again hard to read the word, through the interior clutter and in reverse.[12]


The Marion Building

Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s (ARM) Marion Cultural Centre, in suburban Adelaide, uses letters as figured double columns and arches. The choice of word, ‘MARION’, seems ‘dumb’ or obvious, but it forms a contextual link to the commercial and public buildings of the area. Several of the local civic buildings use the word ‘Marion’ in relatively large letters to locate themselves on a generic late modern architecture. Commercial signage dominates the road-scape of suburban Adelaide (there are no sign-free freeways as in other Australian cities). Here, the architects are engaging this suburban condition, taking onboard the retail vernacular of the large shopping centre and making it exceptional and generous, the intention to make it public.


The Marion building is sited as a gateway to the very large Westfield Shopping Centre. In this way it is between the main shopping centre building and the main road that services it. The Marion building is far smaller than the shopping centre, which is over several floor levels (the ARM building is a single level). The building uses its proximity to the road to make clearer the word MARION as seen from this road. The word is readable in part from the drive-by experience, but is perhaps more visible when users turn into the service road and the building comes into directly, in a sweeping manner. Michael Markham summaries succinctly the architects’ parti,


They have made a landmark out of the city’s own name, as the designers of roadside buildings have so unselfconsciously done for half a century now. But this isn’t a dumb box (to quote the most original architectural thinker of the last 50 years) with a sign out front, or on top; it’s the one pushed into the other.[13]


Only three letters of the word ‘MARION’ are however on the building, the ‘MAR’. The ‘ION’ is made from landscape features – the ‘I’ a tall sculpture, the ‘O’ an oval planter bed and the ‘N’ another sculpture. The ‘MAR’ are however treated in the same typeface, but are manifest slightly differently. The ‘M’ and ‘A’ are formed through a combination of irregular painted steel boxes and altering depths on vertical steel fins. The solid upper part of the letters extrude into the Library inside, and are read from the rear within the library. This extrusion is broken to allow for the full height glazing and a walk space, enabling the user to walk within these letters.


It is however the ‘R’ that is the most important in forming a spatial condition and associative language for the project. The ‘R’ is last letter that is part of the building; it is in-between the building and landscaping. It extrudes down the entire primary side of the building and forms the main entry into the building and an arcade. The ‘R’ is conceptually extruded along a curved path running down this edge of the project, but the treatment to the edge is not consistent as the extrusion is cut in plan. This truncation results in a mirrored cut ‘R’ and two adjoining arcade spaces. This space is arcade-esque as the form of the enclosure is effectively arched.


The question of whether the word is readable is of interest here. Like Leo’s, proximity to the word makes it harder to read. In the case of Marion, one can occupy the word, and within here a tension exists between the sensuous form and materiality (of copper and painted timber battens) and the sense of being within a letter – seeing and R or A around you. When just outside them, like on the footpath outside Leo’s, the attention is on the tectonic and materiality of the building; the lapped copper cladding sheets or the orange painted steel fins; there is nothing to read when at the façade, only when away from it or within it.


Unlike Leo’s however, the viewer always approaches the Marion building from a distance, as it

is sited in the middle of a corner lot – that of the busy Diagonal Road and one of the main entry points to the retail park in which Marion Westfield Shopping Centre is the dominant part. The word is readable as the architectural language is intensified  – the use of bright orange painted steel and copper cladding presents the building as significant.


If the building had used the language of classicism, the same sense of readability would not occur; (historical) classicism is not employed for public buildings in the contemporary world – it is now the domain of large residential work. Classicism is therefore associated with either old public institutions, like the State Library of Victoria or suburban track housing; one borrowing from the other. Therefore a new building in the suburbs (as this one is) would appear more like a house than a public institution if classicism were used. This is unless the language underwent the sort of manipulation we see in Venturi’s Seattle Art Museum; and the context was more traditionally urban.


The architects who have tended to use text or words are generally interested in a local condition or expression. This is true for ARM and the early work of Frank Gehry; and in the work of Venturi & Scott Brown. These same architects also use other devices to denote the local – a particular (local) vernacular for example.


