By Jim Nielson, AIA, LEED® AP. Jim is a Senior Principal at CRSA and a member of the Utah House of Representatives.
A Northrup Grumman official once explained the firm’s award-winning initiative to provide employment for disabled veterans this way:
“If you are a duck, you tend to hire ducks.”
True. As an Oregon Duck myself, I am partial to U of O graduates. But I agree, we should not hire only ducks.
In architecture, we know intuitively how different backgrounds and points of view combine to help us see beyond our own perspective and build something better. Employers in general experience firsthand how people that see things differently open up new ways of doing things and confer a competitive edge. The United States was founded on the same concept. The motto, E pluribus unum, or “Out of many, one,” is still on our currency. It reflects our founding by a diverse collection of immigrants.
Working with people from different backgrounds helps us see our world more clearly and positions us for broader achievement.
As architects, we may describe our design concepts with the same terms other architects use—words like materiality, or maybe fenestration. If we parrot the same language, our thinking may be the same. Should we be surprised that the most original ideas often come from designers that speak in a different tongue with words that embody fresh perspectives?
Each language constructs a view of reality from a unique vantage point. We usually don’t notice how this single point of view limits us. But if we gather input from individuals of different languages and backgrounds, the insights we gain from these diverse perspectives show us a more complete picture.
A metaphor helps depict the way language limits us: imagine peering into a space through a single portal at a complex object. Attempting to comprehend it would be like trying to understand a design concept by studying just one elevation. Regardless of whether we realize it, much is hidden from view. In this metaphor, language is the portal through which we look. Reality is the complex object. Seeing it only from one vantage point leaves us partially blinded, oblivious to the diverse perspectives we might have if we could also see things from other vantage points.
Consider just a few ways language can affect our grasp of the world around us:
Word meanings change over time, giving us hints at enduring societal bias. A thousand years ago, in Old English, the word uncouth meant unfamiliar. Over the centuries it has come to mean uncivilized. The shift of meaning from unfamiliar to uncivilized suggests, unfortunately, that generations of English speakers have gradually come to reject what is unfamiliar or diverse. Though culture may have labeled it as uncouth, diversity is, in fact, a frequent source of innovation and understanding.
Similarly, language can conceal and reinforce prejudices. I learned this when I told a friend in college I’d walk her to class. I was proficient in German, so instinctively I thought of how I’d say the same thing in that language. This mental exercise proved unsatisfactory, so I requested a do-over: “Do you mind if I walk with you to class?” The lens of a different language revealed a gender stereotype I had missed in English. This is just one way diverse language lenses help us say what we truly intend to say.
Language may even slant our view of what is real. In English, I say I have something and think that makes sense. But in Russian and in Hebrew, there is no verb to have. Instead, they use workarounds. Translated literally, they frame the statement like this: with me is and there is to me, respectively. Could these languages, which question the concept of possession, influence the speakers’ worldview? I suggest this linguistic wrinkle played a role among those that speak Russian and Hebrew—in the collectivist movements their cultures are known for.
The perspective we gain from the words and grammar of different cultures are incontrovertible evidence of the value and power of diversity. But what about the language of architecture? Like engineers and fine artists, we do have a language all our own. As evidenced by the ascendancy of Santiago Calatrava, mastering not only one such language, but compounding it with others yields quantum increases, not only in understanding but also in strength, clarity, and creativity.
One final quote underscores the benefits of using more than one language lens and the underlying value of diversity. It’s from a Harvard Law School report on Utah’s dual immersion programs:[*]
“Learning a new language is not just the ability to speak a language and communicate. It is the ability to see everything more deeply . . . and to have perspectives that you would never have known existed. Learning a language is . . . potentially transformative.” –Ofelia Wade, Utah Spanish Immersion Director
The breadth of viewpoints found in languages fosters a more accurate view of reality, just as diversity in general builds community, business, and architectural practice. A range of perspectives expands our horizons and our understanding of the world. And in architecture, as with any creative endeavor, diversity’s tendency to stretch our thinking and broaden the array of options we choose from leads to heightened creativity and enriched architectural and social fabric.
Because in the end, who wants to live in a world with only ducks?