Architecture’s deadly lingo

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Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Wolfsburg Science Center, 1999. (Harvard GSD)

The model above illustrates an invitation to a lecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design called “Architecture Before Speech: A Conversation.” I thought it must be a discussion of how humans built early habitation prior to the development of spoken language.  Interesting! But the image above created instant skepticism, and then I read the theme of the event. Here are its first two sentences:

If recent theory has highlighted architecture’s turn to evident resemblance and signification, we argue this tendency has also produced its other: The landscape of contemporary practice is filled with work whose motivating interests are anterior to meaning and averse to thematization; they are, in a way, pre-speech.

At least it must be admitted that the theme and the architecture are of a piece. In writing the headline to this post, I first used the word goofy, then changed it to deadly, thus giving my post a positive spin. If this is truly how the nation’s top architects and theorists are talking to each other, the death of modern architecture cannot be far off.

Read the rest of the introduction, which only gets worse, and the list of practices participating in the exhibition. The latter is priceless, and suggests the lengths to which architects today go to produce a spurious differentiation not just in their work but in the names of their practices. It’s a gas, the whole thing.

But how did the following line get into this invitation?

A reception for the exhibition will take place in the Druker Design Gallery immediately following the lecture.

Some things are too important for advanced communication!

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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11 Responses to Architecture’s deadly lingo

  1. Pingback: Talk the talk on buildings | Architecture Here and There

  2. Erik Bootsma says:

    Roger Scruton calls this “intellectual gobbledygook”. It’s intention is not to illuminate but to obscure.


  3. barry says:

    I like all 4 previous comments!
    Reminds me of an academic lecture I read about years ago by a “Dr Fox” to see if one could get away with total nonsense at an academic conference if it sounds impressive enough. He did. Ever since, there are times I’ve been suspicious of such an experiment being repeated.


  4. When we talk like this we are irrelevant to everyone except those who talk like this. “If recent theory has highlighted architecture’s turn to evident resemblance and signification, we argue this tendency has also produced its other: The landscape of contemporary practice is filled with work whose motivating interests are anterior to meaning and averse to thematization; they are, in a way, pre-speech.”


    • Duo: It is not quite irrelevant. The architects who use this kind of language amongst themselves have nothing to say to each other, yes, but they have something to say to those who pay attention to what they say to each other. It is that modern architecture makes no intrinsice sense, and is founded on fallacies. Its history is one of outrunning the already limited capacity of modern architecture to be understood, or of modern architects to understand themselves. Modernism reveals itself as lacking in seriousness with every building and every word. That does not mean that there is no decent modern architecture, only that it is quite accidental when it happens.


  5. Steven Semes says:

    I long ago figured out that academics in architecture were using a random word generator connected to a thesaurus to write their copy. “Anterior” instead of “before”? Yup. It is essential to play these word games, otherwise the only reason for producing a model like that illustrated would be to admit that it was fun playing with all those pick-up sticks and bending them this way and that.


    • The word generator style of writing about architecture is merely a necessary response to the kind of buildings they design. There is no language to be analyzed in the buildings and so no language that seems like a language can be used to analyze the principles the architect followed in designing it because there are none. Even if the written language they used to describe the buildings or the principles behind them were more comprehensible, the meaning would remain unclear because there is nothing to hang any real logic on, which is because there is no meaning beyond absurdity.


  6. petervanerp says:

    What is in the water at Harvard? K. Michael Hayes used to be Michael Hayes when he taught at RISD. Preston Scott Cohen (who did the Amazon HQ2 desecration of Providence for the RICC) used to be Scott Cohen when he studied at RISD. I guess pomposity is a prerequisite when you are blessed to be elevated into the GSD.


    • In this game of modern architecture (and its derivatives) I suppose you need to have more syllables in your name. A nickel name becomes a two-bit name (that’s 25 cents). People who do not have names like Renzo Piano or Rem Kookhouse must work with what they have got, or, maybe, invent.


  7. No, no, no, they got it all wrong. This is how one announces a reception:

    The modality of interrelation will be explored in critical sequentialization of the supraverbal communicate, given transgression across explicit interiorities of the Drucker Design Gallery.


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