Insignificance 2: Distinction – Line as idea

By Gordon Shrigley

The following texts are excerpted from Gordon Shrigley, Insignificance: A short discourse on the physical and ideational economy of line within architectural representation (Solitude Editions, 1998). Now, twenty years after Insignificance was first published, Gordon Shrigley has revisited the publication for a series of postings on Drawing Matter. Each of these posts connect passages from the book with drawings in the Drawing Matter collection to extend the discussions set out in the original publication.

Read the first in the series here.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841), Construction for Entrance Facade, Tilebein House, Stettin, Prussia, 1806. Sepia ink and colour washes on paper, two sheets joined, 1000 × 605 mm. DMC 1856.1.
Pier Vittorio Aureli (1973–), The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 2001–2014. Pencil, pen and ink on wove paper, 500 × 500 mm. DMC 2068.2.


Architectural line practice distinguishes itself from similar line practices in its direct relation to a mode of production. [1] As a visual language, it
is required to assume a certain constancy, which seeks to forge an unobstructed link between thought (doxically conceived as the author’s
ideas transparently represented in the drawing) and action (as required to physically construct a building). The architectural line has been, and
is, tested as to its efficacy each time a structure of a certain complexity is realised.

Throughout the unfolding of architectural history, the codes of line have been developed directly in relation to the material world (the laws of the place). In this sense, and in this sense alone, the architectural mode of representation can be seen to have evolved (to a greater or lesser extent) symbiotically: first line had to adapt to the world as given, as found; second, through an increasingly complex mode of production, materials available for construction were produced in direct relation to the discourses of line and its marked tendency to the rectilinear.


  1. Line within architectural representation is qualitatively different from the autistic line of the fine arts, which does not necessarily have a need to establish a framework of compositional instrumentality and so can define the significatory aspect of line as particular if required. Although within fine art there is clearly a lineage of line, this, in retrospect, is not a unitary history, with many different line theories competing for representational hegemony.
James Gowan (1923–2015), Isle of Wight House, 1956–1958. Pencil, pen, ink and coloured crayon over print base on paper, 218 × 215 mm. DMC 2789.2.1.



How should we proceed therefore to think of line’s purpose generically?

The architectural line inhabits a tripartite relation to culture through its mobilisation as either a didactic, hermeneutic, or involuntary



Purpose is seen to act as doxa, [1] as an everyday motive, read importantly as not coterminous with the hidden hand of ideology (a false consciousness) but as a practice of aesthetic/political motivation, which is worked through in a conscious way (contrary to Pierre Bourdieu), but is nevertheless able to create a hegemony of tendencies, which allow authors/institutions not to have to relearn the processes/mechanisms of aesthetic/social determination at the moment of utterance/representation. This allows production to continue unhindered, yet purpose allows a working through of legitimate questions in and around the procedural mechanism germane at that moment in time. Here, line is mobilised as a neutral instrument, and is seen to impart no traces upon the primary processes and products of the architectural imagination.


  1. ‘The social world doesn’t work in terms of consciousness; it works in terms of practices, mechanisms and so forth. By using doxa we accept many things without knowing them, and that is what is called ideology.’ (Pierre Bourdieu, ‘Doxa and Common Life, In Conversation with Terry Eagleton’, New Left Review, no. 191 [1992], 113.)



I speak here of a perceived character to the contemporary architectural line outside of all determinations, be they that of an author, a tradition or an authority. And so, I would like to think of purpose in the context of the ‘purpose of line’, as opposed to, say, line in the service of an aesthetic modality or as one arm of a strategy for an industrial production. Line inhabits the theoretical possibilities opened up within the tripartite division between signifier, signified and sign. [1] And so, if we are willing to accept that the relationship between an object and its representation is historically contingent, and thus inherently unstable, are we not then, justified in looking for signs of immanence within the form of line? Otherwise line will be written as a lacunae, forever to be theorised as a passive, blank screen for instrumentally inclined projection, thereby leaving the material character of line as a convenient mystery. [2] Contrariwise, to start to explore the immanent actuality of line, is to situate the architectural line as residing within its own terms of reference, parallel and independent of an operating prescription.


