If these four walls could talk

Words and Buildings
July 26, 2002

Adrian Forty has produced a fascinating book about architecture by taking up a basic question: how does architecture manage without words, and how is it reflected in the use of words? His approach is unusual: he appears not to be offering a philosophical treatise on architecture so much as a practical manual. Words are in question, rather than language, so we are faced with a list of words, a vocabulary; and words are addressed to buildings, which exist as facts of life before any question of architecture is raised. So his attack has positivistic overtones.

Forty is professor of the history of architecture at the Bartlett School, University College London, and his approach is appropriate for an institute that was created in the name of utility, and for a professor who is historically the successor to Reyner Banham. Banham defined architecture during the 1960s as, in essence, a question of acknowledging function's primacy over form, with a preference for the tradition of engineering design, and his influence has probably contributed to the present dominance of high-tech design in Britain. Since then we have had the semiological revolution, and a wider acceptance that architecture and all designed objects are things open to interpretation as part of a human cultural inheritance. We may, however, accept his approach as a useful limitation, as a practical way of approaching a subject that is momentous and full of philosophical and historical questions that have never quite been resolved. It enables the author to cut a way into a dangerous jungle, and to expose a lot of strangely familiar remains en route.

In spite of the determination to stay close to facts and to avoid building a specious superstructure, the book has an argument. We are dealing with the way words have been selected and used to promote a particular view of architecture, the concept indeed of modern architecture. The book is in two sections: the first has six chapters, each dealing with a key concept in this argument. The second section has 18 words, each one important in the definition of modernism. Each subdivision creates opportunities, limits the horizon so that the glare is reduced and the detail is exposed. Along the way, we come across hundreds of interesting insights, casting new light on a history that we thought was exhausted - the story of modernism. The well-known examples reappear, but in a new order and in an unexpected way.

Forty is aware of the pitfalls of assuming that language is an objective system. As he points out, words are useful in spite of their inadequacy, indeed because of it. They operate as units in a system of differences, and this accounts for their flexibility in the face of ideas and phenomena. We rush to the dictionary in the course of our arguments to refute our adversaries, but the dictionary is not a directory, like a telephone directory, where names and numbers are irreducibly paired. The meanings given in the dictionary are supplied in the very same words whose meanings we search. It is a circular system. Moreover, words can designate abstractions as concrete things, and that is why they are such a powerful medium.

There is an interesting thing about the use of words by architects: as architecture became more abstract, during the century of abstract art, it began to benefit more from the abstract aspect of words. This is the key insight of the book, as it sets out to compare past and present uses of certain words. It emerges that there is a vocabulary of modern architecture made of words that have acquired meanings specific to their use by modern architects and critics. "Space", "form" and "design" are inseparable from 20th-century architecture, as is "function" and its derivatives. Other words such as "composition" have almost disappeared. "Space" is a word that was transformed by the use made of it by August Schmarzov, who in a publication of 1893 proposed a conception of space as aesthetic object, and as such it became the essential property of architecture. By 1941, when Siegfried Giedion published Space, Time and Architecture , the concept of space as a field of perception had become part of the myth of functionalist architecture.

The pleasure of reading this book is due to the freshness with which such changes are noticed and elucidated. There is no single chronology, but within each category the chronological history of its evolution is traced, a movement that mirrors and reiterates the broad history of ideas of which it forms a part. The detail is meticulous, but the thought follows a wider vision that is guided by an overall sense of the cultural horizon. The author's self-limitation to the lexicon of modern architecture does not circumscribe but serves to illuminate, the steps in the evolution of thought that he deals with. In this approach, he acknowledges his debt to Raymond Williams's Keywords (1966).

It is particularly gratifying to find some recognition in Britain of the power and subtlety of Colin Rowe's criticism. Forty's analysis of Rowe's method, which was to focus on the space between lived experience and mental schema, is incisive, and shows how much Rowe was a modernist in his acceptance of the power of abstract forms. In Britain, Rowe's work has, on the whole, evoked a discreet silence. An author who dealt with Le Corbusier and Palladio in the same breath must be suspected of postmodernism, in the particular sense by which most British critics seem to regard that as a contagious disease. In other words, Forty is free from the ideological blinkers that have so reduced the scope of critical thinking in this country. We can ascribe a high degree of objectivity to this author, not least because he is clearly aware that language is far from objective the moment it is applied to any ongoing situation.

By adopting this no-nonsense format, the author avoids having to create a hierarchy of ideas, or erecting a structure that would aspire to total explanatory power. The space given to each key word varies, in a way that does not exactly create a hierarchy of importance. This may follow the play of accident, or it may conceal personal preferences. One would have expected that the analysis of "design", for example, would have brought in the concept of industrial design, and allowed more discussion of the Italian enjoyment of design, relating architecture to industrial products and the individual lifestyle; a connection that does a lot to explain the character of design in the 1950s, before brutalism struck.

One would also have liked some more discussion of the relation of theory to practice, and some exploration of the stylistic steps by which modernism evolved from the white-walled classicism of the 1930s, through 1950s sentimentalism to brutalist realism, from glass curtain walls to historicism, to minimalism, to high-tech and latter-day expressionism. These stylistic vagaries all took place under the supposed theory of functionalism and a theoretical discussion that hardly varied in its professional devotion to the client, the user and the environment. So the theory of functionalism is clearly impregnated with ideology, and has no specific explanatory power.

The importance of abstraction is recognised here, but the relationship of abstraction in language and abstraction in art is not brought into question. Is architecture not inescapably a major form of expression, and an art within its peculiar limitations? The fundamental discoveries of 20th-century art have been abstract thought (Picasso et al ) and conceptual thought (Duchamp). Abstract thought, for Klee, was an approach to objectivity, yet it was in essence a liberation from literalism and the rule of mimesis, and so a freeing of the artist's subjectivity. This contradiction has not yet been fully explained. How has it affected the evolution of architecture? Forty, with his integrity and his refusal to take the easy way, is ideally placed to generate this discussion. This book is an essential step to the more objective evaluation of 20th-century architecture.

Robert Maxwell is emeritus professor of architecture, Princeton University, US.

Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture

Author - Adrian Forty
ISBN - 0 500 34172 9
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £28.00
Pages - 335

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