Archetectural Analysis

  • OBJECTIVE: Critical Analysis of Visual Rhetoric (Persuasion) in Architecture

Read Bello & Brandau-Brown’s article prior to completing this Discussion Board post. This should help frame your analysis and write your Analysis & Reflection.

(In other words—I’m asking you to write an analysis of a visual artifact on a much smaller scale than this article, but the inclusion of terminology, critical analysis of the persuasive messages of the artifact, can be inspired by how Bello & Brandau-Brown approach their article. I expect you’ll cite this article, along with the PLE and class text, in your Analysis & Reflection to add depth to your claims and substantiate your critical arguments about your chosen artifact).

Article citation:

Bello, R., & Brandau-Brown, F. (2011). City as message: A case study of visual persuasion in Washington, D.C. International Journal Of The Arts In Society, 5(5), 315-322.

1. Artifact Choice & Description: Choose a structure, building, piece of art, or otherwise persuasive artifact to analyze. Give a brief description (1-2 paragraphs) of your chosen artifact. Use Bello & Brandau-Brown (as well as your course documents) to inform your succinct description of the artifact (i.e. why is it persuasive? What is compelling about the artifact? Historical/cultural or other relevant context, etc).

Be creative! Think beyond the obvious (Great Wall of China, Empire State Building), and look for something unique to review! Think about your local buildings or monuments, or based on your life experiences or travel experiences. Be sure to include a link to the image you are analyzing in your citations.

Examples with prompting considerations:

2. Analysis & Reflection: Utilize course theory, terminology, (along with readings: Bello & Brandau-Brown, Chapter 14, and PLE topic information)– write 400-500 word analytical post (that is a minimum requirement, please no more than 750-1000 words maximum) critically assessing the persuasive influence of your chosen artifact has on the public, the culture in which it resides, you personally, etc. Consider how visual persuasion works to create a feeling, movement, use of space, etc. What about the artifact is persuasive and how so? First person narrative is appropriate for this assignment. Be descriptive, critical and specifically apply course terminology throughout your writing assignment (defining as needed). You should include an APA formatted reference list at the bottom of your work.


City as Message: A Case Study of Visual Persuasion in
Washington, D.C
Richard Bello, Sam Houston State University, Texas, USA
Frances Brandau-Brown, Sam Houston State University, Texas, USA

