Bad language/bad buildings

“Stair Falling” (2010). Performance artist Kira O’Reilly in Ljubljana. (Nada Zgank/Kira O’Reilly)

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.

No doubt!

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.


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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4 Responses to Bad language/bad buildings

  1. Laurence J Sasso Jr says:

    Our milk deliverer recently told of his life in Hawaii driving a taxi powered by vegetable oil, he being a partner in the transportation company which was pioneering the use of organic alternative energy sources. The company failed, he returned to the continental U.S., and now trucks milk and comestibles while occasionally dispensing wisdom on conservation, nutrition, and carbo reduction.


  2. John the First says:

    On the matter of language it could be said that ‘the people’ historically aside of the plain and banal everyday mode know only one mode of expression, which is the vulgar mode, ranging from charmingly vulgar to brute vulgar. The vulgar mode is heartfelt, direct and frank, spontaneously or heartfelt ‘stylized’ so to speak.
    Other modes of expression, like those in devotional and communal practices, singing, chanting etc. were taught, developed and maintained by a special class.
    Now, in a democracy the people have taken over an official culture which is the product of historical elites, who also developed class and style. In the hands of the people in a democracy, this culture, when taken over by the people, who themselves have no style other than the mentioned ones, and who in egalitarian democratic culture are considered to be of just one class, becomes stiff and clumsy. It is lifted out of one culture, the culture of an historical elite, stripped of style, and imported into general egalitarian vulgar culture.
    Consequently, due to the upwards mobility possible in a democracy, and the democratic obsession with organizations, there come the by now vast and ubiquitously present bureaucratic and managerial classes. The new creators and a large class of parrots, they have created an abstract managerial language, a language devoid of soul, as it is not the product of a living and breathing upper class culture, but rather the product of soulless organizations (organizations being ‘machines’).
    By now you can even observe ordinary people using some sort of mix of the by now stiffened official language, and the prettyfied slick language of the managerial classes. The modernist art classes are a class apart, they should best be avoided, they probably cause and suffer from brain damage. And the managerial classes with their slick abstract language (and obsession with creeds), who actually listens to what they say? or who reads the tons of documents they produce?

    As long as the unnatural egalitarian system with its vast bureaucratic and institutional control lasts, there will probably be no creation of new ‘natural’ styles. The people at large will talk a funny clumsy mix of the vulgar and the official, and the institutional and managerial classes being caught in their own prison machineries will produce nothing but abstract and slick language.


  3. John the First says:

    “Do pro athletes take courses in how to say nothing of interest to sports reporters?”

    There is nothing much interesting to say, the sport babble culture is a matter of an attempt of the creation of a mental ‘philosophical’ culture on a subject which is not fit for it. And these sportsmen, they are sportsmen, not babblers, if they are turned into babblers by demand of the babble addicted pubic, they make a bad impression. It is like trying to make of a philosopher, a man rich of mind, a man of physical action.


    • John the First says:

      Another thing can be added to the above, if a sportsmen on rare occasions also happens to be a man of thought, meaning that he has something to say which is not the usual common place thing.., he might not necessarily also be a man able to express his thoughts. You cannot have everything developed.. so give them a break, unrealistic expectations based on egalitarian democratic culture are at the root of the problem.


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