How Not to Write About Design: A guide for anyone looking to move beyond form, space, order, and structure

Architects are often reluctant writers, choosing instead to express themselves in other ways. Perhaps this is because architectural education strongly emphasizes graphic over verbal communication, or because the proliferation of overly complex prose in architectural theory engenders distaste for writing among architects. There are many reasons, but one convincing argument is that it is the result of intentional neglect—a symptom of modernist thinking in architecture.

Adrian Forty argues, in Words and Buildings, that modernism developed a deep suspicion, even a “horror of language,” in all of the visual arts. “The general expectation of modernism that each art demonstrate its uniqueness through its own medium, and its own medium alone,” he says, “ruled out resort to language.” In other words, modernists insisted that their work should speak for itself. Modernism therefore developed a very limited vocabulary (Forty lists “form,” “space,” “design,” “order,” and “structure” as its key words) and a distinctive “new way of talking about architecture” that was extremely taciturn. It made the difficult task of writing almost superfluous for architects, and they simply chose not to do it.

The general expectation of modernism that each art demonstrate its uniqueness through its own medium, and its own medium alone, ruled out resort to language.

Adrian Fortyon modernism’s “horror of language”

Clearly, though, written language is essential for architects. Architectural drawings do not speak for themselves: any set of drawings is full of essential labels, descriptions, explanations, and disclaimers. And in professional practice, Forty emphasizes, “Language is vital to architects—their success in gaining commissions, and achieving the realization of projects frequently depends upon verbal presentation and persuasiveness.” Much of this happens orally, but client communication, project documentation, press releases, and advertising copy are all routine, indispensable forms of writing in architecture.

What might not be vital to architecture, however, is a specifically “architectural” language, vocabulary, or writing style. In a 2013 Arch Daily article, “Why Good Architectural Writing Doesn’t Exist (And, Frankly, Needn’t),” writer Guy Horton asks, “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?” So, he proposes, “Let us posit that there should be no architectural writing, but merely writing that happens to be about architecture.” This might eliminate the jargon and excess complexity that plague architectural writing. It might also embolden architects’ thinking. Sociologist Howard Becker claims that in his own discipline, excess verbiage is a symptom of uncertainty: “writers routinely use meaningless expressions to cover up” weak claims, and timid thinking leads almost inevitably to bad writing.

Reluctance to take on the task of writing, suspicion of the communicative potential of language in the arts, and unease with making bold assertions about design all intensify the difficulties of writing about and for architecture. This is especially acute for students in design courses, where writing is rarely a priority. Faculty in three GSD courses in spring 2020 challenged this model, pushing students to face the task of writing boldly. Mack Scogin, Merrill Elam, and Helen Han’s studio, “King Tut’s Skull,” George Legendre’s “Digital Media: Writing Form,” and Pier Paolo Tamburelli and Thomas Kelley’s seminar, “Book Project Number Zero,” each encouraged students to consider writing from a starkly different perspective, but they all started with the assumption that writing plays an essential role in architecture.

At the first meeting of “King Tut’s Skull,” students were asked to recall and describe their first spatial memory. Scogin marvels at the results of this simple assignment: “It’s really remarkable what comes out of that writing exercise—the memory and how it’s constantly visited and revisited. . . it’s probably one of the most defining elements in the course.” The extended exercise works two ways: the students build a clear, sophisticated vision around a vague impression, and the faculty establish mutual trust with the students. They “develop a belief in us,” Scogin says, “and we’re really serious about trying to understand them as individuals.”

The writing is so remarkable, Han notes, because the students “know that it’s not like ‘Oh, make a form of a building or anything like that.’ It relieves that pressure.” The writing is not “architectural,” in other words. “And so then,” Han says, “they just [write] what they instinctively want to write or how they want to write.” Through the process, the students use writing to understand their own thinking. It becomes, Han explains, “an initial very intuitive way for them to expose themselves in terms of both their interest, but also how they see things.”

[Writing] opens their mind up . . . . It’s a way for [students] to discover their own architecture.

Mack Scoginon the design exercise of writing

The writing “opens their mind up . . . . It’s a way for them to discover their own architecture,” Scogin says. However, when they must produce more discipline-specific writing later in the studio—a design thesis statement—the students struggle. “It becomes a hurdle,” Scogin explains, “and they freeze up a bit because all of a sudden: Oh! You’re talking about architecture.” And the challenge for the faculty is to remind them of their fluency. “We just keep putting it back in front of them,” Scogin says, and Han laughs, “Yeah, we keep telling them to write it again, write it again . . . .” Writing about “architecture” was hard until it became, instead, writing about what they know, which is more natural, more powerful.

If “King Tut’s Skull” demonstrated that fluency with one kind of writing can help with other modes of expression, “Digital Media: Writing Form” amplified that notion, challenging students to understand architecture by using deeply unfamiliar idioms. They put themselves “in the mindset of the software designer, looking under the hood” of software, Legendre explains. Their task, he says, is more like “writing things” than sketching or modeling them, and they have many ways to do this. The course used calligraphy, haiku, statements in simple mathematical terms, and other modes of writing. Legendre compares the students’ effort to the Exercises in Style, by Raymond Queneau, “where a meaningless incident is retold 100 ways, using a completely different idiom, and the only idea is to help you focus on the variation.” The course therefore approached “computation as a problem of comparative literature.”

Legendre asked students to position their writing somewhere between machine language (“which is gibberish to us,” he says) and the user interface of “buttons and sliders” (“which enable us to do whatever we want”). In this unfamiliar place, “the struggle with the opacity of instruments is somehow bringing back the question of literacy,” Legendre says. The students used a language in which they could invent things, where they could get at “the essence of what we are trying to do” in design. They reached this position gradually, first becoming attentive to how architects read space, and moving “through the process of understanding how to write space in all three dimensions.” They struggled in this territory between incomprehension and free expression to learn again how to use writing to say important things in architecture.

Architects read space, and moving ‘through the process of understanding how to write space in all three dimensions.’

Legendre noting studio observations on the comprehension and expression of architectural space

Meanwhile, in “Book Project Number Zero,” students focused on a largely unwritten, imaginary text to develop a richer understanding of architectural design. The seminar began from the assumption that “architecture is inseparable from bookmaking,” that “books are the main instrument of architectural propaganda.” And, despite the challenges they might face as writers, “It’s quite important for an architect to write,” Tamburelli explains, because “it makes his or her architecture better—more conscious, more intellectually sophisticated.”

Students wrote a short introduction and an index for a book they envisioned (themes varied broadly, from ideas about the personhood of rivers to the lamentable state of architecture in China). However, the main concern of the course was not the writing—it was the book itself, as a designed object, an object “with weight,” Kelley says, “stronger” in some ways than a building. Through the process, the students came to understand the book as “a sort of a tool to actually make architecture,” Tamburelli observes, as well as a tool of self-reflection.

Whether architects are bad or excellent writers is immaterial to the understanding that emerged in each of these courses: that a “horror of language” inherited from modernism is deeply misguided. Writing is an essential creative medium and a vital tool for making architecture.