Sharpening the scalpel

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Portada Sharpening the scalpel
Sharpening the scalpel
Arcadia Mediática
Madrid, August 2019
1st edition, English
ISBN: 978-84-120795-3-1
153 pages
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In this book I have tried to include the most interesting writings from the numerous texts I have penned over the years and published in English I have always said that teaching and writing for an architect is like a good surgeon sharpening his scalpel to operate with maximum precision, just like my late father used to do. I dedicate this book to him

I have always maintained that, in one way or another, the writings of an architect reflect the reasons why he makes his architecture, and I have always defended reason as the architect’s primary and principal tool. And now, these texts in English are exponentially increasing their readership.

I have already written several books in English and these collections of texts have always been very well received. From The Built Idea, reissued so many times that I’ve lost count, to Thinking with Your Hands, which complemented that first publication and follows the same trajectory. These were followed by further titles in English: Principia Architectonica and Teaching to Teach. And now this volume.

I cannot but thank Alison Hughes and Penelope Eades for providing an English version of these texts over the years. They are my voice in English. More than once I have been praised for my good English. It is they who deserve the credit, not me.

And I think it may be appropriate to repeat the same words that I previously wrote to accompany the English translation of some of my writings:

Be thou assur’d, if words be made of breath
and breath of life, I have no life to breathe
what thou hast said to me.

At the end of Hamlet Act III, Queen Gertrude thus defines the paradox that language holds, not only here, but in all of Shakespeare. I wish that my words, now translated into English, could breathe something of the same poetry which Shakespeare infuses in the mouths of his characters.  How well the great scribe understood the value of a word.

Words, in architecture, are always an expression of those very ideas built by the architecture itself.  Without ideas, architecture is vain, empty: Architectura sine idea, vana architectura est.

Although these ideas seem universal, ever since Babel the words we use to communicate them are in different tongues. So if we wish to convey these ideas, it is absolutely necessary to put our words into other languages.

When George Chapman translated Homer’s poems into English in 1614, it had such an effect that two centuries later, in October of 1816 to be exact, John Keats dedicated a beautiful sonnet to him. Around the same time, Cervantes commissioned Shelton to translate El Quijote to English, which made an invaluable contribution to the worldwide dissemination of his work.

Today, we translate words learned from Cervantes into the language of Shakespeare all the time. The impact of translation on the structure of contemporary media is almost unimaginable to the creative mind.

In contrast, the very form of built architecture has a universal quality that needs no translation.  This dependence on form differs from the relative freedom that the word enjoys, yet is compensated by the universality of built language, which requires no more explanation than its existence.

While architecture is conveyed by this universality of built work, the logic from which it originates and later develops is all too often hidden or not revealed.  The aim of the English version of these texts is to explain these reasons, to offer clues, to discover the basis from which these ideas were conceived, and to illustrate the materialisation of these ideas in the architecture we build.

It moves me to place the words of Don Quixote into the trembling hands of Hamlet, although it is perhaps today the most efficient way to spread any message. Even though I know that on the Internet my texts can travel through space in an instant, I cannot help but imagine my words in the hands of the desolate Danish prince, voicing his doubts in the beauty of the English language.  That very same language that was used, after Shakespeare, by Wren, and Paxton, and Soane, and later still by Sullivan and Wright, and even Mies Van der Rohe himself.

I can only hope that my words, my ideas, and, along with them, my work, reach as far as theirs still do.

Alberto Campo Baeza

New York, 2019



Once I finish the introduction to this printed book in English, I and my colleagues will be preparing the digital edition of a series of lessons, entitled Digital Lessons, with the clear objective of reaching out further and to many more people. I do not know what the future holds for us in these fields. I still cannot get my head around the over 5 million visits to my www.campobaeza.com  or the over 500 references in my UPM Digital Archive. It is clear that the world, and communication, have changed.

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