Reuse as a Cultural Signifier and Strategy for Design

Open Access
Boccadoro, Paul Andrew
Graduate Program:
Master of Architecture
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
November 17, 2008
Committee Members:
  • Jawaid Haider, Thesis Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • James Theodore Kalsbeek, Thesis Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Darla V Lindberg, Thesis Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • artifact
  • signified
  • signifier
  • signs
  • sign
  • Saussure
  • green design
  • reclamation
  • material
  • reuse
  • artifacts
  • culture
  • patina
The reclamation and reuse of architectural elements is already an occurring and popular practice, especially in terms of green design. However, the technology of green design often greatly overshadows the history, theory, and connection behind reused elements, thus missing out on a potentially powerful aspect of design. This thesis delves into the following question: Is there cultural history and meaning embodied in reused architectural elements, and if so, how can we expound upon their significance in terms of design? The architectural elements reclaimed from older buildings and then reused in other structures act as symbols of their respective cultures. An element’s age, composition, origin, purpose, patina, and appearance tell a story about the people who created and employed it. A reused item acts as an urban artifact that tells a story about a culture rather than just existing as a usable material. As artifacts, these elements serve as links within the larger web of components that work to form and preserve the history of a culture. Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of the sign helps with the understanding of how objects trigger mental associations, and reused elements act as Saussurian signifiers to provide a means of connection to memory, recollection, and culture. So why incorporate reused urban artifacts into building design? The practice provides unique opportunities in which individuals can immediately trigger an association to a building because some of its components are already connected to the people and their past. This allows observers to remain intimately attached to those items which represent them, thus increasing the richness and meaning of a structure built with meaningful elements. An examination of reuse in architecture is developed through the analysis of existing examples of reuse from ancient times through today. Research is done to determine the difference between artifacts and materials, and how Saussure’s theory of the sign can relate to reclaimed elements that are the embodiment of time, history, and culture. These aspects of reuse are then explored through a design project sited in a neighborhood outside Panama City, Panama where there is extensive functional reuse of building materials. The project is then evaluated based on a conceptual framework model. Through the research and investigations presented in this thesis, the idea of reused elements acting as cultural signifiers can be applied to building designs in which both locally reclaimed materials are available and there is a desire for cultural attachment to the building. The development of ties to reused elements is beneficial because it encourages integration of the building into its context on the community level and greatly improves the richness of green design.