The Eye of the Fish

September 11, 2008

The right to write

After a lengthy (some might say excruciating) out-pouring about her experience of the ridiculous difficulties of building (home renovations and building consents), Joanne Black has recently decide to public pronounce on two more fascinating aspects of the architectural world.  Firstly, that the building process is too easy for other people (yes the old “Not-in-my-backyard-especially-when-it’s-Thorndon” syndrome), and secondly, the right for architects to describe their projects using language in a way which is at odds with her own journalistic purity.

The launch of this discussion began a couple of week’s ago in Black’s regular Listener column (6-12 September 2008).  It began: “Architects sometimes spout tiresomely pretentious verbiage” (p. 94).  She has continued in a following column naming the criminal architectural-writers as Studio Pacific Architects, and confessing that she has “now developed a horrified fascination for architects’ descriptions of their own work” (13-19 September 2008, p. 94).  A similar vein was rendered again on yesterday’s National Radio afternoon’s programme “The Panel” with Amanda Millar and Jim Mora.   

What fascinates me is that a member of the journalistic profession – one dedicated to a very limited view of language as reportage and a low reading age (apparently newspaper are written for a reading age of eight, with the exception of Business sections which aim for the lofty maturity of thirteen) – feels the right to be somekind of “word-police.”  More incredible perhaps is that one who presumeably considers she has some craft in writing and word-smithing so crudely conflates the act of writing as commensuate with the act of building.  The conversation on “The Panel” (abridged and as accurate as my transcribing allows for) went something like this:

JB “It’s always my house … it’s the next door neighbours now” …
[reads excerpts from the unnamed architect’s description]

AM “Oh no”

JB “Oh yes”

AM “Oh my goodness – this is Winston-speak”

JB “Blah blah blah blah blah …”

AM “Oh that is extraordinary”

JB “It is astonshing isn’t it?”

JM “So what does that tell you about what the buildings going to look like?”

JB “It tells you they’re hideous I think, that’s what you can read from that.”

JM “The Polynesian star-mapping system sounds interesting.”

AM “Fascinating … Who was this written for?”

JB “Well their clients … But the problem for me is, like I’m in that situation of lots of other people have been, is there is nothing I can do to fight this … In my view it’s vandalism …”

JM “Well can’t you give them some cultural reaction?”

JB ” I’ve been trying to actually yes.””

AM “And I’d like to give some training in how to speak and write simply.”

JB “Well I think I did say the only good thing to come out of this is that it reminds me why I never went over to PR.”

AM “Exactly.”

JM “Perhaps in this case Joanne, the lofty architectural language describing the vision will be matched by the reality of two stunningly beautiful new buildings four storey buildings  … blocking out your sun.”

Architects (and indeed any one) has the right to write how they like.  They also have the right to have ideas that others might not understand and that others might not appreciate.  Why has Black got such a simplistic and narrow view of writing (has she not heard of poetry for example?) … and why does Amanda Millar think simplicity is a universally admirable ambition in language?  These people need to get out more!

I’m not going to evaluate the writing accused, nor the building proposed.  But the right to write is something that needs to remain unquestionable.

Black’s attempt to ridicule another profession’s use of language as amunition to undermine a building project allowable within the community’s agreed rules from her position of power as a Listener columnist is wrong.  So too is her seemingly disingenuous “heritage” argument that the cottages to be demolished should be saved.  Where was Black’s submission on the Central Area District Plan Change? her submission to list her neighbouring “heritage” buildings on the Heritage Schedule?, her submission to protect similar buildings in Te Aro? and her advocacy for greater protection for other, and arguably more significant heritage buildings? – the Forest and Bird Building and Futuna Chapel come to mind.

Let’s not to even begin on journalistic ideas of balance and somekind of relationship to objectivity in a situation so crudely branishing such a blantant “it’s-all-about-me” agenda.

11 - 09 - 08

I reckon the attitudes mentioned in this post are part and parcel of what Germaine Greer dubbed “suburban mediocrity”. Greer used the term in context of her native Australia, but it somewhat rings true of lingering attitudes within NZ as well.

12 - 09 - 08

Nice link. I especially like this little quote -just change the word Australian to New Zealander…:

“I thought that was a particularly patronising, condescending, and dare I say elitist article,” Mr Howard said. “I thought it was pathetic, I really did.
“What she basically says is that the average Australian is too stupid to think about anything that’s the least bit philosophical or important.”

