I had an opportunity to interact with 3rd year architecture students from Mumbai on the topic of Architectural Journalism. It was an epilogue to their elective for the semester. With two hours in hand I had to deliver a format and a framework of architectural writing that was lucid and could add value to their current frame of reference.
A CASE FOR WRITING IN ARCHITECTURE
Architecture permeates our lives every moment and in every dimension. That we comprehend this constant interaction between us and our built environment is an illustration of effective communication. All of which is but a form of language. The case for writing in architecture design is not a very advocated concept. The convergence of the building blocks of design education along with writing in design will help to create an exclusive language that has concept, connotation and content. In the words of Saul Bass, ‘Design is thinking made visual’, but all thinking first starts with an articulation of the problem itself and thereafter paving a path to the probable solution, thus a role for words to play throughout the journey.
READING A BUILT-FORM
For eyes and minds tutored to witness their surroundings in space and form, the creative process of verbal expression stretches and stimulates the sense of keen observation and sharp communication. It calls for an architectural journalist to listen to the ‘silent narrative’ embedded in the creation and bring it to life with words. In a visual composition our eyes become the primary tools to soak in. Texture, sound and memory add to the dimensions of observation, which is key to the entire process.
Look for & talk about:
A narrative of a built form is loosely structured around factors in focus as we try to decipher it. Our first encounter is usually a visual dichotomy of solid and void, born from the designer’s rendering. Initial observations hover around balance, scale and boundaries that define the larger picture. A developer’s execution outlines style and sustainability bringing into play an appeal and acceptance of a structure. At the helm of this lays a process that has worked through inception to implementation. This process entails abstract and tactile details involved in a project. All these prove to be empty details in absence of a user’s point of view. Architecture has a definite and evolving social impact. We study history of mankind, our socio-economic and behaviour traits in strong association to our built environment.
‘Architectural writing 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’, extract from a treatise on the qualities of good architectural writing penned by architect Alan Berman.
AN OUTLINE OF COMMUNICATION:
We communicate observations to develop an outline of a coherent write up. These observations run through a process of queries and introspection. Our first query of ‘what’ gives clarity to our subject, defines type of content. A ‘why’ brings forth our approach and lends a voice to our words. ‘How’ is the style developed through our rendering of words and phrases within the structure of grammar and rhetoric.
The soul and voice of a write up lies in the approach that we choose for it. It is the theme for the narrative and can be broadly broken down into formal, experiential, historian and activist viewpoints. Architectural critics use these approaches to define their style and create a specialization for themselves.
To summarize what entails each of these approaches;
Formal; art of intense looking.
- This approach offers one of the easiest methods of organization: the walk-through
- Organization is the structure of this review
- Words are active, giving the architecture a sense of movement
- What is seen from the street—the building’s organization, materials, connections
- Noted practitioners of this approach: Huxtable and Mumford
Shortcoming of this approach: ‘A feeling that it can remove buildings from their cities and place too much emphasis on materials and appearances above their role in the urban landscape’
Experiential; put the arms around.
- Creates a cloud of cultural reference
- Mixing other media—movies, art, books, poetry—in order to make the emotional connection between architecture and reader.
- Express the way a building makes the writer (and by extension, the reader) feel
- Does not follow any organizational sequence, it can start with any location
- Make direct co-relation between the architect’s personality and the architecture
- Noted practitioners of this approach: Herbert Muschamp, Ar. Joshua Aidlin and David Darling
Shortcoming of this approach: It focuses less on what a user should see as a visual. It allows limited entry into the world of architecture and its terminology.
Historian; get hands dirty with thorough research and survey.
- It offers a sense of context and relevance to its existence
- About personality and presence on the world stage
- Deals with the architect’s career and in fitting buildings within that framework
- Conflates the formal and experiential approaches with respect to time and space.
- Noted practitioners of this approach: Paul Goldberger, Laura Massino
Shortcoming of this approach: It can tend to be tediously elaborative and lengthy. The built form maybe afforded a lot more importance than the function it performs.
Activist; all about purpose and relevance.
- Analyze projects primarily for economic and social benefits
- Questions are not visual or experiential: Who loses? Who wins?
- A single world, within which environmental, mental or social spheres are intertwined.
- View a built-form as defenders of the city and of people
- Focus on social change through architecture
- Noted practitioners of this approach: Michael Sorkin and Jane Jacobs
Shortcoming of this approach: Art and form of architecture maybe compromised to deliver towards more compelling social causes.
POINTERS TO EFFECTIVE FEATURE WRITING:
- Title should grab reader’s attention
- Facts and location of the narrative should be verified and referred
- Conversational / colloquial, first person narrative recommended
- Quotes and people relevant to the topic adds to acceptance of the point of view
- Captivating imagery adds force in the narrative
- Snappy graphics should not be used to compensate for weak message
- Source of pictures, quotes and excerpts should be clearly mentioned to avoid copyright issues
- Edit smartly, use compact expressions to add punch
CONSTRUCTIVE FEEDBACKS & REVIEWS:
Architectural journalism stays incomplete without an exercise in constructive criticism. A review which summarizes dispassionately and responds responsibly helps to create a comprehensive write up. To help us be constructive with our criticism, we can keep the following in mind;
- Read thoroughly
- Take notes as you go
- Praise, but don’t sugar-coat
- Actionable feedback
- Put aside your personal preferences
(Read more on: writeitsideways.com)