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How less is more – in more than one idiom

Architecture and language share some surprising similarities.

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Imagine a language in which no word is repeated.

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.


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