Abstract: We report on a research study that is based, in part, on an edited volume of work to which
we contributed (Ragsdale, 2007). In this work, we argued that artistic structures such as museums
and places of worship are visually persuasive, that is, that they communicate a persuasive message
in the way they are designed, built, and structured. In the present case, we have extended this analysis
to include the places in which structures reside. Based on the work of Messaris (1997) dealing with
how visual images can be persuasive, we apply the concepts of iconicity, indexicality, and syntactic
indeterminacy to demonstrate influence messages communicated by and within the city of Washington,
D.C. We discuss Messaris’s concepts of visual persuasion, examine the history of Washington, D.C.
as carefully planned and designed in part for persuasive purposes, and then apply the concepts to
particular aspects of the city’s design, layout, memorials, and other structures.
Keywords: Semiotics, Iconicity, Indexicality, Syntactical Indeterminancy, Visual Persuasion, Washington
CAN AN OBJECT, a building, or a park communicate a message? Although elements
included in the layout and the design of a building, park, or city are chosen with the
intent of satisfying the construction needs, the materials also communicate a message.
Through the use of visual persuasion, designers, architects, and city engineers send
a message to those who visit their designs. Although persuasion has traditionally been thought
of in terms of oral argument, there is a growing recognition of the impact of visual imagery
in everything from advertising to architecture. Gass and Seiter (2007) noted that images
have the ability to move us in ways that argument alone cannot. The validity of their assertion
is undeniable when one visits Washington, D.C. The city is the seat of American democracy
and the many monuments, museums, and government buildings in the capital all communicate
a message about important historical figures and events.
In order to fully understand the impact of the city’s design and architecture, first we must
understand the three key components in visual persuasion. According to Messaris (1997)
images persuade through iconicity, indexicality, and syntactic indeterminancy. In its most
basic form something is considered an icon when it is similar to the thing it represents. Sklair
(2006) says for a building or structure to be considered iconic it must meet two criteria. First,
the structure must be famous to “at least some constituencies” (p. 25). Second, the structure
must have some symbolic/aesthetic judgment. This means that “an architectural icon is imbued
with a special meaning that is symbolic for a culture and/or a time, and that this special
meaning has an aesthetic component” (p. 25).
Messaris and Abraham (2001) stated that the indexicality of images refers to a certain
true-to-life quality that demonstrates the authenticity of the image. They claimed that “because
The International Journal of the Arts in Society
Volume 5, Number 5, 2011,, ISSN 1833-1866
© Common Ground, Richard Bello, Frances Brandau-Brown, All Rights Reserved, Permissions:
of their indexicality, photographs come with an implicit guarantee of being closer to the
truth than other forms of communication are” (p. 217). Messaris and Abraham go on to note
that the way images are shot, selected, cropped and edited all influence the perspective of
the viewer. Whether the influence is unintentional or intentional, such as where a casual
photographer stood to take a picture or the deliberate manipulation of images through editing
and digital enhancement, the impact is to shape the viewer’s perceptions. In some cases images
may be subject to the most direct and overt manipulation, staging. The famous image of the
Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima is that of the second flag to be raised that
day. Although calling the image staged is a bit of an overstatement, it illustrates how photographers
gave a second chance to capture what has turned out to be an iconic and indexical
image. Despite even the best attempt to avoid any shaping of perceptions, the impact of image
selection is inevitable (Messaris & Abraham, 2001). Though many images make be taken
of an event, it is common for one image to become indexical. For example, the image of the
Oklahoma City fire fighter cradling a child as he walks toward the paramedics serve as a
true and powerful indexical photograph of that event. Hundreds of images of that terrorist
event were taken, but that one image came to represent the true horror of the event.
The final concept Messaris discussed was syntactic indeterminacy. This concept deals
with how images are juxtaposed against one another. Ragsdale (2007) explained that “when
words are juxtaposed in a sentence, verbs make it clear how the connections are to be understood”
(p. 3). However, when viewing visual images the connections between those images
is not overtly stated. Rather, the viewer is required to interpret the images and make decisions
about the relationships among them. The significance of syntactic indeterminacy can be seen
in any advertisement for ‘quick and easy’ weight loss. The ads feature beautiful people with
sculpted bodies next to a pill or potion that promises weight loss. This juxtaposition leads
the viewer to the conclusion that taking the product results in a lean and fit body. Unfortunately,
this conclusion is flawed and a fit body is the result of diet and exercise. The juxtaposition
