Pseuds' Corner language is in urgent need of a rethink
New words and phrases have crept into the ever-expanding lexicons of architectural speak. There has always been the philosophical/scientific/art-based stuff, beloved of critics and practitioners alike, published first in earnest in books and journals, then in architecture's Pseuds' Corner. The fast-emerging contemporary (a word that often replaces 'modern') vogue, to which I refer above, is, however, for the more modest phrases that genuflect in deference to the universally accepted shibboleths of the 'rethinkers' of the ancient battle of building.
A scheme is 'sustainable' because it is 'dense', or makes occupiers park somewhere else, or because it meets or beats building regulations or uses 'recycled materials'. This ugly word then justifies any construction:
refurbishment is 'reuse' and 'recycling'; new build is 'economic' and preferably done in a factory because that is 'clean', 'good', 'efficient' and, of course, 'just in time'. In this world of ecological compliance, all projects are 'innovative' and 'exemplary'.
If struggling to get a good rating in the sustainability 'audit', a project can be upgraded to become 'truly sustainable'. This covers a multitude of sins and is therefore incredibly useful. The premise is that the 'truly sustainable' project will be well-liked, occupied and used. Words thrown into the presentation pot include 'density' and 'typology'; they are frequently preceded by 'urban', itself often allied with 'grain'. If still struggling, 'consultation', 'stakeholder' and 'interest groups' crop up, usually with the prefix 'extensive'. Some words and acronyms feature in specific talks: 'MMC' (Modern Methods of Construction) appears in publicsector presentations along with 'cost', usually 'in use' and 'innovative funding/package/ lifecycle' proposals. My favourites are 'use', usually 'over time', and the cure-all of 'delight' which must 'be offered'.
Tomorrow's historians will curse the microchip as they search the unfiltered records of our time. I doubt they will be as 'delighted', my favourite word again, as I was when recently scanning the essays of Adolf Loos in Spoken Into The Void. The clarity of thinking and authority stand out. Everything from the disappointment of the English hat purchased on the continent, for 'English hats sold here do not correspond to those sold in London', to the dangers of concrete as mock stucco are explained. More than 100 years ago, Loos dismissed the vogue for the pejorative description of cladding as veneer: 'Cladding is even older than structure.
The principle which was first articulated by Semper extends to nature as well. Man is covered with skin, the tree with bark.' Loos' every utterance would now be followed by demands for apology, his lectures banned as bombastic diatribes: 'Nations with a more highly developed culture walk more quickly than those that are still backward; the Americans walk faster than the Italians.' We would do well to disregard current fashions of 'accountability' for 'diversity', and enjoy Loos' elegance and wit, for the ideas are relevant to architectural conversation today.
All this brings to mind the observation of Ada Louise Huxtable on phoneyism allowed by cronyism: that she worried less about what architects were saying than what this implied they were thinking, if that was the right word for what was going on in their heads. As we use the bland language of sound bites, we should be wary of how we are 'dumbing down' what we think and then produce. If we believe we need to 'rethink' construction, we should start by 'rethinking' the language we use.