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WORDS THAT BUILD: Initiate Conversations with Designs that Engage Your Clients.

Tip #8: Write dialogues engaging materials and processes with clients.

By Norman Weinstein
November 5, 2008

Louis Kahn gave his architecture students at the University of Pennsylvania the charming advice that they should engage in conversations with building materials. “Brick, where do you want to be placed in the design? Do you belong to an arch?” he instructed. Naturally, this must have sounded like so much quasi-mystical rot to his technically-minded students. Even Kahn devotees complained of the architect’s cryptically “poetic” (nice word for “obfuscating”) dicta. But suppose Kahn was talking plain good sense – and sense you can use practically with your client, with some small modifications.


Most architectural materials and processes are described through a vocabulary of nouns. They are communicated as static things. Here is an example from the Dictionary of Architecture and Construction by Cyril M. Harris:


            modular construction: “A system of construction employing large, prefabricated, mass-produced, partially preassembled sections or modules which are subsequently put together in the field.”


This is accurate – but doesn’t go into the heart of what implementing modular construction means, what its value is, and the mind-set needed to truly understand it. Here is an alternative and amplified definition:


            modular construction: Creatively engaging with the design potential arising from considering different configurations of large, prefabricated, mass-produced, partially assembled sections or modules. This process resembles assembling a massive jig-saw puzzle in real time while faced with temporal, budgetary, aesthetic, and environmental constraints. The design “puzzle” can be solved by client and architect engaging in imaginative dialogues with sections or modules or parts of them, asking where, how, and why they would appreciate being placed within the total design.


This definition of modular construction embodies an active process of architect and client treating materials and process as a third party in the design process. Whatever imagined answers the materials and process declare, these messages from seemingly silent realities allow the architect and client a degree of distance from their own cherished perceptions and opinions. Letting building materials and processes “speak” their mind adds a depth to architect-client dialogue by moving design from the realm of abstract ideas to the nitty-gritty materiality of a functional structure or dwelling. It also transforms the implicit drama of an architect and client working to resolve differences into a poetry of synthesizing the voices and souls of professional designer, owner-dweller, and structure /dwelling.


Whether Kahn was being “poetic” or not, he was trying to introduce a capacious mind-set to his students in which their pet theories and design predilections would take a back seat to a responsibility to be receptive to the imperative demands of materials and processes. A poem underscoring Kahn’s point is John Ashbery’s “Well-Scrubbed Interior”:


            Can you walk? I asked.

            Sure I can, it said. I’ll walk with you a little way.

            We can talk about love and play

            and the ocean that is always next door.


You can talk with any building interior, or exterior, well-scrubbed or in disarray – or with any of their components and processes. What could be a more pleasant reverie with a client than strolling along, side by side, within an imaginary building interior, talking about love and play? What communication between architect and client is worthwhile if love and play are absent?


Norman Weinstein writes for Architectural Record and other publications and teaches communication skills to architects. He can be reached at


See also:


WORDS THAT BUILD: Creating a Site Analysis That's Out of Sight
Tip #7: Write a site analysis using words referring to senses beyond sight.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Learning How to Persuade Through Learning Variations on a Theme
Tip #6: Master a communications tool that generates copious variations on your theme.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Respecting Key Words as Materials for Building Durable Structures
Tip #5: Recognize the key vocabulary shaping your professional practice and share those keywords with your clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Steering Your Client in the Appropriate Direction
Tip #4: See your writing as a navigational aid so your design intent clearly comes through to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Playing with the Flow of Communication
Tip #3: Use language that playfully enhances the flow of design intentions between you and your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Clarifying Presentations to Clients through Rhythmic Emphasis
Tip #2: Use rhythmic accents to create a persuasive story to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Coping with chaotic communication challenges
Tip #1: Learn to enjoy communicating with your client.



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© 2008