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Verbal Energy

How less is more – in more than one idiom

Architecture and language share some surprising similarities.

By Ruth Walker / May 23, 2012



Imagine a language in which no word is repeated.

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That was architect Léon Krier's challenge to his audience the other day.

It wouldn't be much of a language, is the point he was getting at. However much individual expression it would afford, it wouldn't do much for actual communication.

He was taking issue with another architect who had evidently set up this "no word repeated" notion as a model for an idiom in architecture – an approach to design in which each building is unique, completely original. At first blush, this sounds like a good thing.

But the critique of such an approach is that it tends to result in "object buildings" – collections of structures that aren't quite on speaking terms with one another – rather than buildings that work together in harmonious wholes.

I was present among Mr. Krier's audience of "cognoscenti and people willing to learn" as he called them, out of a longstanding interest in cities and urban design. I admire these people and am fascinated by what they do, but I am continually reminded how different my calling is from theirs. They deal in space; I deal in time: Even a piece that is not a narrative has a kind of temporal unfoldment from beginning to end. They draw; I write. I work in the abstractions of words and ideas. The work of architects, on the other hand, is concrete – and stone and brick and wood as well.

And yet, there's a sense in which architecture is a language, too, with vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Architects also talk about "the vernacular," maybe more often than grammarians. It's taken me a while to get the hang of what architects mean by the term, but they use it in contrast with "classical" – to set off the charming cottage, for instance, against the graceful church or the noble courthouse.

And we speak of "style" in both language and architecture, remembering that the word "style" comes from the Greek for "pen," suitable for creating both words and pictures, such as Krier's elegant drawings, which seem to come from another time.

Krier maintains that when the whole works harmoniously, there doesn't need to be much detailing or decoration of the individual structures. There's a lesson here for writers. Much of our language is the very common "function words" we use so much we may not think of them as language: pronouns, articles, and the like. Even with our "content words" – the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs – we're often better off sticking with simplicity over elaboration, with the accepted use of a word rather than a coinage that may baffle a reader. It can be a lovely thing to find just the right word, but not every sentence requires an expedition through Roget's Thesaurus.

So, too, in architecture, says Krier. Remembering his growing up in Europe, he noted that there was little "architecture" in his village, just a few columns in the church. "It's really remarkable how little you need."

Or, to quote another architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: "Less is more."

But wait a minute: Mies was a modernist. It doesn't feel quite right to give that school of architecture the last word in a column, even a language column, that owes so much to Krier's traditionalism.

So for my punch line I'll riff on the longtime slogan of the US Marine Corps: Sometimes all we need is a few good words.

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