of images is significant in everything from advertising to architecture. For example,
the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur combine elements of both the archaic and the modern.
The buildings demonstrate elements of modernity by being constructed of steel, glass, and
concrete. Yet, their design contains ancient elements from the Muslim faith such as the Rub
el Hizb or the two overlapping squares that form an 8-pointed star. The combination of historical,
modern, religious, and secular can be seen in buildings and cities around the world.
Washington, D.C. is a city that embodies all of these elements within its 10 square miles.
The city was planned to serve as the symbol of American democracy. Since its original inception
the city’s design and layout have been changed and modified. The city continues to
grow and change over time as renovations and modifications are made to existing buildings
and thoroughfares. In addition, new monuments have been added over the course of the
twentieth century. The location of the buildings and monuments in the city have been carefully
chosen and the juxtaposition of each in relation to the other has been considered, sometimes
at great length.
Washington, D.C. is a city that exemplifies visual persuasion. It is with the three elements
of iconicity, indexicality, and syntactic indeterminancy proposed by Messaris (1997) that
we will examine the design, buildings, monuments, and green spaces of Washington, D.C.
Influence of Historical Planning
The history of the planning and construction of the city of Washington, D.C. is one that can
largely be embodied in a single term: symbolism (Abbot, 2002; Sorkin, 2005). Washington
can be thought of as, in many ways, the symbolic city, and it is this symbolism that gives
rise to an examination of the processes in which the layout, monuments, and architecture of
the city act as devices of social influence.
All the way back to the origins of L’Enfant’s 1791 plan itself, including its modification
and completion in the work of MacMillan and others almost a hundred years later, we see
the focus on civic and political symbolism at the heart of the city’s design (Davidson &
Brooke, 2006). The core of the city still reflects the original master plan and was mandated
by government decree, as well as purposefully designed and created (Davidson & Brooke,
2006). Historians such as Pamela Scott and James Sterling Young have argued that the plan
of the city embodies the basic structure of the federal republican democracy laid out in the
Constitution, and that this embodiment was distinctly intentional on the part of L’Enfant
and George Washington (Luria, 2006). (Washington himself is considered the person
primarily responsible for spearheading the movement for the planning and construction of
a national capital from scratch.) As Luria has so pithily stated, “L’Enfant and Washington
designed a city that looked like the Constitution” (2006, p. 6).
The connection between the city and Constitution remains relevant even today, as argued
by Luria (2006), who says that the
close and intentional relationship between the capital’s design and the Constitution
poses a fascinating case for the further study of the interplay between the written word
and material culture. That close relationship continues beyond the founding of the city,
as the city remains a malleable space for the projection of political visions. (pp. xxixxii)
The foundation for this planning approach can be seen in the fact that Washington thought
of monuments and architectural structures as prime means for influencing the citizens of the
new republic toward the acceptance of a unified national identity (Harris, 1999). Davidson
and Brooke (2006) agree with this sentiment, although in more general terms. They point
out that any city intentionally designed and “dedicated to the business of government” has
the potential for “generat[ing] a sense of patriotism and national unity expressed through
symbolic architecture” (p. 142). Of course, many countries choose national capitals from
among a number of key cities that are populous and already established. The fact that
Washington, D.C., on the other hand, was specially dedicated as a national capital built on
a large empty tract of land along the Potomac River likely imbues its symbolic spaces,
monuments, and structures with a special persuasive force and potential.
Not only does the original city plan continue to make its presence felt up to the present
time, but it also extends its influence into the years ahead. The National Capital Framework
Plan, released in 2008 by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and the U.S.
Commission of Fine Arts, was created to aid in preparation and planning for future city needs
related to the management of space for new museums, memorials, and the like. One of the
single most important characteristics of this master plan is that “it respects the foundation
laid by Pierre L’Enfant when he designed the capital city” (“National Capital,” 2008, p. 2).
A final aspect of L’Enfant’s original plan that still rings true today is its emphasis on a
grand scale that made extensive use of vast open spaces. His plan called for fifteen sizeable
open spaces placed where avenues intersected, and he believed that “these open spaces were
as important as the buildings and the monuments,” that they should set off the monuments
and help to give them meaning (Davidson & Brooke, 2006, p. 143). This more specialized
