How Architects Write

Image of How Architects Write
Release Date: 
October 12, 2012
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“. . . a valuable textbook that has arrived in the nick of time.”

A lot of design professionals like to avoid discussing their work—explaining, rationalizing or evaluating—assuming that it’s unnecessary and superfluous. After all, the work should speak for itself.

As an unfortunate consequence of this belief, the Information Age has caught today’s designers unprepared for the task of communicating the important, sometimes arcane, aspects of their work: the considerations underlying its design decisions, the collaborative framework that creates it, and the various factors determining its ultimate acceptance or rejection.

Among these professionals, architects fare possibly the worst, because their creative product is so large and conspicuous and most often discussed by those prepared to express only subjective opinions about the results with no objective appreciation of the processes that created them, and because the architect’s most effective communication tool—drawing—appears to have disappeared, replaced by the pervasiveness of computer modeling and rendering.

Even worse, architects have a reputation for being poor writers—a contention most architects are happy to accept. After all, successful architects need to perfect so many skills they can surely be forgiven for omitting one or two—especially one that is as modest and unassuming as writing.

In their timely book How Architects Write professors Tom Spector and Rebecca Damron make the very obvious point that in a world that relies on communication of ideas, no professional community, especially architects, can afford to overlook the opportunities that literacy provides.

This is particularly true right now, when other forms of communication, such as public speaking and drawing, have largely vanished from architectural education, and the study of grammar and spelling have lost their place in public education.

Without sacrificing other elements of architectural training, the authors advocate strongly for architectural literacy and for the teaching of writing in architecture schools.

The authors present and discuss a surprisingly large number of writing opportunities that exist for architects, all requiring brevity, precision and clarity. Among the forms of architectural writing discussed are: design journals, history term papers, project descriptions, research reports and analyses, business documents, explanations of design philosophy, manifestoes and theses.

Throughout the book, the authors include examples—good and bad—of various kinds of architectural writing for the purposes of demonstration. Many useful tips and some very good general writing rules are highlighted, correcting a lot of common “student” errors (many of these begin as student errors but are frequently found in professional writing as well).

Drs. Spector and Damron provide a basic litmus test that never fails: “If you cannot write or speak clearly about your design project, it is highly unlikely that you are thinking clearly about it.”

This may sound obvious, but, in the rush to promote an idea, an architect or designer may easily overlook this lack of clarity. Too often language is used in order to sound clever or to construct meaning where none exists.

In the context of writing history papers, the authors put it even more bluntly: “If you find yourself unable to generate any curiosity or questions about matters in architectural history, then you are likely ill-matched to the field.”

A point worth stressing is the similarity between writing and the other creative activities, especially drawing. The authors support and encourage the use of drawing, especially in combination with writing—quoting linguist Peter Medway, “Architects often finish their sentences with a sketch.” Words and drawings have a great deal in common in communicating architecture and can frequently work side-by-side to express architectural ideas.

The majority of the book focuses on the necessity to write for a professional readership. But missing from the discussion and perhaps a worthy topic for a future book is the lack of more general architectural writing, aimed at a popular readership. While those trained as doctors, scientists, and lawyers manage to fill the shelves of airport book shops, the work of architects is conspicuously absent. Advocating for the profession through popular fiction and popular nonfiction is an important task that needs to be addressed.

Will the fact this book has obviously been written as a textbook limit its appeal to practicing architects? If so, what a great pity. The lessons are aimed at all levels, and many will resonate with seasoned professional as well as student novices.

It’s hoped that the entire architectural community will welcome How Architects Write as a valuable textbook that has arrived in the nick of time.