Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Architects As Writers

Most architects and many others writing on architecture are unreadable.

In this month's Architectural Record article by Martin Fuller (who also writes for the New York Review of Books) grouses about a book on Postmodernism: "...or at least those portions of it [the book] that are intelligible, since about every fifth sentence stubbornly resists parsing."

Yes!  (I pound the table.) That is the trouble - or one of them.  The density, obscurity, and pomposity of architectural writing can stagger you.

The ordinary architect, writing the infrequent article, just lacks literary skill.  He stopped learning to write in high school, but this condition is aggravated by hyper-seriousness, a bad case of prolixity (big-word-itis), and that sad anemia caused by lack of novel-reading.

Of architects whom you'd hope could write...  Theorists range from dull (Vitruvius, who writes specifications), to polemical (Le Corbusier, who liked manifestos), to mystical (Kahn, who... knows what he's rambling about?).  Indigestible text.

Writer-writers on architecture?  Other than Jane Jacobs, the best reads seem to come from occasional visitors to architecture like Tom Wolfe or Alain deBotton...   Regular architecture beat writers turn dull or into equally dull raving-partisans.  Something about architecture - it's permanence? civic importance? - infects writers.  Seriousness develops into deadly pomposity and that causes one of two diseases: either it stiffens the writer's hands until he types like chipping granite (dry dusty reading); or pomposity settles in the writer's head, causing pontification, hands madly transcribing the fever in his brain...   into incoherent text.

(Obviously, I am infected with strain #2.  But I'm taking pills.  Pills and injections.)

How to prevent this public health problem?  Because it DOES effect the public health - buildings effect us all and, heaven knows, we need better buildings.  To get 'em, we need to talk about 'em... without deadly boredom.  I prescribe:

1) Ordinary Architects - YOU! reading this - learn to write.  Read Strunk and White's Elements of Style.  Practice writing.  READ.  The good stuff.  You will be happier and more virtuous, I promise.
2)  Architects with influence, with firms or who write anything at all, like I said above.  Plus insist on better writing from everyone in your firm; a better written proposal can only help win that next commission, right?
3)  Writers on Architecture - Set a good example!  At least keep readers awake.  Okay?
4)  Readers on Architecture - praise and patronize the good writers.  Have lively opinions and spread them around.  We can't leave something as important as our environment to these dullards!

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