Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe



WORDS THAT BUILD: Emphasize Words with Lasting Resonance

Tip #14: Cluster symbolic and mythically-charged keywords in communication with clients.

By Norman Weinstein
May 6, 2009

In a felicitous description of staying overnight in the master bedroom at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Ada Louise Huxtable concisely summarized her experience with: “Here are Wright’s eternal themes: fire, earth, and water, in perfect equilibrium.” The power of that single sentence in articulating this architectural experience stems from focusing upon three commonplace words raised to a level of mythical grandeur through clustering. At bottom, is there any architecture not potentially offering the experience of fire, earth, and water in some sort of exquisite, or less than perfect, equilibrium?


Forgive the obvious pun, but writing and talking about architecture in such elemental terms establishes a symbolic and mythic set of associations. Look at a dictionary of symbols, say 1000 Symbols: What Shapes Mean in Art & Myth or The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, and you’ll see scores of symbolically charged words that have survived cross-cultural and cross-generational transitions. Arguably, the history of effective writing about architecture has been partially a history of word clusters signifying the elements, and elemental realities of nature, that architects bend and reconfigure to their own purposes. Consider Huxtable’s shorthand for Wright: fire, earth, and water. Le Corbusier adds to this elemental vocabulary two others: “air” and “light.”


How can awareness of the weight of these symbolic words help practically when you’re involved with client communication? I would suggest putting the words “fire,” “earth,” “water,” “air,” and “light” as a heading at the top of a page. Start writing (or speaking into a voice recorder) how one of your designs both literally and symbolically brings each word into play. For example, “fire” conjures up the meaning of building to Code (or better) in order to avoid fire hazards. But “fire” can also refer to your building’s heating system. And “fire” can refer to how often a facilities manager in a high-rise building you’re designing might have to “put out fires” if you haven’t properly thought through serious building maintenance issues created by your design. “Fire” can be in the burning gaze of dissatisfied clients. But “fire” can positively communicate the enthusiasm felt by your team, including distant outside consultants and contractors, when your project really seems to “take off,” another symbolic term suggesting artistry defying divine gravity.


While marketing language often has a short shelf life – look at the blissfully short-lived use of “traditional ways” in New Urbanist project advertising – elemental symbolic words transmit perennially potent emotional and intellectual appeal. By using these clustered words as springboards for inspiration, you cut through faddish marketing palaver and TheorySpeak, and address the heart of the matter. Architects are trained to design with earth, air, fire, and water constantly in imaginative flux. Let your client communication convey that fact by using words that ground your ideas in the earth, that communicate a sense of airiness and lightness, that glow with fiery yet sustainable enthusiasm, and that are responsive to change as water falling.


Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record and The Christian Science Monitor. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably. You can reach 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: Re-invent Green Communication
Tip #13: Try the spectacular 2-step program to cut fat and reduce telltale signs of greenwash.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Taking Advantage of Interruptions in Architectural Communication
Tip #12: Cogent communicators exploit opportunities offered by interruptions.


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