Sunday, 1 November 2015


The world of appearances

as music?

as sculpture?

as art?

Over the centuries, architecture has looked into other fields of understanding in order to develop theories and concepts on the basis of analogies. To consider it as, say, art; space; perhaps more specifically as sculpture are all propositions that have shaped our ways of seeing things subtle and architectural. The cliché example is to see architecture as music - 'frozen music.' It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who first said that “Music was liquid architecture; Architecture was frozen music.” This perception allows for discussions on matters musical to be re-interpreted and applied to things architectural in order to introduce different concepts that can be useful in developing architectural ideas and strategies, and explanations: and vice versa. It was in the 1970's that the thought that architecture was a language was in vogue. This reference allowed matters semiological to become relevant in architectural debates, introducing understandings of meaning as signs and symbols into the architectural world of forms and history. The idea opened up the world of archaeology and anthropology to architectural interpretations. Cognitive content became relevant, and the idea was given a framework on which to expand matters experiential, an understanding that bought the concept of 'place' into vogue: Aldo van Eyck argued for 'place, not space . . . twin phenomena' (Team 10 Primer).

Dogon village visited by Aldo van Eyck

Fashions change and ideas move on. The language analogy does not have much sway today. Perhaps the interest in matters to do with the fast-moving digital world has distracted us and now takes all of our attention away from other perceptions and intrigues, to give us 'Gehry-styled/Hadid' buildings, a conglomerate of difference and complexity that the electronic world can interpret, define, document and build, as well as record the heroic selfies too. Any debate on meaning in this context is squashed under the startling dominance and significance of appearances. These structures each become a lay-down misère that terminates any discussion on significance, signification and substance. Their brashness defies doubt, demolishes it with the heretic exclamation,'I AM.' Yet there was some real sense in looking to the studies in language to give a broader, a richer understanding of architecture. Even though these analogical parallels might have limits in their application to architectural issues, there are things that can be learned by layering these different understandings onto architectural matters, if only to raise questions and propositions from the new perspective.

The idea of architecture as a language raised matters of meaning and symbolism in culture and form

So it is that the little book by John Humphrys on words can have an 'architectural' connection too. One might argue that this revitalisation of an old idea is out of touch, irrelevant; that the language analogy has given us all that it can. This would be a disappointing response. Even if one might agree with this position in part, the proposal that makes more sense is the one that approaches the world with an open mind, prepared to look at anything, new, old and/or apparently irrelevant in order to learn more and understand things from and through a richer tapestry of interpretation. What might the Humphrys' book reveal? There are surprises if we want to consider the implications on architecture when seen as a language.

Madan mudhif, Iraq

John Humphrys Beyond Words  How Language Reveals The Way We Live Now  Hodder and Stoughton. Great Britain, 2006

Aldo van Eyck's sketch for the community centre/church at Driebergen, Utrecht, 1963-1964

So, with great respect to Professor Crystal, intelligibility is not the only criterion by which our common language should be judged. It should also make us feel at home in a shared world and not alienated from those with whom we are supposed to be sharing it. But there are good reasons to wonder whether, in the way we communicate with each other, we do still share a common world and, if so, how long we shall go on doing so.

p. 38
They are not saying the language must never change, must always remain as they remember it in some mythical golden age. They know it must adapt to changing tines as it always has. But they do not want to feel alienated in the public space that, at some time or other, we all occupy. They are entitled not to be offended by semi-literate rubbish.

p. 39
Grammar is not style and style is not grammar.
A. A. Gill, the brilliant television critic of The Sunday Times, says there were never any rules, only conventions and habits.

p. 40
Gill wrote: The language doesn't belong to Lynne Truss, Julian Fellows, Fowler, the BBC or the Queen. It belongs to everyone who has something interesting to say.

p. 40
. . . language is at its best when there is no room for ambiguity and misunderstanding, when it is clear and simple and direct. Which is, of course, precisely why we have the rules, the conventions and the habits. And long may they be observed.

p. 41.
Bring back grammar!

p. 46.
Of course, there has always been hype. It has been with us since the birth of the modern advertising and marketing industry: a low-level noise to which we have become so accustomed we pay it barely any attention. What is different now is that it has moved beyond the world of the hucksters who are obviously trying to sell us something and has become pervasive. Hence the use of hype in the academic world. It has also become so much more . . . well . . . hyper. Maybe that's inevitable. The more of it there is, the more we become inured to it and the higher they have to raise the bar.

We don't go shopping any longer. We have an 'experience'.

p. 48-49
Here's a job advertisement that appeared in the spring of 2006. The bold heading read:
Create the Words to Communicate Britain's Health Policy. The job was as Patricia Hewett's speechwriter. It may seem a touch pedantic to complain that a speechwriter does not 'create' words but uses existing ones to create a speech, but the phrase create the words needs looking at. It implies that the words will not have the usual relationship to what they're supposed to describe. In other words, what is really needed is the ability to hype. It goes on:
In this pivotal role, you will draft speeches for the Secretary of State . . . 'Pivotal' is a wonderful word and itself is full of hype. It suggests that the world revolves around you, that nothing can happen unless you are at the centre of things. That the order 'pivotal' brings to mind spin is surely coincidental.

p. 50.
The work of a real craftsman speaks for itself - no hype needed.

p. 59
Hype may often seem just funny, even preposterous. But it colours a large part of the world we're living in and, for all its crudeness, subtly changes its nature.

p. 83
Celebrity life may be a fantasy but it's the dominant fantasy of our times.

p. 86-87
What if people could be persuaded to be less impressed by underlying realities and start instead to think what brand names might suggest? That would give one scope for the brand to conjure up all sorts of imaginary associations. Then we would start paying much more attention to these ephemeral but attractive associations than to dreary old reality. Before long we would concentrate solely on appearances and forget all about realities. Eventually we might even come to believe that appearance was reality. Then brand would have ceased to be the dull slave of reality, authenticating that something was really what it seemed to be, and would have become the gadfly king of virtual reality, joking that anything could be anything, really.

Branding is now the art of getting people to think what something might be rather than what it necessarily is. It's about the manipulation of the virtual reality in which so many live. The manipulators include anyone with an interest in what we might think of them - not just big companies with products to sell but political parties with votes to win, design gurus with clients to attract - anyone, in other words, acting in some kind of market. They all have an interest in controlling their appearance to make us believe it is the reality.

. . . in our post-modern world where appearance is accepted as reality . . .

p. 88-89
Neil Lawson, the chairman of the left-wing pressure group Compass, says we were once known by what we produced but now we judge ourselves and others by what we consume. It represents the triumph of the marketing men.

p. 160.
The sociologist Richard Sennett has captured the problem we face: In place of craftsmanship, modern culture advances an idea of meritocracy which celebrates potential ability rather than past achievement.

p. 204
It was a utopia forecast by the economist John Maynard Keynes: There will come a time when we've solved the economic problems - at which point we shall be faced with the permanent problems of mankind: how to live wisely, agreeably and well.

p. 215
Changing something's name changes how we think of it.

It is all food for thought. We need the wisdom of intelligible, conventional, interesting buildings rather than the extreme hype of exceptional ones.

Dogon village

Dogon huts

A world where even the basket holds meaning: square base/circular top: earth/cosmos in one item

Borobudur, Indonesia

Courtyard of Ksar Mourabtine, Tunisia

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