  1. ‘Let me therefore restate that any semiology postulates a relation between two terms, a signifier and a signified. This relation concerns objects which belong to different categories, and this is why it is not one of equality but one of equivalence. We must here be on our guard for despite common parlance which simply says that the signifier expresses the signified, we are dealing, in any semiological system, not with two, but with three different terms. For what we grasp is not at all one term after the other, but the correlation which unites them: there are, therefore, the signifier, the signified and the sign, which is the associative total of the first two terms.’ (Roland Barthes, ‘Myth Today’, in Mythologies [London: Jonathan Cape, 1972], 112–113.)
  2. See Catherine Ingraham, ‘Lines and Linearity: Problems in Architectural Theory,’ in Drawing, Building, Text, ed. Andrea Kahn [New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991]).



A line reading practice, which ascribes a role to the architectural line as contingently inside or transcendentally outside the human historical moment, both posit line as instrumental in character. Either line is directed by others (subordinate) or essentially by itself (dominant). Another reading, though, is left open whereby line is seen to be caught up within the particularities of cultural polysemy, not so much as a clearly
observable condition, but as located within a quotidian of competing involuntary mechanisms, procedures and tactics. This is to see the
architectural line, and so all culturally symbolic actions, as enmeshed within a unsurveyable field of unintended consequences, and therefore
possibly immune from crude determinist readings, which would seek to place the architectural line, and hence architecture itself, as being
essentially didactic or hermetic.



A line held in the mind as a pure concept refers to the act of holding within one’s everyday historical consciousness the idea/fundamental
materiality of a line, as opposed to a colour or a shade. Although this may seem simple enough, it would be incorrect to think of subjects consciously using ‘line’, as a discrete and unfamiliar code, to express a perceived internal subjective realm. What we seek here is not to valorise a bourgeois ideology of the subject, who nostalgically is seen to enter ‘the dialectic with the world as its source, as the intending manipulator of the object and the conscious originator of meanings and actions’, but to situate the idea of line, and so also the subject, as equal, culturally symbolic characters negotiating how statements upon and within the picture plane are collectively configured. [1] Although this may suggest that a particular origin for line is ‘lost in the vast perspective of the already-written‘,[2] we still need, I think, to theoretically allow the bourgeois author/subject, an illusory choice, as lived experience within an ‘ensemble of relations’[3] that seeks to recognise the subject’s room to pick and mix between competing modes of representation, i.e. subjects have the ability to negotiate within hegemony.


  1. ‘In humanist thought the role of the subject vis-a-vis the object has been that of an originating agent of meaning, unique, centralised, and authoritative. The individual subject enters the dialectic with the world as its source, as the intending manipulator of the object and the conscious originator of meanings and actions… But within modernism… The subject is no longer viewed as an originating agent of meaning, but as a variable and dispersed entity whose very identity and place are constituted in social practice.’ (K. Michael Hays, Modernism and the Post Humanist Subject: the architecture of Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Hilberseimer [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992], 5.)
  2. ‘Alongside each utterance, one might say that off-stage voices can be heard: they are the codes: in their interweaving, these voices (whose origin is “lost” in the vast perspective of the already written) de-originate the utterance: the convergence of the voices (of the codes) becomes writing, a stereographic space where the five codes, the five voices, intersect: the Voice of Empirics… the Voice of the Person… the Voice of Science… the Voice of Truth… the Voice of Symbol.’ (Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller [Paris: Editions du Seuil 1973; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990], 21.)
  3. ‘Unlike McCabe, Johnson and Dawson (1982) asserted a positive role for realism as a way of knowing and a form of representation. They argued for a research project that would bring together structural and cultural readings of memory. Structural readings would treat oral and autobiographical representations as texts while recognising that such conventional accounts signify, are produced by, and are understood with reference to, a knowable reality that exists beyond the text. Cultural readings would analyse the ways in which memory was enacted in everyday life as performance and became transcribed with the values and conventions of that life. These cultural features “are not simply the product of individual authorship; they draw on general cultural repertoires, features of language and codes of expression which help determine what may be said, how and to what effect.” (Johnson and Dawson 1982).’ (Timothy Robins, ‘Remembering the Future: the Cultural Study of Memory’, in Theorising culture, An interdisciplinary critique after postmodernism, ed. Barbara Adam and Stuart Allan [London: UCL Press, 1995], 203–204.)