use of space was altered mainly in the MacMillan plan from 1902 that called for a more vast
and empty space that became the National Mall. However, the overall emphasis on space
itself (for example, for gatherings and ceremonies) and space used to set off and accentuate
monuments, memorials, and federal buildings still figures prominently in present-day
Washington, D.C. (Luria, 2006).
Examining the history of the planning and construction of Washington, D.C. demonstrates
that, from the very beginning, the city was thought of largely in terms of the rhetorical impact
it could have on residents and visitors. With that framework in place, we now turn our attention
to a more specific analysis of some of the content and method of that impact, with particular
emphasis on the semiotic approach to visual persuasion discussed in the opening
section of this paper.
Visual Persuasion in the City
Although there appear to be a number of persuasive themes around which spaces, structures,
and layout revolve, we choose to concentrate on the one that is the most fundamental and
prominent: support for the American experiment with republican democracy (Luria, 2006,
p. 155).
The National Mall
It is perhaps best to begin with a clear focus on the National Mall as the center of a geometry
of layout. This layout is representative for the visitor, through the psychology of the principle
of syntactic indeterminancy, of the system of American democracy itself. Virtually any visitor
encounters this “geometry of democracy,” likely first in perusing maps of the city, and
secondly in extensively touring the Mall and its environs. At the eastern end of this massive
rectangular green space is the great dome of the Capitol Building, which houses the legislative
branch of government seen ideally as the embodiment of the legal and political will of the
people. Also in this location, indeed just immediately to the east of the Capitol, the visitor
encounters the building that houses the focal point of the judicial branch of government, the
U.S. Supreme Court. Legislative and judicial are bound together physically just as they are
bound together systemically, one making law and the other interpreting the constitutional
status of that law. Through this “syntax” of the buildings’ proximity, as well as the indexicality
of their open and obvious presence and the iconicity of authority inherent in the Classicism
of their architecture, one is impressed by the importance of the work taking place there
for the American system of democracy and by the equal and complementary nature of the
roles they play within that system (Sorkin, 2005).
Add to this formula the presence of the White House annexed to the National Mall just
north of its axis via the green space called the Ellipse, and you have a completion in the
mind of the visitor of the separation of powers inherent in the Constitution itself. Here we
see a clear application of the principle of syntactic indeterminancy espoused by Messaris
(1997) and Gass and Seiter (2007). In the physical layout of the Mall, all three arms of the
national government are seen by the visitor as separate, in line with the Constitution. At the
same time, they are seen as inextricably connected. Both this separation and connection are
necessary if democracy is to function as designed by the founders of the American experiment.
This “geometry of democracy” is especially apparent when the visitor (or potential visitor)
peruses maps of the city’s core, and its emotional impact is driven home when the visitor
takes the time to tour extensively the National Mall as the center of this geometry (Luria,
The iconic status of the Mall itself has persuasive potential on its own, as well as adding
to the power of the visual impact of the separation (and connection) of the key powers of
the federal government as written into the Constitution. The Mall is viewed by some as a
speculative, ambiguous space (Luria, 2006) that can be imbued by the visitor with whatever
seems appropriate to the theme of democracy and separation of powers that is front and
center. It is almost certain that for quite a number of visitors to the city, the Mall conjures
up images of huge gatherings of the masses of the people for the exercising of a kind of
direct democracy. Some of these images are iconic, as in the media’s coverage of Martin
Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the height of the civil rights movement and
of the historical gatherings of the masses associated with the inauguration of elected presidents.
Others have the distinct potential of achieving iconic status, as in, and most especially,
the recent overwhelming influx of about two million U.S. citizens for the inauguration of
President Barack Obama (Safford, 2010). There can be little doubt that such images, conjured
up during one’s visit to the Mall itself, serve a persuasive and motivational function that
highlights the centrality and importance of the role of democracy in America.
In addition, the conception of open green spaces, especially those associated with public
and communal gatherings (as in civic parks and town commons), is embedded in the
American psyche. Going as far back as colonial times, they have been viewed as representative
of democratic principles such as the idea of power and authority flowing from the
people to governmental institutions rather than vice-versa (O’Malley, 1999). In referring to
the colonial period, O’Malley has pointed out that
