Irony rescues Drama

There is a phenomenon in linguistics that I cannot remember the name of. It happens when a young, contemporary word slowly expands its usage and meaning until it replaces its predecessor. In other words, an offspring overthrows its parent. It isn’t universally true, but it is deliciously borne of the dynamics of culture, making it something of a moving target and not easily broken down by rules or historical facts (as linguists would like). Have I lost everyone? Case study coming up.

The word “drama” has, as we can expect, roots in Greek. Originally taken from the verb “to act,” i.e. to perform an action, a noun was created that described this very fundamental concept of carrying out something through something else. “Drama,” in its lineage, speaks to the very nature of human existence: we are agents of change.

Theatrical scene on a Greek amphora, c. 6th century BC. Property of the British Museum. Found on

In the early 19th century, as live music and acting began to find common ground, there came an increase in the number of shows using the cuff-and-collar origins of opera, chamber concerti, etc. but with a populist spin. The difference between these and what we normally call “folk music” is that this type of performance was subversive, appealing to the growing middle class who were educated enough to acknowledge the significance of highbrow music but were more prone to make merry in local watering holes.

A gap began to grow between “serious” and “popular” forms of the performing arts. In the latter case, music played the role of accompanying actors. Sometimes they read poetry, sometimes they acted scenes, often they were loosely structured, more sketches than whole narrative constructions– sound familiar? It was the hip-hop of its day. Drama plus an incidental melody became known as “melodrama” (Greek: melo+drama = song+acting). Since this was regarded as lowbrow entertainment, the reputation stuck.

“A Tale Of Mystery” by dramatist Thomas Holcroft, 1802. One of the first English melo-drames. Image via

This model stayed quite adaptable through developments in film, recording, and gathering. Once the original types of performance fell out of fashion, things like films replaced them, retaining short narrative structure and the reliance on music. But the name remained. Fast forward to today, and the definition of “melodrama” is simply a sensationalist performance of any kind. That definition appears above the original in the dictionary. And now the final step: distilled in this episode of Laguna Biotch from Mad TV.

The word “drama” here is now used to describe a social situation with an excess of sensationalism like plot twists and emotional outbursts. “Drama” has replaced “melodrama.” It’s not a simple shortening of the latter. Perhaps it is a way of injecting more meaning into our words by reviving or reappropriating existing words. In this instance, we need a word to meaningfully describe our obsession with teenage social mores, which up close are frequently theater-worthy. To reenact that theater, to give ourselves the agency to observe and critique that world, we have to give new agency to old words. This is a form of irony, where perhaps an earnest presentation of the actions conceals a subversive and critical undertone. Irony ranks high among modernity’s pastimes, and here it comes to the rescue of language, giving new life to “drama” by injecting it with the meaning of “melodrama.”

My secret thanks to Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, hosted by Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield, which was in my mind throughout this writing. The way they structure and unfold their linguistic research was my template.

Masters of Unmastery

It is strange how we live in a world that is built upon automation and repeated forms, and yet architecture is by and large a practice of customization. Every client demands something unique, and architects demand it of themselves. From an industrial, economic, and in some ways environmental point of view, architecture’s chief goal should be to find the single best kind of building that will be replicable and applicable around the world, just like a car or a fork is. That design could sit lightly on the ground, use up minimal resources– saving human labor to design and human labor to build. It would be attachable to others with simple mechanical means and would be connected with stairways, elevators, other conveyance systems that are manufactured separately….
Ivan– you’ve fallen into a trap. Architecture is different from forks and cars because its context is always different. A fork lives happily on a table, and tables in China are almost identical to tables in Ecuador. A car lives happily on the flat asphalt of a highway, which is almost identical anywhere in the world you look. Architecture does not get to live in this bubble, and that is what sets it apart. It must bravely encounter nature, in the raw, in all its variety and change. This is why architecture is by and large a practice of customization. It is why ‘the architect’ will always have a role to play in the erection of shelter– there are always changing conditions around us, as well as the desires within the soul to make the most out of a dwelling place. This change confounds the automaton, and is a problem uniquely made for the human mind.
Studying the architects that encounter nature best is like experiencing small re-births. Each one pushes limits, inspires us to envision what we don’t know. Anything humans create, be it buildings or music or words, are at their best a flashlight into unexplored rooms.
Goff’s eclecticism set him apart among American architects– in most all of his projects he came up with new ways not only to use certain materials, but more broadly to arrange spaces. In a typical residence, you and I and any other dummy will probably come up with a similar layout of bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, living spaces, hallways, storage, etc. based on our upbringing and exposure to most of the architectural landscape. Goff never takes these hierarchies as given. An architecture that is invented from as close to zero as possible is one that rewards return trips and continuous contemplation. This is his legacy. An ever-evolving architecture “of the continuous present.”
Bruce Goff, Bavinger House sketch; via Art Institute of Chicago.
Makovecz’s best work looks like it was done by progressive vikings. Rounded stucco facades, pointed roofs, and wood framing that looks like an upturned ship all give new life to old forms. Using hand-applied thin wood sheathing he achieves Gaudi-esque undulations. They look like animal skins or ancient armor. The buildings strike a balance between random motion and symmetry.
Imre Makovecz house; via
For something akin to a manifesto, but written more softly, I choose Kendrick Bangs Kellogg.

ORGANIC ARCHITECTURE CHARITABLE FOUNDATION (“OACF”) Academy is an institute for higher “learning by doing”. 

If it is not a love affair with Mother Earth, it is not Architecture. 

There should be as many original styles of Architecture as there are individuals. 

Since it is paramount that form and function are one, where license will not save us, OACF focuses on engineering and learning “in the field” by doing, better than Frank Lloyd Wright’s preliminary experience, but not his talent that comes from with-in. 

Whenever health, safety, environment, diversity and the rights of the individual is inconsistent with other interests sought or promoted by others, it is paramount that structural engineering and in-field construction by the Participant be encouraged. 

OACF is for Participants that are individuals that have “rights (that) existed by the law of the land long antecedent to the organization of the State”. Hale v. Henkel 201 U.S. 43 at 47 (1905). 

Plagiarizing is not going to do it…Earth is one of a kind….Please don’t destroy it.

Kendrick Bangs Kellogg; Joshua Tree House; via Scaly, bony, cavernous… benefiting certainly from the desert climate.
These architects let us get away from the cliche of architects as “masters”– because what would they be mastering? Their whole stance is one of balance with and respect of nature. In this way there is no longer a master/slave relationship (where intellectual, sophisticated man is enlightening a frontier or harvesting resources), but a collaboration between equals.
At this point, architecture can basically be dropped from the equation. Bruce Lee gives us the same philosophy in his Lost Interview, but through martial arts. To express oneself with one’s body is to fall into the grand design of nature, and in this way one becomes a master of non-mastery. Skip to 5:40 for his description of the combination of yin & yang. How does one achieve this being of non-being? This acting of non-acting? This building of non-building? At 15:42, Bruce Lee tells us to elevate nature in our minds: not only to respect it, but to aspire to it. It presents to us the full spectrum of being. If you want to live in a continuous present, you have to become one with your surroundings. Be formless. Be water.