Beyond translation indeed!

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The Stata Center, by Frank Gehry, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Pinterest)

It takes an act of will to make it all the way through a passage of hilariously sublime bureaucratese – quoted from a university prospectus – sent recently by architectural historian James Stevens Curl to a group of his friends and colleagues. The passage turns the mind into glue. By the time you finally see the end of it, your brain is so sapped that you can barely manage to get from one word to the next.

One recipient, the sociologist/writer Theodore Dalrymple, sent an essay about it to a British journal, Taki’s Magazine (“Cocktails, Countesses & Mental Caviar”), published under the headline “Beyond Translation.” This inflicted it on thousands of innocent readers. (And of course yours truly has just committed the same crime.)

Except for the fact that architecture is the subject matter of the passage, which Dalrymple quotes in its entirety, he never uses the word. Here is a mere snippet:

This year we will conflate several scales and levels of work on new models for “dis-continuity and coherence,” tackling urban “meta-elements” as architectural diagrams and morphologies. Building upon our previous cities of multiplied utopias and artifacts, ruptured transfers, systems and frameworks and, ultimately, conceptual and spatial playgrounds in space-time, we will allow our pursuit of emerging urban models to inform new phases in the breakdown and re-integration of an architectural object itself.

Dalrymple never attempts to divine the meaning of the passage because, as he points out, it has no meaning. It is not supposed to be understood but to be misunderstood. The idea is that if readers cannot understand it, they will not realize how stupid it is, even if they make it all the way through. It is bowl of syllable soup. Dalrymple actually makes it sound funny:

The language is peculiar to itself and makes a speech by the late Leonid Brezhnev seem like a soliloquy by Hamlet. Full of neologisms, its words have connotations, but no definite meaning can be fixed to them. Vagueness is essential because only then can responsibility be denied when things go wrong. It is ugly and circumlocutory, but with occasional pseudo-poetic metaphors that are supposed to be inspirational but are as exciting as a cargo ship’s ballast.

It is quite a feat to describe such gobbledygook in clear language. And as Dalrymple himself admits, it is not really funny. What he attempts to describe are the thoughts of an architecture faculty member in charge of teaching young students how to create human habitation. So, yes, it would be funny if it were not so god-damned important. Of course, architecture has been filled with this sort of nincompoopery for so long that nobody realizes anymore how important the built environment is. Maybe that’s the idea.

But I might actually challenge Dalrymple in his assertion that this sort of really quite well done bureaucratese is widespread, having spread beyond government into business and (of course) academia. I know what he means – it is almost everywhere, in part because so many of the institutions of society have embraced missions that can never be accomplished, or even ought to be accomplished, and modes of thought and communication that would prevent it anyway.

Still, I would say that Dalrymple (and to begin with, Stevens Curl) chose this passage because they know very well that it could never be matched in any other industry but architecture – although certain recondite academic fields surely give architecture a run for its money.

In fact, in no other field but architecture does the language actually come closer to describing what it refers to. More so than any other industry, architecture has made a fetish of ugliness and incomprehensibility. Its buildings must be both ugly and incomprehensible in order to qualify as architecture. Shown two pictures of modernist buildings equally ugly, it would be hard to tell which had won the Pritzker Prize and which had been declared The Ugliest Building of the Year. (They have such an award in Britain, an annual prize known as the Carbuncle Cup.)

Modern architecture’s ambition is to produce buildings that reflect their (our) era. And they succeed to admir— oops, I mean they succeed, full stop. Is not our era violent, stupid, self-infatuated, delusional, scary, confusing, rude, and in the process of collapse? Well, maybe every generation brags that its era features the same qualities, but surely ours – and I refer to the past half-century – is arguably the worst in every category.

So I applaud the language of architecture, not because it has succeeded at its mission or because it mimics the product of architecture with some accuracy. No, I applaud this linguistic phenomenon because, ultimately, it must lead to the collapse of modern architecture, which cannot continue indulging its failure to communicate without eventually failing, period. Maybe even before the collapse of the societies it inflicts itself upon.

(Obviously, I leave out of this rumination the relatively small but fast growing number of professional architects who design buildings and houses that people like – that is, traditional and classical architecture informed by wisdom handed down by generations for centuries, rejected by modernist architects, just as they reject the conventions of written language.)

(By the way, James Stevens Curl is the author of the newly published Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, from Oxford University Press, soon to be out in the U.S., which I am now reading.)

[I have reworked the original first paragraph of this post because, without my noticing, it seemed to suggest that the passage quoted by Stevens Curl might have been written by him. Not eager to be challenged to a duel at dawn with cavalry sabres!]

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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others 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, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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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8 Responses to Beyond translation indeed!

  1. John says:

    George Orwell already wrote about it, as many others, language can be used as a means to control the mind, as well as architecture. In the case of neo-modernist architecture and the pretentious academic pseudo intellectualism, they are both destructive to the mind, destructive to the ability of crystalization and ordered formation and as such logic leading to retardedness.

    http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit

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    • I suppose we must applaud the modernists for managing to mangle not just the language but the product of their ridiculous theories, the buildings they design, which are just as mangled as the language they used to describe them. I wish there were a way to better quantify or even, really, discuss the damage they do to individuals and society as a whole.

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  2. Nikos Salingaros says:

    David,

    It’s known that HIV virus crossed from chimpanzees to humans, and Swine Influenza crossed from pigs to humans. In much the same way, the Derrida virus crossed from Literature into Architecture. Look at academic English Departments to see the complete devastation that it has left. If we focus only on Architecture, we can’t locate the origins of the architectural pandemic. A biological understanding of the whole picture is needed to understand the devastating effect and to finally combat it.

    Cheers,
    Nikos

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  3. Marvin says:

    Is all of Making Dystopia written like this?? 😦

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    • What is quoted in this post is not from Making Dystopia but from a brochure or prospectus of a course of study in an architecture school. But since the first paragraph could be read to suggest that James Stevens Curl wrote it, rather than having just sent the quote to friends, I have rewritten the opening of my post to clarify that it was not Stevens Curl who wrote it. Yikes!

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