On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I was on a bus headed toward the Panama border. There were four other Gringos on the bus besides myself, all strangers. Regardless, we were instantly able to befriend each other. I noticed how we gravitated toward each other physically, delighted with even the most mundane of common interests. All this simply because we spoke the same languag, a fact that would be of no value in an English-speaking context.
For a moment, I tuned out of our conversation and into the rest of the bus. It was a cacophony of voices speaking primarily Spanish. I was overwhelmed by how separate I felt from the locals, despite our physical closeness. The four other Gringos and I had created our own little pod, not because of common interests or goals, but simply because we spoke the same language. We were standing in our own sort of meta-space, which physically occupied the same space as the locals, but was somehow separate. Speaking broken Spanish to ask for directions was like squinting through frosted glass. Listening to the cacophony of spanish voices was like staring at a wall.
It lead me to the (perhaps obvious) thought that language is an unseen facet of architecture. Language, or more specifically, communication, is an integral element in how we hold space and it has the capacity to create rooms, walls, doors, and windows among people who are physically standing right next to each other.
Language disparity is an extreme example though. Even within a language, words serve to build and break boundaries. Academics and professionals heavily rely on jargon, each word a brick used to build walls which keep some in and others out. Cults teach made up words in order to psychologically isolate their members from outside influence. Slang, slurs, and politically correct language all create different kinds of space and the way we use these words allows us to build the rooms that frame our interactions.
So how does this apply to design?
One of design’s primary roles is to communicate. It is inextricably tied to language, whether through words, symbols, or cultural cues. We see this all the time in our daily lives. One of my favorite designed cultural symbols is the business suit. Put it on and cultural significance instantly imbues you with respect and power. Take it off and you’re just some jerk wearing shorts and t-shirt. Throw a blazer over jeans and a button-down and now you’re walking the line between hip and casual. And of course context changes everything. Wear that business suit to a show full of crust punks and you’re back to being a jerk. That suit has put you in a meta-space which instantly isolates you from the punk community. Invite ten suited friends and you’ve created two meta-spaces occupying the same physical space. And maybe the beginnings of an old school brawl.