This can be said of the Marion building. The vernacular of the shopping centre building is used and then exaggerated. The black precast concrete walling around the main rear façade of the building uses the same construction system as most shopping centre perimeter walling. Instead of this being a more natural colour (typically beige) the dark colour inverts this (off-black) but is still part of this language. Further exaggeration or intensification comes from the irregular shape of the panels themselves – they interlock as per normative precast panels, but register a shift or development in the module, a minimal move toward figuration, or a registration of movement at ground level. A bright orange stripe also on this wall is achieved through both a rough concrete finish to these areas and in its painting in this bright colour. This undulating line is also a large ‘M’ character, ‘M’ for Marion. The inset cut into the precast concrete is also a feature of more recent precast walling at shopping centres – in these cases a token horizontal cut is used to ‘break-up’ the scale of the often imposing blank walls that dominate the landscape of shopping centre exteriors and car-parks. It is within this context that the Marion project is located, and satisfies and need for a public building within the domain of a large privately owned shopping centre.[14]


The identification of place can be seen to be important here as part of an intention to make a project local. The word ‘Marion’ creates a sense of place, in a place where many architects and urbanists would feel that this was difficult. Ian McDougall, speaking about the building at the Victorian RAIA in 2002, talked of an affiliation that the building attempted with suburban Adelaide where he had grown up. This sense of place is not akin to that of Norberg-Schultz in an essentialist way, it more readily accepts the qualities of a place and attempts to make those significant and public. For example, the carpark at Marion is like many carparks, but it is a good carpark in that has an attention to its graphic and spatial layout that makes it also different to the generic. The aforementioned black pre-cast paneling also works in this way.


The interior and entry sequence of the building is of interest: the entry, mid-way along the arcade, brings the user into an open circulation space that is partially filled with a café and very wide steps leading up to the library (in a manner akin to Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library). This space shares an affinity in configuration with Roy Ground’s National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne – also through the use of the same vertical panel ceiling system, featured in the original gallery spaces of the NGV. The building contains the library, a modest gallery and auditorium. The latter is the most interior of all, with no windows and clad internally with plywood panels. These stained panels feature many small holes in groupings; possibly the form of coded text as used on other ARM projects (such as the Braille on the National Museum of Australia). A more direct symbol is used on the ceiling, with a two pixilated hands similar to icons of computing operating system Microsoft Windows touching in a configuration like that of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Here, ARM draw upon imagery and new technology (both Windows and computer based machine drilled plywood paneling) to give a readable expression.


In the comparison to Labrouste’s Library we can see and far more restricted use of words or letters at Marion. Whereas Marion contains only one word (or just part of), Library Saint Genevieve contains many names of authors. As suggested before, this is like a book on a building. Marion eliminates the quantity of words but increases the scale, so that they can become the main architectural treatment; that which is then rendered with different material and architectural approaches. Saint Genevieve is more restrained by comparison. This enlargement of letters at Marion puts them into a scale directly comparable with columns. Acting vertically and figured they share the un-abstracted role the column enjoyed prior to Modernity. This is clear at the front of the Library where the letters are internalized and have a robustness in both size (they are not thin) and material – welded steel plate rather than boxed-out plasterboard. This solidity engrains them further into the project, and they have a role as part of the structure of the building.[15] The diagonal nature of parts of the letters makes them both raking columns and bracing; like that used by Romberg at ETA (the structure there was as thin as possible however).


Memorials often use text to commemorate events, people and locations of significance and this architectural type contains a certain specialty that evokes an identification and ownership.[16] By borrowing from this, the sense of connection from the individual to the building is achieved in the examples cited; a sense of the public. The ability to easily decoded and read text on a building forms this connection to a wider idea; as long as the individual can read English.


Types and Public-ness

Several main approaches seem to be clear with the use of words on buildings. Firstly, the word is the place, i.e. ‘MARION’ or ‘SANTA MONICA PLACE’. Second, the text describes the owner of the building, and is more like conventional signage, i.e. Leo’s, ETA or Venturi’s BEST supermarkets. A third grouping contains more coded long phrases, such as the inscription on the Pantheon or the names of key people involved in a society, such as on Labrouste’s Library. Another minor group are pavilions such as those in Garden of the Venice Biennale;[17] national follies that use one word to indicate the place that they are from, rather than where they are as in the first group. Here, the written word is used to complete the intentions of the project that the strictly architectural language cannot on its own.


