If Roland Barthes teaches us (in his Mythologies) that language is always pointing somewhere else beyond the literal meaning of words, Forty reminds us that even the basic definition of common words is muddied simply through their constantly changing and evolving history. Words and Buildings, A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture is a reminder that even though we think we know what we mean by simple words such as space, form, order, function or user, there is, in fact, very little agreement on their use. Forty’s book is a very limited dictionary, comprising only 18 words, but these words are central terms in the discourse of modern architecture. And because they underlie much of the theory (and what we think we know about modern architecture) the fact that their meaning is muddled is problematic. What can we actually say we understand about modern architecture if the architects who proclaimed modernism base it on a new attitude towards space and form, when no actual agreement on what these terms mean exists? Forty does not just reveal subtle differences between different polemicists use of the word – he digs deep enough to demonstrate that in some cases the philosophical underpinning of the words are diametrically opposed.
Forty’s method is to take us through a etymological journey for each word, starting with its first appearance and often how its underlying premise is based on either Platonic or Aristotelian roots. Forty fleshes out the historical circumstances that lead to changes in the meaning of each word, and these are illuminating, as you become aware of how architecture and its language struggle to keep up with new ways of thinking about the discipline.
For me, the two most significant words Forty discusses are ‘form’ and ‘space’. These very central words have some of the most complex and difficult history. There are some interesting repercussions to this. One is that the dismissal of modern architecture of often based on the way in which modernism focused on space and form at the expense of other criteria. Yet, if what is meant by space and form is questionable, here narrow and there very wide, the basis of the critique of modernism comes under question. What we find is that despite the caricatural and simplified accounts of modern architecture and its interest in space and form we have in fact a much more complex history and variable meanings to the terms and hence what modernism itself was. A second repercussion is that some terms, particularly ‘form’ have in themselves come under a great deal of attack and negative connotation. Again, the complex history and less than clear and universal definition of what form means leads us to question what it was about the word or concept that was so offensive. Or was it that only a particular meaning and use of form was deemed negative and problematic, and if so, what do we lose when the word as a whole with all its variant meanings is denigrated?
It is realisations like these that make this one of the key books for any student or practising architect today. This is not a book that is going to date or age – many of the words continue to be used with yet new meanings and concepts applied to them and the book reminds us that maybe we do not communicate clearly enough what we mean by them. The book challenges us to be clearer about words we take for granted and to understand their historical contingency. But it also raises the question of whether the various critiques we have had of this and that kind of architecture have merit when the words have never been recognised in all their complexity.
It is worth noting that Words and Buildings does not only consist of the mini-dictionary, but also includes six essays dealing with words and language in various ways. One of the most significant is ‘On Difference: Masculine and Feminine’ which charts the history of the gendered meanings of architectural terms. This essay neatly gets around many of the more simplistic feminist critiques of architecture (all towers are phallic, etc.) and demonstrates how the very language we use to talk about architecture privileges derived terms associated with perceived male qualities over those that refer to stereotypical female attributes. We discover that women architects (Forty cites Zaha Hadid) may be no less guilty in propagating the idea that strength, clarity, angularity and muscularity are better than things which are ambiguous or indirect. This is not flawed because women are actually ambiguous or indirect but because the tradition of these and other qualities have picked up negative associations simply on the fact that they were once considered female traits. ‘Describing the Social’ is another key essay that shows how language lets down the attempt by architects to engage with the social side of architecture.
Though the book engages with many philosophical ideas and origins of concepts it is in general accessible to undergraduates, even if all that is gleaned on the first reading is that key concepts and words are not as clear cut as them seemed. Subsequent readings reveal more complexity making the book one that continues to challenge you as your understanding of architectural history and theory grow.