Architects tend to imitate the language of their clients and critics because they themselves are visual, visceral people for whom the thing itself and not a description of it is the dominant motivator. It has always been like that: the architects of the gothic revival spoke passionately in terms of morality and truth because that was the terminology the church-builders who employed them wanted to hear. And that has never subsided: buildings are still ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or ‘honest’ or ‘pastiche’. And ‘bad’ buildings are somehow morally ‘wrong’, and their architects lesser people because of it. This – and the whole business of delivering one-line judgments – is early Victorian language, and these terms are completely useless when applied to most buildings.
Architects, in fact, have something to learn from novelists, and perhaps especially writers of stories for children, who are adept at describing buildings in ways that relate closely to real life. Rather than presenting them in terms of ‘concepts’ – such a mid-century way of doing things! – they often offer glimpses into the character of places through vignettes: an entrance way, a hall, a room, a view. They leave the rest to the imagination of the reader, just as listeners to the best radio dramas develop the characters mostly in their own heads.
That approach can be applied to architectural criticism and history. The lesson is this: abandon the idea that there is one way of describing a building and instead draw on the many sources that we use to evaluate culture generally to give a building its due respect. For the great novelists, a building does not play a single role – it has a number of different aspects that each reflect the story and the span of the narrative.