The Indicator: Why Good Architectural Writing Doesn’t Exist (And, Frankly, Needn’t)


New York Times and Wall Street Journal architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013). “The consistent theme is pleasure,” Ms. Huxtable wrote in 1978. “There is so much more to see, to experience, to understand, to enjoy.” A great writer on architecture, but, thankfully, not an architectural writer. Image © Gene Maggio, New York Times

The Architects’ Journal recently announced its call for entries for the “AJ Writing Prize,” its annual search for “the best new architectural writer.”

Back in 2011 (how did I miss this?) they published a treatise on the qualities of good architectural writing penned by one of the prize’s judges, architect Alan Berman. Now, please consider that I am butchering his essay by removing this quote from the stream of his thinking, but, that being said, this paragraph stands out:

should aid everyone’s understanding of buildings and assist architects to design better ones. This is not to say that it should be an instruction manual or ignore the importance of the myriad intellectual endeavours which explore the human predicament –about which architects should always be conscious. Rather it is to say that architectural commentary should aim for clarity and precision of expression by means of lucid terminology and simplicity of structure.

This strikes me as a very technical and precise way of producing writer’s block. If this is the extent of good architectural writing, or writing that is in the service of architecture, then “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

There is nothing wrong with writing as an “aid” to architecture, but writing about architecture needs to be conceived as something much greater than a mere facilitator of architectural practice and outcomes. Writing mediates architecture the way it mediates life. Let us posit that there should be no architectural writing, but merely writing that happens to be about architecture.

What is good architectural writing, anyway? I think there is really just good writing. As W.H. Auden once wrote:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

Now, I won’t go too much into that “mouth” business, but the gist here, as I see it, is that poetry, or writing, makes things happen. It coaxes meaning out of things and situates them within deeper contexts.

Architecture is a form of poïesis, or “making”. From poïesis we derive “poetry”—the word used to be a verb: to make. Martin Heidegger uses it as “bringing forth” or what he called a “threshold occasion, or a moment of ecstasis when something moves away from its standing as one thing to become another.”

This is what good writing about architecture—or anything—can do. So why put limits on so-called architectural writing? It would be interesting to see what would happen if AJ opened the parameters beyond these limits and invited writing that moves architecture, or that makes it happen on new levels.

If writing about architecture is to serve the profession on some level, wouldn’t it be best if it reached out to the popular imagination, beyond the confines of institutionalized insularity where architects and “architectural writers” merely talk amongst themselves?

Writing ecstatically and madly about architecture demands an authentic response to architecture, or even a provocation directed against it. It cannot be posited by a formula. Writing goes beyond “clarity and precision of expression.” It ain’t about “lucid terminology and simplicity of structure.” This would be beneath the architecture the writing is trying to explain or capture.

To meet architecture head-on with writing is an ecstatic act. It is neither timid nor technical. It is an authentic “mouth.” So let’s see what the AJ contestants bring. Hopefully they don’t take writing advice seriously.

Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring “”, he is a frequent contributor to The Architect’s Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: Why Good Architectural Writing Doesn’t Exist (And, Frankly, Needn’t)
" 14 Aug 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 24 Apr 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=415152>

18 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Trying to rationalize architecture through left-brain language is like trying to describe a dancer using mathematical formulas. Why not just experience & enjoy the dance?

    • Thumb up Thumb down +7

      But architecture itself tries to rationalize our lives through structure. I don’t think language and mathematics are even comparable. Language can be almost as powerful as experience if it’s done right.

    • Thumb up Thumb down -1

      Because experiencing without concepts is blind. Unless you rationalize the reflected light rays on your retina into concepts such as movements, shapes, or colours, or dancing, then you wouldn’t see any dancing, nor whether it is good or bad. Rationalization is inherent in all perceptions or representations, and since mathematics can represent anything and beyond what is possible to percieve it can certainly describe a dancer.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Besides the left brain and right brain (meaning left side of the brain and right side of the brain, naturally) having a completely different role and purpose than what you’ve described, writing is profoundly different to mathematics. And to architecture and dance, for that matter.

      Which is what is addressed in the article, as well – why describe architecture technically when writing can assume a poetic stance or even a creative symbiosis with the architecture it expresses. Writers do that – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name one. Architectural writers limit themselves to technicalities and trivialities. Even if architects can materialise “words”, writers can create experiences as well.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    A good writer can elicit substantive insights about the built environment that a viewer might not otherwise have on their own. Too many people are out there writing on such topics for such a breezily presumed dismissal.

  3. Thumb up Thumb down -3

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

  4. Thumb up Thumb down -3

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    “Writing ecstatically and madly about architecture demands an authentic response to architecture, or even a provocation directed against it. It cannot be posited by a formula. Writing goes beyond “clarity and precision of expression.” It ain’t about “lucid terminology and simplicity of structure.” This would be beneath the architecture the writing is trying to explain or capture.

    To meet architecture head-on with writing is an ecstatic act.”

    What does ecstasy and madness and so-called ‘authenticity’ have to do with Architectural writing?

    If one wishes to express their ecstasy of the subject, then call it a different genre, perhaps Architectural Poetry, and enjoy it and do it well, but do not confuse descriptive writing with something else.

    What Architects and Architectural firms have written about their work is often, if not largely, some the worst, most over-blown, faux-poetical, and embarrassing writing since the Beat Generation poets.

    One has only to read ArchDaily – the descriptions, not the blog itself, which is admirably written – to regularly find amateurish flights of absurdity masquerading as high English.

    Alan Berman’s comments are an attempt to bring Architects and Architectural firm’s copy down off their entirely unnecessary high horse.

    Using “lucid terminology and simplicity of structure” is good, sound advice.