New Englanders wanted to exercise their freedom to manage common lands, a license
their English forebears did not have. Since each town regulated its own common, it
became an icon of democracy. Thus, in America, the open grass plat within the village
center embodies a sense of community and self-governance. (1999, p. 73)
For many, therefore, the National Mall likely taps in to this aspect of the American makeup,
existing as it does as a kind of quintessential public and communal space. In other words,
the Mall exists in the collective American unconscious as a town common writ large, that
is, a “town” common for the nation. This perception is probably aided by the fact that the
Mall is often referred to in a variety of sources as America’s Front Lawn or America’s Front
Yard, especially Internet sites often used by individuals for planning trips to the D.C. area
(e.g., “Trust,” 2010; “Campaign Elements,” 2008).
Key Memorials
Finally, there are any number of memorials in or near America’s Front Yard that have strong
visually persuasive potential. Perhaps two of the most dramatic are the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. Because it is such a somber and tragic recognition of
a U.S. military defeat, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was by far the more controversial
of the two. In the way the memorial simply lists in an unadorned fashion name after name
of all of the servicemen and women who were killed during the war, it emotionally serves
for many to highlight the stark reality of the historical situation. However, it has also become
iconic for many Americans of not only that particular tragedy, but of the great losses that
are sometimes incurred by the masses of Americans, the people at the heart of democracy
itself, when military objectives are pursued in the name of that democracy. This iconic
message, one of reservation about and the limits of democracy, is driven home all the more
strongly by the dark granite of the construction and most importantly, via the principle of
syntactic indeterminancy, by the manner in which the memorial is not only placed on but
also excavated into the ground of the National Mall itself (Sorkin, 2005).
The Lincoln Memorial, perhaps the best known icon of the man himself anywhere in the
world, is visited by well over three million people each year (“Lincoln Memorial Facts,”
2010). Certainly much of the allure to visitors lies in the historical figure to which the memorial
is dedicated, but some of that allure lies also in what the memorial and the man are
most representative of: the salvation of American democracy during the period when it was
most sorely tested, that of the Civil War. The very idea of Lincoln as savior of democracy
is brought to the fore in the minds of visitors to the memorial through emphasis on at least
two key visual aspects. First, the Classical architecture (bookended on the opposite end of
the Mall by the Classical architecture of the Capitol and Supreme Court buildings) is intended
to be iconic of an ancient Greek temple (Sorkin, 2005), enhancing an atmosphere of spiritually-
based authority and wisdom that is especially prominent as one climbs the stairs of the
nearly 100 foot high memorial. Second, and somewhat more subtle, is the location of the
memorial at the west end of the National Mall, including the direction in which the statue
of Lincoln himself is facing. It surely is no accident that the statue of Lincoln, elevated so
high above the grounds of the Mall itself, is facing eastward and overlooking the whole of
the Mall (“Lincoln Memorial,” 2010). From this vantage point, the experience of many visitors
is no doubt one of the iconic Lincoln as not only the savior of American democracy,
but also as its keeper. The thought that must occur to many visitors is that, therefore, democracy
is not only worth saving, but also worth keeping. We see here the principle of syntactic
indeterminancy applied in, perhaps, its clearest form.
In demonstrating that visitors to the city of Washington, D.C. likely are the targets of social
influence processes based on carefully designed and laid out visual components of the city,
this paper implies other possibilities as well. First, it strongly suggests that there are many
other examples of visually persuasive processes taking place within D.C., as well as persuasive
and motivational themes other than only that of homage to the American form of republican
democracy that we have examined herein. For example, a preliminary analysis suggests that
a persuasive theme focused on the grandeur and infinite possibilities of America and the
American experience might also be present. We therefore hope to extend this line of research,
with continued emphasis on the semiotic principles developed by Messaris (1997), to other
buildings, monuments, spaces, and layouts that make up the city.
Second, it is true that Washington, D.C. is a city steeped in a political and rhetorical tradition
that increases the likelihood of visual persuasion. However, there is nothing inherent in
our analysis suggesting that similar kinds of visually persuasive processes would not be operative
in other American cities, or even in cities around the world. Broadening the kind of
analysis used here to other cities, therefore, appears to be another logical research step worth
taking, and one that has the potential for greatly enhancing our understanding of how cities
exist as vessels of persuasive and motivational messages.

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