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Archi Babble

Martin Filler, admittedly, gets a few chuckles out of me in this article about architectural firms and their names (or their “renames”). Firms want to seem modern and unique but their new names just seem to over complicate their identity. Filler provides some hilarious examples:

But surely no architectural moniker has been as thoroughly annoying as Coop Himmelb(l)au, dreamed up in Vienna in 1968 (perhaps over a funny Zigarette?). The effortfully parenthesized second part of that contorted tag conflates the German words for heaven (Himmel), blue (blau), and building (Bau).

And while Filler doesn’t necessarily touch on this directly, his article got me wondering about architects and language (I worry my daughter’s English degree is rubbing off on me). Namely, why architecture seems to be desperately looking for a new language in which to lose itself.

The modern day inventions and innovations in other fields – medicine or law – often change the very nature in which a professional has to work. In architecture, however, I feel there’s always a struggle between the old and the new and to further complicate that – a struggle between how to use the old to make something new or how to use the new to make something look old. Architecture is in a state of flux but I don’t view this as a negative. It keeps the profession engaging and interesting, trust me. But this oscillation seeps into our language. And that is annoying.

Why is that architecture has to reinvent the language it uses and express itself anew every few years? There was the post-modernist era where the narrative was key: that architecture was like a book.  These days people speak of mapping and flocking. Are we equating architecture to migrations? Have we now personified our careers through birds?

“A study in multi agent systems to explore persistent agent population density mapping of flocking behaviors” via

There’s an important difference between drawing metaphorical or illusionary parallels with building design and this kind of language. I called one of my buildings “Tehama Grasshopper” and that was because parts of the design were yes, influenced by the grasshopper but also because of what the grasshopper represents metaphorically: a lightness, geometry and landscape. But these comparisons are also being drawn from one concrete structure to another (pun intended).

I was in a review recently and one of the student spoke of basing her design on watching how garbage flew across the site. And, in the abstract, this can sound poetic but a building is not (hopefully) only going to be on a piece of paper. I could not help and wonder if the dirty syringes and condoms south of Market Street really deserved all that attention! The abstract can’t always lead to a good, or perhaps, more importantly, functional design.

I think we erroneously believe that a complex and ambiguous syntax is equated with complex thought and therefore complex design. Students and architects alike think that the more obscure and complicated the linguistic constructs, the more innovative the architecture presents itself as being. But architecture is always evolving, the whirling trash is kind of built into the job description and you need a strong base of solidity and simplicity in order to be successful.











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