Jonathan Meades has opinions about many things. Whether the subject be concrete, Christianity, football or fish fingers, the former food critic isn’t shy about sharing what he thinks about the world. Meades has a particularly intense style with which he delivers his incisive observations. Trying to make sense of every quip, jab and snarl of the relentless monologue is a bit like trying to catch your breath with your head stuck out of a car window as you hurtle along a motorway at full speed. In his latest onslaught - Jonathan Meades on Jargon - he dismantles the way in which different groups in our society use language with different intentions, providing us with plenty to ponder along the way.
As architects the words that accompany our projects are often an afterthought or an unwelcome inconvenience. We use them to describe what already exists, whether that be a tangible reality or a fully formed idea in need of communcation, and we think that’s all the words do; describe the project. As Jonathan Meades points out, the words we use and how we choose to order and deliver them, speak of more than simply the subject of their description. The offer an insight into the person delivering the words, how they see themselves and what their intentions are.
Slang does exactly this. While Meades celebrates slang for its wit, its uncensored directness, its irony, and its contempt for the powerful, he acknowledges that it is ultimately futile as far as getting through to the aforementioned powerful are concerned; but that is not the point. The point of slang is the creativity it demands in order to communicate the essence of reality, to communicate the vital:
“Slang is the expression of what we think, rather than what we are enjoined to think, what we’re bullied into not thinking, what we’re liable to censor ourselves for thinking … Slang deflates the preposterous notion of human perfection, it acknowledges what we are rather than what we should be, what we should be, that is according to our supposed betters . . . Slang is about showing off, about increasing one’s idiolect, about finding a better expression for blowjob than blowjob, it’s about flexing one’s lingo muscle, it’s an expression of verbal dexterity, imagination costs nothing, the pleasure of slang is in the making, it’s a boast”
The language used by architects - and let’s face it, most of us here in BK City - is pitifully unimaginative when held up alongside slang. Our presentations, project descriptions and even Bouwpub conversations are bursting with jargon - ‘juxtaposition’, anyone?
“Jargon is everything that slang is not; decentrifugal, evasive, drably euphemistic, unthreatening, conformist . . . it is delusional, it inflates pomposity, officiousness and self importance rather than punctures them. Slang mocks . . . Jargon is the language of the trained liar, the professionally mendacious, the dishonesty trainee who learns from his masters.”
Among those most affected with such “poverty of thought” in relation to language are politicians, barristers, journalists, but worst of all according to Meades are artists. Although architects aren’t mentioned by their fiercely defended legal title, they are most certainly considered part of the ‘artist’ gang. Why, though, is our use of language so riddled with vacuous pretence? Maybe we’re trying to be clever, maybe we’re just ignorantly following those ahead of ourselves, or maybe we’re just trying to fit in. These excuses may be just about passable at ‘student’ level where the ‘real world’ is spoken of with a mystical reverence - a place which requires an abandonment of all the skills, passion and ideas we’ve collected in the ‘unreal world’ - but what are our grown up peers trying to prove with their relentless butchering of language?
Perhaps the inability, or at best unwillingness, of architects to describe with clarity whatever it is they are supposed to be describing touches on some truths that run far deeper than an unimaginative choice of words. Could it be that the swirl of architectural jargon that orbits the vital core of a project is never intended to describe and inform but to obscure and perplex? Are architects in fact so insecure about the validity of architecture they produce - not to mention the rhetoric that precedes and follows - that instead they rely on creating an illusion of intelligence by baffling and belittling those unschooled in the conventions of architectural bullshit to maintain any kind of authority?
Jonathan Meades will, unlike our faculty, make you ask questions about our collective complicity in the fraud that is architecture speak. Whether it’s a bewildering studio description, a tutor’s cryptic critique, or a peer’s un-ironic ego trip via every multi-syllabled cliché they can wrap their tongue around, we should never be scared to ask, simply, ‘what do you mean?’.