Reading about the Enzo Ferrari Museum—the last design by Future Systems' Jan Kaplický—got me reading about blobitecture. Then reading about blobitecture led me to reading about "blobitecture," the neologism for a certain style of biomorphic architecture, and a term that could describe much of Future Systems' work. The word seems to carry with it a negative referendum: It is both a description of an approach to design and a condemnation of that approach, in a way that "biomorphism" or "blob architecture"—or many other words you could use to describe Future Systems's work—is not.
So where did "blobitecture" come from? It did not get its start in the Czech press, though the form's patron, Kaplický, who died in 2009, was Czech-born. A LexisNexis search shows the first print appearance of "blobitecture" in the context of architecture came in 2002, in the masterful (and much-missed) "On Language" column, which William Safire penned for The New York Times Magazine for more than 30 years. On Dec. 1, 2002, in a column titled "Defenestration," Safire speared blobitecture. But first, he tackled a word with a much longer Czech history.
The 1968 murder of Czech patriot Jan Masaryk in Prague—still an open mystery—marked the first appearance of the word "defenestration" in The New York Times. The murder distantly echoed the notorious Second Defenestration of Prague, an incident in 1618 that launched the Thirty Years' War. That episode was only the second murder-by-window exit to take place at the Hradschin Palace, or Prague Castle; the First Defenestration took place in 1419.
Having thoroughly examined a word that is every bit as Czech as "pilsner," Safire then turned to its root context, in architecture. He wastes little time pivoting to the role of architecture in word coinage. "This offers the lexicographer a fenestration of opportunity: let us examine the high-rising jargon that architects and designers call, self-mockingly, talkitecture or archispeak," Safire writes. The next 700 words in his column represent a savage takedown of said archispeak. (All of which, Safire would be sad but probably unsurprised to discover, persist today.)
Safire quotes ARCHITECT contributor Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA, on the pitfalls of architecture's argot. "In teaching architecture, I see students adopt the jargon because it makes them feel part of the club, though people who use talkitecture more often talk about their work than do it," Fisher says. "Teaching writing, I make them unlearn the jargon. You wouldn't use a word like blobitecture in your writing."
But others already had. In 2002, the same year that Safire's column appeared, one theater critic deployed "blobitecture" in a blurb for The New York Times to describe a slide used for a stage set. And a Times food writer used "blobitecture," seemingly erroneously, to describe East Village architecture while previewing two new restaurants, a year earlier and also in a short blurb. Safire, though, was the first at the Times to truly fix the word in print, using his bully pulpit to authorize "blobitecture"—a word he admired, because it had a "pejorative ring to it."
Safire credits Greg Lynn (of Greg Lynn FORM) with coining in 1995 the term "blob architecture," the ostensibly more-polite description from which "blobitecture" is cribbed. Somewhere between Lynn and Fisher, "blobitecture" gained cachet in architectural circles, and spread from there. Lynn and Safire were on opposite faces of the new coinage. "[I]n due time, the blob architects will discover a new form of beauty and elegance in the voluptuous, rhythmic and undulating forms of the differential calculus," Lynn told Safire. "The envelope-pushing architect has seen his term shortened to blobitecture," Safire responded.
I'm with Richard Ingersoll, whom I think would hold with Lynn. Projects such as the Enzo Ferrari Museum show that Kaplický and blobitecture don't need any redeeming. Let's keep blobitecture. The pejorative connotation, though, we can toss out the window.
Selfridges, in Birmingham, UK, designed by Future Systems. Image by Wojtek Gurak used with permission via a Creative Commons licence.