Ambiguity

Contributors
Publication Date
April 23, 2020

I don’t really think that a hamburger is a sandwich. I’ve floated this argument only to close friends, people whom I feel I can trust. They have all torn me to pieces. Because despite the many unifying qualities of the sandwich, it’s very definition is a point of contention. While other foods spawn arguments over who made it first and where, or who makes it best and how, the sandwich debate remains stuck on a simpler question: what is it?

Everyone has an opinion about what defines a sandwich, but the truth is that no one really knows. Pointing this out to people, however, does not seem to soothe them. Claiming that in place of any one definition, you have chosen to champion this ambiguity as your guiding philosophy in sandwiches and in life, only seems to anger them more. So this is what I have done. I have decided that my two greatest passions in life, sandwiches and architecture, are actually even better because I don’t know exactly what they are; I only know when they taste good. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that a hamburger is too specific to be a sandwich. Indeed in its very specificity it merits an entire category of its own; the square to the sandwich’s rectangle. But it is precisely this specificity that makes me doubt its status as a ‘sandwich;’ that beautiful word that means everything and nothing.

In 2014, a friend named Evan, who once shared four (4) foot-long Wawa Gobblers with me in one sitting, sent me an article by Marianna Ritchey entitled, “Is This a Sandwich? Teaching the Platonic Dialogues through sandwiches.” In the article, Ritchey chronicles her journey teaching Plato to college students through the eyes of a bellicose friend who insists on dragging his loved ones into the sandwich debate. Her wonderful
conclusion is that sandwiches might remind us to question the ways in which “our social practices, personal relationships, moral judgments, foreign policies, and political beliefs [are] based on foundations of “knowledge” that, when pressed, we can’t even satisfactorily define or demonstrate.” “If we can’t even define ‘sandwich,’” she writes, “how can we possibly presume to define ‘truth,’ or ‘justice,’ or ‘freedom’?”1

I would humbly add architecture to that list. But much like the sandwich, I find promise, not consternation, in the often futile quest to define the term, not because I think I’ll ever really succeed, but because the ambiguity therein reminds me that I don’t know much at all. This isn’t to say that we throw our hands up; this is to say that we should be modest and thoughtful in the face of a complicated task. And it is my hope that each building I design is a better, more empathetic, more nuanced answer to the question than the last. While this may not always be the case, the pursuit is made possible by the space created between each definition of the thing. If we don’t try to define all sandwiches at once, then each sandwich gets to put forth its own worldview. This doesn’t mean that each sandwich itself is ambiguous. In fact, each sandwich should be resolute in its aim to feed, to nourish, to delight. In a world in which I generally believe that architects need to be much more explicit about what we do and for whom we do it, a dash of ambiguity goes a long way.

[1] Dr. M. Ritchey, PhD, “Is This a Sandwich?: Teaching the Platonic Dialogues through Sandiwches,” https://medium.com/snack-lords/is-this-a-sandwich-50b1317eb3f5

Publication Date
April 23, 2020
Volume
5
Number
19
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