The Art of Architectural Storytelling, or How to Present a Building

Architecture lives among the visual and fine arts, so it’s no surprise that architects are trained to make beautiful drawings, renderings, and scale models. Media evolves, but as computers replace traditional paper, classic presentation techniques still reign. Today’s design output is essentially what the profession has always produced: compelling imagery.

But that’s only half the story. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in this business, visuals alone rarely persuade. Architects also walk their audience through design concepts. Even the most evocative sketch, pen and ink drawing, photo-realistic PowerPoint slide, handcrafted, or laser-cut model requires explanation. Architectural presentations are part visual and part prose, spoken or delivered on the printed page.

And therein lies a problem. Adroitness with paper and pixel exceed contemporary designers’ skill as wordsmiths. Architects are famous for loquacious babble meant to impress. It wasn’t always the case. Presentations used to be convincing show-and-tells. For the past 150 years, they’ve been boring show-and-sells.

Practitioners added Latin-based jargon to everyday speech when architecture became a profession in the mid-19th Century. The goal was separating themselves from “lowly builders and carpenters,” according to Witold Rybczynski in Slate . Self-effacing windows became grandiloquent fenestration. But, though other curious construction terms also emerged, architects maintained the basic ability to communicate.

Then Modernism blew up. Citing the failure of social housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe, the academy tried to reinvent architecture by retooling its vocabulary. Rybczynski says today’s language stems “from arcane historical tracts and the writings of French literary critics in hermeneutics, poetics, and semiology.” Archispeak, with more than 330 terms cataloged in a codebook of the same name, now pervades. From day one in school, architect students are immersed in a patois of the Queen’s English, Latin tidbits, and made-up terms like “cinegrammatic,” “unsolid,” and “neo-ness.” They learn to speak and write through osmosis. First-years emulate upperclassmen, who mimic faculty and invited speakers, who lecture, debate, and publish in the same tongue. It’s a kind of glossolalia where clarity is replaced by meaningless terminology, logic gives way to complexity and contradiction for no semantic reason, and discussions about masonry devolve from what a brick wants to tectonic discourses on materiality and spatiality. For students yearning to understand what they’ve signed up for, eye-glazing headaches ensue. Jabbering follows.

In May, Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times reviewed the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s first online course, The Architectural Imagination. In it, he argued against “an approach to teaching architecture and architectural theory that has held sway in the American Academy for at least a generation. This approach doesn’t simply treat architecture as a discipline separate from the rest of the world, with its own passwords and protocols. It guards that separation with its life.” According to William Hirsch, who commented on the article, Hawthorne “points out exactly what is wrong with architectural education and my profession of architecture in general. We are a self-absorbed clique spouting arcane argot for the purpose of aggrandizing an otherwise noble profession.”

Consider a hypothetical contemporary presentation: An interior model sits on a conference table in front of a client. An architect, surrounded by impressive drawings pinned to a wall, adjusts eyeglasses of curious geometry and begins:

“So, doctor, this is your new children’s eye center.” The architect points to the Site Plan. “Based on interdisciplinary input, we rotated the axis off the street grid to prevailing winds and describe an assemblage of forms.” To the Floor Plan, “The circular element acts as a plinth with parking underneath. The nodal point on the first floor is a bespoke children’s emporium and gallery, encapsulated in glass, which both anchors and brands the design.” The architect moves to the model. “So, we extrude interior planes to juxtapose our central parti to articulate a Gestalt that reinforces spatiality.” At the Building Section, “We morphed the potentiality of the program into a pragmatic suite of materiality and functionality that arrives at full Gesamtkunstwerk.” Turning to the client, the architect asks, “Any questions?”

Client: “Just one. Huh?”

To be fair, architecture isn’t the only profession suffering from bewildering neologism (newly-coined terms) and linguistic self-consciousness. Academic-speak in many fields is “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand.” Ironically, according to Steven Pinker, author of Why Academic Writing Stinks, “the perennial winners of the Bad Writing Contest are professors of English.”

Like other versions of acadamese, archispeak communicates little but telegraphs much about the profession. Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Archispeak is self-admission that architecture is confused. Architects compensate by camouflaging their uncertainty through obfuscation.

