Skip to content

The Death of Words in Architecture

April 5, 2013

For boomer architects of my age, it’s pretty boring to again lament the “good old days” when Mylar, Letraset, and Diazo printing existed.

However, some laments don’t fall into the “curmudgeon” category, as there are negative aspects to almost every evolution. And some changes have collateral damage that brings into question the value of those changes.

Clearly, architecture is now digital. Back in the day, one could make a case that it was personal: A human hand, eye-to-eye contact, and the old (white) boys’ network had as much to do with getting a building built as did whatever brilliance the designer exhibited.

Our current era—where data has replaced craft, where “transfer” has no physical delivery, and where “conferencing” has eliminated meetings—has permanently changed designing and building buildings. There is no “hand” any more, save subtle distinctions we create within the parameters of any given software.

We are at the benefit (and peril) of the Send command. We have gone from needing telephone lines for faxing to merely finding some way to access any given “cloud.”

These are not brilliant insights or middle-aged sour grapes. These changes accurately describe a condition that has permanently tilted our entire culture. We are bathed in instant, universal translation in all things into a bland architectural Esperanto. Remember when “vernacular” was a word used in criticism? It is now a world where the media that is used to transfer information is trending toward one untouchable lens: cyberspace. With the passing ofNewsweek and the transitioning of so many shelter magazines into diminished states of cyber and vestigial print status, we are trending toward no physical media for touching information.

The upside is that who you are means less and less, and what you have to say is unfiltered. It means that a 22-year-old intern has the same level of superficial gravitas as a 67-year-old FAIA member. Everyone can access a platform somewhere. Everyone’s voice sounds the same on a digital screen.

Anyone can access any information any time of any day. There is no more old boys’ club. Today, architects use books much like boys who came of age “reading” Playboy, swearing there are “great articles” but in reality living the truth that a picture is worth a lot of ignored words.

Back in the day, words mattered. Those same white males (with a few white females) used words as a way to express architecture, not only to other architects but also to the rest of the world. Now, instantaneous translation of elaborate, technically precise, and artfully evocative images are used to make a word-free Zaha Hadid-like aesthetic as profound as a Vitruvian thesis.

I find that something is lost in this translation, especially given the fact that a generation ago, a few books changed the profession of architecture.

David Handlin’s book, The American Home, has been at the core of my own personal practice, but, in truth, it has been used by many architects as the perfect prototype to embody and comment on how culture views buildings and how designers and architects think.

When I read The Place of Houses by Charles Moore, Gerald Allen, and Donlyn Lyndon in the mid-1970s, I was an architecture student at the whitest of white schools: Cornell University. As such, we were far more used to “reading” Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture than any book that talked about anything American and of our era.

The Place of Houses’ direct and personal connection to the American home-building ethic, written not so much for architects but for people thinking about building a home, was almost the perfect blend of simple language and a guileless aesthetic. The words at the beginning of its “Yours” questionnaire leapt off the page and changed my professional life forever:

“Care is the natural enemy of stereotype, and stereotype of care.”

In Mid-Century Modernist architecture schools such as Cornell, we created and were lauded for abstract representations of stereotypical Modern buildings. So those words challenged me, personally, to realize that mimicking stereotypes may leverage an education, but it doesn’t make you think.

Those words had meaning.

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton is a wonderful group of essays about the meaning of homes in people’s lives, and Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000 is on point, insightful, and inspirational writing about residential life.

These authors are writers, not designers in the trenches of creating buildings. The authors’ intent is not about design but its appreciation and use. They write from a distanced perspective, not unlike the sports commentator who has never picked up a ball or a bat. Clearly, the results of architecture can be analyzed by anyone, but the sharp prescriptive insights about creating architecture seem to have vanished in recent decades. Furthermore, the power of The Place of Houses and other writings of the pre-cyber era were often enhanced because they were the words of those who walk the talk: architects.

My fear is that in our present world of architecture, almost 40 years after the creation of The Place of Houses, words have lost the power they once had for architects.

When Vincent Scully wrote The Shingle Style Today, or The Historian’s Revenge, (dedicated to Louis I. Kahn), people paid attention. The book crystallized a lecture he had given in 1973 at Columbia University, a lecture that had looked back almost 100 years to a type of architecture that had resonance with other architects actively practicing and teaching at the time. Scully did what architectural historians do: He saw through pretense, pastiche, and culture to understand what the intentions of designers were, in history and in the contemporary moment.

Scully’s extraordinary passion, knowledge, and transcendent vision enabled mushy-headed students to make connections, via his words, that they would not have without them. Can you seriously imagine reading the following paragraph in any of today’s “writings” about architecture?

“It can be no accident that the impulses which created the new Shingle Style caught fire when they did—at a time when so many Americans, especially the young, were seeking to escape from city and suburb alike in order to dig back down to the roots of American decency once more. If, unlike their spiritual ancestors of the nineteenth century, the best of them have tempered romanticism with irony, they were still reacting like them to the brutal realities of urbanism and government during a particularly ugly epoch. They too were trying to tap the resources of the American spirit and to release its soul; and indeed the ‘soul of the Workman,’ the genius of the place, has clearly responded to them, if only by a little. So invoked, it may well stand forth again and again in difficult times; to renew us, as in 1876 and the 1970s, in times of shame.”

