Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe



WORDS THAT BUILD: Taking Advantage of Interruptions in Architectural Communication

Tip #12: Cogent communicators exploit opportunities offered by interruptions.

By Norman Weinstein
March 4, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the 12th in an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundation of architecture: oral and written communication.


My cat has already interrupted the opening of this column. A cell phone’s ring-tone might be another interruption. A knock on the door from a utility company worker repairing a broken power transformer might follow. Multiply these interruptions by a factor of 10 – I’m just one writer working in solitude for largely invisible clients – and you can recreate the tissue of interruptions that fill many architects’ lives. Perhaps that wicked and ingenuous euphemism “multi-tasking” really means doing one task while being interrupted by others. But the 21st century has hardly intensified the sting of interruption. The great English poet and critic Samuel Johnson (1709-1789) wrote: “The mind is refrigerated by interruption . . .thoughts are diverted from their principle object.” What can be done about interruptions when you’re trying to communicate through talk or writing?


Let’s begin with a typical response to having your communication interrupted by colleagues, friends, or family. There is an understandable annoyance, and usually a mild form of anger arises out of your focus deflected. Johnson’s metaphor is exquisite. Imagine you are talking or writing, designing with words, and an interruption freezes your creative flow. Your thoughts and feelings are suddenly diverted from your purpose. What could make this an opportunity?


Annoyance and even pitched anger can energize and accelerate verbal flow. That initial energized word stream might, unfortunately, be a mindless stream of expletives – but if you become attentive to the promise of that frustrating moment, your agility in putting words together has been enhanced.


The trick to exploiting moments of your interrupted talk or writing is to allow all-too-human feelings of anger transition into disinterested attention. Mark Twain was friends with Charles Dudley Warner, a fellow writer and a raconteur who loved to interrupt others in mid-speech in order to deliver his own uninterrupted opinions. In defending Warner’s behavior to a colleague, Twain wrote, “Oh never mind Charlie Warner, he would interrupt the raising of Lazarus.” When your writing or talk is interrupted, distancing yourself from initial feelings of annoyance allows you to reconsider your intended objective. If your line of thinking has creative promise, then trust it can’t be erased by a trivial diversion. But if your line of communication seems permanently erased because of an interruption, perhaps it didn’t hold the creative promise you thought it had. If you assume your best words in the best order are largely a matter of inspiration, then interruptions are dreadful. But if you believe your best communication is the consequence of habitual practice with words, interruptions offer intensive practice in re-framing or re-configuring your intentions. I’m strongly suggesting that the “inspiration” model of communication is largely useless, anyway. You can’t bill your clients for hours of creative incubation waiting for your muse to arrive with a force greater than that of mundane interruptions.


If you can respond to interruptions while talking and writing, with anger evolving gradually into disinterest, you’re then ready for the final joyous stage of creatively exploiting the opportunities interruptions offer. A prime example of doing so is offered by the contradictory Samuel Johnson. You would think any describer of the chilling effect interruption can have on a creative mind would hardly relish interruptions. But Johnson’s life was a mardi gras of interruptions, making his prodigious publications all the more remarkable of achievements. Johnson was once awakened in the middle of the night by partying friends. He greeted them by yelling out his window, “What, is it you, you dogs? I’ll have a frisk with you.” Hurriedly dressing himself, Johnson joined his friends in a drunken reverie – and then returned to his serious writing the next day.


This column is not to encourage you to use interruptions during your labors in order to join friends on a bender. The point is: even as serious an intellectual worker as Johnson could realize the potential gift of an interruption in furthering his work through a temporary diversion from his cherished intention. This is a particularly tough lesson for architects to learn because they go through a crit as the culmination of their academic education – a crit in which faculty interruptions to student verbal presentations can seem rude, often humiliating. But a crit is a once-in-a-lifetime architectural rite of passage. In real life, professional practice involves more free-wheeling interrupted communication between equals. By not clutching too tightly to one’s intended communication to a client, spontaneously generated creative spaces can be opened up to new ideas. An African proverb captures this notion best: “The shortest distance between two points is a zig-zag.”


Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for the Christian Science Monitor and Architectural Record. He consults with architects and engineers about communication. He can be happily interrupted by contacting him at


See also:


Op-Ed: Life After Ada: Reassessing the Utility of Architectural Criticism
Ada Louise Huxtable deserves mucho thanks and praise - but other questions moving us to a new flavor of criticism have to be asked.



WORDS THAT BUILD: Faceting Architectural Communication
Tip #11: Effective communication evolves out of cross-reflective details. 


WORDS THAT BUILD: Use Space Creatively When Designing Your Client Communications
Tip #10: Use paragraph spacing in writing and pauses in conversation to promote "out of the box" thinking.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Making Your Client's Contradictions Productive
Tip #9
: Work with your clients' contradictions to discover possible solutions.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Initiate Conversations with Designs that Engage Your Clients
Tip #8: Write dialogues engaging materials and processes with clients.


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.



Best Architecture Books of 2008
10 tomes from the superior to the indispensable


Book Review: You've Got to Draw the Line Somewhere

A review of Drafting Culture: a Social History of Architectural Graphic Standards by George Barnett Johnston


Book Review: "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," edited by Franklin Sirmans

Sharpen your pencils - and get ready to do a NeoHooDoo shimmy


(click on pictures to enlarge)


© 2009