Architectures of Hiding

Paul Emmons

Hidden Architects in Signed Buildings

“A building is a struggle, not a miracle.” – Louis Kahn

Architects’ names rarely appear on the buildings that they design. It is far more common for owners than architects to attach their names to buildings. When we say that someone built a building, the phrase is equally used of the owner, architect, and builder, though in different causative senses. Today, architects sign their drawings, but not their buildings. Nevertheless, there are a number of cases where architects do sign the buildings of their designs. Even in these relatively rare instances, the architect’s name is subordinated to that of the patron and often hidden in size, location and expression of identity – to the point of being easily overlooked. Architectural photographs do not record architects’ signatures and they are rarely even mentioned in the literature. The architect’s presence is often hidden in their own buildings.

Architects’ writings are replete with laments of their limitations in, among other things, controlling their project’s design and construction. The ambiguous relationship between architects and their buildings is illustrated by how a building is signed by its architect. Architects obscure their signatures by concealing them in numerous ways. Although it was unacceptable for architects to sign buildings in the ancient world and even illegal in ancient Rome, some architects cunningly created secret signatures. Portrait signatures of architects were widely employed in gothic architecture but can usually only be confirmed if they include a signature. Other architects insert personal symbols into the building to assert their presence. This general attitude continues today and some architects have been required to remove concealed signatures after they are identified on the building. Even when present, architects’ building signatures tend to be designed to make their presence liminal. Perhaps only hidden architects are free to be critical of dominant social and economic powers.

Keywords: signatures, names, dissociation, image

DR. PAUL EMMONS is a registered architect and the Patrick and Nancy Lathrop Professor of Architecture at Virginia Tech serving as Associate Dean for Graduate Studies for the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. Dr. Emmons is based at the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center of Virginia Tech where he coordinates the PhD program in architecture and design research. His widely published and presented research on architects’ drawing practices recently includes books such as Drawing Imagining Building (2020) and co-editing Ceilings and Dreams, The Architecture of Levity (2019) and Confabulations, Storytelling in Architecture (2018).