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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


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: 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.


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.



Book Review: "Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People," by Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, and Oliver Gillham 
To the credit of the erudite authors, their sketch of urban design brings levels of political, sociological, and architectural analysis together in a readable synthesis.


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.



(click on pictures to enlarge)