Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Contentious Vocabulary

One of the most crucial aspects of interpretive scholarship is the definition of one’s terms. Words that are often taken for granted can be investigated for their hidden meanings, inflections that reveal deeper thoughts and associations. And I realize that I’ve been using lots of words in this blog so far that I probably need to examine (the word “unpack” is the trendy PoMo metaphor for this kind of work; although the term has its appeal, I’m going to avoid it just because of the community that most frequently uses it).

The following definitions are only starting points — I’m going to define them firmly, as though I’ve settled on them, but I’ll have a fair bit of research to do before I fully believe any of them. Also, because they’re definitions, they’re by necessity abbreviated. Entire libraries have been written about each of them, and deservedly so. Think of this as a working dictionary.

Architecture — The professional practice of designing places for habitation. In my lexicon, architecture is not a word to be applied to the buildings themselves, which are just buildings. Architecture is a body of practices and activities that lead to solving problems through making places.

Building — A constructed object whose primary purposes are human shelter and organizational support.

Design — The intellectual practice of imagining and planning a solution to a problem. This solution may be a physical object, but may equally be a process or a social arrangement. Architects do design, of course, but the term isn’t limited to architecture. Software design, research design, web design, curriculum design, and furniture design all deserve the term. Automotive design, fashion design and graphic design may truly be design, if they’re solving a problem like aerodynamics or information legibility; but they may not really be design at all if their intention is primarily decorative.

Environmental Design — An overarching term for the professions that collectively design places at multiple scales. At the least, environmental design includes urban and regional planning, landscape architecture, architecture, and interior design.

Art — The practice of extending the capabilities of materials and actions in order to create objects or performances that are ends in themselves. We encounter those outcomes with aesthetic or intellectual regard rather than through any presumption of utility.

Craft — The practice of making useful objects with great care and intention. Craft connotes attention to every detail through conscious decisions rather than habit and reflex. But the usefulness and performance of the ultimate object is still foremost in the craftsperson’s judgment. “Craft brewing,” for instance, stands in opposition to mass beer manufacturing by Anheuiser-Busch and the like, but the outcome in both cases is judged by the drinking of the beer. My pool cue is the result not merely of aesthetic decisions, but also of curing the wood for two years before turning it, of locating the center of gravity slightly forward of the grip, of selecting the taper and finish of the shaft, of a tip made of seven layers of laminated pig leather, all of which are done to allow for shots to be made accurately and consistently.

Habitation — The physical and emotional content of place experience. This is a more expansive term than “use,” for instance, which implies a focus on the physical and logistical functions; but it’s also more thoroughly experiential than mere viewing. Habitation implies the full employment of all of our senses, of our mobility, of our histories and preferences, and of our cognitive abilities.

Place — A physical environment that is invested with meaning by an inhabitant. The shorthand I’ve often used is Place = Space + Story. We have relationships with the places in our lives, relationships that are often as rich and complex as the relationships we have with people. One of my grad students did her dissertation on places that children found “friendly,” and learned that the full array of friendship characteristics (shared interests, mutual caring and support, equal exchange, and so on) were easily identified by kids when they talked about places in their neighborhoods.

Social Justice — The attempt to rectify inequality of opportunity, access to resources, or burdens borne. The outcome of social justice is not equality and uniformity; it is the removal of barriers and historical biases that are unfairly applied to members of a particular demographic group (defined by gender, ethnicity, sexuality, physical ability, and so on). It applies not to differences achieved and maintained through merit and effort, but rather to differences over which the individual has little control. For instance, the schools of the Oakland school district have substantially different resources depending on whether they’re in the wealthier and whiter hills or in the low-income and Black/Latino flatlands, but the children attending those schools have no ability to change their neighborhood, their families’ economic circumstances and prior education levels, or the languages that are spoken at home.

Environmental Stewardship — The attempt to make the wisest and most enduring use of the various natural resources that surround us. If we take as our starting point the idea of ecosystem — the interconnections of plant and animal life with their atmospheric, aquatic and geological surroundings — then environmental stewardship is the responsibility for monitoring and ensuring the long-term health and balanced operation of that system and all of its components.

Humane — A behavior or attitude of kindness, benevolence, and support.

Material Culture — The collective concepts and beliefs of a particular group of people as expressed through the objects that they create, use, and value.

Theory — Our best current understanding of how facts come together into systems. Theories are primarily explanatory; that is, they are the “deep structures” that explain the connections between innumerable individual phenomena. Things fall down all the time; the theory of gravity attempts to explain how and why that’s always true. Animals look different all over the place, depending on their environment and their role in the food chain; the theory of evolution attempts to explain how and why that’s always true. Once we’ve understood and refined a theory, we can test it by predicting the outcome of something that hasn’t yet happened (the philosopher Karl Popper has defined science as knowledge that is falsifiable; that is, we can prove a theory wrong or incomplete through providing evidence that the theory can’t adequately explain). By this definition, I have no idea what architectural theory is.

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