Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
Genesis 11:1-9 (about the Tower of Babel)
Babel is a new project initiated by Monnik and Studio Rooiejas in which we design and develop a logographic script for Europe. With a logographic writing we can read and write to each other’s papers even if we can not understand each other. A design solution through which one could instantly create a truly European public space.
In a logographic writing each word or concept is represented by a separate symbol , called a logogram . Because these characters have a symbolic and not have a phonetic value they can be used universally , even by people who do not speak each other’s languages. Example of logographic scripts are the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs but also the Chinese character writing .
China has the oldest logographic writing that is still in use, in the world . During Bi-City Biennale for Urbanism/Architecture (UABB) in Shenzhen, Saturday 14 December, we are going to present our project and examine how the Chinese experience their logographic writing in relation to identity and urban space , and we;ll ask then for advice on how we could introduce a language like theirs.
The theme of UABB 2013 is Urban Borders, which investigates the alternative possibilities for urban culture and space. This year’s UABB focuses on the importance of cultural differences, frictions, diversity and individuality .
Urban boundaries are not only physical. Most of the borders are cultural and play out in the symbolic arena of stories and representation. What drives us apart is more often than not, the software instead of the hardware. With the Babel project we recognize the need for difference and diversity on the one hand, on the other hand , we also recognize the need for a public space and shared platforms. Places where exchange can take place, compromises can be made, and a shared identity can emerge . Babel explores this tension and focusses on the interesting case of Europe. Europe shares a common history and technological development, but at the same time it is separated by language. The development of a European logographic script is in its core, a search for a harmonious balance between the creative power that lies hidden in differences and the need for sharing responsibility.
A logographic language as a solution to Europe’s “confusion of tongues ” sounds far-fetched and obvious at the same time . It would be practical if it existed , completely impractical to implement, and most of all insightful and evocative food for thought. We think this is a nice addition to the theme of Urban Borders. As Ole Bouman stated :
“This time there is no need to pioneer on tabula rasa or to push to another frontier . Now we can start with Existing qualities , Identifying them , highlighting them , dramatizing them and , by doing so , start a new practice of social and urban renewal .
But this is about more than biennial identification . We usefull will use our intuition , sensitivity , romantic inclination , and all our cultural subjectivities , to explore the potentials of the future and our guide visitors along a repertoire of hope , towards new futures . “
In the Value Factory we will challenge the familiar and for many people obvious fact that people in China write Hanzi. We’ll provide radically new implications and juxtapose it with refreshing ideas and suggestions. We want to present the script as the architecture of the public space .
Language as A Public Space
Boundaries are sometimes physical, a river or a mountain range, but usually they exist only in our heads. The Biblical story of the city and the tower is about the endless possibilities that would arise when humanity would be united by the same language. No mutual misunderstandings that can not be resolved, no challenge that can not be addressed through a joint effort. For some, the story of ‘the city and the tower’ is a cautionary tale about human hubris, for us it is a story about public space.
Like Europe, China has many languages and cultures. In contrast to Europe, everyone in China communicate with each other through a common script: Hanzi. A text drawn up in Chinese characters for every literate Chinese to understand, even if they don’t share a common language. Europe has tried to forge unity through a common currency , the market , regulation and parliament. These elements have so far not delivered a broad common identity. What is missing is a European public sphere. A logographic script would an amazing way to create a European public sphere. It could become the bearer of a common political and cultural discours, and a shared cultural heritage. What could happen in and with Europe when all Europeans can read each others’ newspapers, books , magazines and policy documents?
Public space is often described as a place where people can come together to freely meet people, and ideas. A prerequisite for the formation of common values and norms. The emergence of the public sphere is closely intertwined with the development of cities and civilizations. Increasingly, the notion of public space as something that is linked to the physical environment is eroding. Technological arena’s, such as the Internet and mobile telecommunications, are increasingly important as places where meetings and exchanges take place.
Babel is a Speculative Study
Through a speculative artistic investigation into an European logographic writing Babel want to ask about the relationship between identity, symbolism and public space in a time of globalization and continuous technological progress. The ever increasing interweaving of the global economy, the emergence of a global cultural elite, the democratizing aspects of the Internet , mobile communications and tourism undermine the idea of the nation-state as an organizing and binding mechanism. And, every generation is growing up with a new technology platform, including its linguistic innovations . Think of SMS language, emoticons/emoji’s, tweets and hashtags. How can we develop new kinds public space (as a cultural concept) in the ever-changing world ?
Through developing a new logographic writing for Europe and to promote this, we want to explore the cultural and creative tension between difference and unity. In the design phase we are looking at what Europeans share linguistically. For example, the words that share an etymological Indo-European root, which icons and images are associate with certain concepts, etc. In the promotion phase, we are going to research the political and cultural opportunities and impact of a universally comprehensible logographic writing for the European Union. One of the tools in this phase is to develop scenarios and imaginations of the future.
Can we learn from Chinese logographic writing ?
When we are in Shenzhen, we want to learn from the Chinese experience with a logographic script: Hanzi – The Chinese Character Script. Hanzi ( 1 billion users ) is the largest common communication system in the world after the English language ( 1.8 billion users). Hanzi has for periods been wholly or partly adopted by Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese. Now even on many a Dutch secondary school students can now learn it.
But how, for instance, does Hanzi relate to the educational, literary, political and technical aspects of our modern era ? Sinologist John DeFrancis describes Mao Zedong ‘s belief that Chinese characters would eventually be replaced by Pinyin, but this is still not happening. Why did Mao Zedong think this? and why hasn’t he been proven right by now?
We want to do a small research for our presentation that will investigate the advantages and disadvantages of a symbolic writing for the Chinese public and urban space. What meaning did Hanzi have for the continuation of the Chinese culture, the preservation of heritage and national unity ? What is the role of Hanzi in the innovation of language and the development of visual and graphic disciplines? What changes have been considered or have been implemented since the advent of modernity? Does a common reading language, but not a common spoken language create a different kind of public sphere ? During our short week in Shenzhen (9 – 16 December 2013), we will also take to the streets and ask about the visual and textual associations with objects and actions .
During our presentation we will explore the idea of writing as the architecture of public space. We will discuss Babel as a speculative project and draw subjective and objective relations with the Chinese logographic writing. It will focus on the necessity of our project, about opportunities in the European languages for an image-based writing, about how Europe might look when united by a script, about opportunities in this new European language, the imagination of such a script, and what we can learn from China.