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.

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