There is a difference between language and architecture. Language, to riff off the saying attributed to Talleyrand, aims to disguise the absence of thought; whereas architecture aims to express the thoughtlessness of fatuous design.
The critic Theodore Dalrymple, a retired British prison psychiatrist, recently published an excellent essay, “The Degeneration of Public Administration,” in City Journal, about the decline of official language. He describes the clear goals set by Sir Robert Peel in 1829 for the newly established Metropolitan Police Force (in London), and their descent to the gibberish of a contempory police official’s reply to concerns over safety at a park. Dalrymple then describes the more exalted gibberish of a British museum director who empties her museum of its works to make way for an “art installation” that includes performance artist Kira O’Reilly, who throws herself nude and in slow motion down a staircase. Maria Balshaw, in 2009 the director of the Whitworth Gallery at Manchester University, records her own emotions about having curated such a feat, and her experience of having felt the physical danger to the artist – “artistic risk” being among the goals of a museum. Balshaw describes saving O’Reilly with her female gaze. Balshaw exposes her abysmal self-infatuation as a “woke” administrator. Here is how Balshaw, quoted by Dalrymple, describes O’Reilly’s work of art:
And all she did, really, was roll very, very slowly down the stairs in a series of tumbles, choreographed movements that replicated what would have happened if she’d fallen at speed to her death at the bottom of the staircase. But it unfolded over four hours, so bits of it were painfully slow to watch.
This did nothing to harm Balshaw’s career as an arts administrator. She is now director of the Tate Gallery in London. Throughout his essay, Dalrymple simply cannot resist zinging the ironies all of this involves.
In my first paragraph I tie it all to architecture, because that’s my job. But read the entire piece, which has nothing to do with architecture. No: on rereading I find that Dalrymple quotes Balshaw on architectural beauty. He writes:
It is also revealing that the staircase is the only context in which Balshaw mentions the quality of beauty – suggesting that, somewhere deep within her, some faint aesthetic feeling survives.
Perhaps, but she probably has the word “beauty” on her list of mental save/gets, like a star quarterback insisting his touchdown was the result of “teamwork.” Well, of course. He is on a team. (Do pro athletes take courses in how to say nothing of interest to sports reporters?) Actually, Balshaw’s reference to beauty was less likely to have been an auto-reply than an error of omission. She shouldn’t have allowed that save/get to remain on her mental keyboard. Tsk, tsk!
Dalrymple sums up:
The degeneration of the public administration puzzles me because in all walks of life, from plumbers to electricians, locksmiths, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, surgeons, cardiologists, research scientists, and so forth, I meet capable, intelligent, honest, and talented people. The explanation of this strange divergence, I suspect, is ultimately in the way that the humanities, or inhumanities, are now taught in higher education.
My wife and I recently had a delightful encounter with a young pest-control agent, who, after checking our perimeter for ants, delivered a thoughtful and seemingly learned disquisition on the comparative nuisances of ants, spiders and wasps. After he left, we went inside and wondered if he’d been to college.