Friday, October 26, 2012

The Love Child of the Official and Plain Styles

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 As a senior Literature major at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, research for papers consumes a large portion of my free time (if you can really call it that). In one of my classes, titled “Literature and Environmental Action,” my final research paper will draw connections between Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Frank Lloyd Wright’s style of organic architecture. Architecture is not an area I’ve studied; my interest in Frank Lloyd Wright is the only reason that this is a topic I’ve chosen to research. While looking on databases for articles containing the search terms “Thoreau” and “Frank Lloyd Wright,” I came across a scholarly article about the origins of organic architecture in the United States and how one could argue that it stems from the Romantic tradition in the United States and abroad. In other words, this article seemed to be exactly what I’ve been looking for. Mark Mumford, author of “Form Follows Nature: The Origins of American Organic Architecture,” does not consider literature and architecture to be mutually exclusive, rather, he looks to literature as a primary influence on the organic architecture of Frank Furness, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright, and their buildings over the span of a hundred years or so. The article is published in Journal of Architectural Education 42.3, and in researching this publication, their website listed one step of the peer review process as “Comment on the quality, clarity, and force of the author's analyses and arguments.” This clearly highlights the importance of clarity in any work to be published by this journal. The quote I chose to focus on and analyze for the purpose of this blog contains elements of the Official Style, but blends it with the Plain Style, forming a new hybrid style.

One of the difficulties I’ve run into while doing any research that spans two or more disciplines is that any article with relevancy is often difficult to understand, due either to the writing or the content. The passage I’ve chosen to analyze for the purpose of this blog is:
Abstract lines are the most concentrated expressions of human ideas.... Distinct from the common language of Art, which contents itself with conveying merely local and individual ideas, abstract lines are recognized as the grand hieroglyphic symbolism of the aggregate of human thought.... The natural world, passing through the mind of man, is immediately interpreted and humanized by this creative power, and assumes the colors, forms, and harmonies of Painting, Sculpture and Music. But abstract lines, as we find them in Architecture...are the independent developments of this creative power, coming directly from humanity itself...Thus it is an inevitable deduction that Architecture is the most human of all arts, and its lines the most human of all lines. (Mumford 28)
When this quote was plugged into the Readability Score checker, the scores surprised me a little bit. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score was 45.3, much higher than I expected it to be. The average grade level given was 12.2, or slightly above a high school senior’s reading level. This is probably due to the fact that the average sentence length was only 17, much lower than what one would expect to find at higher reading levels. Although there were some longer words contributing to a higher reading level, the sentence structure was relatively simple when compared with some other scholarly articles that often have average grade levels into the twenties.

Looking at the readability statistics, one might think that this article could be given to a high school senior with expectations for comprehension, but due to the Activity Systems in which this article functions, I would disagree. The article was written by a professor of architecture for other scholars within the field. Without a background in, or at least a general knowledge of, architectural terminology, this article may as well be in another language. In addition to architectural knowledge, one must have a pretty expansive literary knowledge in order to follow the argument that Mumford puts forth in his paper. He cites the Greeks, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Hawthorne, just to name a few, as possible influences on this particular style of architecture. This contradicts the average grade level that the readability score checker gave, 12.2, because most high school students or college freshman would not have the background knowledge necessary to understand the article. Although the article is primarily focused on architecture, the literary references convolute things a bit. Does this article apply to both the fields of architecture and literature, or just one or the other? Does it truly span disciplines?

Mumford, in this article, puts forth some ideas that are fairly new to the communities of both architecture and literature. Most scholars would agree that the Transcendentalists and the Romantics are two groups of writers that had great influence on literature as well as life in general, but most do not link these literary traditions with architecture; in doing this, Mumford makes a connection that was begging to be made. One should not assume that people outside of the literary or architectural communities would read this article for fun. This article is purely academic and is intended for fellow professors, masters of architecture, and possibly students of architecture. I would even go so far as to argue that Mumford did not expect this article to be read by literature students, because most would not have the necessary background knowledge to understand the argument that he sets in motion. The terminology, which you could also call jargon—an element of the Official Style—is too advanced for non-architects to understand, for the most part. Unless, as a literature student, you have an interest in architecture or a ridiculous obsession with Thoreau (which, combined, is what led me to this article in the first place), this article would make no sense, but not due to what we call the Official Style.

Although the Official Style is perhaps not the prominent style of the article, it is still a scholarly article that contains elements of it—jargon, as I’ve already mentioned, and complex sentences being the most obvious. One of the main characteristics of the Official Style is the use of the passive voice. This characteristic is noticeably absent from this article. I’ve spent a lot of time speculating about why this is true, and have quite a few theories. The most likely, in my opinion, is that the writer is targeting his article at a very specific audience, probably just architects who have a vested interest in the Romantics and the Transcendentalists, whose writings sparked a new wave of organic architecture. Because the article is not likely to be read by thousands of people, writing in the Official Style seems a bit futile. Writing for clarity and credibility makes much more sense, especially since clarity is one of the judging criteria for publication. Mumford does use complex sentences in his writing, but these sentences, rather than detracting from the clarity of the piece, simply seem to reinforce his credibility as an architect and a writer. They do not seem stuffy, as a lot of the Official Style can. Instead, they seem intelligent, educated, and get his point across without lowering his intellect to serve the average American. This, again, makes a lot of sense, considering his intended audience and the Activity Systems in which he functions. Mumford does not seem to be writing merely to sound smart, which is one complaint about the Official Style, but instead to engage his audience, people who have no doubt gone on to higher education. In ignoring many aspects of the Official Style, Mumford actually appears more credible than if he were to use long-winded sentences and the passive voice. With this in mind, what exactly does this say about the Official Style? Mumford accomplishes clarity and credibility in his article, without explicitly using the Official Style; is it ever necessary?

To access the article I analyzed, follow this stable URL:

--Ashley Dillard

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