Another Vernacular

By Jen Davis & Ruth Jones

Toronto-based architect and curator Jennifer Davis and –SITE editor Ruth Jones are currently collaborating on the project In Other Words/Autrement dit, based around the translation of Construire autrement, a 2006 book by the French Architect Patrick Bouchain. A prominent figure in the French architectural world, Bouchain is known for his theatrical projects and community-oriented construction methods, which create space and activities that encourage broad involvement in all stages of the building process. As curator for the French pavilion at the 2006 Venice Biennale, Bouchain organized the construction of Metacité / Metavilla, an interdisciplinary installation that existed for, yet changed throughout, the duration of the exhibition. His published work, including Construire autrement and volumes in the series L’impensé (The Unthought; published by Actes Sud), as well as assorted essays and articles, has thus far not been translated into English. Jennifer and Ruth met recently to discuss the origins of In Other Words, the relationship between theory and practice, and the speed at which architectural discourse circulates.

Jen Davis: I told you about Construire autrement at our first meeting. I had discovered the book in 2010 while in residence at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. At the time, I was researching EXYZT, Encore Heureux, and Coloco, three young multidisciplinary French collectives that were founded by people with backgrounds in architecture. They were all practicing l’autoconstruction, a multivalent approach to producing temporary architectural structures. In addition to design, they handled all phases of their architectural projects, including financing, construction, inhabitation, and animation, aspects of architecture that are normally passed on to tradespeople and clients once the design phase is completed. Their projects and approaches were also politically motivated, setting them apart from the type of “pop up” temporary architecture one typically sees in North America. Looking for ways to understand the approach of the three French collectives, I started tracing backwards, eventually revealing the student-teacher relationship between EXYZT and Bouchain; EXYZT was made up of his former students. Now, through my reading of Construire autrement, I felt like I was undertaking a kind of forensic exercise, looking to Bouchain to help me understand the political motivations of these collectives. But because there was no English translation, I never felt like I completely understood the book and it has haunted me ever since! Enter: your translation skills.

Ruth Jones: Exactly! The political aspect of the work of the collectives had some interesting parallels with the literature that I had been working on. As for Bouchain’s book, I was curious about how it might fit (or not) with the image-heavy documentation used by the collectives, a strategy that allowed them to disseminate their work and ideas to a broader, non-language specific, audience. Bouchain’s persistent French-ness stands in contrast to the fact that some of the collectives, EXYZT for example, makes their publicity, project descriptions, and theoretical work available in English. Especially as part of the international collaborative practice constructLab, they’ve cultivated an English language presence that obscures their origins in the French tradition that Bouchain represents. And then there was the chance to work on a translation that was not only in keeping with my interests, but that was much larger than any project I had previously considered, let alone attempted.The architecture looked great, but the linguistic challenge sold me.

What was your impression of Construire autrement and what were your expectations for the translation?

JD:  Given my imperfect French-language reading skills, I’d spent most of my time examining the overall structure, which intersperses photos of Bouchain’s past projects with his text. The introduction is by Laurent Le Bon, curator at the Centre Pompidou, and it also includes about half a dozen essays by contributors like landscape architect Gilles Clément and artist Daniel Buren. Given the contributors’ names, and knowing that Bouchain curated the French Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2006, I knew that Bouchain was contributing to the discourse within France, but wondered if he had evaded a broader international audience because he hadn’t been translated into English.

My crude, literal translation of the title was “Build Differently: How to?” The subtitles that divide Bouchain’s text are verb heavy: insert, know, transform, do, lead, bring, live, interpret, work, reinforce, transmit and re-start, start again. I interpreted these as commands directed at architects, a series of procedures for operating in the world with an eye on the political in the personal and the architectural. Admittedly, this interpretation was coming from someone searching for answers on the eve of executing her design thesis and graduating with a Master of Architecture degree, so there might have been a less critical, more personal, desire driving my interpretation. 

I’m curious—how did you first approach the book?

RJ: Whereas you discovered the book in the last stages of your thesis, I had just finished a dissertation and was looking for a project that felt “new.” Part of the appeal for me was the chance to come at a text in a different way than I would if I were reading it as a prelude to analysis. I needed to know not just what it said, but how it worked and how it needed to be translated.

When you’re translating, you’re taking a text across a linguistic line and changing it in the process. Construire autrement looks and feels like a manifesto and therefore needs to be read (and possibly translated) within the context of artistic manifestos in French and their place in intellectual politics. Based on Bouchain’s age and general politics, I had a feeling about where he might be situated in that milieu and, outside of the technical aspects of the translation, I wanted to know where this book fit in a landscape that was familiar to me.

