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Architecturally Speaking


As a monolinguist I may have the occasional observation to make about languages other than English, the one I speak or at least try to. The French, you my know, count in twenties, presumably because they have twenty digits (fingers and toes, to you and me); coincidentally, so do Gaelic-speaking Scots. The last time any one in this country counted in twenties may have been Abraham Lincoln on November 19th, 1863: “Four score and seven years ago,….”

Other curiosities (from an American perspective) include:

  • the German tendency toward agglutination, wherein a glove is a handschuh, a shoe for your hand;
  • in the aforementioned Gaelic, both one and two of anything are singular, while three or more are plural;
  • when properly translated (so I was told by an American working in Istanbul), Turkish would sound very much like Shakespearean English—what ho!; but
  • oddly enough, we are now told by some Shakespearean scholars that the English of his time would have sounded more like American speak than the accent of a BBC announcer.

But English has oddities like the word cleave, which means 1) to separate, and 2) to join together. And don’t get me started on spelling and pronunciation. It’s no wonder foreign speakers have difficulties with our language.

I’ve been hunting for a very old, probably decomposing book from my undergraduate days, one that I think will be useful in further developments at Agincourt: a paperback by Eugene Raskin (a 1960s faculty member at Columbia University) titled Architecturally Speaking. Raskin took on the matter of language, very simple, basic architectonic terminology often invoked in design studios: words like scale, proportion, and unity. I sometimes think we (faculty and professionals) use those and other terms with such frequency and familiarity that an assumed conventional wisdom surrounds them. Coming to an agreement on their meaning may be more significant for the quality of design than yet another tome parsing the densities of Heidegger or the convolutions of Derrida (or are they convulsions?). For better (and sometimes worse), my mind doesn’t work that way, a realization with which I am most content. But back to Raskin.

Architecturally Speaking was an undergraduate text but, for the life of me, I cannot recall which course may have required it. That paperback—a two dollar investment whose glued binding has long since to turned to peanut brittle—is still here in the house. But it seemed easier to but a new one, until I found that paperback reprints of it are in the neighborhood of $75, simply because it is beyond copyright and vulnerable to print-on-demand technology. Well, screw those money-grubbing bastards. I went to the OP market and found a mint condition hardback that may never have been read. Not only does it have the original dust cover, but the pages are a rich, thick textured paper not seen since the days of Gutenberg. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but you book lovers know what I mean.


In addition to Raskin’s lucid text, his book is illustrated with delightful drawings by Robert C. Osborn (1904-1994) whose name you may not know but whose images will seem familiar. I recognized them at the time because Osborn had also brought life to the books of British economist C. Northcote Parkinson: Parkinson’s Law, and other Studies in Administration, The Law and Profits, Mrs Parkinson’s Law, and Other Studies in Domestic Science, and I think Inlaws and Outlaws. Osborn’s economy of line was borderline minimalist. And, while Raskin’s text is light, Parkinson’s had the capacity to induce chuckling and outright laughter. I recommend them to you.

Imagining Agincourt at various points in its development depends on simple architectonic notions of scale, texture, unity, rhythm, et al. So not that I have Raskin at hand, a few more words about those words may be forthcoming. Indulge me.

All of this somehow has something to do with Eugene Raskin, whose book is (in my estimation) both timeless and timely.

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