Within the framework of the International Manifesto Relay, project developed by the Copenhagen Architecture Festival (CAFx) where 45 practitioners from around the world have submitted proposals, projects, declarations and speculations about the capacity of architecture to create sustainable futures, KoozArch believes it is necessary to reflect on language as a manifesto: not only about the manifesto as a platform for the dissemination of knowledge, but about the very tool that produces it: the language of architecture as a manifesto in and of itself.
KoozArch chooses to speak not only about the manifesto as a platform for the dissemination of knowledge, but about the language of architecture as a manifesto in and of itself.
Not long ago, if we were to talk about the language of architecture, many would think we would discuss style, form, function, the aesthetic qualities of any given material, how the composition of solid and void in that facade responds to the particularities of its orientation or the reinterpretation of the classical orders in the newest high-end museum…Nothing farther away from our present intention. Instead, we ask: what if a new relationship with the planet started with rethinking our words?
What if a new relationship with the planet started with rethinking our words?
At KoozArch, we believe that architecture cannot continue to be a self-referential art-science that fancies autonomy, to be separated from the reality of the local and global contexts in which it is built. At least not while we face the political, social and climate challenges of our era. Because of this, the language of architecture cannot limit itself to form, nor to the graphic representation of space: the language of architecture must embrace words, spoken and written, existing and yet to be coined.
Kiel Moe, Unless : the Seagram Building Construction Ecology, 2020. New York, NY: ACTAR.
It is not a coincidence that, aware of the power of language from which to propose and build critical concepts that may not always exist in the mainstream discourse, some of the most advanced and radical voices in our profession have started to acquire and develop terms to push their ideas further. In an interview with the Journal of Architectural Education, Lesley Lokko discusses endotic architecture, borrowing the term from a particular type of plants that are exotic to a given place (coming from somewhere else) but are still able to thrive like their indigenous counterparts in specific environments.1 Furthermore, Colloqate Design, a design justice practice based in New Orleans and Denver, US, takes its name from colloquial and location, “representing a familiar design dialogue situated in a specific place, considering people who are habitually juxtaposed with one another at a higher frequency than chance.”2 Whilst Nyasha Harper-Michon calls upon Archtivists, and the redefinition of the very profession and role of the architect as one who must drive economic, environmental and social reform to foster positive changes in society. Lastly, as an integral concept in Unless: The Seagram Building Construction Ecology (Actar Publishers, 2020), Kiel Moe reintroduces the term emergy to account for energetic and material processes, the real wealth associated with building.3
The language of architecture must embrace words, spoken and written, existing and yet to be coined.
The words of the future, or better, the words with which we can start right now in the present to imagine different futures can also be re-interpretations of already existing words. We could very well say that the state of the world is in crisis: socioecological, environmental, biodiversity crisis. And yet, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word crisis originally denoted “the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever.” Now it most commonly means “a difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention.” When did the change happen? Who was the first to transport a bodily fever to a planetary scale? It is nonetheless surprising to find that the word crisis doesn’t appear but one time in the UIA 2023 CPH website where its six congress themes get explained.4 It might be worth asking why, perhaps a redefinition of crisis in favor of the less intimidating change?
It all has to do with narratives. When we think of crisis, we think of emergency, risk, fragility, something about to get broken or lost, and these vocabulary lead us to propose, among several others, words like resilience, sustainability, endurance, recovery. Could we propose a different stance, which instead of reacting, concedes? That is, aim at accepting that no matter what we do as a society, as a species, the reality is that it is impossible to prevent the climate changes we are already experiencing. We can (hopefully) slow them down, but we can’t any longer prevent them. Are we prepared, as a professional field used to design and build everlasting structures, to embrace impermanence as part of adaptation? Surrendering to nature and landscape. What would be the material and immaterial consequences of doing so?
Are we prepared, as a professional field used to design and build everlasting structures, to embrace impermanence as part of adaptation?
Indigenous knowledge(s) is another concept at the center of the debate, but with indigenous knowledge comes indigenous language. We all agree it is about time to recognize the wisdom of societies and communities that, due to their ancient and close connection to the land, know appropriate ways to establish symbiotic, non-extractive relationships with the natural environment. But how open are we to incorporate into our speech indigenous terms that actually expand our vision of the world and its other-than-human actors? In his recently published “Architectural Botany: A Conversation with William Balée on Constructed Forests”, Paulo Tavares introduces taper, a Ka’apor word with which indigenous peoples of the Amazon identify a type of forest “which comes from a long unfolding landscape transformation that they are very conscious of. Taper means an old-growth forest that has a human causality associated to it.’”5 Indigenous languages are able to identify and distinguish associations that may remain invisible to our Western understandings.
Slides from William Balée’s photographic archive, from An Architectural Botany, 2018- 2022. Courtesy of Paulo Tavares
Turning towards indigenous wisdom in search of immediate solutions can be risky, a form of knowledge colonization where instead of understanding, conversing, and translating our Western-capitalist ways, we intend to remediate urgent problems in order to continue business as usual. “We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom”, as put by Julia Watson, author of Lo—TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism (Taschen, 2019).6 Can we think of architecture and the role of the architect as a translator or facilitator between languages? English, for its part, is pretty good at incorporating foreign words into its vocabulary. There is no room for verbal starvation.
Can we think of architecture and the role of the architect as a translator or facilitator between languages?
We are well under the third decade of the 21st Century. And though traditional knowledge and millenary ways of doing are viable, low impact, conscious avenues we ought to take in order to change, so-called high end technology and artificial intelligence are here to stay. To close our eyes and look away would not be an intelligent move. Not as designers. Powerful softwares that “explore new mediums of thought and expand the imaginative powers of the human species” multiply at fast velocity and are able to compose images, renderings, architectural projects, construction documents and everything else we architects use to communicate. And yet, what fuels all those programs are words. Could we think of the architect as a kind of visually equipped linguist? A master of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, syntax and grammar? A portmanteau connoisseur? Critical questioning, contrasting, redefinition and invention of words cannot happen without satire and a bit of playfulness. Gustave Flaubert started by the 1870s to compile notes for The Dictionary of Received Ideas. In 1911, Ambrose Bierce created The Devil’s Dictionary. A few months ago, Reiner de Graaf decided to end his architect, verb: The New Language of Building, with the “Profspeak Dictionary”. The glossary as manifesto is also a possible project: start thinking anew about old words and maybe suggesting new news. Whatever the way, the bottom line remains:in order to change the built environment we need to change our ideas, and in order to change our ideas, we need to change the words we use to describe them.
1 Cephas, Jay, Igor Marjanović, and Ana Miljački. 2022. “This Is for Everyone.” Journal of Architectural Education (1984) 76 (2): 6–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/10464883.2022.2097495.
3 Moe, Kiel, and ProQuest. 2020. Unless : the Seagram Building Construction Ecology. New York, NY: ACTAR.
5 Tavares, Paulo, “Architectural Botany: A Conversation with William Balée on Constructed Forests”Kim Förster, Claire Lubell, Ruth Jones, Lucas Freeman, Aleksandr Bierig, Nerea Calvillo, Daniel Barber, et al. 2022. Environmental Histories of Architecture. Canadian Centre for Architecture.