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April 12, 2014

Language is an inspiration and a trap.

Like music, the words we use are as confused in their expression as we are in our motives for using them – written or spoken, they are received with every ounce of prejudice we have baked in our brains.

A Columbia Provost “air quotes” academic jargon to break the ice with a rapt audience of newly accepted MSW students (including my son). She was hoping to show her humanity by mocking the edu-speak these best and brightest had been bathed in for the last few hours. But most of these students do not get the joke and dead pan her schtick.

What you say or write is only one half of the equation – everything said is heard by other humans, who hear every word with a different filter of expectation. David Brooks writes a 600 word piece on the flip side of our obsession with happiness – and is pummeled for hidden agendas, hackery, previous columns and just general anger at him.

No matter how words are heard, having a common language does not prevent obscurity. Proprietary information is inherently off-putting – lawyers, doctors, academicians routinely rely on professionally correct/culturally obtuse words to give their conclusions cover against common sense.

Repeating the same words over and over makes their sound a fact independent of their content. This is how billionaires burn money during elections.

Mindless mangling the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s Prayer turns distilled meaning into rote sounds.

Any number of IRS, Federal Reserve, and economics professors have turned dollars and cents into philosophical arguendo fodder.

When deeply personal sensibilities are proffered in the poetics of prose, things can convey a darkside for those who are unmoved by their lyric intent. Thomas Cranmer’s 16th century words in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.”  touch me like few other assembled phrases. But their deep humility and supplication was seen to be so demeaning for proper self-esteem maintenance in 1979 that the politically correct lexicon safely vaporized them for a new version of the same service.

But architects have no editing authority to protect our hubristic megalomania from full-on self-parodying absurdity. Patrik Schumacher is a front man for the world’s hottest starchitect: Zaha Hadid. Love it or hate it, their work has a POV. Simply put, Form Uber Alles: shape IS meaning: content and context are foils to abstracted shapes and the incidental spaces they define.

I find this aesthetic to be laughably self-serving and simple-minded – that’s just me – and I am clearly in archi-world’s minority view, a view largely unspoken as it might mean defending abstraction: which is as rigorous as an intellectual treatise defending your favorite color.

But my making light of the lite-ness of the Form Uber Alles doo-loop is just me. But when the designer rises to object to another “take” on architecture, in this case the Pritzker Prize being awarded to Shigeru Ban, a Japanses architect, who, like me, does a lot of humanitarian work, the words Schumacher uses deliciously unveil the narcissistic vapidity any architect can fall prey to: but when culture, context or client is seen as sad distortions of architecture, the tone deaf arrogance is priceless:

“Architects are in charge of the form of the built environment, not its content…We need to grasp this and run with this despite all the (ultimately conservative) moralizing political correctness that is trying to paralyse us with bad conscience and arrest our explorations if we cannot instantly demonstrate a manifest tangible benefit for the poor – as if the delivery of social justice is the architect’s competency.”

One baby step deeper, and when you read more of the Starchitect’s words, the ideas are laid independent of the sculpture his firm massages into consensual ooze with the camera:

“We need to understand how new forms can make a difference for the progress of world civilisation. I believe today this implies the intensification of communicative interaction with a heightened sense of being connected within a complex, variegated spatial order where all spaces resonate and communicate with each other via associative logics.”

Meaning: “my architecture is the progress of world civilization”…while “content” is not part of what architects should deal with…

Words always have meaning – intentional or by default: when intentionally obscuring, deadened by rote or fear, or heard with a frenzy that crib kills thoughtfulness, language is a blunt instrument for our own shallow intellectual laziness. Words do not die: they hang in space, they cannot be wished away, especially in cyberland.

We may try to write our own rulebook so we can never lose the games we play, but the infinite competing voices of the internet ultimately pre-empts propaganda from its swamping override of other attitudes: with a byproduct of the screaming hive allowing benign prose to elliptically become benighted by those who loath the writer, a la Brooks.

But when genuinely held values are offered up without apology as truths they have a simple bar to clear: are they valid in the world beyond the speaker’s?

Architecture has seen practitioners endlessly redefine what makes legitimate or innovative buildings: but inside baseball rationalizations do not hold water beyond buildings if they are blissfully contemptuous of what the rest of experience in the buildings the practitioner creates.

And So It Goes.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2014 3:27 am

    Can you tell us more about this? I’d love
    to find out more details.


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