A single conceptual line physically inscribed, materially, upon a surface (a dark material applied to a tonally lighter material or vice versa), which
is at once a picture plane, a window, to speculate within, but is also a material object with character and tendencies, which pushes and pulls
the grain of line, differentiating the line as drawn from the line as first thought, as pure concept. This is not, though, to see the transferal of the
conceptual line as held within the subject’s armoury (a movement from the minds eye to the picture plane) as an outward embodiment of inner
processes, but is to see a negotiation between two countervailing conditions: that of a clearing or silencing we call the subject’s collective
identity and that of the European scopic procedures of line.

Superstudio, grid drawing, c.1969. Indian ink on mylar, 427 × 555 mm. DMC 2098.



A collection of lines appear to sit upon the picture plane, immobile, depthless, singularly and collectively meaningless. Yet lines together are seen to form simple panchronic relations, easily coalescing into corners, overlaps, meetings, convergencies and relations. [1] Such combinatory conventions can rightly be seen as the material play of line, and if pace Catherine Ingraham, ‘we generally cross over, rather than into, the line itself’ [2] (although the A. would seek to do so), this is where the boundary between silence and meaning is situated. Before this threshold, we are presented with the apparent banality of line, as line clumsily creates its own infantile ordinances.


  1. ‘But might there perhaps be in languages laws as understood in the physical and natural sciences? In other words, relations which hold in
    all cases and for ever? In short, is it not possible to study languages from a panchronic point of view? … In linguistics as in chess there are rules which outlast all events. But they are general principles existing independently of concrete facts…’ (Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris [Chicago: Open Court & Illinois: La Salle, 1986], 94.)
  2. ‘The line, in its restless generality, keeps us on the move. It repeatedly confounds the pressing desire for specificity… The problem with writing a history of architectural perspective… is that line itself always escapes scrutiny.’ (Catherine Ingraham, ‘Lines and Linearity: Problems in Architectural Theory’, in, Drawing, Building, Text, ed. Andrea Kahn [New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991], 66–71.)



A single line endowed with a set of discrete contradictory meanings. A denotative act of creating an illusion of a truth, an objectivity to line, as it represents other than itself. ‘…doesn’t a sentence, whatever meaning it releases, subsequent to its utterance… appear to be telling us something simple, literal, primitive: something true, in relation to all the rest (which comes afterwards, on top) is literature?’[1] What might be seen as the beginnings of a system of architectural representation, its simplest constituent significatory mechanisms, need not be seen, as the embodiment of a founding innocence, a common-sensical utilitarian approach to representation, as compared to ‘which comes afterwards’, [2] by way of connotation. A denotative line is able to assume a catalogue of evident and suggested roles (change, repetition, section, space and allusion), which allow line to both establish an analytical flatness upon the picture plane and also to create a passage through the picture plane.

We will have to ask ourselves if, when lines are seen to fall away, back somehow into the conceptual territory, behind the material surface of
the picture plane, this construct is a universal facility, both as a simultaneous place, which is somehow able to exist a-historically and also as a ‘space’ (a practised place), which is similar from subject to subject as it is held within our collective memory?

If we accept that the space of the drawing is neither historically simultaneous or universal, inter-subjectively, we shall need to ask how this construct maintains its hegemony and to what extent it is appropriated/negotiated/produced by class, gender, generational and ethnic cultural practices.


  1. ‘Structurally, the existence of two supposedly different systems – denotation and connotation – enables the text to operate like a game,
    each system referring to the other according to the requirements of a certain illusion. Ideologically, finally, this game has the advantage of
    affording the classic text a certain innocence: of the two systems, denotative and connotative, one turns back on itself and indicates its own existence: the system of denotation; denotation is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so; under this illusion, it is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations (the one which seems both to establish and to close the reading), the superior myth by which the text pretends to return to the nature of language, to language as nature: doesn’t a sentence, whatever meaning it releases, subsequent to its utterance, it would seem, appear to be telling us something simple, literal, primitive: something true, in relation to all the rest (which comes afterwards, on top) is literature?’ (Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller [Paris: Editions du seuil, 1973; this edition, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990], 9.)
  2. ibid.



