The opposite of understanding; the first of many postdiluvian Pruitt-Igoes.
Its name is a multilingual pun, synonymous with confusion. A foreshadowing of the chaos that our ancestor-architects experienced on the job site that terrible day after God came down from heaven to weigh-in on their work in progress.
According to both Hebrew and Babylonian versions of the story, God was not pleased with Babel, a major city and spectacular tower the human community was building in the aftermath of the Great Flood. In the Torah, God is particularly concerned with a process these descendants of Noah had invented for hardening and mortaring bricks. They’d unlocked a new technology, and were henceforth capable of making magnificent structures.
And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and [brick] them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
— Genesis 11:3
No longer limited to the use of material present in the given environment, when the people started to build — in effect asking these new types of bricks what they were capable of — brick was able to talk back.
Brick said it likes an arch.
To make what God cannot.
To do, in fact, the opposite of what that God had commanded when the waters of the great flood had receded.
This new infrastructure of super-hardened bricks and bituminous mortar was a breakthrough innovation for our ancient ancestors. But the text in Genesis 11 is quite clear that what made it possible for the humans to build Babel’s city and tower and anything else they might imagine, was not a new technology: it was the ancient and primordial technology of language.
Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
— Genesis 11:6
Translating imagination into realization was an unambiguous operation for the architects of Babel. You could talk with somebody, and they would understand what you meant when you said what you said. Simple meaning and complex meanings were equally, inherently clear.
Clear language made it possible for understanding to precede action. Clear language supplied the essential prerequisites to making a system of designed places that are good for people possible at an unprecedented density and scale. These people weren’t just stacking bricks; according to Hebrew lore, the circumference of the top third of Babel’s ruined tower — the portion that reached into the heavens — was 216 miles around.
This massive human project on the plain of Shinar, and its nascent expression in bricks and mortar of a strategy for human dwelling and co-operation in freedom from fear, was read by the divinity as specific disobedience to Its plan for re-population of the postdiluvial Earth.
Babel must be read as gross irreverence: the making of new structures and a new order in contempt of the prevailing structures of the divine order. Determining what “good” means for ourselves, and then building it.
Babel is blasphemy, writ large.
So, having been directly and monumentally provoked, the deity intervenes.
Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.
— Genesis 11:7
Where once there had been a clear way to say what you’d say when you meant what you mean, there were now seventy ways. And where previously what “good” means was commonly understood, from here forward the answer would always be it depends.
It is common in the Judeo/Christian tradition to use a return to the Garden of Eden as the primary analogy for restoration of ideal order in the relationships between people, the given environment, and the ineffable.
I prefer a return to Babel as the picture of what a more ideal kind of order starts to look like.
I prefer the restoration — the structure preserving transformation — of the ability by people in a city to understand and be interested in each other’s desires and dreams; to re-acquire deep human agreement and common language behind and underneath our making.
To make the complex clear.
I think this is one reason I am so drawn to architecture and so fascinated with architects; an infrastructure of human meaning through a shared language of conceptual relationships and structural forms has been the project of countless architects since Babel.
In his Ten Books on Architecture, 1st century Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio systematized an approach to making civic buildings where the meaning of what’s to be built is rhetorically sound and clearly legible to the citizenry according to Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Tuscan grammars of space and shape.
Fourteen centuries later, in a quite different Roman context, Leon Battista Alberti proposes a system for using visual representation as an instrument for doing architectural work, and in the working out of a theory to describe the nature of perspective in geometric space (published as a work entitled De Pictura), provided a rigor for proving the difference between looking good “on paper” and being good structure in the built environment. Alberti enabled a precipitous shift from words to pictures as the primary medium for planning and making the built environment.
Directly following Alberti and in even more explicit reference to Vitruvius, Leonardo Di Vinci developed the Canon of Proportions, postulating a system for deriving “good” structural forms for the built environment on the basis of the spatial relationships that are present and inherent in the human form. Reverberations of Di Vinci’s Vitruvian Man are present in every ergonomics framework since the Renaissance.
It occurs to me that this notion of making or re-discovering a universal human language of what “good” means in the built environment based on deep structures of spatial and geometric meaning present in the human form is a sort of return to and re-enacting of the Babel myth. Where the scale for measuring and making what’s more and less preferable in the built environment is keyed to our humanity, in spite of the will and regulations of supposed divinity.
Human-centered design as a re-enacting of a more ancient blasphemy.
Louis Kahn — the last of the great Modern architects — believed it was necessary for architects to be drawing from a trans-personal source of human understanding of what to build. His was the quest for one true “what,” preceding any number of “hows.”
Kahn’s explanation for the source of this knowledge was to say that it was contained in Volume Zero — a timeless body of teachings prior to any book that could be numbered and placed on a bookshelf. Kahn’s theory of Volume Zero is extended in the myriad works of his protege Richard Saul Wurman, for whom Zero is a real place; a vast country, perhaps not dissimilar to the plain where Babel stood stunted in the primeval mist.
Wurman’s architecture of information depends, like Kahn’s architecture of bricks, on the counter-intuitive proposition that in order to do good work, and arrive at good structure, the architect must move backward from what’s been stated by clients and engineers alike as factual to ultimately arrive at what’s true. Like the ancient architects of Babel, and in deep (if not intentional) sympathy with Christopher Alexander’s oeuvre, Wurman and Kahn both proceed from a belief in human language as the wellspring for thinking about and making structures to fully realize human potential.
Instead of obedience to the not-so-understanding God of Babel, or worse — the god of empirical “fact” — Mr. Wurman’s blasphemous, human proposition is that we instead worship the God of Understanding, whose purpose is covalent with ours: making the complex clear.
For his part, Alexander’s claim regarding the power of language in making architectures that add beauty and wholeness to the environment is as cosmic in its scope as it is blasphemous in basic conception. What’s Alexander say is possible for any of us upon returning to an Antediluvian pattern language that’s clearly understood by all participants in a vast human endeavor to build living structures?
“The power to make God appear in the middle of a field.”