Architects always seem to get quite a bit of criticism for adopting strange, eccentric and or opaque language. Recently a friend told me that he heard a Project Manager say that “everything architects write is shit,” I am not entirely sure but maybe that PM had been reading this blog. Especially this extremely popular blog post.
Weasel words defined
This prompted me to think about this and the pressures on architects to employ weasel words to get work. A few years back Paul Keating’s speechwriter Don Watson identified and wrote a book about same weasel words amongst corporates types and the political class. In his introduction he wrote:
Weasel words are the words of the powerful, the treacherous and the unfaithful, spies, assassins and thieves. Bureaucrats and ideologues love them. Tyrants cannot do without them.
To speak the words the powerful speak is to obey them, or at least to give up all outward signs of freedom. Stalin was not the first tyrant to be so feared that those around him preferred to imitate even his malapropisms than give him any reason to think they were not in awe of his authority.
The same mimicry can be expected wherever the official language is a kind of code that we must at least appear to understand, or be excluded. It happens in democracies, and in businesses and government departments. Today it is found everywhere the language of the information age is (compulsorily) spoken; everywhere the management revolution has been; everywhere marketing goes. This is language without possibility. It cannot convey humour, fancy, feelings, nuance or the varieties of experience. It is cut off and cuts us off from provenance – it has no past.
The public language of architects
Certainly, the same kind of miasma exists in the public life of architecture. Its true for construction and the related disciplines and I am breathing this stuff in all the time in marketised academia. Who is the worst I wonder? The development industry, the real estate industry or the contractors. Architects should know better to avoid the butchering of language, and overuse of signifiers cut adrift from any real architectural theory. For architects weasel words often accompany weasel images.
My point is not that architects do not need a dose of “plain English” speaking. They already do that. For example, a quick scour of a few architects websites revealed words like client focus, inspiration, evolving, inclusive, distinctive, responsive, quality and of course context. Architects are all these things. But I hope that in and across all the architectural websites and hashtags there might be a little more clarity, nuance and resistance.
How you talk about projects, like urban design or architecture is just as important as how you might represent them. In recent years with the rise and rise of social media, it seems like every second, Facebook post, Twitter byte, Insta Story or Linked-In post is pushing a new positive and inspiring line about the urban and architectural world. Written in a way that attempts to grab you distract and then grab your mind for a few seconds in the attention economy. Consequently. It seems with the rise of social media we have seen a corresponding surge of weasel words and slogans. With the demise of theory and history and any subject that might help architecture students analyse these words.
Are architects flying into a vortex of dumb and dumber? So here is my own list of Weasel words specific to architects and urbanists. So what is an urbanist anyway? When you hear someone say one of these words or phrases its best that the alarms go off in your head and you drill down into the detail.
The following is a warning and an alert as to what these words might really mean. So here is my list of weasel hashtags. For each #weaselword I added the word architecture or city to and did a Google image search to see what would happen.
Usually followed by words like Architecture, Urbanism, City, City Transition Holy fuck you can add low-carbon as a descriptor to just about anything. Maybe it doesn’t really matter if haven’t actually done a Carbon Audit or you emissions are through the roof.
The low clouds are not carbon emissions
This one has really been overused. We should stop using this word and think of something better. This one is also like Low Carbon. But whereas Low Carbon sounds a bit more techy and quantitative, this one just sounds like mush. But hey sustainable architecture is this in image search.
Naturally 6 stars for this one
What this really means is the opposite. It means dumb cities. Dumb cities with awful curtain walls, mixed-use retail and glassy-eyed towers in the portfolios of middle manager real estate types. The Google image search threw up this.
Just oozing smarts
Ok, I know regular readers of the blog will be accustomed to my hatred of the cult of parametricism. But I could resist. It’s like a label you can use to pretend you have done architecture. Googling Parametric studio gets you 9,960,000 results. When I Google image searched Parametric architecture I got this:
Not so far down the parametric image food chain you start getting timber stuff like this.
#Liveable = Melbourne. Yes, equals full stop. Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city. What else could it possibly mean? When I Google image searched Liveable I just got Melbourne:
It’s a great place to sleep out if you are homeless.
This one means usually means we are going to build a massive tower on top of a tiny little historic building. When I Google image searched Visionary architecture I got this:
Those crazy architects !
It should mean when the climate change catastrophe comes how will our community recover. Or it might mean how we can recover from any kind of volatility. But when I Google image searched resilient architecture I got this:
How could that design not be resilient?
Usually means “we are going to try and do something different that our middle-brow time and cost outcome clients will not like.” Can also be used to explain, to the uninitiated, why the scheme is a completely under designed ad-hoc dog’s breakfast disaster. When I Google image searched innovative architecture I got this:
Innovative and blurry.
So let’s hear it for those architects and urbanists who bother to think about the words and images they make and send out into the media streams. Let’s applaud those architects who refuse to adopt the official languages of information tyranny and capital. Architectural practice of worth will always pursue architecture as a minor literature in the hope that it can still be a gathering point of critical resistance.