Performance and architecture


Architecture is one of many disciplines that may fruitfully be approached from the point of view of performance. Whilst the architectural historian has always been concerned with semiotics, the performative turn in the humanities has increased interest in the meaning of buildings (Jencks 1977) as conveyed in the architecture’s purpose or in the public’s reception. Some scholars thus argue that architecture can be seen as performance.


The meaning of the material setting
According to the sociologist Jeffrey C. Alexander social performances may be construed as consisting of several analytical components such as actors, observers or audience, material means of symbolic production, and social power. Alexander does not limit the actors of a (cultural) performance to human beings, their audience and the message they convey, but stresses the importance of the social and cultural environment. The material setting and surrounding, as with architecture, are given an equally important role.

Historical development
The study of performative architecture arose during the 1970s, when Performance Studies initiated by Richard Schechner and anthropologist Victor Turner emerged. Performance Studies urges scholars to embrace a much broader conceptualization of performance outside ‘the performing arts’, and suggests that performance entails 'the presentation or re-actualization of symbolic systems through both living and mediated bodies', (McKenzie 2005) such as architecture.

The term ‘performative architecture’ was introduced in the early 1990s by architect John Andrews to describe architecture as a backdrop for body movement (Andrews 1991). This term is now used to designate a variety of meanings. Generally it aims to describe a type of architecture that belongs to and simultaneously shapes a dynamic cultural environment. A central question asked is how the built environment disseminates ideas and meanings.

Uses of performance in the study of architecture

Some uses of performative architecture are described in Branko Kolarevic’s and Ali M. Malkawi’s Performative Architecture (2005).
  1. The building as a shell for activities and experiences (lectures in an auditorium, cooking in the kitchen, trial in a courtroom and so forth). The building is shaped by its use (borrowed existence);
  2. The reality of the building itself, as meant by the design and realized by the construction.
  3. The relationship between these two aspects. The building is understood as being the effect that it has on people, by its actions or performances. The architectural object (whether a building or urban planning) is defined by the ability to affect and transform (culture) and focuses on the way the architecture itself performs.
The first and second meanings can be interpreted as 'architecture as performance', whilst the third meaning aims to describe the 'performance of architecture'.

Generally, most scholars employ the first notion of architecture as performance, in which a building and its interior are seen to function as a public theatre (Ballantyne 2002, 25). Architecture is commonly perceived to be the cultural aspect of buildings. While the putting together of materials belongs to the realm of building, its gestures (as well as its extravagance, exoticism and exuberance, or simplicity and ruggedness) belong to the realm of architecture. Architecture is thus seen not as an attribute of a building in itself, but of a building that is experienced in a culture (Ballantyne 2002, 31).

Notable studies that have engaged in this performative turn in the study of architecture include Lynch (1960), Krautheimer (1985), Weimann (1992), Read (2000), Friedman (2002) and Heuer (2009).

See also

Nature and performance
Performative text
Performance and collective action
Performative Turn
Performance Studies
Richard Schechner
Victor Turner


Alexander, J.C., 'Cultural pragmatics: social performance between ritual and strategy', in: Ibidem (ed.), Social performance: symbolic action, cultural pragmatics and ritual (Cambridge 2006) 29-90.
Andrews, J., Architecture. A performing art (Oxford 1991).
Ballantyne, A., Architecture. A very short introduction (Oxford 2002).
Friedman, A.T., 'Planning and representation in the early modern country house', extracts in: Diana Arnold (ed.), Reading architectural history (Londen 2002) 211-217. Heuer, C., The city rehearsed. Object, architecture and print in the worlds of Hand Vredeman de Vries (Routledge 2009).
Kolarevic, B. and Malkawi’s, A.M., Performative architecture. Beyond instrumentality (Routledge 2005).
Krautheimer, R., The Rome of Alexander VII, 1655-1667 (Princeton 1985).
Lynch, K., The image of the city (Cambridge 1960).
McKenzie, J., 'Performance studies', The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (2005).
Read, A. (ed.), Architecturally speaking. Practices of art, architecture and everyday (Routledge 2000).
Spurr, S., Performative architecture design strategies for living bodies (2007), thesis.
Weimann, R., ‘(Post)Modernity and representation. Issues of authority, power and performativity’, New Literary History 23 (1992) afl. 4, 955-981.