Both Labrouste’s Library and ARM’s Marion building use text as part of a suite of language at their disposal to the same end – to create a readable public building within an urban context in which they are not the dominant member. Both buildings use a dominant architectural vernacular, new technology and words to make the building open conceptually; and therefore establishing a public role. This is opposed to a physical openness or transparency – often manifest as large glazed walls in public buildings. Other projects examined also use words on them to confirm or develop an intention of the architect; and this is often to expand the building into having clearly public role. It is clear that the approach of using words on buildings is both rich and enables users to read and identify the public intentions of the architect.




Stuart Harrison






[1] Neil Levine, ‘The Romantic Idea of Architectural Legibility: Henri Labrouste and the Neo-Grec’, from The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Drexler (ed), MOMA, New York, 1977,  p. 351.

[2] Levine, ‘The Romantic Idea of Architectural Legibility: Henri Labrouste and the Neo-Grec’, p. 352

[3] Levine, ‘The Romantic Idea of Architectural Legibility: Henri Labrouste and the Neo-Grec’, p. 352

[4] Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985, p.642

[5] This interesting unbuilt project of 1829 also discussed by Levine features two opposing temple gateways on the border of France and Italy. Only on the facing pediments are the names of countries revealed, and this is in the only difference between the two. This are essentially signs, but the placement apart from each other means the road user would only read when between the two – in the border, literally between the two words, the two countries.

[6] Peter Kohane & Hill, M, ‘The eclipse of a commonplace idea: decorum in architectural theory’, ARQ: Architectural Research Quarterly 2001, v.5, n.1

[7] Barry Bergdoll, B. European Architecture 1750-1890, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p.179

[8] Bergdoll. European Architecture 1750-1890, p.183

[9] Labrouste was entering a tradition of text on classical buildings. Many examples from Antiquity exist, such as The Pantheon, the Latin “MAGRIPPA LF COS TERJIVM FECIT” written on the frieze.

[10] Harriet Edquist, Frederick Romberg: The Architecture of Migration 1938-75, RMIT University Press, 2000, p.15

[11] Helen Stuckey, ‘ETA Foods Factory’, Frederick Romberg: The Architecture of Migration 1938-75, RMIT University Press, 2000, p.71

[12] A brief history of Leo’s can be found at

[13] Michael Markham, ‘Marion Made?’ Architectural Review Australia 78 (Summer 2001/02): 52-61. The use of the word is also discussed by Sean Pickersgill in Architecture Australia, May/June 2002. Pickersgill also asks several questions around the consequences of using a word in this built way.

[14] The perceived need for a genuine public space in relation to the Marion site in particular is discussed briefly in 1998 by Andrew Allan, ‘Marion: A Study of a Super-Regional Centre and its impact on Adelaide”, Urban Policy and Research, Vol 16 No2, 1998, p.124.

[15] Ian MacDougall talked of the structural issues and presented structural steel drawings of the MAR letters at a presented at the Victorian RAIA, (Monday Night Design Talk series, 2002).

[16] This can be seen in many traditional monuments, such as the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and more modern examples such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC (1982) and more recently the Australian War Memorial (2003) in London by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer and artist Janet Laurence. Lin’s famous use of the names of service personnel killed in the conflict is reworked in the Australian Memorial, where the birth places of service personnel are inscribed into stone, and which in turns forms the names of the battles Australia has fought in. Adrian Forty briefly discusses the Vietnam Memorial and suggests that it drew attention to how far Architectural Modernism had denied emotive meaning; in Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture, Thames & Hudson, New York, 2000, p.214.

[17] The original pavilions of Italy, France and Germany all are essentially classical. The Italian building is a more moderne deco type in white – ITALIA is spelt out in tall letters that appear cast into the building. The French and German pavilions are more historic classical porticos with the names adorned onto the frieze. This differs from the historical approach as only one word is used; the construct of nationhood is reducible to a word and therefore becomes the separating device as these buildings use a shared language of classicism. The buildings are classical for typological reasons - they are essentially follies within the picturesque Jardin. The text is used to create identity and distinguish the pavilions from one another.