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Original Essays

The Language of Things

by Deyan Sudjic
 
  1. The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects
    $12.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Brimming throughout with primarily British examples, pricing and language, Sudjic's appreciation of first-rate design shows through his vivid descriptions of universally classic functional or aesthetically pleasing archetypes." Publishers Weekly
  2. The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful--And Their Architects--Shape the World
    $8.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    A Washington Post Book World Best Book of the Year

    "[E]xceptionally intelligent and original..." The Washington Post Book World


The Milanese architect Ernesto Rogers once wrote that, from a close enough examination of a spoon, it is possible to predict the kind of city that the culture that designed and made it would build. He was, of course, exaggerating for effect. Inspecting my cellophane-wrapped plastic spoon that comes in the All Day Deli bag on the British Airways flight into London from Milan is going to give a misleadingly bleak picture of the quality of life in Europe's biggest city. But Rogers did have a point. He was suggesting that design can be compared to a kind of DNA, a pattern that gives our possessions meaning. The "spoon to the city" idea has resonated in my mind ever since I first heard it, in part I suppose because it offers a way toward understanding something important about the world around us, and about ourselves. And as I have grown older, I have come to realise that much of my fascination for design and its many meanings is autobiographical. It's a fascination that is based on trying to understand how design is used to manufacture and manipulate identity and meaning. And it comes, I believe, from trying to understand something of my family history.

My father was born in 1912 and died in 1996. In his lifetime, he found himself first as a citizen of the United States of America, then briefly of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then of Montenegro, and then of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, though some people always called it Jugoslavia, then of the People's Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and finally of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If he had had a mind to, he could have collected a stack of passports six thick. It's a thought that undermines the idea that identity is somehow innate and natural, and demonstrates something of the way in which identity is manufactured.

"As a prominent Englishman, working in Scotland, have you ever experienced any examples of racial prejudice?" the reporter from the Scotsman, an Edinburgh daily paper, asked me in 1997, on the morning after the country had voted for a devolved parliament of its own in Edinburgh. I didn't know whether to be flattered by the attention or, in some kind of subtle way, mildly humiliated. Was I being told that I didn't belong? Certainly it made me realise how much people judge who or what you are by how you sound rather than what you say.

An accent is an essential part of anybody's identity. And mine is the product of growing up in London in the 1950s and 1960s with two parents who didn't speak English to each other at home. Couldn't the man from the Scotsman pick up on the fact that I belonged to that very specific subset of Londoners, or its Glaswegian equivalent, just by the way I sounded on the phone? My accent is the product of a constant diet of the BBC between the ages of one and five.

The tools that you have at your disposal to decode and understand identity are partly those languages. But they are also based on the impact of the city in which you grow up. My mental city map is that of London. It's the template I can't help but use as a starting point to try to make sense of every city I go to. Is there a river, and, if so, which side is south of the river? Is there an east end? And of course, that is another thing that put a barrier between me and my parents. London for them could never be the comfortable skin it is for me.

Why did I want to become an architect? My flip answer always used to be that, as an anxious adolescent, I wanted to get a whole lot of difficult decision-making over in one go. Choose architecture at university, and you would also have chosen what you were going to do afterwards. And what it was that made me want to walk London's streets as an adolescent, then to cycle them, trying to understand them as spaces. I was looking for those parts of the city that seemed to have the quality to lift the spirit rather more than the raw and utilitarian suburb in which I lived.

I wanted to become an architect so that I could remake the world. No, really I wanted to become an architect so that I could remake my own world, so that I could shut out the suburban streets, our house, and the stained glass panel set into the front door that casts a pool of light on the tiled hall floor. I wanted to blank out the hall in which the telephone stood in isolated splendour on a small table, with no chair. Making a call entailed standing up to do it, a procedure to which I still attribute my anxieties about using such a chilly and impersonal instrument.

Instead, I wanted white walls and built-in furniture, I wanted white paper-globe lampshades and coffee-brown walls. One weekend, when my parents were away, I did just that. I painted the walls of my room myself and spent my pocket money on a new lampshade made from cardboard printed three shades of lime green.

For a while, my father worked for the BBC World Service again, reading the news in front of one of those big old microphones hanging on springs in a metal circle. I would occasionally be taken to the studio deep in Bush House's bowels to watch him at work through the glass wall of the control room. He had a big upright typewriter at home to write his bulletins, which he would pound away on with two fingers, using carbons, and smoke Player's Navy Cut, like something out of The Front Page. That was when he developed the attention-demanding sneeze that I realise, to my dismay, that I have inherited.

Beginning to understand the experience of my parents' lives made me realise for the first time how their experiences have coloured my own professional preoccupation with understanding how buildings and daily objects shape our sense of who we are. For the first time, I began to see that it was a fascination that had a personal aspect. It made me see beyond the narrow world of design just a little of what it must feel like now to be an asylum seeker, or a member of a more visible migrant community caught between identities.

How identity is manufactured has always fascinated me from the first time that I began to wonder why money in Yugoslavia was in the form of banknotes embellished with portraits of heroic power-station workers and apple-cheeked peasants, and in Britain money is signified by men with whiskers and big wigs.

These are the clues that you need to be able to decode in order to get a grip on exactly who you are. At the time that Yugoslavia was degenerating into blood-soaked chaos, I curated an exhibition in Copenhagen about the way that design is used to construct a national identity. It was the subject that I was billed to discuss at Belgrade's Design Week, Serbia's first ever design festival. Tito and his successors, like politicians everywhere, from Saddam Hussein to Francois Mitterrand, use design and architecture as tools to convey a message about themselves and the states which they lead. Architecture played its part in the lead-up to the conflict in Yugoslavia, too. The Croats and the Serbs engaged in a bout of competitive church building in order to lay claim to disputed areas. It was immediately visible which side was which. The Roman Catholic Croats built demonstratively modern churches, in concrete and glass. The Orthodox Serbs built equally demonstrative Byzantine domed "traditional" structures in stone and tile. The message was not just about which community an area belonged to. The Croat churches seemed to be suggesting that they belonged to a state looking west rather than east. That openness to the new might also be understood as part of a programme to use culture in a deliberate effort to create a distinctive identity. Such a use of architectural style can be described as a kind of cultural nationalism, a tactic with which the Croats and the Serbs were both familiar. All the Marxist states were inculcated with the political uses of culture.

Once the Balkan wars had started, the obverse side of this policy was the deliberate targeting for destruction of the architectural landmarks of the peoples that the Serb extremists were trying to destroy. And later, the other warring parties in the former Yugoslavia joined in, too; the Croats and Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo are engaged in a round of mutual destruction. Minarets in Bosnia were blown up. Mortar's medieval bridge was destroyed by Croats; the national library in Sarajevo, with its collection of precious books going back centuries, was obliterated by Bosnian Serbs.

I used to see identity as an aesthetic issue, a chance to analyse the world as an uncommitted observer. But the question of identity far sharper than that of being an Englishman in Scotland was a matter of survival, and demonstrated that identity is also a matter of taking sides.

÷ ÷ ÷

Deyan Sudjic is director of the Design Museum, London. He is the author of 100-Mile City and The Edifice Complex and the coauthor of The Architecture Pack. spacer

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