    To meet architecture head-on with writing is NOT an ecstatic act, it is description put in written form, nothing more.

    Why was the structure brought into being?

    What purpose does it serve?

    What were its requirements and how were they met?

    What were the obstacles and how were they overcome?

    Answer these and other basic questions in plain readily understandable language, and the job is done.

    Rely on the truth that the building, after all, speaks for itself.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    I would say, sir, that you have completely missed the point of the article, which is perhaps why you’ve quoted it out of context. Alan Berman is not criticising interesting writing about architecture, he is very much criticising the opposite: overly complex philosophical treatises which have little relevance to practice on the ground (case in point: Martin Heidegger). Its perfectly fine to enjoy reading such things, and they do encourage debate and discourse about architecture, but they do not contribute to practice on the ground, nor to students education in architecture (except in the most general philosophical way), nor to the public’s appreciation of architecture or architects. You claim that architectural writing should ‘reach out to the popular imagination’ and quote Heidegger. Nothing could be more self-contradictory.

  7. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Architecture is in itself a writing, creating spaces pertaining to the conditions enhancing the activities of those who endure within them.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Willem, architecture may be a form of communication, but it’s certainly not “writing”, which is pretty clearly defined. It’s also not “oratory”, “sign language”, or “typing”.

  8. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Sorry for the double post above. I find the hostility to clarity interesting, for secular truths derived by argument form have always been a threat to badly justified authorities. What’s the point of unclear writing besides deception? Anyone can create an ink blot, and it doesn’t take much more talent to compose a text with indeterminate meanings. One would think that writing in architecture should be based on at least some intellectual investment or courage instead of hiding behind obfuscatory prose or authorities (pace Heidegger).

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      jkop,
      It is an interesting point you are making. But while you assume that unclear writing is deceptive, aren’t you also saying that clear writing is NOT deceptive?
      But think about that… it is common that writing can be very clear, and still TOTALLY deceptive.
      Writing that is super clear also has its problems… it runs the risk of simply regurgitating the most damaging and counter-productive of our common-sense ideas about architecture. Of course, intentionally long-winded (obfuscatory) writing is always problematic. But, before we burn all our books I think we should remember that really, truly, great Ideas ARE difficult to grasp BECAUSE they challenge our common sense way of seeing the world and thinking about architecture.
      Lets try to remain open to positive change…even if it hurts sometimes.

      • Thumb up Thumb down 0

        @cojo: Saying that unclear writing is deceptive doesn’t say much about clear writing, does it? However, you might allude to the misuse of clear expressions, for example, when a selective truth is expressed to evoke a wrong conclusion, or the like. But such deception has to do with use, not the clarity of the expression.

        You’re right in that some great ideas are difficult to grasp, but that is no reason to believe that difficulty would be intrinsic for great ideas. Many great ideas are simple and clearly expressed. For example, Copernicus heliocentric world view. Einstein’s theory of relativity might be harder to grasp, yet it is cleary expressed in his famous equation. Both of these ideas are clear, and neither is obscurely expressed. While the equation might require acquaintance to physics its percieved difficulty has to do with pedagogy, not clarity of expression. Few expressions are as clear as true mathematical equations.

        Our natural language enables expression of an infinite amount of meanings. It should be sufficient to include any architectural, poetic, scientific, or novel meaning. There is no good reason for accepting obscurity of expression, or as if its obscurity would be justified by its meaning, because our language enables us to express any meaning clearly.

  9. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    In the end, the only thing that really matters is the buildings themselves. This is what Berman meant (it seems to me) when he said that writing should serve architecture. If writing doesn’t do that then it has failed an the emperor has no clothes, which given the general quality of architectural production (at least in the UK) over the past few decades, is the case. Following on from this, it is also my opinion that architectural writing/writing about architecture IS NOT like poetry, rather architecture itself can approximate to poetry (or can even be said to be equal to it). I don’t really understand this recurring impulse to elevate the status of architectural writing, particularly by bleating on and on about how important it is. We have enough trouble trying to convince he world that the subject matter itself is important!

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      @Michael: I’d say the trouble of trying to convince the world that architecture matters has partly to do with its intellectual tradition. Architectural theory is theoretically inadequate; it is usually ignored by practicing architects as well as intellectuals in other fields. Without a strong intellectual tradition there are no strong arguments for why architecture matters. Instead of arguments we rely on fashion, individual luck, or seemingly random fluctuations of economy. Very few buildings get built because of architectural arguments. It is a consequence of the intellectual tradition, which also led to postmodern doctrines, such as “anything goes”. But if anything would go, then architecture would be anything, including what it is not, which is usually a lot cheaper or faster to build. It is time for architects to embrace an intellectual curiosity, learn what argument form is, and reclaim the art of building.

  10. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    @jkop

    Hi! Thanks for responding. This is interesting and vital. I for one believe in a genuine intellectual tradition but I think that you’ve acknowledged that it’s in crisis. To stay in work, intellectuals within the discipline of architecture have broadened the scope of their interests to ridiculous horizons. We are a long way from Alberti on the Art of Building, yet even he was proved wrong by the subsequent work of practitioners. While I feel that it is important for architects to be intellectuals, I believe our principle language is that of architecture / building. The problem is that architects have been slow to realise that this language isn’t their sole preserve (in the way that equations is that of physicists and anatomical / bio-chemical knowledge is that of doctors) the ‘man in the street’ has an understanding of architecture which is perfectly valid and doesn’t simply have to accept what we, ‘the experts’ tell him. His views must be understood and responded to. This is what did not happen in the 60′s. This is the crux of the issue and this is where the intellectual tradition has let us all down (and it continues to do so largely).

    Regards

    Michael

Share your thoughts