JD: Your sketch of Bouchain as a political actor, or even agitator, weighted my original intuition about these French collectives. What struck me in 2010, is how the collectives’ temporary constructions were fundamentally different from the temporary projects that I’d seen in Canada and the USA. The Winnipeg Warming Huts, the Warming Stations in Toronto, the Times Square Valentine Heart, and to some degree the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program are all competitions where young architects, through answering a design brief, are cast in a professionally typical role: a service provider. Their designs for a specific, sanctioned site create social value by modeling a “correct” way of occupying public-ish spaces and generate capitalistic value by attracting the attention of visitors (i.e. consumers) in person and online.

Now compare these to EXYZT’s first project, L’architecture du RAB, which was their collaborative final thesis project from Paris la Villette School of Architecture where they’d been Bouchain’s students in 2003. They identified a specific site that was left over from the construction of Parc de la Villette in Paris, cleaned it and erected a provisional structure built of scaffolding, textiles, and lights that evolved to accommodate their spontaneous “games” and occupations. At the end of the project, EXYZT handed over the RAB to the Parenthèse association for stewardship and continued use within the neighbourhood. The project was an antidote to highly designed and controlled public spaces in the city, a method of recovering a basic form of democracy where freedom of expression, meeting, and exchange can take place.

If North American architects use pop-up projects to say “look at what we can design,” the French collectives are saying “look at how we can all act and live.”

I see Bouchain in the wings, not only as the teacher of these students building their thesis project and the curator when they present Metavilla in Venice three years later, but also in an intellectual sense. Translating Constuire autrement was meant to crack open the theoretical foundation on which projects like L’architecture du RAB and Metavilla were built.

RJ:  Which meant that I had to think about a translation, or at least the beginning of one. I wanted to produce something that would help get you closer to the French text so that we could continue our discussion. With that in mind, I took a first pass, going through the book and keeping as close to the literal meaning as I could while tracking how the language was being used. A translation like this is like a ghost of a text—it’s an approximation or an echo, with gaps where the meaning is veiled in syntax or usage that’s subtle, or complex, or just unusual. What I gave you was this spectral translation, the language and meaning somewhere between my interpretation (reflecting my French language understanding and style) and Bouchain’s chosen words, with notes on comments detailing instances where I was unsure or where I had worked out possible translations, but hadn’t settled on one.

JD: I was incredibly grateful to be reading your ghost text. It was like looking at an architectural sketch that communicates the broad strokes, but having an open-ended quality, where the details have yet to be refined and solidified. The beauty of a sketch is that the observer can see their own version of potential and perfection in it. Reading the footnotes—your raw ruminations about possible translations—provided me a window into the active role of a translator. In this way, my reading experience felt more like an active conversation between you, me, and Bouchain rather than the passive absorption of a closed text.

In many respects, your translation of Bouchain aligned with what I thought he was saying. He doesn’t explicitly write about temporary architecture, which would be a very clear/obvious line drawn between his theory and his protégées’ ephemeral installations. However, in the section “Pour qui construire?” [Who to build for?], he tackles the necessarily temporal nature of architecture, explaining that a built work should not be overly specific to the individual client, architect or immediate users. He demands that “The work must remain open, ‘unfinished,’ and it must leave a void so that the user might have space to enter and make use of the space, to enrich it without ever totally filling it, and to transform it over time.” (1) This was certainly a guiding principle of the RAB and of the collectives’ projects in general. And it rings true with my own research for the How to Make Space exhibition in Hong Kong. (2) Norman Foster probably never imagined that the lobby of the HSBC office building would be occupied every Sunday by thousands of female migrant domestic workers who build their own shelters of corrugated cardboard!

I began to understand what you’d been saying about the translation process: Should you keep the phrasing and vocabulary close to Bouchain’s original words or re-work the paragraph to use turns of phrase that are familiar to the Anglophone architect reader? It would be expedient and more readable  if “person who ordered it [the project]” was referred to as the “client” and “the people who realized it” were called “the builders.” But would it be going too far if you re-engineered this section to explicitly talk about the temporal nature of architecture using vocabulary that is typical within architectural discourse?

RJ: The process requires the translator to feel out the relationship between the text and conventions of French architectural discourse. “Client” is client(e) and he’s clearly avoiding that term, but what about “builders”? Batisseur is there, but what about ouvrier? Both words can be used and translated as “builder,” but ouvrier also means “worker” has strong class connotations in English even though the word is commonly used in French to refer to anyone who does some kind of manual labour.

JD: Translation-wise, I feel that this may only be the tip of the iceberg!

