Is a Gerund
Professor John Scofields criticism of the Environmental Studies
Building and hearing his recent lecture on the same topic has reminded
me that the word building is a gerund. A gerund is a verbal noun
that ends in ing. It connotes process, change, a state
of being in flux, the specious present spreading out. It is why
we call those discrete art objects we inhabit, work in and play
in buildings rather than builts. This is one thing that
distinguishes them from other art forms.
I dont know the historical origins of the word building, but
I like to imagine it emerged in pre-modern times when buildings
took decades if not hundreds of years to complete, if completion
was even part of the conceptual framework of a building campaign.
The cathedrals of the Middle Ages furnish the most obvious example.
The Industrial Revolution and the concomitant rise of building methods
and institutions, and the needs of the latter to house themselves
and symbolically encode their purpose, have veiled the gerundial
nature of the word and concept building. Buildings seem to be as
producable as other manufactured goods.
However, few buildings, even today, are complete when
the building crews leave the site. They still need to learn how
to behave and people need to learn how to behave in and around them.
This dialogue is not an easy one. We have all seen how
naked a new building can be, how socially awkward its first pose
looks sans landscaping and lacking the behavioralist feedback of
a few years of intensive use. Just watch as the oversized colt of
the new science center finds its legs. Most new buildings scream
out gerund. They beg for change as a first draft asks to be edited.
(Students take note!).
Might we not stand to gain, therefore, by allowing some of the provisional
nature of the gerund to find its way back into the word building,
and thereby into our horizon of expectations for buildings? If ever
there were a building on this campus that demands (and I believe,
deserves) this generosity, it is the Environmental Studies Building,
which inhabits a rather wider temporal chasm between built
and building than most architecture. Given that this
is a didactic building with active pedagogical intentions, Professor
Scofields criticism is an essential part of these first years
of intensive use. We must subject the building (as a
gerund) to serious scientific inquiry as well as to other
forms of inquiry. But we also must do so with the generosity of
spirit that allows both the facility and the institution to have
a rich in the words of Sigfried Giedion eternal becoming.
Assistant Professor of Art