Building Is a Gerund

To the Editors:

Reading Professor John Scofield’s 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 don’t 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 Scofield’s 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.

–Andy Shanken
Assistant Professor of Art


April 19
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