Labels – The Good and The Bad

We all use labels whether we realise it or not, I was always against labels, being trained at an architectural school of thought where ideas were abstracted and a word only meant as much as how you defined it, it was merely a starting point to a complex idea. For example, my analysis of a project site was the importance of wind, the site was a park that hugs a river bend, thoughts of changing humidity levels, temperature and sound due to wind speed became central to the design of the space, which then focused on attuning the senses in a ritual-like atmosphere, the word ‘wind’ was no longer the core of the design. My whole education was about an abstraction of ideas that formulate into built space. I was against identifying as Kuwaiti, Arab, Single, Capricorn, Student, Materialist, Immigrant, Rationalist, Modernist, Artist, Urbanist etc. not that I am not proud of any of those labels, but I was irritated by the fact that I had no control over the connotations these labels were perceived as by different people. I remember going to a university event and socializing with other students, first question fellow students asked eachother was which major they’re studying, when I would say architecture a common reaction was “Oh no not another pretentious prick”, later on in the professional world many people were impressed that I was an architect, in essays and articles I’ve seen strong political views for or against socialists, and in Kuwait a cashier wanted to charge me more because AlNashmi is a middle-class family so I could afford to pay more. The idea that a fact about me that I cannot deny (and don’t want to) can result in negative judgement was frustrating.

Using labels took a positive turn when I started working, clients would be sitting in a meeting room discussing something for ages, at times people were debating and two completely different topics but when someone gives them labels, a heavy burden is suddenly lifted, the cloud of confusion fades and there is instant clarity, when we looked each other in the eye we knew we were not only on the same page, but our thoughts are now synched. Things like a shade of colour ( e.g. twilight blue, terracotta red), or the real reason behind a design shortcoming (e.g. buildability, thermal-bridge, improportioned spaces, thematically negligent, lack of due diligence), or even if a friendship is not what it was (e.g. emotional imbalance, new insecurity). When a floating idea is concretised in a word or phrase, it’s like it is now locked in and we can move on to solving the problem, and sometimes that phrase is also the solution. Maybe these aren’t the best analogies, but the idea that labels can have good connotations but more importantly help in problem-solving is very valuable to me.

Considering the fact that labels have led to discrimination against certain social, cultural and economic groups, it is important to understand their power and use them wisely. The larger challenge is to counter the negative labels, the global solution thus far is through awareness, but what if it is a counter-label? Which is already happening in some cases, like when Trevor Noah replied to a French Ambassador that the African immigrants who won the World Cup for France were not just French, and they were not just Ghanaian/Kenyan/Algerian, but they were both. The awareness method is like the Ted Talk Ask Me Not Where I’m From but Ask me Where I’m Local, which says that the labels of two countries isn’t enough, because I identify with certain morals and ethics and social groups which I prefer to be affiliated with, when I said I am proud of being Kuwaiti, this speaker is saying that it is not accurate enough, and is actually misleading let alone the connotations.

All I know now is that using labels to solve problems is very beneficial, and there are times when labels can be misleading that they should be avoided, but I hope the answers of how to reverse the damage of ‘wrong’ labels do surface and help us resolve urban issues that labels create.

When I came back from Edinburgh, I saw a therapist. He asked if I had a feeling of impending catastrophe. That was the perfect word: catastrophe. He then described a panic attack and I was immediately calmer – I wasn’t going mad. This was a condition, and as soon as I could label it, I felt better.” Stephan Coogan