RJ: Basically, yes. Translation by its nature is always moving within and between unstable languages. The meanings of words shift over time, they become more or less common, their form, even their sound changes. Historically, what you want from translation changes too, whether it’s literal accuracy (which can sound stiff and foreign) or something looser that sounds more like the language that you’re translating to, but where the words themselves drift further from their source. It’s a marker of the use of language and our attitudes towards it. Additionally, the frequency of translation shows up in the closeness that is possible between certain languages—translations between English and French, for example, are common and have been for a long time, so the meanings and sounds of words almost seem to shift in parallel; translations start to seem like correlations rather than approximations because they’re so often used.

They’re not, of course. That’s part of what’s so interesting—there are gaps in context, construction, and literal meaning that only seem to disappear because we use bonjour and hello, au revoir and goodbye in the same way.

In the case of any text, you need a translator to bring it to a reading public outside of the one that produced it, and changing the language and context changes the text both materially (in how it looks and sounds) and consequentially (in its meaning and impact on its readers). Sometimes, the distance of translation means that texts have separate lives, even becoming more read or influential in a translated version than they were in their original language. More often though, texts disappear inside a language—no one picks them up to translate or, if someone does, no one wants to publish the translation, and so their influence stops at the borders of the language, at least for a time.

And here we have Bouchain, who has been attached to high visibility positions within France (the Venice pavilion, Mitterand’s government, the foundation of an École normale), but the dissemination of his work has somehow been confined, even now, when Constuire autrement has been followed by two more volumes in the series L’Impensé (one of which, Construire en habitant, 2011, lists EXYZT as co-author). At the same time, his former students, like EXYZT, make work that has been displayed in English language art and architectural contexts. This work escapes the necessity of translation by focusing on images, on the one hand, and, on the other, by not waiting for a translator (their website and many of their exhibition materials are in both English and French). The newer work exists in a discursive context without its source material. So what does it mean to bring this text, as a kind of origin story, into a discussion that, in English at least, has been happening independent of it? What does it mean to complicate the time period that describes Bouchain’s work (and that of his protegés) by the translation lag of his text? The way that language shifts through translation and across time parallels both the difference between the internationalist focus of a group like EXYZT/constructLab and Bouchain and the emphasis on continuous use that lies at the heart of Bouchain’s practice as well as that of his students.

JD: One way to understand the similarity between the language of Constuire—and of any translation of the book—and the practice it describes is to remember that Bouchain is interested in a conception of architecture as a collective, social act. In fact he critiques what he calls “model architecture,” which prioritizes the architect’s sole authorship and denies intervention by the builders involved or by the users who ultimately inhabit the building. Realizing this was a eureka moment for me in the sense of offering an alternative to architecture’s origin story of the Primitive Hut or of a central hearth. For Bouchain, a project should be receptive to the constructive input of the many constituents involved, so it is context specific and the collective determines its final shape and meaning. I get the sense that he’s attempting to recover the divide between the intellectual and physical labour that goes into the act of construction; this was lost along with the Master Builder. These are all ideas that I’m personally interested in and they’re also illustrated by the activities of the French collectives.  

After reading the ghost text, I went back to the French version of the book to look at Bouchain’s project photos. I started to wonder about how his architecture practice, Constuire, and written work influenced each other. And what about the era within which he operated and continues to operate? Did he believe in ephemeral architecture and then seek out a circus school (L’Académie nationale des arts du cirque in Saint-Denis) as a client? Or was his theory the outcome of having clients that could only afford temporary solutions?

RJ: There is also the question of what history he’s building from. His architecture is theatrical and so is his practice, and his writing puts him in direct opposition to both monumental architecture and preservationist attitudes towards monuments. But there’s a deep nostalgia here in how he frames the idea of the collective with romanticised references to the building of medieval cathedrals and in how he talks about the kind of community his projects attempt to construct (hospitable and unified in a country that seems, like much of Europe, increasingly divided); it is not as far as it first appears from French obsessions with heritage or patrimoine (albeit without the uncomfortable cast of cultural uniformity that can inflect such obsessions).

JD: Looking at the broader project, we’ve come some distance in understanding Bouchain and the French context, and problematizing translation in a broad sense and for architecture specifically. At this point, it seems like the hurdles in front of this translation project are temporal in nature. Since 2010, if not earlier, I’ve had an urgent sense that architectural practitioners worldwide would benefit from understanding the theoretical basis of these ephemeral architectures that are locked in French texts. Meanwhile, Bouchain’s rate of publishing books has accelerated since Construite autrement. And the collectives are producing new projects every year and images of them are being transmitted at the speed of light. Relatively, the process of translation is much slower and will inevitably lag behind. Just like language itself evolves and changes in its use through time, the architectural output and ideas of these people must be continually evolving. As translators, how do we keep up? Our problem is in real time not historical time!

