Common language

January 2014 » Columns » BEYOND WORDS

A few days ago while surfing the Internet, I happened across a picture in an online profile – an old, ornate circular tower. The picture was rotated 90° counterclockwise, so the tower was totally horizontal. Still, it was a structure I recognized immediately.

I sent the young profile owner a brief message: "The tower seemed to be leaning a bit more than usual when you took this picture." The profile owner's response indicated that he had no idea what I meant. Apparently, while he liked the picture, he didn't recognize the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

It made me wonder what other iconic buildings or structures I and my (age) peers would recognize where younger viewers might see just a building or bridge. How many young folks don't recognize ancient architectural or engineering wonders such as the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, the Coliseum in Rome, or the Roman-built Aqueduct of Segovia, and more modern structures such as the I.M. Pei pyramid at the Louvre, the Sydney Opera House, Hoover Dam, the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Golden Gate Bridge?

Next, I wondered about political and moral concepts that are rock solid for me, concepts such as the Bill of Rights – the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution – which many folks don't even recognize when they read or hear it.

I was reminded of previous exercises where a television program sent someone out on the streets with the Bill of Rights typed up as a petition. They asked people to read the petition and sign it. Most of the folks interviewed wouldn't sign the petition, and many of them didn't recognize the words of the Bill of Rights.

Every nation has its language, every region has its dialect(s), and every profession has its jargon. But what about the concepts and images we think are commonly held – concepts that instead turn out to be common only within a generation or two?

Do people who lived through Hurricane Sandy or Typhoon Haiyan have the same understanding of the words "hurricane" or "typhoon" as people who live 10,000 miles from the storms' damage areas and only read or heard about, or saw pictures of the storm in various media? Do people who lived through Hurricane Carla in 1961 have the same understanding of the word "hurricane" as people who lived through Hurricane Sandy in 2012?

Do people who live under totalitarian governments in North Korea or many African nations have the same understanding of the word "freedom" as people who live in the United States or Great Britain?

More to the point: Do people who live in Kansas have the same gut-level understanding of the term "100-year storm" as people who live in New Jersey?

Design professionals have been moving from place to place, across the United States for many decades, but especially during the crazy economy of the last few years. To ensure that training for design professionals is relevant and adequate no matter where they live, we have to make sure that education and training cover all the bases. For example, even a state with no active seismic zones should include a seismic section on its licensing exam for engineers, which means that every college and university engineering department must teach such a course.

But more important, we have to have a system of education for design professionals that ensures we will have the same definitions and understandings of relevant terms, no matter where we study, where we get our training, or where we ultimately practice, and this requires common language based on common reference points.

Perhaps every architecture and engineering curriculum should be required to include a class on historic and modern iconic structures so that all professionals have a basic recognition of these structures, their design, and construction challenges and solutions. Some minimum level of knowledge about how design and construction were accomplished 25, 50, or 100 years earlier might be very helpful in rehabilitation, repair, or retrofitting of such structures to extend their useful life another 25, 50, or 100 years.

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is principal consultant with The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultant located in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at 559-901-9596, bernie@sibenconsult.com, or through his website, www.sibenconsult.com


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