Language is an incredible system that is able to encapsulate meaning through the use of words with a known meaning that is shared across the culture. As we learn in school there are eight parts of speech: articles, nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions. Articles define the general or specific item; nouns describe the individual or object that is involved in the action of the sentence; pronouns are place markers for nouns; adjectives clarify and qualify the nouns; verbs describe the action; adverbs modify and describe the verb; conjunctions tie the nouns or parts of a sentence together, and prepositions describe the relations of elements.
Many architects feel the verb is the most important part of speech to express the qualities of a building, but architectural elements tend to be passive and it is the inhabitant or user who creates the action within a space–these are the verbs, while the building and its parts are the nouns. Architecture is acted upon. However, when we look at the collection or assembly of parts that make up architecture and architectural spaces, we begin to understand that the form, layout, and the interrelationship of building elements provide the spirit of the structure. This interrelationship is expressed through the preposition.
In school, teachers often explain prepositions through the use of metaphors, such as all the things a rabbit can do with a log or all the ways a plane can interact with a cloud. These are very spatial, and the choice of preposition informs the spatial relationships of a space, agent, or materials. Therefore, it is arguably the most architectural word, however many or most architects look to the verb first. This work is meant to show that the preposition is a very useful part of speech to study and use, and it can create new forms and relationships just with application, substitution, and variation.
To use the preposition, one must have two or more elements. These elements may have different meanings, be similar, or may have some combination. Then, the application of the preposition either expresses the extant relationship of the elements or delineates what the relationships should or will be. Care should be taken in selecting the preposition to describe an existing condition, however there is a chance to explore and play with the introduction of a preposition to describe the interaction of the elements. To be capricious with the preposition allows a flexibility in spatial construction and it can create new relationships and designs that were never previously explored. So many references in popular and architectural culture use the switching related prepositions. The Beatles mention to be within you and without you. Mies and Wright describe a structure as being of the hill, not on the hill. These examples show that the replacement of the preposition can wholly change the meaning of a sentence or phrase. This is the way in which a simple substitution can completely change a form or spatial relationship.
In addition, the use of variation of prepositions encourages complexity in spatial forms and relationships. To use multiple prepositions to describe the interaction of elements adds nuance and complicated forms. For two walls to be upon and about may confuse or set off the imagination. For a person to be above and amid the trees: what does that mean? Can it mean anything? Can it mean multiple things? Yes. One does not have to accept the use of any combination of prepositions, but it is a good way to brainstorm and improvise when designing. Also, there are different types of meaning: one can be literal or figurative; one can be concrete or abstract. There are options for the designer. So, the architect can use this method after defining the elements and possibly after determining the program, spaces, site, and materials. However, the architect can use this even before these, especially if trying to explore the interplay of spaces and forms.
As a game, the designer can define the elements of play, choose a preposition or prepositions, and a verb or verbs, if desired. Within this set of words, relationships, and actions, there are many possibilities, and each possibility is different. Furthermore, if multiple prepositions are chosen, the designer can choose the order of operation, as well as the combination of operations, if desired. So, A then B can give a very different relationship than B then A. Again, A plus B can give even another relationship than the previous. Once you have more than two prepositions, there are many combinations and variations. There are six combinations of two prepositions and three combinations of three prepositions. This shows that there are many ways to play and be successful at this little game.