A combination of lines, each of which denote a number of unambiguous isolated instructions, are seen to form clearly recognisable figures (plan, section, elevation, axonometric, planametric, orthographic, cavalier, detail), which are seen to either describe a suggested object before actuality (drawing – construction – building), a representation, or as the intrinsic mechanisms by which to create architecture, a discrete culturally symbolic practice. This is, though, not to draw a false distinction between the actuality process (the movement of capital) and the aesthetic dimension (the canonical histories of architecture), which clearly are seen professionally and academically to exist in some tension, although they cannot, it would seem, do without each other (a certain tendentious symbiosis thus entails). The realm of the drawing is on the one hand an illusory hermetic mediation, the other, a concise mimetic instrument, and yet paradoxically, the drawing can be read simultaneously both ways.

All such figures (plan, section…), unlike the former denotative line (where a certain inflection/physical economy of the process of inscribing a line exists, thereby instilling certain qualities to the denotative line, such as fine, clumsy, indifferent), are seen to be able to express ideas and desires over and above the figures apparent innocence as plan. This ‘expression’ can be seen to act in two ways: by association, or by connotation, whereby association refers to the ‘system of a subject’, in that a plan is compared to other plans across the field of the known plan, and connotation as a ‘correlation immanent’ in the plan, a polysemy of meaning, spread surreptitiously across the plan. ‘We must, moreover, distinguish between figuration and representation‘, [1] so as to be able to tease out of the drawing both the didactic and sensuous strictures/games apparent to a close reading. Furthermore, each drawing (as in a text) reveals a network of codes (without an order) of the always already present of hegemony, which intersect to create a gloss, a surfeit of meaning, ‘each code is one of the forces that can take over a text’, [2] yet at any one moment within the lineamenta of the drawn, all codes (the didactic, the aesthetic, the ambiguous, the reflexive) are in evidence, and are seen to both erode and support the ‘main’ thesis of the composition. [3]


  1. ‘Figuration is the way in which the erotic body appears (to whatever degree and in whatever form) in the profile of the text. For example the author may appear in the text… but not in the guise of direct biography… or finally: a diagrammatic and not an imitative structure, can reveal itself in the form of a body, split into fetish objects, into erotic sites…. Representation, on the other hand is embarrassed figuration, encumbered with other meanings than that of desire: a space of alibis ( reality, morality, likelihood, readability, truth, etc.)… That is what representation is: when nothing emerges, when nothing leaps out of the frame: of the picture, of the book, the screen).’ (Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller [Paris: Editions du seuil, 1973; this edition, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990], 56–57.)
  2. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (Paris: Editions du seuil, 1973; this edition, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 21.
  3. For an exploration of the antagonistic propensities of the category, see: Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence (Cambridge: Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell, 1991), 9. ‘The other of modern intellect is polysemy, cognitive dissonance, polyvalent definitions, contingency; the overlapping meanings in the world of tidy classifications and filing cabinets.’



Particular arrangements of line (drawings) and line constructions (buildings) are read to varying degrees of intellectual investment (by a
variety of readers) as being culturally symbolic in some way or other, in that line is read as acting as a signifier for ‘something’ outside of itself,
and not simply for itself. These readings are seen as dependent on the perceived (past and present) practices of line, as seen to exist (and yet
contested by various subject groups) within the permissible archives of the already drawn, the already built.

Apart from line configurations that transparently [1] sit upon and hang within the internal space of the picture plane for us all easily to see.
There reside, within all architectural projections, silent and unintentional references to drawings and buildings that are unknown, by virtue of
being considered historically illegitimate, either by happenstance or for reasons of ideological hygiene, yet are seen here to have an associative
relation through the mere act of creating another drawing (a system of dispersion) after another drawing.

Significant line repeats act as an aide-mémoire to enable remembrance of a particular event or condition, which are either publicly or privately associated with this particular ensemble of lines. In this sense the object performs the role of a facilitator, allowing what is seen to be an unimpeded passage to the sedimentary layers of memory, which are somehow insidiously concealed within the very form of the lines. This represents an over inscription of contingent meaning by historically transformative subjects onto the seemingly discrete language of line. In this sense, line remembers itself inclusively.


