Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Language and Architecture

There is a conference in October at Queen’s, Belfast, entitled ‘Peripheries’ The conference invites discussion via papers and short films on the multiple aspects of periphery, describing the “. . . temporal, spatial, intellectual, technological, cultural, pedagogical and political”.

Because we live on a globe, everything is at some sort of periphery or another, depending on your location. If you start including other sorts of non-physical arenas, as above, like the economic or social sphere, there are an almost unlimited number of fields, so therefore a correspondingly unlimited number of peripheries. This is an ideal conference topic, because it means you can talk about absolutely anything.

So, the question is, how to address the notion of periphery, in relation to my own work, within the (exceedingly capacious) bounds of five themes: Peripheral practice, practice based research, urban peripheries, non-metropolitan contexts, and peripheral positions.

What comes to mind here most forcefully reading those titles, is how woolly the language of architectural research can be. I was as the Engaged and Enraged Friday discussion group last week and plenty of the arguments were based on the use of particular words, how we were using them, and whether we could collectively agree about what them mean (answer: no). What a waste of our collective intelligence.

It seems that at least part of the problem lies in the relationship between language (spoken, written and the visual language of drawings) and the three dimensional space of the world our bodies occupy. It is impossible (or very difficult) to talk about space in words, because space and words are so different (I suspect there is a neurological basis to this).  It’s like trying to talk about English literature in Japanese, where every translation has to be defined to the nth degree, to avoid confusion about minor nuanced variations in meaning. The best way to have a discourse about space is to walk around in it, or to build models of it, because then you are speaking about space in the native language we share which relates to it. But of course, we communicate the majority of complex ideas through spoken language, not gesture (although of course a huge amount of more generalised meaning is communicated through movements) so it would be impossible to have a complex discourse about space using the language of movement alone. Furthermore, it’s important to talk about the physical world through spoken language, so architecture/city/space research can connect and exchange with other disciplines effectively. Part of architecture’s academic isolation seems to stem from its media of communication [the drawing] being incomprehensible to other academics (who therefore dismiss it as non-academic – with some basis at times, I suspect).

When architects use words like ‘practice’ ‘peripheral’, ‘temporal’ and so forth, they must take a cue from disciplines like philosophy, and define then properly, before throwing them about. 

1 comment:

  1. I think you’re right. There is a problem with using language to talk about space. (I also think that another part of the problem is that architectural theorising has been infected by the same post-modern malaise that pervades lots of other theoretical disciplines in the arts, humanities and social sciences – but maybe that’s a story for another time.)

    Indeed, as you point out, it’s broader than just language: it’s something to do with representation in general. Normally, we’re able to use representations in one medium (written words, 2D pictures, musical mutation) as an efficient and effective way of understanding a phenomenon in a different medium (ideas or things, views, sounds). 3D space is, for some reason, much less tractable: it’s really difficult to represent 3D space, in a different medium, in a way that promotes understanding. Either we have to actually visit the space in question – thereby cutting out the stage of representation entirely – or we have to represent it in the same medium (by having 3D models: the same thing, but smaller).

    Is this just an accident of the way that English functions at the moment? It would be interesting to know whether other languages represent 3D space in a way which is clearer and more illuminating. I wonder how far, also, we might try to change language use, and attitudes to drawings, so as to develop our cognitive muscles for thinking about spatial representation. As you say, doing so is important if we’re to break down architecture’s academic isolation, and integrate it more effectively into our social and political life.

    A slight tangent. If all of this proves very difficult – and if we find that difficulties with representing space are present in all languages – then it might say something interesting more generally about the way that our understanding of space is unusual amongst our modes of interacting with the world. Two thoughts arise. First, perhaps we need a concept of 3D space to be able to integrate the data from our diverse senses. For example, why do I automatically know that the voice my ears hear and the face my eyes see are coming from the same place? Suggestion: It’s because I already have a spatial perceptual field into which these (otherwise entirely dissimilar) modes of experience get slotted. And second, that concept of 3D space is not (unlike sight, or sound, or sm3ell) a direct object of our senses: we have to infer things about 3D space from other modes, and on the whole we’re less reliable at doing that than we are at forming beliefs about other elements of our environment.