Black is pretty much saying the same thing. She then goes on, in her piece you quote, where she says:

“Press House in Wellington was once described by architects as a building that “engages passersby in a friendly conversation”. I worked there for years and never saw a single person stop to chat to it, although I did witness a few banging their heads against the walls inside.”

Oh so droll. But plainly rather dumb. I would think that even an eight year old could understand how a building can engage in a conversation. For instance: Big Blank Walls – this says to anyone “Keep Out”.

What’s not to understand? Is this woman a total air-head? If so, what is she doing on the airwaves?

12 - 09 - 08

What we really want to know when we read an architechts description is whether the building is watertight.

I think there’s a fair amount of cynicism about the building and architecture industry in this country.

12 - 09 - 08

“a fair amount of cynicism” ? Want to expand on why that might be?

Society of Royals
12 - 09 - 08

“the lofty architectural language describing the vision will be matched by the reality of two stunningly beautiful new buildings four storey buildings … blocking out your sun”

If she’s worried about four-stoprey buildings (horrors! it’s like Hong Kong!), she should have thought twice about living into a place zoned Central Area, with an 18.6m height limit.

“So too is her seemingly disingenuous “heritage” argument that the cottages to be demolished should be saved. ”

And yet she seems like exactly the sort of person who would scream about her own house being listed, because of the limitations it places on what you can do to it.

12 - 09 - 08

hmmm – what do you think she’d make of Le Corbusier and “machines for living”?

13 - 09 - 08

rondo said: “I would think that even an eight year old could understand how a building can engage in a conversation. For instance: Big Blank Walls – this says to anyone “Keep Out”.”

You know, I’m 33 and until a few years ago, I wouldn’t have understood how a building could engage in a conversation. I would have thought it was about a talking building (?!) and not understood how that could make sense and just written it off as pretentious wankery.

But I’ve read a few books and a few blogs and started paying attention to the building around me. It’s good.

Anyway, it occurs to me that architects are not writers. Their training and speciality is creating spaces. They haven’t been to journalism school. They haven’t learned how to write simple news stories. When architects do write, it seems they turn to metaphor to describe in words what they have attempted to achieve with the physical spaces they have created.

There’s that expression “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Well, perhaps architecture is another art/craft that can’t quite adequately be describes using writing.

But you give it your best, anyway.

14 - 09 - 08

As somone who up until a couple of months ago lived in one of the cottages due to be demolished I can confirm that this is most definitely the best course of action. Cold, leaking and mice-infested with little architectual value

14 - 09 - 08

robyn, i wasn’t really aware of that expression “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, although obviously a lot of other people are: there’s a and a and many others – and it appears to have been a Steve Martin expression once upon a time, but it still makes no sense to me. I mean, thousands of people write about music every day. Numerous magazines every month. Entire industries of paper-shufflers depend upon writing about music. And so, equally, why shouldn’t people dance (and write) about architecture too?

There’s an expression that i DO understand – “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” – an oldie but a goody!

but seriously – writing about architecture is a vital part of the job of an architect. Talking, writing, drawing, communicating – whatever method, the thing that an architect or designer needs to get across is the Idea behind the squiggly lines on the paper. For a start – no one is going to pay for it until it has been described in some form or another. Secondly, no space can ever be described purely in straightforward words – perhaps the architects could just have said “we have a big blue box here, and another big red box here” but that will tell you nothing about why the boxes are shaped as they are, what feelings they are trying to evoke, what methods they want to use to get you to buy into the scheme. Architectural writing, like music writing, needs to be passionate.

15 - 09 - 08

Rondo, the phrase “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (IMHO) is about the individual’s experience of music.
The argument goes that everyone hears music in a slightly different way.
We all experience it differently depending on mood, state of mind etc, therefore writing about it is pointless (albeit that it does happen – a lot).

Music is meant to be enjoyed as an individual act, we don’t need someone writing about it to tell us how we felt/feel about it….

I guess highlighting the dichotomies of dancing and architecture is meant to strengthen the (so-called) tenuous link between music and writing….

And I agree with you, writing about architecture is a vital part of a job of an architect.
No they are not trained as journalists, but they don’t have to write like journalists.
They only have to write coherantly about the ideas that provided the genesis and ongoing design of their project.

And yes, they should do it with Real Passion.

15 - 09 - 08

“Anyway, it occurs to me that architects are not writers. Their training and speciality is creating spaces.”

