August 20, 2014
If you’ve ever watched the A&E show Intervention, you know the formula: We meet an addict, someone struggling with drug abuse, alcoholism, gambling, or self-harm. We meet members of the addict’s family, desperate with worry and exhausted from years of trying to help their loved one. We see photos from better days, when the addict was a smiling Girl Scout or Little League player.
The family gathers at a hotel for an intervention. They rehearse their speeches, look nervously toward the door. It opens. The addict walks in, and a man in the group stands up to introduce himself.
He’s Ken. He’s an architect.
No, that last part isn’t true. He’s not an architect–why would he be? He’s a trained addiction specialist. But to hear many architects talk, you’d be forgiven for the confusion. Architects “intervene” in things all the time.
Maybe your last project was a backyard patio, which sounds kind of lame and bourgeois. But call it a “suburban intervention“–now that’s exciting.
Architects: Stop overusing this word. It makes you sound pretentious. Worse, it undercuts the value of projects that do have a political or social agenda, that take real risks, that make a substantial contribution to public health and welfare.
The word “intervene” derives from the Latin inter (between) + venire (to come). An intervention is a coming-between, a deliberate insertion–of oneself, usually–into a place or situation. It’s a strong word. Police officers intervene in cases of child abuse or domestic violence. Foreign conflicts may prompt a military intervention, right or wrong, by the United States; the United Nations intervenes in humanitarian crises.
In education and the social sciences, intervention is a treatment tool to change behaviors for better outcomes. Obesity intervention may prevent a person from developing diabetes. Literacy intervention helps at-risk children read at the same level as their peers.
Likely because these fields latched onto it, “intervention” appears far more frequently in English now than it did a few decades ago. Google Ngram shows a steep rise in usage in English books from about 1960 onward, with an even more dramatic spike when the terms “design” or “architectural” are used in combination. To be fair, architects aren’t the only ones who have embraced the term; it’s gained lexical ground across our culture.
For the most part, interventions try to stave off critical human problems such as disease, violence, alcohol and drug dependency, and low educational attainment. Thanks to the social design movement, we know that design can serve as a positive health or welfare intervention–but that knowledge comes with the risk of linguistic overreach.
Trust me, I understand the appeal of the term. (And am not immune to it, as a quick trip through my back catalog reveals.) You can only write “project” or “building” so many times, and “intervention” sounds bolder, more provocative. Many architects are steeped in architectural history and critical theory, so to them, the term may evoke the excitement of Gordon Matta-Clark splitting a house in two,* or Guy Debord leaflet-bombing a conference of art critics.
The problem is, most people don’t think of Gordon Matta-Clark or Guy Debord when they hear “intervention.” They think of the TV series, or a military operation, or a problem that needs the attention of social services. The geographer Javier Arbona recently argued that you can’t have gentrification without gentrifiers; likewise, the agents of intervention become interventionists, with all the mixed associations that label implies.
It’s easier to say which projects seem to merit the term than which ones don’t. A new, innovative medical clinic that fights disease in an underserved area? Sure. The remediation of urban land that’s blighted–or toxic–so that it becomes a vital community resource? Yes.
Guerrilla grafting of branches onto city trees so that passersby might pluck local fruit? Hmm. I need there to be more at stake to call a project an intervention, or at least for the payoff to be greater.
But there’s a wide range of opinion about the predominant meaning of “intervention” in architectural circles, as I found out when I took the question to Twitter earlier this summer. (See the Storify recap below.) Some designers use it in a more surgical sense, of rehabilitating or adding onto a historic building. One person said it was the catch-all term applied to everything he did in design school, which is worrying.
I’m not asking the architectural community to abandon the word–just to think more carefully before using it. If someone who lives across the street from your project heard you call it an intervention, would they agree with you? Laugh at you? Take offense?
English is a rich language, with many ways around the i-word (although no one in my Twitter exercise could thing of a perfect substitute). What’s wrong with another i-word, improvement? Or–call me old-fashioned–beautification.
Special thanks to everyone who took part in the Twitter discussion, especially Mallory Baches, Trevor Dykstra, Kian Goh, Alexandra Lange, John Massengale, Karen Robichaud, Fred Scharmen, and Mimi Zeiger.
*Mimi Zeiger, who knows a lot about this, says the more relevant Matta-Clark projects are FOOD and Fake Estates.
**Apologies for not embedding the Ngrams and Storify–WordPress won’t allow it, grrr.
Practicing architects, quick poll: Have you ever used the word “intervention” to describe your own work? Do you like the term? Loathe it?
— Amanda Kolson Hurley (@amandakhurley) June 3, 2014
— Chris Krahn (@vermonter66) June 3, 2014
— Trevor Dykstra (@archibot) June 3, 2014