Ask an architect about a city’s development and he or she might tell you: “Interrogating the hermeneutic potentiality of the urban fabric’s boundary conditions is the key to intervening in the city’s morphology. The phenomenological nature of a building and its neighborhood is enhanced by ludic acts of horizontality.” Or, as one noted thinker once asked, “What do architects do when faced with the anthropocentric fabrication of the city?”
What a paradigmatic question, don’t you think? Now, if you’re scratching your head because these words present a so-called “problematic,” you have every right. For one, problematic is an adjective (not a noun). And there seems to be a disconnection (not just a disconnect) between how some architects talk about architecture and what they mean to say.
Archispeak, archibabble, and talkitecture represent a language that nascent minds pick up in architecture school and carry around for some time. But it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, architects borrow words (and their concepts) from literary criticism, biology, the social sciences, and some other non-architectural disciplines to enrich their thinking about a design problem. On the other hand, those words may obscure the architect’s meaning when they attempt to turn around and explain their solution to that problem to someone else.
“I think you can classify these kinds of words into two categories,” says David Rifkind, an associate professor of architecture at Florida International University. “There are the concept words like ‘parasite’ or ‘palimpsest,’ which architects use to describe the project itself. Then there are smarty-pants words that you’ll hear in a design critique, like ‘intangible’ or ‘resistance,’ which critics will have heard a couple of times and throw out without ever explaining what they mean.”
Rifkind is not a cranky anti-intellectual by any stretch. Besides being a designer who, with his wife and partner, Holly Zickler, just completed their own nearly net-zero home in Miami, he’s a Graham Foundation grantee and award-winning author (of The Battle for Modernism: Quadrante and the Politicization of Architectural Discourse in Fascist Italy) who holds a doctorate in architectural history from Columbia University. He insists, however, that architects and students must be critical—as in analytical and judicious—about language fads if they’re going to communicate effectively as designers.
“Today’s big concept words are ‘porosity,’ which makes me look for the nearest operable window from which to throw myself when I hear it, and ‘condition’—as in ‘field condition.’ I always wonder, ‘Did that person mean to say flat?’ ” says Rifkind. “There are also variations on the theme, such as ‘overhead condition.’ And I want to say to them, ‘You know that’s a ceiling, right?’ ”
It’s a problem of clarity, in other words, not a problem of intent. But if the meaning of what you’re trying to convey is obfuscated, you might as well be speaking in tongues.
For example, let’s look at a word like “dialectic,” used to describe two ideas (or even building elements) that are opposed, but when considered together, achieve a synthesis. It’s a word that’s had a long run in architecture circles and schools from the early 1990s to the present day owing to its utility in elevating any design discussion. In fact, just by dropping dialectic into your analysis of, say, James Stirling’s use of classical proportion in relation to architectural regionalism, you can subtly indicate to your pitiable companion that you’re totally down with Plato, Georg Hegel, and Kenneth Frampton in one fell swoop. Pretty great, right?
But neither Frampton nor Hegel (much less Plato) is going to help you pass your Architect Registration Exam.
And whether you’re hanging a shingle or joining a firm, your clients will wonder if you’re feeling feverish when you explain that your design for their new mixed-use development will exist in a dialectical relationship to the landscape. Or when you explain that your joint detail for their photovoltaic array is a dialectical moment that resolves a planar incommensurability.
“The biggest problem I think architects have when talking to civilians is that we use metaphorical terms to describe the quality of a project, such as saying that a building is ‘dynamic’ or that two objects are having a ‘conversation’ in space,” Rifkind says.
“We take those ideas for granted, because they are useful to us in our design thinking sometimes, but they often strike regular people as odd, at least at first. Architects tend to see a bigger picture about how a project can transform the world outside the boundaries of a given site or program, but clients tend not to see that as valuable or desirable,” Rifkind says.
Bob Borson, AIA, an architect and writer based in Texas, maintains a blog called “Life of an Architect,” for which he’s written several installments of “Architect Bingo,” containing all of the words that come out of architects’ mouths that, he says, could be replaced by “a simpler and more widely known word.”
“I always thought that intentionally using overly specific and obscure words meant that you were a bad communicator,” Borson says. “Unfortunately, I think most architects have come to the exact opposite conclusion—that somehow, through their ability to use difficult and unfamiliar trade-specific words, this makes them a better communicator.”
Architect Bingo includes such oft-used terms as “datum,” “fenestration,” and “curvilinear.” These are all—as Borson points out—more precise and trade-specific terms than others such as dialectic or morphology, which are not native to architecture at all.
But the effect of using words from either category is the same. Dropping a line like “Oh yes, well, the fenestration creates a datum along the façade against which we can pin the curvilinear Möbius strip that I’ve excavated from the original parti” won’t help you achieve a level of clarity with non-architects.
“Your prime interlocutors are your professional peers,” says Drew Armstrong, Assoc. AIA, “and communication is the most important aspect of a firm’s daily operation.”
Armstrong, who currently teaches architectural history and theory at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is director of the undergraduate architectural studies program, trains students to see that there are many paths into the profession and many more kinds of people in the design process than just architects—clients, certainly, but also engineers, investors, contractors, technicians, and community members.
“The process has multiple stakeholders—a fact that isn’t new but one that everyone seems to recognize readily today, which is a good thing. Teaching students to be clear in their ideas will only help them be good communicators later,” Armstrong says. “When students—and architects, generally—go off the rails and have trouble communicating through their specialized language is when they lose sight of the multilateral practice of architecture.”