Fortunately, hindsight is twenty-twenty. Before the modern era, architectural rhetoric relied on a different prose strategy than jargon—narrative. Vitruvius got there first. In his Ten Books on Architecture, he presented the origins of the dwelling house through connected scenes that open at the primitive hut and end in his time, ancient Rome. It reads like a bedtime story. Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti wrote his own ten books. On the Art of Building is told from the first-person perspective of a novel’s protagonist, complete with interior thoughts.

The influence of these authors on architecture by writing about architecture in story form can’t be overstated. Vitruvius and Alberti’s philosophies supported both design and client presentations for all but the last 75 years.

Is there contemporary architectural prose of similar impact? Arguably no (notwithstanding Charles Jencks’ readable books on Postmodernism, which kickstarted the movement in the late 1970s) and for reason not only of lucidity but approach. Architects today unknowingly construct arguments in what journalists call an inverted pyramid. It’s a typical format of newspapers and television, and also of business communication. Rhetoric is not taught in architecture school, so graduates wing it.

Let’s make the same presentation again, this time in English:

“This is your new eye hospital, doctor.” The architect points to the Site Plan.”Based on our site analysis, we came up with a building composed of a circle and a square. The round garage is one-story deep and acts as a plaza for a three-story rectangle, which is rotated to catch the breeze for natural ventilation.” At the Floor Plan: “In the middle of the lobby are a gift shop and exhibition space. I’ll explain those in more detail in a moment.” Moving to the Building Section, the architect says, “Brick bands alternate between running courses and rotated headers as a subtle reminder of how the building is organized.” The architect returns to the Floor Plan. “We bring exterior masonry inside the lobby to reinforce the building’s character. But now something very special: in the middle of the space is jewel-like gift shop filled with colorful toys, some new, but many historical. We want to make a child’s entry into the building a happy experience. We can collect antiques and old toy donations from the community and make a huge display.” Standing next to the interior model, the architect says, “Think of the lobby as a happiness museum. It would make a great brand for your hospital, a symbol of the founders’ care and concern for young patients.” Looking at the client, the architect asks, “Any questions?”

Client: “Not bad, but we don’t need the gift shop. We are an ambulatory surgical center with clinical offices. No one stays overnight. Gift shops are perennial money-losers, anyway, especially when you fill it with things we can’t sell. We are healthcare providers, not curators.”

The prose seems precise, but not compelling enough to sell the building’s premise of a children’s hospital anchored by toys. What went wrong? The golden rule of presenting in an inverted pyramid is putting the most relevant information first, the second most important next, and so on, with the least critical last. What is followed by Why, followed by Details. Example: A hurricane forms in the Gulf. Two fronts converged over the Caribbean. Gentle breezes turned deadly. Psychologists call the effect primacy. The power position is up front. The inverted pyramid was developed to allow news audiences to quickly scan headlines and decide if they wanted to dive deeper.

Unfortunately, the architect began the presentation with what they thought was the most important, the circle and the square. To non-architects, simple geometry isn’t particularly interesting. The end of the talk was the money shot, but the audience treated it as trivial, given the style of presentation. A better primacy presentation would have been:

“The world can be a frightening place to a child. To a sick or hurting child, it’s terrifying.” The architect points to the model. “We’ve designed a building to make a child’s stay in a hospital less scary. In the middle of the lobby is a giant showcase of toys. Some are old and only on display, others are for sale in a gift shop. Think of the lobby as a happiness museum. This will brand your project as a symbol of its founders’ care and concern for young patients.” At the Floor Plan, the architect says, “The building itself is a circle and a square. We bring exterior masonry inside the lobby as pavers to reinforce the building’s character. Exterior brick bands alternate between running courses and rotated headers.” At the Building Section, “The round garage is one-story deep and acts as a plaza to the three-story rectangle, which is rotated to catch the breeze for natural ventilation.” To the client, the architect asks, “Any questions?”

Client: “I like it. The toys are a nice gesture. Not sure we can cost-justify a gift shop and a museum, though. Gift shops usually lose money. The museum doesn’t seem necessary.”

