Stamp Collecting

Publication Date
January 31, 2018


Ernest Rutherford, pioneer of nuclear physics, is reported to have claimed that “all science is either physics or stamp collecting.” While such a statement is unlikely to have helped Rutherford befriend many chemists or biologists, it reveals an intriguing division. Physics is deemed profound, fundamental, absolute; its study is not contingent upon another body of knowledge. The other sciences have to suffice with labelling and categorising at scales reliant on physics.

Chemistry turns to physics for its underlying theoretical support, and in turn holds aloft the understanding of biology. There is an apparent hierarchy, but its direction is debatable: is greatest value assigned to the sought-after fundamental purity of physics (as for Rutherford), or does it go to the quest to assess and decode the seemingly infinite complexity of the biological world?

It is possible a student architectural publication is not a suitable place to attempt to answer such a question … particularly in an issue nominally focused on Nomenclature. Yet, as much as the sciences are piled atop one another in an ever-shifting pyramid of theoretical sand, their reliance on nomenclature should not go unappreciated. Most notable here is the biological naming of living entities; a highly ordered classification based on observed similarities and nuanced differences. Known as binomial nomenclature, these terms consist of a genus (e.g. HomoTyrannosaurus, Psychrolutes) and a species (e.g. sapiens, rex, marcidus). Within the genus, species have many commonalities; they belong to the same family but display unique features.

Architecture (when built) acts in much the same way. We classify notable buildings almost universally by a typological genus, and a unique identifier (usually either the location, client, or dedicatee). These are rarely poetic: Villa Savoye, Great Wall of China, Seattle Public Library, Kaufmann House, Stockholm City Library, Therme Vals, Sydney Opera House, Chrysler Building, St Peter’s Cathedral, Eiffel Tower, Guggenheim Bilbao, Rudolph Hall… Of course, there are the occasional projects which attain more descriptive names. The fortunate Mr. Kaufmann’s other residence of course becomes Fallingwater; Milan receives a Bosco Verticale (vertical forest); and London a Shard.

Though originally a disparaging term for the London Bridge Tower, The Shard became the building’s accepted name. London has, it must be said, a motley crew of descriptively known towers: The Gherkin, The Cheesegrater, The Walkie-Talkie. Such names, one suspects, are a disappointment to their respective designers. For those on the street, however, to name buildings based on their visual resemblance is perhaps unsurprising. Name follows form.

In the professional world, the naming of projects is generally low priority. Buildings tend to be titled in the binomial, categorical way. The name is a brief analysis of what it is, and where it is or whom it is for. This seems a preferable fate to being branded by the public (or worse, the client’s marketing department). In the wake of London’s unflattering nicknaming, form now seems to follow name. Current additions to the skyline have been sold and built with names such as The Scalpel. Great architecture is not defined by its name. The experience of Fallingwater would be undiminished were it known as Kaufmann House I, or simply 1491 Mill Run Road.

Yet, as students we feel compelled to litter our drawings and presentations with quirky, unique, memorable names. There is often a desire to challenge the lexicon as much as the design prompt. Established names for building types and spaces offer both typological associations which can fill out gaps in an argument (bridges unoffered by new terminology), and cultural baggage. In this light, novel nomenclature frees one of a certain level of typecasting; we believe we can find some uncharted, fundamentally new architectural territory by looking beyond the restrictions of given names and categories. We aspire to being physicists: discoverers of fundamental typologies. By necessity, we invent new descriptors for our discoveries. Our discoveries might not break down the walls of categorisation however. Your _Equidependent Wisdom Hub _is still critiqued as a school; your striking and intelligently titled Prolate Spheroid Tower is called Gherkin 2 (or worse) by the jury; and nobody understands what your Arpakip is, or how it relates to your central Parvois

As students we seem drawn to discover what is between the cracks of typological categorisation; we act as physicists searching for missing elements of fundamental truth. In reality, perhaps architecture is actually stamp collecting: we create collages based on an already established foundation, then name them based on their type and an identifier. A stamp collection is not necessarily uninteresting. Perhaps physics is not at the top of the hierarchy.

Publication Date
January 31, 2018
Graphic Designers
Web Editors
365 words
Ray Wu
362 words