Why does writing matter to architects?
Jury member Alan Berman highlights how clarity in writing underpins and fosters clear thinking in design
Writing has always been the product of the world’s greatest minds and it is no less important for architects. The ability to write matters for a number of reasons: it makes for successful communication; the process of writing encourages the exploration and expression of ideas; it fosters the critical assessment of past architectures and precedents; and it helps develop the mental skills involved in creative thinking.
But there is an important distinction to be made between writing about architecture and writing about architectural theory. The edges between these are necessarily blurred - not least because architects must know something of theory. But architectural theory is increasingly self-referential, creating a significant gap between theoretical discourse and lived architectural experience. Academic investigation perhaps necessarily removes some subjects from the realm of the real: as historiography removes the past from having a meaningful presence in daily life¹, so the pursuit of architectural theory is in danger of removing architecture and its many pasts from the felt experience of practitioners and their public. There is no doubt value in immersion in architectural theory, but this is insufficient for the making of good architects. Architecture is an art of the physical, of the spiritual and emotional, and its sphere of concerns is no less with these than with theoretical concepts.
The most obvious value of good writing to architects is the successful communication of ideas, which alone should encourage the practice of writing skills. Given that what architects have to communicate is very often visual, it is necessary to foster the ability to write well in order to convey those ideas which underpin visual presentations but which are not capable of expression by visual means. Good writing can convey simply and make comprehensible ideas which are complex. The best writing uncovers issues and ideas which may not at first be evident, making new ideas not only comprehensible but relevant and interesting.
Writing encourages the pursuit of clarity and the examination of all facets of an idea - not least to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty. In a similar way, the process of writing cultivates an analytic approach to the understanding of past buildings and precedents, knowledge of which is an essential tool in the architect’s mental tool kit. Without an awareness of how and why things are as they are, and how they were in different circumstances, of how other architects have resolved problems, and of how people respond to forms, material and spatial arrangements, architects will have limited mental ground in which to cultivate ideas.
Le Corbusier described architecture as an art in which there are no problems, only solutions. This suggests that society invests us with the challenge to use our creativity not for our own self-expressive ends but to provide solutions for society’s need for shelter - spiritual as well as physical. The clear articulation of one’s own thinking is essential to the designer’s problem-solving capacity, and writing, like sketching, aids the iterative process of creation. Creative problem solving follows a known sequence of mental actions: information gathering, examination, development and proposition, followed by analysis and reformulation in a cycle of feedback and repetition²Μ. By externalising a process that is normally confined to the silent privacy of the mind, writing obliges one to carefully articulate and consider these thoughts, and thereby fosters the mental skills that constitute the creative act.
Few, if any, architects have the gift of producing successful design solutions out of nowhere, as if by magic. It is a truism that design requires the careful analysis of all the constituent parts of a problem if the outcome is not to be gratuitous and driven by personal whim. This process is made all the clearer, more relevant and more constructive if the analysis is articulated to oneself and to others with clarity and precision, and the skills engendered by writing help one to do this.
I am not suggesting that the design process is written down, but that the mental discipline learned by having to write clearly can aid design. Vigilant critical assessment of one’s thoughts is a necessary continuous process at all times when making design decisions, just as it is for good writing.
Good writing fosters clear thinking, and better writing engenders better thinking. With stunning lucidity Samuel Beckett illuminates this process, and with an awful truth captures much of the architectural condition: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better’.³
Alan Berman, consultant, Berman Guedes Stretton
¹ JH Plumb, The Death of The past (2004)
² M Boden, The Creative Mind (2004)
³ Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, (1983)