RJ: Returning to the translation question, this is the problem of language, and specifically of vernacular language. The linguistic vernacular is never treated as stable—it’s the language that people use in everyday life, and it changes to reflect new social situations, values, and objects; its opposite, institutional language, relies on stability and consistent meaning and is less flexible because it’s used to administer power and authority. The vernacular doesn’t need to be sanctioned to accommodate new situations, it adjusts, and then those adjustments filter up. You can watch this happening in historical dictionaries: the Oxford English Dictionary documents the meaning of a word from the first time it’s written down to it’s most recent meaning. Often, you can watch language become institutionalized by being attentive to the sources that the OED cites. Coming from a literature background, I’ve always thought of the linguistic vernacular as having to do with language as a material that creates, as well as expresses meaning. In this way, it has something in common with how Bouchain describes his work in the introduction to Constuire as meaning winning out over a normative style (sens not normes). If we understand normative to be not only convention but official convention, than what he’s talking about is inferred meaning (coming from how the space is used) winning out over normative use, use dictated by official understandings of form. In Bouchain’s construction, the meaning, because it depends on use, is no more static in his buildings than it is in language, at least in the used, shared, shifting language of the vernacular. Translating between vernaculars only serves to highlight this fact: all correlations of meaning on both sides are temporary and created by use—by multiple, variable, and idiomatic uses.

JD: I see the architectural definition of vernacular having similarities but also diverging from the linguistic vernacular. Being from Nova Scotia, I take the critical regionalist practice of Brian MacKay-Lyons’ as a reference point. At its most essentialized, his design process and outcomes are inflected by locally found forms such as wood-sided barns, boat building construction methods, or pragmatically built dock structures. These ubiquitous structures are considered “authorless” from the point of view of the architectural discipline and could be considered the “common” language of building within that landscape and culture. So there is an acknowledgement that the vernacular is “of the people” just as it is in linguistics.

RJ: Your understanding of vernacular architecture lines up with a lot of what I had surmised as an outsider. Looking back through our initial notes on the project,  I found that the temporal and durational aspects of the collectives’ projects, as a kind of theory driving their construction and habitation practice, looked like how I understood linguistic vernacular, both as a constantly evolving form of language and as, especially when it appears in literature, a timely as opposed to timeless form of expression. The collectives—and Bouchain, both in his projects and in Constuire autrement—conceptualize, design, and build in a way that takes explicit account of use as part of the durational aspect of architecture. And it’s not use in the sense of a prescribed set of activities, but rather as a meaningful occupation of space that includes, and in fact encourages, user interference with the design. Rather than making architecture that looks like a timeless vernacular or countering the permanence of timelessness with spectacular ephemerality, it’s almost like these projects assume that architecture is not vernacular in form but rather in meaning, that it’s use and not structure that matters, creates change, and both forms and informs space.

JD: You’re explanation helps expand what I said earlier about the difference between the temporary projects produced by the French collectives versus the “pop up” architecture mentioned previously. I ascribed it to a difference in the mode of project delivery, influenced to varying degrees by capitalist forms of transaction. But you’re pointing out a fundamental difference in terms of their relationship to time. “Pop up” architectural projects are simply short term—quick to build, view, inhabit, demolish and dispose of. Meanwhile, Bouchain and his protegees take the temporal prerogative, that they see as an inescapable quality in all buildings, and use this as a fundamental building block that permeates the entire process of realizing and living with buildings and existing within a social context.

Could we imagine a type of translation that resists a definitive “closed” form, but rather keeps pace with the ever growing and evolving body of work output by the collectives? Could the texts and projects “talk back” to each other in real time? In the same vein as the collectives we’re interested in, we too are blurring discursive boundaries and pollinating new languages.

RJ: Bringing the linguistic and theoretical aspects of translation into the translation of this particular text, it’s starting to feel like we are doing something similar to what Bouchain and the collectives are doing with their collaborations across disciplines: developing a way of thinking about architectural knowledge and discourse that foregrounds the time and place of its production and the life it has through those who use it. As the form of the text changes in translation, so too will the implications of what it has to say, its meaning and form some how revealed, in the process, as being both constant and mutable.


(1) “L’ouvrage doit rester ouvert, ‘non fini,’ et laisser un vide pour que l’utilisateur ai la place d’y entrer pour s’en servir, l’enrichir sans jamais le remplir totalement, et le transformer dans le temps.” Patrick Bouchain, Construire autrement : comment faire? (Paris: Actes Sud, 2006), 27. (unpublished English translation, Ruth Jones)

(2) How to Make Space, The Central Oasis Gallery, Hong Kong, China (June 25 – July 23 2016).