Language, Architecture and Anthropology

In the past year I have become Palm Springs architects critical and curious as to why many architects insist upon, or at least have a habit of, using jargon and speaking in a superfluous manner. In my experience, this trait is particularly acute in academia, where it seems that the more convoluted and lofty you sound, the wiser you are and the better your projects or opinions are. This trend does not serve a clear purpose or hold much value in my opinion, but there are surely reasons for its prevalence.

The following paragraphs will seek to shed some light on the anthropological drivers of this behavior and the role it plays in architecture.

One of the effects of this trend seems to be the artificial creation of inaccessibility; a divide between architects and the public, particularly in academia. Architects build for people and the public, generally speaking, but use language as a social tool to elevate themselves above those they build for. Why might this be?

In regards to communications between architects and the general public, the use of language may be a costly display to advertise their own knowledge and intelligence, to inspire, and to concretize their place as a trusted builder. On the level of the profession, jargon may serve to establish the profession as a social group with its own social norms and traits. Similar to how different dialects are one defining element of different peoples and cultures, language used by architects may set them apart from other professions and peoples.

If we assume the profession of architecture can be classified as a social group, several other social and selective factors come into play that may contribute to the prevalence of jargon and superfluous language.

The first that comes to mind is conforming to social norms. Adapting to marker traits, such as dialects, increases one’s own reproductive success and helps to ensure one’s place in a given social group. In the profession of architecture, adapting this marker trait may help architects to be more socially accepted and respected by their peers and support the success of their careers. If the profession as a group has certain social traits that define it, conforming to these norms will benefit all members according to anthropological theory.

Further, architecture is a very competitive profession and as with any group, status is of utmost importance. Language may be used as a tool, or costly display, to advertise intelligence, ideas and education in an attempt to elevate one’s own status and increase one’s own success.

As I mentioned earlier, I observe this behavior more in academia than anywhere else. Academia, for the most part, places far more emphasis on theory than on practice. Theory, both spoken and written, relies more on language than the physical practice of architecture. With nothing physical to see, occupy, or touch, words become far more important to convey ideas and establish validity and status. As a result, jargon may be far more valuable among academic theorists to establish and define themselves among their peers.

Of course there are exceptions to this trend. In the fall of 2007 I saw Cecil Balmond of ARUP lecture at the Danish Technical University in Copenhagen. He was a clearly brilliant man but was able to deftly and beautifully present his ideas and projects in a manner, and with language, that was accessible to all. This made such an impression upon me that I have remembered it ever since. In my opinion, this did not detract from his brilliance, respectability or status in any way. If anything, it was impressive that he was able to communicate such complicated ideas in a simple way.

So where does this leave architecture? This trend surely affects the social aspect and habits of the profession, but does it also affect what is actually built and the public’s opinion of the profession and built work? This seems plausible. As far is what is actually built and current direction of trends in the profession and academic realms, language and status could play large roles. Architects and theorists who can effectively use jargon and language to convey their ideas and elevate their status may become quite influential. Once their status reaches a certain point, others may copy or emulate their behavior in hopes of increasing their own status and success. Therefore, language and communicative skills may be more important than ideas and more indicative of the direction and trends of the profession, and thereby the built environment. “Good” ideas presented poorly will fail while “bad” ideas presented brilliantly may thrive. Similarly, ideas and communication strategies that are accepted and rewarded in the social environment of architecture will become more successful, common, and popular. Taken as a whole, language seems to have the power to play a huge role in architecture and the built environment, and jargon may be an adaptive trait to establish a social group, conform to social norms and increase status.

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