Writing Architecture: A Practical Guide to Clear Communication about the Built Environment

Writing Architecture: A Practical Guide to Clear Communication about the Built Environment

The following in an excerpt from Carter Wiseman's Writing Architecture: A Practical Guide to Clear Communication about the Built Environment. The book considers the process, methods, and value of architecture writing based on Carter Wiseman’s thirty years of personal experience writing, editing, and teaching young architects how to write. This book creatively tackles a problematic issue that Wiseman considers to crucial to successful architecture writing: clarity of thinking and expression.

Some years ago, a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education declared, “Too many architecture students can’t write.” [1] Those students have since gone on to become practitioners, and their inability to write is likely to have had seriously negative professional consequences. Robert Campbell, a Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic for the Boston Globe, condemned in Architectural Record much of what even the most prominent practicing architects write as “pretentious illiteracy.” He went on to attack their coded language as “ArchiSpeak”and warned that “sooner or later, architects (and planners and landscapers and urban designers) must convince someone to hire them or at least bless them with a grant. . . . Nobody is going to trust a dollar to a pompous twit.” [2]

Courtesy of Trinity University Press

Little has changed in the years since Campbell issued his indictment. Having taught courses called “Writing on Architecture” and “Case Studies in Architectural Criticism” for many years at the Yale School of Architecture, I can confirm the claims of both the Chronicle and the Record. The passage of time does not seem to have improved matters. The decline in the quality of architectural writing is happening at the very moment when the demand for it is increasing, as technology and construction grow more complex. Whether the culprit is the computer, the Internet, texting, or school curricula is open to debate, but clear written communication among even the best-educated people is increasingly rare. For years, surveys have documented a steady decline in the writing skills of American students. But the situation seems especially worrisome in the field of architecture. Murky specifications about, for instance, the environmental impact of a new building can have toxic results; ambiguity about the load-bearing capacity of a structural beam can have fatal implications. Partners in several of the country’s leading architecture firms have confessed that they spend only a fraction of their time designing; much of the rest is spent rewriting or correcting what the staff has written. One of these architects, a veteran practitioner and dean of one of the nation’s leading architecture schools, put it bluntly: “Architects who can’t write are professional toast!” [3]

Courtesy of Trinity University Press

Why does good writing matter to architecture? Good writing matters regardless of profession, whether it is law, medicine, business, or aerospace. But architecture in particular permeates our lives at every moment and in every dimension. Unlike the other arts— painting, sculpture, music, or theater— architecture is not a matter of choice in our lives, something we decide to take or leave as time and spirit move us. Architecture determines the shape of the places where we live, where we work, where we worship, and where we take our ease. At its most powerful— at the pyramids of Egypt, the

Parthenon, Japan’s Himeji Castle, St. Peter’s in Rome, the Taj Mahal, or the Seagram Building— it ennobles our existence and conveys our highest values across time. For that reason, it is the most comprehensive and complex of the arts. Anyone who makes, produces, promotes, or teaches architecture must depend on accurate analysis and lucid explication to encourage design that may make the world a better place.

Courtesy of Trinity University Press

There are scores of books on writing. The most useful in my view are the durable small classic The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, and On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, both of which address the fundamentals of the craft with efficiency, grace, and wit. This book attempts to address those skills as applied to architecture: by encouraging not just competence, but also enjoyment, and even inspiration.

For the student and the practitioner, writing on architecture should be inseparable from the design process itself. Every successful work of architecture is centered on a core idea. Think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Like it or not (architects do, painters never have), Wright’s idea was to display works of art in a continuous space that did away with the segmentation of conventional galleries. Or take Le Corbusier’s 1955 Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France. There, the idea was to create an uplifting experience through a combination of forms and spaces that would evoke the aspirations and mysteries of spirituality. A less famous example is the library by the Late Modernist architect Louis Kahn at the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, finished in 1971. What appears at first glance to be a stolid New England brick box is transformed on the interior into a warren of active study spaces centered on an atrium that encourages the users to witness the scholarly activity to which the building is dedicated. These examples come only from relatively recent architectural history. When we travel, we mark our journeys with stops at the cathedrals of France, the temples of Japan and Central America, and the palaces of the Asian subcontinent. Why? Because these buildings are eloquent tributes to the cultures that produced them, and they inform our own.

Courtesy of Trinity University Press

In each case, the success of the architecture derives from the focus on what the building is for. That goes well beyond the program— the client’s description of the building’s basic function. For design students, analyzing good— and especially great— buildings in detail and writing about them is an invaluable way to understand the fundamentals of architecture, and later to marshal that analysis into built form.

For practicing architects, expressing the goals of their creative impulses is no less central to persuading a client, a community board, or a potential patron of the virtues of a design proposal. Louis Kahn famously said that the main responsibility of the architect was to take the client’s program and change it. By that he did not mean betraying clients’ wishes, but rather understanding what they wanted and giving it form in a way the clients would not be able to imagine themselves.

However inspired an architectural scheme may seem to its author, it is likely to remain an abstraction unless the designer can express its reason for being in terms accessible to the people who must support it. Few of these people are likely to have architectural training. To those who simply wish to encourage good design, enrich their own appreciation of it, or teach its value and preservation to others, writing— like drawing— concentrates the mind on the search for the elements that distinguish mere building from what deserves to be called architecture. In short, writing— and writing well— on architecture is a skill that not only has promoted the understanding and creation of good design through history, but is also critical to its perpetuation in the future.

About this author
Cite: Carter Wiseman. "Writing Architecture: A Practical Guide to Clear Communication about the Built Environment" 08 Oct 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/554287/writing-architecture-a-practical-guide-to-clear-communication-about-the-built-environment> ISSN 0719-8884

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