Getting closer, but not close enough.

Recency is the opposite of traditional journalism and business communication. It’s based on a normal pyramid, pointy on top, wide at the bottom. The power position is the last to be presented, not the first. Subtle hints are dropped as clues to build suspense, which results in a climactic ending. This is the shape of creative writing. In story form, the hurricane example becomes: A gentle breeze. Fronts collide. Hurricane. Think of movie poster taglines.

Critic Norman Weinstein wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the dearth of writing courses in architecture school is a “black hole.” What if schools filled that gap with creative writers who taught students how to tell a story. What if architects were trained to conjure emotional architectural moments through prose?

Consider the architect addressing the client’s “The museum doesn’t seem necessary” reaction this way: At the end of the presentation, the architect says,

“You know, I had a dream a few weeks ago about a visitor to your building.”

He is in the gift shop thumbing Get Well cards. He gives up and moves to the plush dolls, and then changes his mind and walks to a rack of happy-face balloons. It’s hard to choose. His daughter cannot read, as far he knows, and Boby will surely Bogart his little girl’s arms. The anesthesia will soon wear off, he was told at the nurses’ station. He wants to be there when Angel wakes up. He wants her first sight to be of him, bearing gifts.

The day he left haunts him. Dianne barricaded herself in their bedroom. Angel wept in his arms, convinced if Mom was crying, so should a two-year-old going on three. He gave Angel a stuffed puppy hoping the doll would make things easier. She cradled it in her arms, cheeks flooding his sleeve. He told her things would be alright. He told her it wasn’t her fault.

Dianne wrote him that one of Boby’s eyes disappeared the week after he left. It was attached with a snap, not sewn in. Dianne tried replacing it with a button. Angel immediately tore it off. She decided a one-eyed doll was more to her liking, was more like her. Dianne tried to replace broken Boby with a bear. Angel immediately tossed two-eyed Teddy in the garbage.

They don’t know he’s here, in the hospital, in the middle of the first floor, inside a glass menagerie. He’s not sure if he should have let Dianne know in advance, or if it was better just to appear. Or reappear, as if the past 18 months never happened.

How will Angel react? How will Dianne react?

He buys a balloon and leaves his crystalline sanctuary. Then he stops, sets his duffle bag on the floor. There’s Boby in a display case, full featured, different clothes, but still… He wants to buy the crocheted puppy for his daughter.

It is not for sale, the clerk insists. For display only. The man must be somebody’s grandfather. There’s a child who often comes to the eye hospital, Grandpa tells him. She’s crying whenever she’s pulled through the revolving door, but as soon as the little girl passes the gift shop and sees Boby, she smiles. They don’t make Boby dolls anymore, the clerk says. It is not for sale.

He and the old man reach an understanding.

Recovery is on the third floor. Angel has a tube in one arm. Boby is nestled in the other. Her right eye is asleep. Her left eye—the one with the cornea transplant—is patched. Dianne is sitting on a chair with her back to the door. She glimpses the reflection of Army boots and battle fatigues in a shiny trash can. She covers her mouth with her palms and turns around.

He sits on Angela’s bed and gently snaps Boby’s missing eye in place. He prays it lives long enough to see him return from his next deployment.

Client: “Sold. Gift shop and museum.”

A narrative is a string of connected events told with effect. Subtle or overt, stories drive home emotional points. Should buildings have an emotional point? If so, would better prose produce better buildings—or at least, sell them better? It would be interesting to test the idea, architects embracing story-form presentations, artfully describing moments as well as monuments, delivering ideas, not just information.

Of course, it could turn out poorly. We might rediscover Stanley Kubrick’s aphorism, “If you can talk brilliantly about a problem, it can create the consoling illusion that it has been mastered.” But equally possible is, “If you create through the heart, nearly everything works;  if from the head, almost nothing,” as Marc Chagall said.

It’s worth a try. Either outcome is better than W.C. Fields’ observation, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”

Featured image: The Tower of Babel (Pieter Bruegel), via Wikipedia. 


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