Jenni Young

Architectura Vocabulorum


Evelyn asserted that the art of architecture was embodied in four kinds of person […] fourthly, architectus verborum – in whom he classed himself – the architect of words, skilled in the craft of language, and whose task was to talk about the work and interpret it to others.1

The role of language in architecture has long been disputed; in his book, Words and Buildings, Adrian Forty argues against the assumption that “seeing bears no relation to being told about it,” that architects should build rather than talk.2 Forty highlights the importance of language in architecture, explaining that architecture is often used to describe and explain architecture, not just in articulating our experience of the built form but throughout the entire process of design, explaining drawings and developing ideas. Forty describes the process of creating a building from a client’s request by: producing an idea, which is then drawn, translated into a building, and then inhabited or encountered. The final experience is articulated by talking and writing, as well as drawing and photography, but at every stage along the way language is present. Words are exchanged between the client and architect, the architect presents the design and describes it to the client, planners, constructors and the public; “even the encounter with a work of architecture, its occupation, is itself rarely a wholly non-verbal affair. (‘No, that’s the fire exit – the main entrance is over here…’).”3 Ultimately, the importance of architecture over the years has been in the design itself, and its production, but without writing the design can lack clarity and understanding. Iain Borden supports Forty’s argument that language is a vital part of architecture; architecture can be explored through drawing, but without writing architectural theory would not have developed and pushed architecture in its pursuit of new forms of expression.

Words are also a way of exploring new territories, new ideas, new kinds of architecture – from the Roman architectural theorist Vitruvius to the modern Robert Venturi some of the most important and influential works of architecture have been books and other kinds of writing. Indeed, without these words there would be no buildings, no architects and no architectural study.4

Dictionaries record the meaning and use of words in a formal and comprehensive manner. They can tell us when a word has more than one meaning and give us examples of when to use it. They give you a snapshot of a word at a particular point in time and use historical quotes to back it up. A number of dictionaries are intended to explain specialist or technical terminology. For architecture and urban studies there are a number of examples, dictionaries for builders, geographers, designers and even the architectural enthusiast.5 Robert Cowan’s Dictionary of Urbanism poses the important question, which any dictionary is trying to answer, the extent to which specific words relate to specific things. Architectural dictionaries give details of structures and design features, some include illustrations and others may have backgrounds on notable architects, but rarely do they describe the world that we cannot see around us. Other pieces of work have looked at words specific to ‘culture and society’ (Raymond Williams, Keywords) or ‘modernist architectural criticism’ (Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings). All of these pieces of work depend on a ‘code’ of language, a universal (albeit geographical, cultural, or temporally limited) understanding of their meaning, even the way the dictionary is organised follows a code. It is a way of organising the world in a systematic manner and maintaining order in a world full of possibilities.

A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words but their tasks.6

My work is not a dictionary in the traditional sense, it is not all encompassing; it fits more closely to early ‘dictionaries’ or ‘vocabulorum,’ which were often based on the author’s favourite words.7 The rest of this work can be read as a series of entries in a dictionary. Each entry will look at how that word conveys meaning(s), and has done over time, how we use the word and the cultural history of the material object we use it for. The words themselves are based on personal choice, much like the early dictionaries, but each describes an element of everyday architecture, and has a significant cultural importance.

Whilst I am using the structure of a dictionary, and, like a linguist, I want to understand how language works, this is an interdisciplinary project, drawing on anthropological, philosophical, scientific, historic and architectural ideas.8 I am interested in the word, but more importantly the material object that the word suggests, and our experience of it. For each entry, the first section is a new reading of the word as it appears in the dictionary, reordered and bringing in discussion of its cultural history in order to approach the word from different angles, and look at different interpretations. This has developed through a personal study of the words, so where I have found things of particular interest I have pursued them further and often this means jumping from an architectural subject to one that isn’t in order to give a synopsis suggestive of a dictionary. The second part of each entry is intended to reflect on the architectural ideas and as I add each word to my ‘architectura vocabulorum’ we will develop an understanding of what these words bring to a discussion of architecture, and how important their complex meaning and history is in creating an ‘image’ of the object in architecture, both in design and writing.

  1. Evelyn, J. ‘Account of Architects and Architecture’ in Forty, A. Words and Buildings (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000) p.11
  2. Forty, A. Words and Buildings (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000) p.12-13
  3. Forty p.32-33
  4. Borden, I. The Dissertation: An Architecture Student’s Handbook (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2000) p.1
  5. For example: Bru, E. (et al) The Metapolis Dictionary of Advanced Architecture: city, technology and society in the information age (Barcelona: Actar, 2003); Pile, S. and Thrift, N. Cities A-Z (London: Routledge, 2000); and Caves, R. W. (ed) Encyclopedia of the City (London: Routledge, 2005)
  6. Bataille, G. ‘L’informe’ (1929) in Forty p.119
  7. Baines, P. and Haslam, A. Type and Typography (London: Laurence King, 2002) p.31; The first rhyming dictionary, Manipulus Vocabulorum, was produced by Peter Levens in 1570.
  8. For a discussion of the role of language and particularly the study of semantics, I have looked at Kreidler, C. Introducing English Semantics (London: Routledge, 1998) p.3

This is a short excerpt from the final dissertation for my Bachelors degree, but it is also one of the key ideas that has followed me in my work every since. For this particular application, I went on to explore three words: bed, dust and passage. There were many other words that didn’t quite make the cut, and I have always kept the original research, imagining one day I would continue it… instead I keep finding new ways of exploring the topic of architecture and writing that intrigue me.

As you can see from the chapter on ‘passage’ below, the dissertation was also an experiment in layout – playing with that of the dictionary to give a hierarchy to the different criticisms.

The word ‘passage’ to me suggests possibility. It does this because it is suggestive of movement. Just as dust suggests an architecture that moves, so does passage, but, unlike dust. which is an object of movement itself, the word ‘passage’ suggests the movement of people.


Architecture is not a static object, we move through it, and it encourages movement. Although we fix our identity to places, our ‘hometown’, our ‘bedroom’, we are much more transient. We spend our days moving through architecture, and exploring the built environment. The idea of a flow of movement transfers to the concept of passage as it has been used in architectural discourse. ‘Passage,’ both the space and the concept, often form the setting for a discussion about feminist space.

Despite expecting architectural dictionaries to deal with the most architectural of the three words I have chosen, the only reference was in the Dictionary of Urbanism, which referred to the nineteenth century arcades of Paris. But just looking at the word we can form the link between passages to the Parisian arcades and back to Jane Rendell’s rendering of passages as gendered space and their treatment of prostitutes. The image that words create, in this case a passage as either a space of transition and possibility, or a dark and dangerous place to be avoided at night, is not always so literal. The abstract image of the passage as we each imagine it can be the focus of architectural thought; the possibilities in this case are endless.

Footfalls echo in the memory,
Down the passage which we did not take,
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden.

~Excerpt from T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton (1943)

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