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WORDS THAT BUILD: Translate Images Into Touching Performances

Tip#15: Cultivate communication with clients that translates architectural imagery into experience at their fingertips.

By Norman Weinstein
June 2, 2009

Editor’s Note: This is the 15th in an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication.


A crucial and commonplace communications breakdown between architect and client occurs when an architect does his or her detailed presentation. The architect and educator Victoria Meyers addresses this disconnect incisively: “Space is a very abstract art form and it is very difficult to communicate to a client ahead of time what they are buying into. We will build very specific physical models and computer models, we’ll do renderings, we’ll provide material samples, and I know exactly what the space consists of before it goes into construction. Still, it’s always a shock for the client.”


Are there ways that an architect can minimize client shock verbally when a presentation is offered? Shock might be lessened considerably by artfully using the power of words evoking the touch and feel of moving through architecture. The case for architecture needing to offer more than visual appeal was rigorously presented over a decade ago in Juhani Pallasma’s The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, but Pallasma’s book was more a theoretical exposition than a “how to” guide. Here are some initial ideas to try to bring senses other than visual into your client communication.


Suppose you were designing a large health facility offering rehab services for blind clients. And just to create a more daunting challenge, conceive of a blind architect being part of the architectural team working on the rehab unit. This is not a hypothetical at all. Chris Downey is an Oakland, California-based architect who recently lost his sight and now has a practice designing buildings for blind people. Downey is working with the Design Partnership and the Smith Group on a massive Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center for the Veterans Administration (VA) in Palo Alto. As reported by Sam Whiting in the May 2, 2009 San Francisco Chronicle, a VA spokesperson commented, “It’s really been beneficial having an architect who is blind working on a blind facility.”


The article doesn’t offer details – but here are some guesses that we who are sighted designers can use in the spirit of Downey’s practice:


  • Architectural imagery can often be translated into touching experiences, literally as well as symbolically. Blindfold yourself in a familiar space in your home and office. Have a voice recorder nearby. Begin saying aloud how your space feels: textures, temperatures, how flooring supports, how walls direct your tentative steps. This may prove difficult and frustrating initially because we have operated within our spaces with primarily visual data for so long. But this can be an enjoyable experiment once your initial frustration passes because you’ll begin to develop a “touching” vocabulary for architectural design – as invaluable for sighted as for blind clients. Part of the difficulty clients have when presented with your computer imagery and renderings is that they hunger for the felt experience of their imagined design, not just eye-candy.


  • The sense of touch is called “haptic,” a word from the Greek meaning “latched onto.” If the first architecture was carved from caves, that might imply the earliest architects latched onto earth walls, pressed head and hands and heart into the earth, and worked it into an experience that was designed into a dwelling, that felt like designed abode. Your design ideas need to be translated into tangible materials, structures, and processes your clients can have a feeling for. How you communicate the utility, durability, and beauty of these materials is your challenge. You can describe your materials with a phrase as dead as “cast concrete construction blocks.” Or you can learn a language lesson from Frank Lloyd Wright and call them “textile blocks,” two words transforming concrete blocks into a textual weave of deliciously sensual and aesthetic experience for the Southern California homeowners of the 1920s fortunate enough to share Wright’s idealistic grasp of what concrete might become.


  • An architectural design is an invitation to a client to enter a performance space, a space where client actions will evolve into compelling stories as the architecture ages. New Urbanists use the odd-sounding phrase “aging in place” to designate their community strategies and facilities for the aging. Offer an architectural plan that offers multiple interpretations of aging in a place, including space for feeling intellectually, spiritually, and even sensually younger than one’s biological years. How can the essence of an architectural design be compared to the feel of bare feet on hardwood floors or a fingertip gliding across pebbled glass? If Wright could transform concrete into textile, what can you do to convey the sensation of 21st century architecture?



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


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