  1. I am thinking here of line configurations which are easily associated with other drawings, either because the drawings are somewhat indicative of known examples or because the composition uses ‘popular’ compositional devices to seduce the reader.



Analogous to how drawings and buildings are tied into an ever-present network of historically specific cultural associations, we also need to consider how line is able to remember previous line configurations, whereby through the constant repetition of lines particular regularities a
series of identifiable resemblances are seen to occur. To be clear, I refer here to an ideologically hollowed-out notion of repetition by which
the practice of repeating certain sets of line configurations are seen to refer only to the self-referential status of the seriate without the
heavy burden of the more obvious historical associations. This allows a separate line of inquiry that seeks to classify observed resemblances between a series of line configurations penned at divergent moments in time, so as to construct a story of perpetual re-occurrences.

We need to be careful though, I think, to clearly distinguish between panchronic and mnemonic regularities. The panchronic repeat is driven by the simple material fact that line can only assume a set number of figures, and so it would seem inevitable, that such figures (corner, overlap, meeting, convergence, relation) will re-occur during each successive delineation in an apparently endless variety of configurations. This type of repeat is not associative, in that it exemplifies only the free play of a closed system, constantly referring to itself at all times and in all places, in that, if the reader would be so kind as to pick up a pen at this very moment and commence a drawing, the reader will be insidiously drawn to employ one or more of the simple material repeats. In this sense line remembers itself exclusively.


Line as idea

Is there a mnemonic condition, situated between the essentialism of the discrete language of line, which is seen to dumbly repeat itself ad
and the mobilisation of line as a utilitarian vehicle for inter-subjective projection? Yes, this condition can be seen within the mnemonic residue of the inevitably transformative (or just plain amnesic) practice we call history, within which chosen line configurations, are
momentarily endowed as signifying a battery of ideological positions. All such ideational projections are enmeshed within the general drift of
cultural practice, and so will flow in and out of cogency, in accordance to how such positions are mobilised, by a variety of social groups, as a
significant mode of cultural currency. Nevertheless, particular projections, contrary to the above, are seen to become wedded, through successive re-use, at a variety of moments in time, to their particular sign vehicles, which, in this case, is a clearly recognisable figural delineation. How can this be so?

Within the classical division of semiotics, ‘things’ are seen to somehow empty out. Caught up within the carnivalesque play of self-referential
signifiers, what we understand to be the material world, tends to lose a certain efficacy. Concepts are seen to imperialise form, derascinating our working concepts of the ‘real’ into ontological illusions. And yet, within the practice of semiotics, there is a place for thinking the materiality of the floating signifier, as a ‘sign vehicle’ (all ‘signifiers require a real substrate’), [1] which, although it maintains an arbitrary relation to the material world it seeks to represent, it is nevertheless a ‘material element’, with distinct characteristics and regularities, and so is also deserving of being described as a ‘thing’.

Line is also a thing with material qualities and, as such, the question would be: to what extent is line representing itself, as a formation that bridges the opposition between thing and concept, in that line is both signified (its materiality) and signifier (for itself)? This could only be so if we accept that the signifier, as the embodiment of an idea, is inseparable from its own particular materiality as a sign. We might then look at line and memory, not as separate genre, but as anatomically integral. This may lead us to further speculate on the possibility that if line regularities are seen to occur throughout the documented history of architecture, which significantly pair certain ideological constructions with particular line configurations, that such repeats may be the language of line declaring its requisite tendencies. In this sense line remembers itself in/exclusively.


  1. ‘…although the notion of the sign seems wonderfully impalpable and capable of heady volatility, one of its parts remains obtusely rooted in the world of matter. “Signifiers require a real substrate, they are constituted by a concrete “sign vehicle”’ (Eco’s term, Theory of Semiotics 14, summarising Saussure; cf. Course in General Linguistics, 66). ‘Signifieds may belong to the ideal realm, but signifiers are freighted with their own materiality.’ (Richard Terdiman, Past Present, Modernity and the Memory Crisis [Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993], 277.)