About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Thinking About Architecture


Our thought processes are enframed by our language and our language literally controls not only how we can think about things, but literally what we CAN think about at all. 

Infants are like animals, they think in images, not words.  Mother, father, food, toy, all are cognitively described by pictures or moving images; there is no verbal component.  Animals never cease thinking this way, nor, according to Temple Grandin, do autistic people, which is why they have so much difficulty in communicating.  But normal humans begin to swap out image based thought for linguistic thought around the age of three, which, interestingly enough is the point where solid memories begin to form.  (I can remember things before the age of three, because I am very strange, but those pre-verbal memories are a series of disconnected dreamlike images that make very little sense on anything more than an emotional level.)

But as we develop, we can only think about things that we have words to describe.  We know this from studying other cultures.  Cultures who have no word for the color purple cannot differentiate it from blue or red, depending on the mixture, with a red hue falling in the red category and a blue based purple being termed blue.  At best they might call it a shade of blue or red, but would not even consider it to be a different color.  The same goes for American men, who for the most part could not even begin to differentiate eggshell from bone.  The average American woman probably could, because they spend far more time learning color terminology.  An artist or designer probably could identify thousands of different colors that only varied by minute differences, because they spend years learning the words for them.

Because language enframes cognition, if you control the language, you control the thought.  George Orwell used this to maximum effect in the novel "1984," where, to stamp out crimethink, the Inner Party of Oceania developed Newspeak.  Their rationale was that if you had no words to describe a concept, you could not even think about it; if the word freedom does not exist, how do you know you are a slave?

This is a very powerful concept, but it goes deeper than that.  Not only does language enframe thought, it affects attitudes and culture.  I've discussed this before, where using the word entitlements to describe welfare and Social Security increases negative feelings towards them because of the very connotation of the word "entitlement."

But it is the cultural connection that I want to explore here.  I have been talking with some of my foreign born students about architecture, and in those conversations, I have realized how much learning about architecture in English is enframing the process.

In talking with a former thesis student from Saudi Arabia, he mentioned that he was unable to discuss architecture in Arabic, and to be able to talk about it, he had to switch to English.  This linguistic shift altered his cognitive patterns, he literally can not contemplate architecture in his native tongue.

How does this affect design?  Consider the fact that language is one of the primary markers of culture.  The entire value system of a society is delineated by the language.  Arabic is a far more sacred language than English, which, in Eliade's definition is more profane.  Arabic weaves Allah (God) and Islamic belief into everyday speech in a way that English does not (or at least hasn't for a very long time; how often do you hear someone say goodbye with the term "Go with God?")

Therefore, when you enframe architectural thought into English, you are re-casting that thought into a very Western mold.  Very significant aspects of identity get lost in translation, in fact, they cease to exist.  There is a profound cognitive shift.

In our conversations, he was talking about how the architecture of the Middle East is increasingly being stuffed into Western drag, and the hallmarks of Saudi Arabian architectural identity are being lost.  We determined that a large part of it was because a significant number of Saudi architects were being trained in the West.  And further, the ones being trained in Saudi Arabia are either being taught in English (as he is planning to do when he becomes a professor) or the very concepts of design that are taught in the West are not being passed on, because they lack the language to do so.

This loss of identity, though, goes beyond style, into the realms of essence.  There is something essential (essence) being lost, because the cognition is occurring in an alien language.  Copying style is only part of the story.  For example, Soviet architects drew heavily on the International Style of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, but there is still an essential difference between Western Modernism and Soviet architecture.  The Soviet architects learned their craft in Russian, and specifically in Soviet Russian.  Their value system was made manifest in their architecture.  The further back in time you go, the more apparent these differences are, where you get even regional variations, that could be tied to dialectical differences.

To further explore this concept, I spoke with two of my current thesis students, who come from Iceland.  They told me that when they were back home at Christmas, when they would talk to Icelandic architects, they would have to fall back on English words for about fifty percent of their conversations.  They did not have words in Icelandic to describe the ideas they were discussing.  Interestingly, until recently, there were no architectural programs in Iceland, and even now they only offer a Bachelors, and no Masters degrees.  Therefore, almost all of their architects are trained in either Europe or America.

And consequently, just like Saudi Arabia, their architectural identity is vanishing, to be replaced with architecture that is alien to their country.  This is an even more interesting case, because Iceland is a European country, with far more in common with both the Continental countries and America than the Saudi's have.

And yet, they feel like their architectural identity is diminishing.  Except for vernacular architecture, there is no Icelandic style.  This is in contrast to Europe, where, for example, there are noticeable differences between English and German deconstructivism, countries that have large portions of their architectural communities trained domestically.

Language enframes thought; thought enframes design; design creates the built environment.  When you design in another language, the architecture lacks cultural identity, or more precisely, has an alien identity.  Unwittingly, today's architects are beginning to achieve Le Corbusier's dream of Universal Architecture.

There is a growing blandness in architecture today.  You can travel anywhere in the world and see much the same sort of architecture.  I think part of this sameness is the result of language.  If we thought about architecture in the language of the country it was being built in, the architecture would be enframed in the culture and value system of its place.

And I think we would value it more.

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