The Transformation of the Oral Landscape by Literate Architecture

I am looking back over 50 years of my life, growing up evangelical in Canada. In the early years, I felt confused and fearful. Now I am disgusted and angry, coming to terms with a social identity that is unravelling in light of a growing awareness of a wider reality, an evolving perspective as I try to compare my point of view to the lived experiences of others.

By Stephen Bau

COMM 112, Section A
Prof. G. Forsberg
March 10, 1992

To misquote Walter J. Ong, “More than any other single invention [architecture] has transformed human [existence]” (78). Perhaps Hemingway, in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” builds upon this idea as he illustrates that human beings build systems and structures around themselves in order to give meaning to what might otherwise be (that is, what he seems to believe to be) a chaotic, lonely, absurd, and anxious existence. Whether or not we reject Hemingway’s philosophy of life, those systems and structures of meaning are an integral part of the architecture in which we no live. Hemingway’s short story, though almost entirely conversational, that is, oral in content, would not exist without the “invention of writing” since it has revolutionized “human consciousness” (Ong 78) making possible Hemingway’s isolated angst-ridden introspection.

The shift from “primary orality” to literacy as a result of the invention of phonographic, chirographic, and typographic technologies (Ong 36), has brought about irrevocable transformations to the structure of thought processes. The influence of the alphabet, as a technology, shares many parallels with those changes brought about by the development of architecture, that is, architecture defined as the design and construction of buildings. The technology, and medium, of architecture gave human beings the ability to feed, protect, and organize themselves as a cohesive economic and social group, in a city; and the medium of the alphabet gave the ability to store, retrieve, and organize knowledge, a necessity for the function of a good society. “No medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media” (McLuhan 39). This interplay, this ongoing development of technologies and the application of these technologies to physical and social structures forms the basis of the broader definition of architecture. Architecture, as such, is the aggregate of the designed or created physical structures in which human beings live, and symbol systems through which they perceive the world and its meanings.

As this concept of architecture relates to Walter Ong’s discussion of “orality and literacy,” we might represent the “primary orality, that [is,] of persons totally unfamiliar with writing” (Ong 6), as the natural landscape of the human mind, a landscape untouched by “structures” or “buildings” of human design. The introduction of the alphabet, then, is similar to the construction of a structure, a “literate architecture,” in the mind which irrevocably alters the natural “oral landscape.” It changes perceptions, thought processes, and, consequently, behavioural and social structures.

So that you better understand what I mean by literate architecture, try to imagine a tower erected in the midst of a rural landscape. You would find that the view of the countryside was obscured by this building. Yet if you were to climb, by means of a “ladder of abstraction” (Adler & Towne 172), to the top of the tower and look down at the countryside, you would see much more of the world and could view it from a perspective which would be utterly impossible without the height that this architectural achievement made possible. The height distances you from the real world of concrete objects, people, and events, and raises you to an entirely new imaginary world of abstract ideas where you feel enlightened by a wider, more expansive and seemingly objective view of the world around you, a perspective closer to that of a god.

It is interesting to note that the most significant transformation in language, and subsequently in social relationships, occurred in conjunction with architecture: although “the whole world had one language and a common speech, in response to men’s attempt to “build a city, with a tower that reache[d] to the heavens,” God “confused the language of the whole world” (Genesis 11:1–9). In trying to construct not just the tower of Babel but a human dignity and unity autonomous from God, Mankind, instead, became further separated from each other as well as from God (Schaeffer 5:70, 108–9). In many ways, literacy has had much the same effect on modern thought as did the discovery of innovations in the technology of architecture. The technology of writing made possible Man’s pride in his rational and creative abilities as well as the linear, analytical, sequential, and logical reasoning used in attempts to develop systems of meaning starting from Man himself.

We are only now starting to realize the consequences of this transformation in the structure of thought processes. The change, although gradual in Western culture, has been as dramatic as the evolution of “tribal man” into “civilized man” (McLuhan 117), as revolutionary as the movement from life in the jungle, subsisting as hunters and gatherers, to life in a metropolis, where the development of social organization and culture practically renders obsolete the “struggle” (Ong 44) for survival, replacing it with struggles for less tangible, more abstract values, such as peace and prosperity, justice and democracy, happiness and security. Literacy, because it draws people from the real world into the abstract and imaginary, and essentially into themselves, isolates them, and heightens awareness of the self and personal property. Also, literacy tends to categorize, fragment, and compartmentalize knowledge much like a building is divided into rooms. So, while literacy might unify a language, the kind of environment that the act of reading and writing requires tends to further alienate people from each other.

Partly in reaction to the fragmentation, alienation, and disillusionment experienced in the early twentieth century after the “Great War,” and springing from the observation that “the arts exist[ed] in isolation” (Wingler 31), Walter Gropius founded, in Weimar, Germany in 1919, the Staatliche Bauhaus with “a utopian desire to create a new spiritual society” (Meggs 330). In his Manifesto, he called on “all craftsmen” to “desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith” (Wingler 31).

“Gropius was deeply interested in architecture’s symbolic potential and the possibility of a universal design style as an integrated aspect of society” (Wingler 32). The logical consequence of the Bauhaus ideology and architecture is the ubiquitous, monstrous, and anonymous, glass and steel skyscrapers, which symbolize the “new faith”: the humanistic materialism which pervades our present society, the Neue Babel. As in the time of the old Babel, God is still “confus[ing] the language of the whole world” (Genesis 11:1–9). Consensus and unity are still unrealized, and relativism dominates the “architectonic spirit” (Wingler 31) in all areas of knowledge and craft.

The failure of the “new architecture” lies in the instability and impermanence of its foundations, that is, on the basis of Man and his own efforts. But “[u]nless the Lord builds the house, /its builders labor in vain (Psalm 127). And “…everyone who hears [the] words [of Jesus] and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on a rock” (Matthew 7:24). So “…each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:10b, 11). Then, as Peter 2:5 says,

“As you come to him, the living Stone — rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him — you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

‘See, I say a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do no believe,

‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,’ and, ‘A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’

Thus, the architecture of created structures and symbol systems, of which the alphabet is a part, is a constantly changing and transforming influence on the structure of thought processes, but to give balance and solidity to our thoughts we need first the foundation of Christ. In offsetting the negative aspects of the literate architecture perhaps there are ways we might be able to recapture some of what has been lost in moving away from the oral landscape by placing more emphasis on learning aural-oral skills, and taking more time to live in the real world of human and divine interaction and communication.

Works Consulted

  • Holy Bible, New International Version, The. 1973. Colorado Springs: International Bible Society, 1984.
  • McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: Extensions of Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1964.
  • Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983.
  • Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. 1982. New York: Routledge, 1988.
  • Schaeffer, Francis A. The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview. 5 vols. 1982. 2nd ed. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1990.
  • Wingler, Hans M. The Bauhaus. 1962. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986.
  • Adler, Ronald B., & Towne, Neil. Looking Out/Looking In. 6th ed. Orlando, FL: Hold, Rinehart & Winston, 1990.



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Stephen Bau

Stephen Bau


Designer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective. We are exploring how we imagine, design, and build the future together.