What architects said before they said ‘space’

Andrew Saint

  • Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture by Adrian Forty
    Thames and Hudson, 335 pp, £28.00, April 2000, ISBN 0 500 34172 9

‘All this talk brings the ears so far forward that they make blinkers for the eyes’: thus Edwin Lutyens on architectural discourse. In Lutyens’s day it was still possible, just, to believe that the good architects got on with designing and building while only the second-raters taught and wrote. Books were chiefly for reference – for illustrations, rules and technicalities. If there had to be criticism, it could be left to professors, rich amateurs and journalists. The sacred route of the architect ran between the drawing board and the building site.

After Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, both as cavalier with language as they were scrupulous with architectural detail, you could scarcely be thought an internationally significant architect unless you not only built but wrote and globetrotted, discoursing as you went. The clamour among competing exegetes today has become deafening. Adrian Forty’s enterprise in Words and Buildings is to reap all this architectural verbiage and run it ruthlessly through the logic-mill. Having winnowed his crop, he sorts it into heaps of words, of different sizes and kinds; then he takes 18 of the most promising heaps in lexical succession and grinds them exceeding small. The product at the end is a highly percipient history of modern architectural theory, disconcertingly arranged. It is as if The Seven Lamps of Architecture had pupped, bringing to birth not the ‘vulgar row of footlights’ into which Ruskin ruefully admitted his own enquiry had degenerated, but 18 penetrating lasers.

It should be said at the outset that Forty is not an enemy of all the talking about architecture, rather the reverse. Where Lutyens (and many Modernists) would have solved the old equation ‘architecture equals building plus x’ with some such term as ‘art’ or ‘design’, Forty suggests, tongue not totally in cheek, that the right answer may be ‘words’. Nor does he have to delve deep into critical theory or the patter of the schools to sustain that argument. It is enough, in one of many well chosen illustrations that grace his book, to show Ernö Goldfinger barking orders down the phone.

Architects spend little of their time at the drawing board and the various devices that have half-succeeded it. To get anything built they must organise, cajole and present the big picture: all of which needs good words. Many famous modern architects have been charismatic wordsmiths, at least orally; and it is arguable that the profession maintains its high status in the pecking order of the construction industry only because most architects are better rhetoricians than their fellow professionals. In a provocative introductory sally on language and drawing, Forty rubs salt in the wound by proposing that drawings, the means by which architects tend to believe they communicate, are inarticulate. The most he will sanction as a bearer of architectural meaning is the sketch.

Seductive this may be, but it cannot erase suspicion that the charge of too much talk has a special justification in the case of architecture. It was on the builders of the tower of Babel that the Lord chose to visit the confounding of tongues. Architecture is the dumbest, most tortoise-like of the major arts. It makes no sound, has to be tickled and twisted into meaning anything, and its linkages with human reason or emotion are obscure. As a result, time and again in Forty’s parade of terms, from the ut pictura poesis analogy of the Renaissance down to the present day, we see ideas and metaphors that started life in literature or science applied first in some other sphere and then plastered tardily, at the cost of eloquence and plausibility, on architecture.

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