Architecture speak: An essay on the ridiculous way architects talk.

What we build.
April 27 2011 11:04 AM

A Discourse on Emerging Tectonic Visualization and the Effects of Materiality on Praxis

Or an essay on the ridiculous way architects talk.

The widely televised demolition of a Pruitt-Igoe building.
Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe buildings in 1972

Although Ted Mosby, the architect character in How I Met Your Mother, has suitably tousled hair and his (client-less) firm has a trendy name—Mosbuis Designs—he doesn't seem to have mastered the lingo of his trade, for architects, like all professionals, have their own jargon, while Ted speaks like an ordinary guy. A brief history is in order. Architecture is a relatively young profession—the American Institute of Architects was not founded until 1857. Seeking to distinguish themselves from lowly builders and carpenters, architects adopted a specialized vocabulary, often substituting complicated Latin-based words for their simpler Anglo-Saxon equivalents, for example, fenestration for window, entrance for door, chamber for room, trabeation for beam, planar for flat. Then there were the mysteries of Ionic columns and egg-and-dart moldings.

When Modernist architects revolutionized the art of building in the 1920s, they scrubbed classical decoration—and classical terms. In the process of simplification that followed, language, too, was stripped down, and the pronouncements of architects such as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier were lucid and to the point. After all, if a house was a machine for living in, then the house-maker should speak the straightforward language of the engineer.

This changed in the 1970s, on March 16, 1972, to be exact, the day the federal government dynamited the first of 33 buildings of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis. The destruction of the utopian "towers in a park" signaled the demise of heroic Modernism and its idealistic foray into social engineering. It also rattled the profession. What were architects to do? A few, such as I.M. Pei, soldiered on, seeking inspiration in a more monumental and stylish version of minimal Modernism. Some adopted Postmodernism, which turned out to be a short-lived fad. A few turned back to Classicism, while some, like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, redefined architecture as an advanced technological craft.

Other architects, especially those teaching in universities, reacted to the collapse of Modernism by attempting to reinvent the field as a theoretical discipline. The theories did not come from the evidence of the practice of architecture, as one might expect (that was left to Christopher Alexander), but from arcane historical tracts and the writings of French literary critics in hermeneutics, poetics, and semiology. Thus began a new phase in professional jargon.

Discourse: What architects talk about when they talk about architecture.

Academy: Usually the Academy. Where underemployed architects like Ted Mosby work.

Praxis: How theory is implemented, which in architecture means building buildings.

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Tectonic: Also from the ancient Greek. Nothing to do with geology, it signifies, as far as I understand it, anything to do with building.

Assemblage: From the French, meaning putting things together.

Gesamtkunstwerk: From the German. The total work of art, meaning the architect designs everything, soup to nuts.

Materiality: What buildings are made of. Sounds more impressive than bricks and sticks.

Potentiality, spatiality, conditionality, functionality, modernity: When in doubt, add "-ity." Or "-ology." "Ology" means the study of something, but in architecture methodology and typology just mean method and type.

Visualization or representation: Architectural sketches and drawings.

Instantiation: I had to look this one up. It means representing something by giving an example. A term borrowed from philosophy.

Emerging: Trends in architecture that are just around the corner—maybe.

Metamorphosis: Change, as in, "Metamorphosis of space is a flexible correspondence of space to its situation, caused by certain external actions."

Morphosis: The name of an architecture firm in Los Angeles.

Ennead: The name of an architecture firm in New York.

Oculus: The name of an architecture firm in Chongqing.

The Urban Dictionary defines Archispeak as: "Large, made-up words that architects and designers use to make themselves sound smarter than you (you being the client or the confused observer of design). It does nothing to inform or enlighten the consumer of architecture and mostly serves to numb them into obedience or self doubt." That sounds about right.

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Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.