In one paragraph, Scully combines the freshest of contemporary popular conceits—the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s—with the now politically incorrect national hubris of American exceptionalism and melds these two nonaesthetic realities to define an aesthetic reality.

With one sweep of words, he connects elements that have now been banished from popular architectural criticism. Today there are fine-arts critiques of timeless forms or cultureless effects that render words completely subordinated to images.

To some extent, Scully’s words dovetailed with other words—the writings of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour crystallized in Learning from Las Vegas, which extended a 1965 article in Yale’s Perspecta magazine, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.” These hip and happening authors were younger than Scully. They used expressions of op and pop art in their version of connecting contemporary American culture to fine-arts architecture.

In using fine-arts tools of cartoons, collages, and stylized/symbolized word creation, these children of the 1960s worked beyond words, but, in truth, words were at the core of what their mission was—to show that there was a different way of thinking about design (versus our present focus on design as a self-referential art that seems diminished by verbal description).

Can you imagine any book, article, or lecture from today’s academy that uses the following quotations and language, as these from Learning from Las Vegas?
“Not innovating willfulness but reverence for the archetype.”
—Herman Melville

“Incessant new beginnings lead to sterility.”
—Wallace Stevens

“I like boring things.”
—Andy Warhol

“To make the case for a new but old direction in architecture, we shall use some perhaps indiscreet comparisons to show what we are for and what we are against and ultimately to justify our own architecture. When architects talk or write, they philosophize almost solely to justify their own work, and this apologia will be no different. Our argument depends on comparisons, because it is simple to the point of banality. It needs contrast to point it up. We shall use, somewhat undiplomatically, some of the works of leading architects today as contrast and context.”

In rereading this passage from Learning from Las Vegas today, it is clear that using words to inspire and evolve attitudes and insights in architecture is largely a dead art. Perhaps it’s because the academy and the professional press essentially talk to themselves in words that they can understand and about things that they care about. Our digital world fosters and rewards the sorting of ideas into far-flung corners of vested interest. It’s only natural that architects follow suit.

Tom Wolfe is not an architect. He is someone who intentionally surfs the waves of “cool.” HisFrom Bauhaus to Our House, written in 1981, is perhaps the coda for a time when words were used to reflect and enrich aesthetics goosing architects with provocative insights.

From Bauhaus to Our House was quite short—barely more than 100 small pages. Today, the book seems a perspective frozen in time, a time that was not of the innocent ’60s or the incendiary ’70s, but of the ’80s, where a cynical willingness to dazzle and be dazzled was captured perfectly in Wolfe’s prose:

“O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today? I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse. Not even the school commissioners, who commissioned it and approved the plans, can figure out how it happened. The main thing is to try to avoid having to explain it to the parents.”

Wolfe’s heady commentary not only displays an incredible facility at making connections between humans and movements and structures but also perfectly evokes the idea that human beings not only create buildings but also use them.

Wolfe’s words animate a culture that either has buildings that reflect it (which he passionately desires) or gives it the finger (which he calls out with delightful viciousness).

When was the last time any of us read an outrageous polemic that was just on point enough to make us laugh or get very angry? When was the last time any of us read anything about architecture that made us think and gave us an insight into the way someone else designed buildings?

Like most generations, but perhaps exquisitely so, the boomer generation thinks all relevant culture started and will end with our generation. As such, in our heyday (the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s), we were perfectly primed for words that use historic perspective to validate our “new” take on the playpen of architecture.

It could be said that Christopher Alexander’s books—A Pattern Language, The Timeless Way of Building—had more impact on the fundamental rethinking of architectural theory that gurgled up in the ’60s (and seemingly suffered crib death in the ’90s) than the books that I have cited. But Alexander’s language was more than opaque; it was self-servingly convoluted, almost mystical, in its opacity.

For Moore, Scully, Venturi, et al, popular culture was at the core of their focus, so accessible language was an essential means to reflect their insights. Without that point of view, buildings lost (and lose) their ability to communicate with many more than architects and their devoted patrons.

Popular writing either communicates or it doesn’t sell. And when writing doesn’t sell, it goes unheard. When architecture speaks to itself, it becomes silent to the vast majority of those who could have been changed by its presence. The connection between communication possible with words and buildings is, to me, a lost art, despite my best efforts.

View the published article in Architecture Boston:  The Death of Words in Architecture


410 Morehouse Road, Easton, Connecticut, or, Modern Living by August Darrow Doty

The Decline of Architecture Magazines by Witold Rybczynski

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Debbie permalink
    June 7, 2013 7:53 am

    It’s not lost if you are doing it.
    Btw, love the Tom Wolfe quote.


  1. Welcome to Saved by Design! | Saved By Design

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: