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WORDS THAT BUILD: Communicate to Clients an Evolving Perspective Rather than a Fixed Clarity about Projects
Tip #19: Choose words and phrases that depict your architecture as a mysterious promise, as well as a known product.
By Norman Weinstein
October 7, 2009
Editor’s Note: This is the 19th in an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication.
Count yourself among the blessed few if your architectural education included a course on communicating with clients. But whether training included communication education or not, sometime during your high school days you were probably taught that a major goal of oral and written communication was attaining clarity, comprehensiveness, and conciseness. You would be hard put to find any diploma holder who didn’t have these “three Cs” driven home somewhere along their scholastic path.
Only a fool would badmouth the importance of clarity in communicating. But I suggest that it is a mistake to stop with clarity as a goal in relating to clients. Here’s my counterintuitive premise: after clarifying communication with a client, you need to suggest a mystery. This premise comes from two sources. First there’s Louis Kahn’s notion that “architecture makes the measurable immeasurable.” The measurable dimensions of architecture – the plans on paper and computer monitor – demand a clear understanding between architects and clients. The dimensions of architecture as it moves through materialization into starting its life occupied, activated, deals with the immeasurable. Perhaps even the most thorough of post-occupancy evaluations are still only painfully partial glimpses of complex unfolding realities.
Consider the contribution of environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan identifying four qualities that help us understand a landscape: coherence, legibility, complexity, and mystery. Coherence means the ease with which we comprehend an entire landscape at once, how well it hangs together. Legibility is the clarity with which we discern pathways through it. Complexity deals with the density of information to interpret in a landscape. And mystery refers to the promise of new information the more we move through a landscape, the seductive lure of “what’s around the next bend.”
The design you sell to your client is a realized coherent, legible, and complex object. It is also a gradually unfolding promise of new experiences of meaning as the architecture ages, the point of Stewart Brand’s brilliant study, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built. The language you use to communicate the coherent, legible, and complex identity of your project is literal, limiting, quantifiable, and quite measurable in terms of site preparation, space-making, materials, labor, etc. – as clear as your bill for services. The language you need to communicate the mystery of your architecture needs to evoke the immeasurable meanings that will gradually emanate through time. This is challenging since only starchitects can afford to communicate in arcane metaphysical code hinting at “immeasurable qualities.” Most clients won’t want to eagerly pay for services that can’t be sharply, quantifiably described.
The solution? Your written and spoken communication with clients needs to constantly shuffle between lucid “nuts-and-bolts” descriptions and evocations of immeasurable (but nevertheless real) experiences connected to the architecture. As loony as it might sound, suppose you began your serious dialogue with clients with their imagined post-occupancy evaluations, and then worked their fantasies into plans to make those desired experiences within architecture materialize. You would begin not with what clients want the architecture to look like from exterior or interior views. You would start with unquantifiable psychological and spiritual outcomes your clients want to have enduringly identified with this project – a distant object on the horizon in need of becoming a promise realized. And then you would discuss the budget and schedule as making possible the long-term unfolding of those desired experiences.
Concretely (pun intended), your client’s long-range desires, past initial occupancy, call for a mix of plain words and symbolically-charged words with symbolic resonance. Consider the entire sustainable revolution now permeating much of the A/E/C industry as a regeneration of language use. Once lighting and air conditioning are explained in terms of lumens and BTUs, we can freely espouse notions of “therapeutic daylighting” and “thermal delight” along with quantifiable descriptions of lighting and HVAC.
Shakespeare foresaw this enriching of the language of architecture:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of living things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them into shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also by this author:
Op-Ed: Life After Ada: Reassessing the Utility of
WORDS THAT BUILD:
Introduce Words that "Float" into the Flow of Communications with
WORDS THAT BUILD: Work with Clients to Develop Plans That
Place Human/Spatial Relationships First
WORDS THAT BUILD: Faster! Deeper! Broader!
WORDS THAT BUILD: Translate Images Into Touching
WORDS THAT BUILD: Emphasize Words with Lasting Resonance
THAT BUILD: Re-invent Green Communication
THAT BUILD: Taking Advantage of Interruptions in Architectural Communication
THAT BUILD: Faceting Architectural Communication
THAT BUILD: Use Space Creatively When Designing Your Client Communications
WORDS THAT BUILD: Making Your Client's Contradictions
WORDS THAT BUILD: Initiate Conversations with Designs
that Engage Your Clients
WORDS THAT BUILD: Creating a Site Analysis That's Out of
THAT BUILD: Learning How to Persuade Through Learning Variations on a Theme
THAT BUILD: Respecting Key Words as Materials for Building Durable Structures
THAT BUILD: Steering Your Client in the Appropriate Direction
THAT BUILD: Playing with the Flow of Communication
THAT BUILD: Clarifying Presentations to Clients through Rhythmic Emphasis
THAT BUILD: Coping with chaotic communication challenges
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