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WORDS THAT BUILD: Offer an Opening Statement That Frames a Broad Vista

Tip #20: The aim of an opening statement is to open a door to dialogue rather than to persuasively "hook" another into compliance with your message.

By Norman Weinstein
November 3, 2009

Editor’s Note: This is the 20th in an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication.


Suppose that the thousands of teachers of business communication who advise that the purpose of an opening remark or sentence is to “hook” someone’s interest are all wrong? Perhaps I’m contradicting myself by opening this column with a dubious assertion to “hook” your curiosity – but bear with me for a moment.


This column is really about what you can learn about opening a flow of communication with others through the study of the architecture of Zanzibar, that island off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, awash with Arabic and Indian aesthetics.


My safe bet is that you are now experiencing the architecture of Zanzibar as a more promising opening to my column – more exotic – than my original opening about a questionable strategy of business communication teachers. And even though Zanzibar’s architecture might be too exotic for you to spend time reading about if your practice is on the verge of financial collapse, let me assure you that my real beginning – after two intentional diversions – concerns how buildings in Zanzibar were designed starting with the front door frame.


Now, what does it mean to discover a venerable vernacular architectural heritage that doesn’t design with the foundation in mind first? Or a tradition quite counter to Frank Lloyd Wright’s perspective that he designed from the roof down? Why begin with a door frame?


Suppose you assume that all architectural design entails particular framings of spaces that are negotiated over time between architects and other stakeholders (owners, contractors, building inspectors, etc.), all conditioned by a particular site and climate. Gaston Bachelard in his The Poetics of Space sees that


. . .a mere door, can give images of hesitation, temptation, desire, security, welcome and respect. If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open, one would have to tell the story of one’s life.


Note the sequence of images Bachelard identifies with a door. A door is not designed to “hook” someone to enter, or for a building owner to open and close a door thoughtlessly. Doors frame the experience of architecture. And so does any architect’s opening words to a stakeholder because all architectural communication has within it hesitation. How much can you trust your clients and visa versa?  This demands hesitation rather than pure impulse. The necessities of earning a living introduce a temptation to assume trust and compatibility where there might not be reasons for such. For any creative architect, there is the desire to create a project that more than fulfills client desires. And both clients and architects are forever hungry for feelings of security and respect. We all hope, after a project is complete, that we are welcomed into additional discussion about the outcome.


Intelligently framed, open-ended questions are often ideal openings for architects because questions open doors to the complex nuances of materials, schedule, and budget. But just as importantly, opening with questions shows willingness at the threshold of a new relationship to consider a multitude of ways to frame apportioning space. Starting with a door can then lead to building a work relationship characterized by mutual respect.

To update the image of ancient Zanzibar architecture starting with a door, perhaps the 21st-century door that suggests a similar key of design primacy for a “mere” door is the energy-generating revolving door at the Natuurcafé La Port in the Netherlands, designed by RAU and built by Boon Edam. Like an architect’s cogently framed query in writing or conversation, it generates energy by putting a new “spin” on perception.


Persuasion is always a major component of architectural communication – but begin with the invitation a door proposes.



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: 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.


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: "Gunnar Birkerts: Metaphoric Modernist" by Sven Birkerts and Martin Schwartz 
A major architect in the history of Modernism finally receives recognition - and sundry asides about why Modernism never exited.


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)