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WORDS THAT BUILD: Communicating Architectural Edges

Tip #21: Write about meaningful circulatory patterns of light by personifying the interplay of architecture and light.

By Norman Weinstein
December 3, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the 21st in an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundation of architecture: oral and written communication.


What could be more complex than to convey in words the dance of light through architecture? Yet what could be more crucial in communication with clients? As Le Corbusier famously proclaimed, “Architecture is the skilful, judicious, magnificent play of volumes against light.” The problem with this profound quote is that your clients aren’t contracting with you to create anything as remotely abstract as “play of volumes against light.” Clients are focused upon a multiplicity of specificities, some of which will involve light, increasingly daylight, as it moves through structures. You can draw or use flash animations of light circulating through your designs on a monitor – but words will inevitably need to supplement graphics. How can you shed light on light?


While recently walking through Steven Holl’s extension to the Nelson-Atkins Museum, I thought of how exactly Holl’s description of the building to an interviewer caught my experience:


“The light is working in this building like sound does in music.”


Initially, I thought Holl was simply substituting the concept of light working as a slightly nuanced contrast to Le Corbusier’s notion of light playing, a subtle nod to the American work ethic writ large. But then I realized that Holl’s design could actually be verbally evoked in terms of how its architecture makes light an active partner in an ongoing dramatic story located at the interface, the edges between architecture and the world beyond the building.


To say this simply and practically: the edges of your designs are where interior and exterior energies – light, air, the sweep of the biosphere – engage in cross-talk. Your architecture engages in a conversation with its surroundings parallel, in significant ways, to your conversations with clients (and engineers and contractors). Because the interactions of architecture with light, not to mention the rest of the environment, are so difficult to verbalize, why not personify architecture and light as partners in conversation?


Light can work, play, saunter, deceive, seduce – the list of personality attributes can be extensive. The same verbs apply to your architecture. When Holl explains light working in his design, he is simultaneously projecting an image of himself as alchemist and technician. The 17th century alchemist Thomas Vaughan referred to light as “the house of matter,” and implored seekers of beauty and truth to walk into the house of light where light walked in before them. In today’s high-tech world, light is “engineered transparency” – energy that can be bent, curved, lassoed and thermally mined for architectural purposes. You need not resort to the filmy poetic mysticism of Louis Kahn (“We are made of light which has been spent”) in order to discuss the roles light plays in your designs. Just suggest that light can be thought of as a working partner to talk with, no more ethereal a shape-changer than concrete. Talk about how light plays and works throughout your design, using the light flows in your own office space for meeting with clients for examples.


Keep the conversation light – but shimmering.


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: 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.


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.



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(click on pictures to enlarge)