Language

Tower of Babel
Unknown Flemish Master - Tower of Babel (Kurpfälzisches Mueseum) (click-2-enlarge)

There is a curious connection between the scientific language we use to share our knowledge and the origin of the architectural models we apply in our practice. The fact that all international scientific communication for centuries was done in Latin sustained the continuous interest of architects in the Greek and Roman architecture, Lex Hermans writes in his book on Classicism. It took about three and a half centuries before other languages could break that hegemony.

In the second half of the nineteenth century in the Netherlands the French and German language made an attempt to reign. They both represented different architecture models. One of the new concepts from Germany was regional architecture, among the innovations from France were first Eclecticism and later the neo-Gothic. As architects studied in Germany or France the grammar to describe the architecture spread.

At the beginning of the twentieth century there was both more German (Bauhaus) and more French (Le Corbusier). There was also some English (Arts & Crafts), a sliver of Russian (Constructivists) and – that was new too – a little Dutch (De Stijl).

Soon after the second world war a hint of French (1968) and an echo of Italian (Rationalists) could not distract from the fact that the American language had become the all encompassing language scientists worldwide communicated in. In time at least in the Netherlands the dominance of ‘English (U.S.)’, as Microsoft Word calls it, has only increased.

In Holland all universities have recently cut their school programs in half, in order to implement the Anglo-Saxon Bachelor-Master system. The PhD program at the Faculty of Architecture of the TU Delft is not called ‘Delftse ontwerpopleiding’, but Delft School of Design: DSD. The architectural theory that is taught there is, as Michael Speaks has pointed out, basically the French philosophy seen through the American eyes sold back to us.

The advantage of having a common language like English is obvious. Instead of small, regional fields of knowledge there now is a world spanning network of it. There is one giant, beating, differentiated body of knowledge. It is all so much more interesting than the one idea the local architect produces in his lifetime. There is an intelligence that forever speeds up, generating new concepts every minute.

The reign of the English language could however have some disadvantages too. Ever more eloquent in their native tongue the American en British have a rhetorical advantage over others, creating an uneven playing field. I wonder if we would have read American architecture theory in Holland if we weren’t so focused on communicating in English.

History proves that once dominant languages fade away; some fast, some slow. Latin is still used in medicine. What languages could we expect to start competing with the American English as the result of an appealing new body of knowledge? Last year South-Korea and Colombia suddenly appeared on the global architecture radar. Are we to expect small countries like that to increase their influence? Will online translation start to play a role in this? Or is the answer much easier? Will we tomorrow all speak Chinese? Are we about to start thinking and practicing like the Chinese?

 

Tower of Babel
Pieter Breughel - Tower of Babel (Museum Boijmans van Beuningen) (click-2-enlarge)

 

Tower of Babel
Hendrik III van Cleve - Tower of Babel (Kröller Müller Museum) (click-2-enlarge)

 

Tower of Babel
Unknown Flemish Master - Tower of Babel (Pinacoteca Nazionale) (click-2-enlarge)

 


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