In Defense of the Architect’s Lingo

February 6th, 2011

“As we observe the world through concepts, a new view can be provided only if a novel vocabulary is established.”1

I would typically refrain from polemic, especially the written kind. However, I must give in to the temptation of a short post in response to this week’s article by Witold Rybczynski, architecture critic for Slate (you can read it here). The article, as the subtitle—an essay on the ridiculous way architects talk—clearly indicates, sets outs to ridicule architectural jargon as pompous, confusing and unnecessarily affected: “large, made-up words” that architects and designers employ “to make themselves sound smarter than you.” Despite the article’s subtle irony—Rybczynski being an architect and all—I can’t help but take issue with the notion of architectural language being frivolously obscure and inflated. Here is why:

(1) Professional terminology is, by definition, non-inclusive. We wouldn’t dream of asking a nuclear physicist to change his formula—or a playwright to simplify his/her vocabulary—so that we can understand it. A pseudo–democratic call for universally transparent language is misleading and disingenuous. A leveling/flattening of expertise and knowledge should be dreaded, not aimed for.

(2) Despite the claim that using words such as “assemblage” is pretentious and unwarranted, Rybczynski fails to provide single-word equivalents. Instead, he translates it with “putting things together” which, to me, is a bit like dropping “tooth” for “calcified whitish structure.”

(3) When two words exist to describe what appears to be the same thing, check again. ‘Metamorphosis’ does not equal ‘change’; rather, it is a dynamic transformation involving form/structure and resulting in a dramatically altered appearance. That is to say: whether I order an espresso or a double mocha latte with soymilk and caramel will fundamentally affect the nature of my coffee-drinking experience.

(4) An architect’s academic education and professional experience ground and contextualize the words he/she uses. I can’t separate the word ‘metamorphosis’ from Sanford Kwinter’s writings on Kafka, the word ‘tectonic’ from the teachings of Kenneth Frampton or the word ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ from pictures of Marie Sèthe’s room-matching dresses. Taking words out of their cultural context is like eating flour instead of mixing it in the batter: not very helpful, or tasty.

(5) Architects help build the future by bridging imagination and reality. It is therefore no wonder that their words point to the larger, systemic and abstract dimension of things: ‘methodology’ (a system of methods) instead of ‘method’, ‘fenestration’ (all openings in a building’s elevation) instead of ‘window’, ‘materiality’ (the qualities or character of a material as we perceive it) instead of ‘material’, and so forth. Are these words synonims? Not really. Does Rybczynski know? Probably.

The most lucid point in the Slate piece is implied: architects aren’t very popular. I can’t imagine a similar article being written about engineers, medical doctors or mechanics, and the reason is simple: their role is understood as fundamentally valuable; their lingo perceived as a direct consequence of its inherent complexity. Work in the design field, on the other hand, is often associated with fluctuating tastes and a certain lack of necessity.
Architects— not their jargon—are to blame for that. If anything, Rybczynski’s article reminds us that the role society attributes to design professionals depends on their ability to move beyond the obsessions with form, materials, sleekness and seamless construction and to engage the political, social, environmental and technological dimensions of everyday life.

1.Christian Borch, “Foam Architecture: Managing Co-isolated Associations” in Economy and Society (New York: Routledge, 2008)