Don't rely on tricks, design to the letter

The Words between the Spaces
November 21, 2003

It is well known that architects treat words with great suspicion, preferring the visual image to communicate their, sometimes obscure, messages.

A statement such as this is intended to suggest my extensive knowledge of the subject, to make the reader complicit with my point, to show that I am in the know. These and other linguistic tricks are debunked by this important book. While the authors did not write it specifically to help students unpack the hidden agendas in architectural writing, this is undoubtedly one of its most useful applications.

The relationship between architecture and written language is a much-neglected field of inquiry as Thomas Markus, an architect, and Deborah Cameron, a linguist, convincingly prove. Certain linguistic terms now straddle these two disciplinary boundaries - for example, "discourse", "semiotics" and "structuralism". Such words are bandied about in architectural circles, their true meaning becoming increasingly obfuscated through uninformed usage. These and others words are clearly defined by the authors, thus aiding, I would hope, their correct usage in future.

Many architects are loath to clarify their ideological positions and make clear statements of methodology. The same cannot be said of Markus. The introduction and afterword are a remarkably candid statement of where the authors are coming from. It is an "academic book, designed to explore ideas" and lively enough to be easily accessible to undergraduates.

Chapters are dedicated to issues such as "Classification", "Power", "Value", "Heritage" and "National identity". Some are focused on detailed textual analysis to illustrate the ways in which authors convey issues of value in their writings, others more on the meanings of certain words. The book closes with an insightful discussion of the way in which text and words are increasingly interwoven by architects to great effect; Enric Miralles' winning competition submission for the Scottish Parliament being a case in point.

But the chapter "Buildings and their texts" is disappointing as so little time has been spent unpicking key historical and theoretical architectural texts, an obvious target for the authors' talents (their point about the way that architects such as Colin St John Wilson use writing as a form of therapy is remarkably astute). I suspect, however, that this was a conscious decision on their part, preferring to save their attention for areas of text not normally subject to detailed scrutiny, such as design guides. Markus and Cameron are far more interested in the relationship of writing to architecture than in unravelling the "architectonic codes" embedded in buildings.

Flora Samuel is lecturer, Welsh School of Architecture, University of Cardiff.

The Words between the Spaces: Buildings and Language

Author - Thomas A. Markus and Deborah Cameron
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 196
Price - £65.00 and £20.99
ISBN - 0 415 14345 4 and 14346 2

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