…if only there was more convincing evidence to prove the latter statement to be accurate…

15 - 09 - 08

why is journalism held up as the “gold standard” of writing? I doubt very much that journalistic training is a guarantee of writing excellence – surely it’s just one way of writing … and yes more passion and poetry

15 - 09 - 08

M-D – you are obviously not going to the right spaces by the right architects….

lgm – I’m not sure that jouranalism is being held up as a gold standard.
The writing in the DomPost and The Hearld borders on trashy tabloid fodder at times.
Who cares that Britney’s dog’s leg got caught in the car door? arrggghhhh….

15 - 09 - 08

“M-D – you are obviously not going to the right spaces by the right architects….”

That is the point isn’t it – most of what is experienced in the name of architecture is spatial mediocrity – you do have to go to the right spaces by the right architects, and I find them few and far between…

15 - 09 - 08

The other thing to consider with any sort of writing is the intended audience. Newspaper articles will have a very broad audience, but an architect writing about a planned building for a client will be writing for a much smaller audience, with a different style.

And this in turn brings me to Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everyone” about the internet and stuff. One of the things he notes is that the internet makes available the sort of writing that previously was only available to small audiences – a teenager’s friend reads her note, a group of scientists peer-review a paper, engineers read an description of a new dam. Now all these things available online to be read by people who won’t understand them, will find the subject boring and will wonder why someone would spent so much time writing something that this person happens to have no interest in.

So could it be that Joanne Black found this piece of architectural writing offensive simply because she was not the intended audience? It wasn’t written for her so when she reads it, she has trouble understanding it.

15 - 09 - 08

good point Robyn – I absolutely agree – but do you think, in this age of plurality where we come across writing written for audiences that we aren’t apart of, that a new understanding and respect for the diversity of writing might emerge? I certainly don’t expect to fully understand a biochemist’s or engineer’s writing, and acknowledge my complete lack of specialist knowledge in these areas. I’d like to think I wouldn’t accuse them of bad writing because of my own limitations in their disciplines. I guess it’s the lack of self-awareness displayed in this situation and the inherent desire for a one-size fits all approach.

M-D – no doubt architecture is like any profession – there are some hopeless ones and some good ones – hence the spatial consequences!!

15 - 09 - 08

lgm: Understanding will happen, eventually. Maybe not us but our kids.

I guess one problem is that while scientific writing is easily identifiable as “not for you”, other writing might not be. Especially if it’s doesn’t use a lot of slang or jargon and seems like something you might ordinarily read.

16 - 09 - 08

lgm – exactly… which is why creating ‘spaces’ as a speciality of architects is a fairly bold claim (it is a speciality of good architects…) – creating buildings is much closer to the truth…

Same goes for journalism – their speciality is in writing the news, not in good writing per se

…but remember also that Black is writing as a columnist – which I fear is something akin to what a journalist might scrape from the sole of their shoe…

Does anyone still read the Listener anyway? I recommend using Google reader (or equivalent) to collect all of the rss feeds from websites and blogs that are actually relevant and meaningful to you… you can eliminate all of the dross that is a feature of NZ ‘journalism’ and focus on what really matters for you. Magazines and newspapers really are relics of the past…

16 - 09 - 08

The Listener has reinvented itself as a weekly rag for middle-aged people concerned about their investment properties, expanding waistlines and wrinkles.

It says nothing to me about my life.

16 - 09 - 08

You’re probably bang-on right about the Listener Robyn, which is why Black’s tawdry gossip column has moved to the place formerly taken by Bradford’s Hollywood. But, while i ignore those irrelevant ‘opinion’ pieces, I do still find that it is a valuable source of info on book and film reviews.

The media I am more concerned about though, would be the Dominion Post, which is getting more anorexic in terms of news every day, and seems to have recently reinvested itself as a cover sheet for double-spread supermarket advertising pages. It’s absolutely appalling. The world section is now just one and a quarter pages of actual world news, with the rest being adverts and letters etc. And even their actual ‘news’ pieces are all bought in, not from AP, but from irrelevant syndicated right-wing (fascist) Murdoch-style papers, presumably associated with Fairfax. Most of the time the ‘style’ pieces are brought (or bought) straight in from London or LA, neither of which would appear to be useful or relevant to Wellington’s southern hemisphere seasons, while all the items on foreclosure on houses, mountain lions living in abandoned McMansions, and such articles are pretty damn irrelevant to us in Wellington.