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WORDS THAT BUILD: Introduce Words that "Float" into the Flow of Communications with Clients

Tip #18: Replace prescriptive words and phrases "etched in stone" with language reflecting a collaborative project in flux.

By Norman Weinstein
September 9, 2009

Editor’s Note: This is the 18th in an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication.



Go to the “Business” section of any bookstore or library and you will quickly see a row of titles along the lines of Effective Phrases for Business Disputes or How to Use Power Words to Enhance Your Bottom Line. There are Internet sites that promise like fare. I highly recommend them – but only if you believe that any self-help text can teach you how to become a perfect lover or lose 30 pounds in 30 days. This column is for skeptics who distrust quick fixes of complex challenges – but who believe in the efficacy of creative and critical thinking over extended time periods in order to solve long-term challenges.


So forget that a plethora of self-help business communication book exist – and join me in contemplating the image of an extraordinary architectural masterwork capable of enhancing your communication. This “Floating Pavilion” for small theater productions in the Netherlands was designed by the Pritzker Prize winning architect Fumihiko Maki in association with the Antwerp-based experimental theater producer, Dora van der Groen. The design – a light, fabric-covered, mobile theater – grew out of the dialogue between Maki and van der Groen as they shared thoughts connected with eight words: “silence,” “movement,” “memory,” “dream,” “freedom,” “surprise,” “future,” and “transparency.” Why these eight keywords? Architect and client perceived these words as signifying ideas crucial to both architecture and theater.


Throughout decades of architectural practice you might never be called upon to design a floating theater – but that doesn’t render the form of the Maki/van der Groen design dialogue any less relevant to the most prosaic projects. Let’s probe deeply how their communication evolved. Architect and client agreed upon a shared vocabulary of highly evocative words with a broad spectrum of “floating” meanings. That meant that the word choices were intentionally open-ended, not “etched in stone” (or concrete), with a single, universally-agreed upon meaning. For example, the word “transparency” within architecture might refer to the consequence of a fenestration pattern. It might refer to a user’s experience of encountering a room divider where no such actual divider materially exists. “Transparency” can also refer to the quality of the relationship between architect and client, its lack bemoaned when one party suspects the other is less than transparent about forthrightly stating their true intentions.


So in complete contrast to the self-help business communication book method in which word meanings are fixed regardless of interpersonal context, the “Floating Pavilion” project allows a shared vocabulary to “float” unanchored until architect and client mutually agree to anchor and materialize their words precisely in design. This is applicable to any architectural project – as long as all parties are willing to begin their dialogue with a shared vocabulary. To use the “transparency” example, during a time of argumentation between architect and client, either can ask to again pin-down exactly what the other concretely means by “transparency,” a useful periodic reality check to keep a collaboration fresh and productive.


In a world remarkably less complicated than our present one, perhaps exquisitely chosen words and phrases culled from formula books could instantly implement profitable results. But communication in this world involves sensitivity by all parties to an ever-evolving and shared world of meanings. As I pore over the lavish photographs of Maki’s “Floating Pavilion” in the magnificently realized book on Maki’s oeuvre recently published by Phaidon, I think of how his architecture evolved from words that seemed so light, filmy, and insubstantial. This process can be associated with the rarified values of Japanese aesthetics. But consider that all architecture is colored by a creative urge to defy, or somehow adapt playfully, to the steady tug of gravity. Seek the words with your collaborators that seemingly float beyond that pull. Allow word meanings to drift until grounds for stable consensus are forged. The poetry of architecture – and the profit – begins here.


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


Also by this author:


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: Work with Clients to Develop Plans That Place Human/Spatial Relationships First 
Tip #17
: Shape dialogues with clients to catalyze designs promoting clear meanings of human relationships in proposed spaces.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Faster! Deeper! Broader! 
Tip #16: How to balance high-speed communication with in-depth communication.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Translate Images Into Touching Performances 
Tip #15: Cultivate communication with clients that translates architectural imagery into experience at their fingertips.


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


Book Review: A Subversive Book Every Architect Needs: "Architect's Essentials of Negotiation" by Ava J. Abramowitz 
Supposedly architects don't need negotiating skills along with other communication skills because great design "sells itself." How lovely that an AIA legal counsel created this definitive book to shatter that thin myth.


Book Review: A Perspective from One Elevation: "Conversations With Frank Gehry" by Barbara Isenberg

Gehry's conversations offer portraits of an astute listener as well as talker, an architect as aware of his flaws and limitations as of his virtues.


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