It seems impossible nowadays to work your way through any piece of writing without a digital thesaurus lingering in another tab (or indeed a paper copy, if you’re an old-school architect). There appears to be a propensity within the architectural community (or at the very least amongst student peers) to make things more wordy. Why say ‘green’, when you could say ‘verdant’? Or ‘change’ when ‘reprogram’ is so much more professional-sounding?
Of course, there is no suggestion that this wordiness is an inherently negative thing; the word ‘big’ conjures an immediate plethora of meanings, so to differentiate a soaring tower from a looming one can make all the difference in selling a project (to tutor or paying client alike). Though it stands that I have found myself on occasion spending longer explaining an unnecessarily fancy word than it would have taken simply to use a more general-public-friendly term; it is unlikely that a person lacking a degree in architecture or a similar design-based subject would be throwing around terms like ‘genius loci’, ‘Miesian’ or ‘heterotopic’ in everyday life, so is it fair to continue to season our work with such jargon?
Sourcing the reasoning behind these linguistic displays is not so simple. I find that it is easiest to compare the phenomenon to two very different occurrences of the natural world; the feathers of a peacock, and the shell of a tortoise. Peacock feathers are near-useless outside of their primary function, the attraction of a suitable mate; can the same not be said for the lexical insecurity of the architect? Puffing his chest out, desperate for some sort of bright plumage that might stand to lure in a desirable client or practice? For some, the breach between ‘different’ and ‘heterogeneous’ might just pip another competing architect to the post and win them their dream ‘mate’.
Then comes the argument for the tortoise shell. Tough and resilient, it is a protective shield embedded into the creature’s very spine; without the shell there is no tortoise, and vice-versa. For architects and students alike, a considered membrane of text wrapped around a shaky concept is sometimes enough to protect their ego from the bullet wounds of critics, and buys time to carry the project through to its full potential. However, this wordiness also offers itself up as a safeguard for all architecture as a holistic concept; without the attribution of a meaningful concept to each building, would architecture cease to hold the same poetry it does today? The world might gain a few more boring structures as a result; but simultaneously, would those structures be easier for people to understand?
I have found, in these short few years spent at architecture school so far, that sometimes it is the students for whom English is a second (or even third) language that their presentations are far easier to understand; not least because they are some of the only architects who seem to know how to actually speak English. I recall proofreading an essay abstract for one such student recently and marvelling at the fact that my brain did not ache afterwards. In this case the use of layman’s terms had not damaged the paper’s case; if anything, the text was made more beautiful in its simplicity.
It did amuse me to imagine, in the time between the event and my writing this text, Palladio spending hours trawling through thesaurus.com before settling on ‘Villa Rotonda’ as a title. It is, of course, a perfectly basic description of an architectural masterpiece – and the two marry beautifully together. It does beg the question; is it possible that sometimes, the quick brown fox might simply jump over the lazy dog? Or will the architect’s rapid mahogany vixen continue to soar over the apathetic hound…?