Ministry of Silly Talks
Growing up I loved watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, an episodic sci-fi space romp full of ponderous interstellar diplomacy in which high social ideals and quick thinking triumphed over hot-tempered simpletons and despotic galactic warlords. One of my favorite aspects was the ludicrous treknobabble, the pseudoscientific terms spouted off to justify the cheesy effects and deus ex machina plot twists. When things inevitably went sideways aboard the starship Enterprise, a last-minute “reverse tachyon pulse” or “realignment of the quantum isotropic stabilizers” could always be relied on to save the day. My fascination with jargon, terminology, and linguistic absurdities has only gotten worse in architecture school, a veritable jargonista’s playground. Is your review going poorly? Do you need to sound smart? Does your project “interrogate the place making capacity of the juxtaposition of vernacular forms with idiosyncratic insertions”? Architects are linguistic magpies that can’t resist a shiny four or five syllable word or something with a Latin vintage and a “i-t-i-o-n” finish.
This is not a screed against technical language and verbosity; I love the surgical specificity that technical terminology possesses. Technical language is extremely important for professionals to convey competence and concisely describe complex concepts. Lawyers employ phrases like stare decisis and habeas corpus to refer to legal precepts; doctors use technical terms like contusion, hemorrhagic, or laceration to describe types of wounds; and mechanics use phrases like transmission plug flush or tie-rod cylinder realignment to charge people copious sums of money.
Language has always had the power to assert dominance, display expertise, and separate class. Coded patterns of speech, like friend of Dorothy, can be a protective shield to covertly identify with a group while less savory language can be wielded like cudgel to discriminate; using certain words allows groups to differentiate between members and outsiders. Linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure have studied the power of words and their ability to shape our understanding at a subconscious level. Architectural theory has borrowed heavily from these semiotic and etymological studies to examine the roots of the verbal building blocks that comprise our understanding of space, from our fascination with works of the not-so-cryptofascist Heidegger to those of the antifascist child of the war Umberto Eco. The notion that the words we use subconsciously define our perception and even conception of space, place, building, dwelling, etc. has fascinated many theoreticians and padded the word count of innumerable 15 page theory papers (double spaced with bibliography).
Despite all of the etymological navel-gazing that Architectural practitioners and students partake in, we remain entirely uncritical toward our own jargonistic inheritance. For example, we throw around words like parti, poche, praxis, or palimpsest, without batting an eye. We discuss “shaking up” and “reinventing” the critique structure, yet escaping its confines is impossible as long as we continue to define our reviews through the lens of critique, a tradition from Colonial Era European academies. Much of our architectural terminology was developed hundreds of years ago to describe Western, Eurocentric concepts and help reinforce notions of architectural hegemony from our dismally racist past. Other architectural linguistic traditions are worth examining, but here we are still living in the halls of the École 300 years later. For a generation so eager and hungry to interrogate our academic and political institutions, we seem very content to perpetuate ideas of “indigenous vernacular,” “primitive hut,” and to romanticize “ruins” as sublime without self-reflection. Even the notion of the romantic is extremely fraught, inexorably binding our notions of beauty to Latin ideals. I am not asking us to burn our Heidegger texts, as the irony would be too great even for the hipsters among us, but we should couch our discussion of European architectural theory with important supporting details, like the fact that Heidegger was a Nazi.
As we approach final reviews, we should consider verbal presentation as part of our representation repertoire; each technical term we employ should be as carefully considered and explained as every model, drawing, and diagram we present. The idiomatic terms of architecture usually clutter critiques, strewn in between half-baked models and hastily printed drawings, written at the last minute to tie together our disparate forms of representation. At risk of tilting at windmills, I would like to suggest that we can become better designers without bogging down our projects with jargon; that using clear and concise language, easily understood by both professional architects and casual observers, is an active benefit to our discourse. We can become better designers by not remaining beholden to a linguistic legacy of colonialism and discrimination.