What’s in a Unit?

Unit: A Semantic and Architectural History

by Andrew M. Shanken

The essay begins:

More than ever we call the spaces we inhabit units. Many university students live in them—some of mine at the University of California, Berkeley, live in Units 1, 2 and 3, names ill conceived for domestic coziness. They were built between 1958 and 1964 by the architectural firm of Warnecke and Warnecke as part of the urban renewal of the city. The dedicated website for Unit 1 states that the complex consists of six buildings built around a court, with a “unit office” at the center. These units make little attempt to look like anything but impersonal superblocks. Recently, the university has countered their anonymity by “theming” parts of them African American, Native American, Asian Pacific American, and Latinx. Such units are modern, impersonal, institutional. The themed programs are more than an attempt to dress them up with new multicultural curtains: they work against the premise of the unit as a “single number regarded as an undivided whole.” In fact, they divide, and in so doing they point out one of the central contributions of multiculturalism: to challenge the perceived uniformity and homogeneity of American society. While housing units flatten and regularize, the themed programs attempt to show the many grains of American culture.

Unit. What a cold word to describe a domestic space; and this gets right to how fitting this odd usage is and why dormitories at large public universities acquire the name. The word was coined by English mathematician and natural philosopher John Dee in his preface to Sir Henry Billingsley’s translation of Euclid’s Elements (1570). More tellingly for the unit in the dormitory, it is a “single thing regarded as a member of a group,” a definition perfectly suited for large apartments, anonymous collections of spaces, and buildings. If born of mathematics, it is a word that matured in the context of nineteenth-century mass society, bureaucracy, manufacturing, the modern military, and large institutions—the world in which the modern profession of architecture came of age. Although Raymond Williams did not include it in Keywords (1976), unit is an intimate relation of words like bureaucracy, management, masses, and institution. How did it enter the house or the apartment and become attached to other spaces of modernity? This is its semantic, architectural, and spatial journey. Continue reading …

This essay peers through the peephole of the word unit to reveal the word’s journey across multiple fields from the mid-nineteenth century through the present. A keyword hidden in plain sight, unit links science and the world of measurement to society (family units), politics (political units), architecture (housing units), cities (neighborhood units), and, more recently, big data, the carceral state (crime units), and managerial oversight.

ANDREW M. SHANKEN is an architectural historian in the Department of Architecture and American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He publishes on architecture and consumer culture, memorialization, expositions, preservation history, and imagery in urban planning.

Slang, Argot, Dialect & Jargon


A Colloquium on the UC Berkeley Campus
Thursday, October 4, 4:30-6:30
315 Wheeler Hall (Maude Fife Room)

Featuring presentations by Janet Sorensen, Celeste Langan, Deidre Shauna Lynch, Maureen McLane, and Daniel Tiffany

While eighteenth-century efforts to standardize the English language have long been studied—from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary to grammar and elocution books of the period—less well-known are the era’s popular collections of odd slang, criminal argots, provincial dialects, and nautical jargon. Strange Vernaculars delves into how these published works presented the supposed lexicons of the “common people” and traces the ways these languages, once shunned and associated with outsiders, became objects of fascination in printed glossaries—from The New Canting Dictionary to Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue—and in novels, poems, and songs, including works by Daniel Defoe, John Gay, Samuel Richardson, Robert Burns, and others.

Maureen McLane’s essay Compositionism: Plants, Poetics, Possibilities; or, Two Cheers for Fallacies, Especially Pathetic Ones! appears in our recent Fallacies special issue.