Tuesday, June 06, 2017

How to Build Strong Narratives in Architecture

In response to some of the positive feedback I've been getting about my writing over on Instagram, I thought it would be nice to collect some of the best here in one spot for easy reading. If you enjoy the content, please consider sharing. It's all meant to put a smile on the face of anyone involved with the daily struggles of building and design.


There are two reasons we should be concerned about supporting quality architectural writing: Firstly, as a reaction to the deteriorating quality of architectural writing in general. This trend has very little to do with the architectural profession itself, but rather is being driven by the negative qualities the internet tends to exaggerate. Short attention spans in this case. Here architectural writing is just as much a victim of the need to feed the content treadmill as other industries. This trend isn't set to reverse itiself anytime soon. The numbers I've seen from 2016 seem to confirm that sharing lower quality content more often works better than only sharing good quality content less often. I'm only one person, so when I see numbers like this, my response is to zig when the rest of the field zags. I reject letting the need to feed the content blackhole take over my life, so that means doubling down on quality. This leads to the second reason why we should strive for quality in architectural writing; the subject of architecture deservers well-written stories driven by strong narratives, whether fiction or nonfiction. Architectural writing might seem like a small field, but it has a disproportionately large effect on the built environment we inhabit everyday. The better the writing, the better our analysis and the more people will be moved by the substance of the work.


I think two reasons my work stands out on the platform is because of my background in creative writing and the strong narratives I'm able to develop. My process at arriving at each of those characteristics is a bit more nebulous; in the sense that creativity occurs inside a mystery box we can't see into. Having received some success with writing in high school, I now see that positive feedback in the late 90s as key to establishing my skill through practice during the intervening decades. If one is able to develop a strong narrative, even in a limited space, then I think it's possible to tap into very ancient parts of humanity everyone shares from when groups huddled around campfires and told stories. Tapping into those feelings, but bringing them to bare on topics relevant to modern architecture such as 3D printing or collaborative design, is a major goal of my work. As I've matured as a writer, I've come to recognize that I treat skill in design and skill in writing as very distinct. This affects how I write insofar as I think the skills of writing should be subservient to the skills of design. Excellent communication skills – as this piece about writing and Thursday's piece about graphic design illustrates – are core to the fluent expression of architectural ideas, either abstract or detailed. And for those that love architecture; that is where the game is played. Writing, drawing, are just extensions of that passion. Enjoy!

February 13, 2017
65 words.
A boy is playing with LEGO. A radical idea pops into his head. Not only should his house have a space port, can't it also be made of wood and raised on stilts? Is there room for a candy store, pool, and swing set? Will a Pokemon arena fit between the bunkbeds and science lab? There's no time to lose! Think big and remix architecture!

152 words.
The Engineer sat quietly at the computer. His other team members had left hours ago for other commitments but he was determined to stay right beside the computer until the solution was found. 5.2-billion data points; almost 3 months pre-processing the data for the run; one very bad quality assurance meeting; finally the day of the computation had arrived. Estimates suggested they should have their answer in less than 24 hours. The Engineer was determined to sit there all night if he had to because he knew it was a historical day. They wouldn't get a design proposal. Not a first draft. Not a concept. They would have the perfect solution. 24 hours passed. 48 hours. 72 hours. Something was wrong. A week. 2 weeks. Meetings started about how long they should wait. Preliminary investigations begun into what went wrong. 3 weeks. 1 month. Perhaps the perfect building wasn't possible after all. 

March 10, 2017
121 words. 
The professor stood at the edge of the silent construction site. No amount of raging at her assistants would restart the project. They needed to be smart. The professor took a deep breath and sighed as she looked over to her struggling grad students huddled around the unmoving timber-producing 3D printer. All the wires and pipes checked out. Scanning the 3D printer code again on her laptop, nothing stood out to her that could be causing the issue. Out of frustration the professor kicked the pulp tub beside her. With a *glurp* and a *swoop" the 3D printer whirled to life. The grad students cheered. Ok, that time they just needed to be lucky. Thanks for following! Good luck next week!

202 words.
The search and rescue drones had departed a week ago. Now all that was left was a silent site and massive pile of twisted steel. Sharp and tangled, it looked like an uninviting challenge. Our hero engineer stood at the edge of the site looking on with contempt at the disaster before her. This needed to be fixed? With her army of construction drones? With the robotics engineers she led? With her double engineering degrees in structural engineering and computer science? This mess didn't stand a chance! She had a plan, she had her digital model, all that was left was to hit the return key to start the building program. She paused, disgusted other humans could do this to beautiful architecture, but confident she and her team could raise another better building in its place. The robotics engineers murmured behind her doing the final calibration checks of the drones and geospatial dataset. With excitement rising, the reports of all clear came back to her one-by-one. With a deep breath, she pressed the start button, and with it the site came alive with the sounds of whirring, clicking, beeping, and buzzing which now mark the 21st century construction site. Build build build!

April 4, 2017
128 words.
Slumped in her chair, she had heard "No" all morning. From her boss; from her team; even from the coffee shop in the lobby who were out of dark roast. This did not bode well for her presentation on sustainable architecture in the afternoon. As junior partner she had worked hard for weeks developing an impactful presentation and be as prepared as possible for any client question. The proposal included an aggressive water conservation program to be sure, but she had never been the sort of person to aim for mediocre. She didn't get out of bed every morning to do average. Now the horizon looked darker and goal totally uphill. It was time for her secret weapon to swing momentum back in her favour: Cake for everyone!

April 28, 2017
155 words.
If I had to write a story about harnessing the power of BIM to support facilities management, I'd start with a frustrated character, unable to see what they're aiming for. There's so much at stake, so many moving parts, and at the end of the process an owner expecting a perfectly operational building. But the designer can't see all of this. The modern-day digital operation of a building is intense. One might as well take up brain surgery for all there is to know about the details of digital building ownership. But what if the designer had a map? Would that help them see the field? Now they would actually know what they're aiming for, but with the added benefit of not needing to know every detail, just like a real map. After hitting the target, the designer becomes a hero to owners and developers; babies smile, unicorns frolic, and Spring arrives! Thanks for following!

187 words.
The three students finally found each other on the sprawling Minecraft map and set off to find the perfect location for their building. Carefully prepared at school all week, during language arts and math, lunch and recess, the design now contained every conceivable feature a castle/cave/mansion could ever need: Slides, pools, huts, and potatoes. Now standing at the top of a mountain after school Friday, the three students looked determinedly at the plains below where they planned to build all weekend. Those luckily enough to have played with LEGO when they were younger will be familiar with how time flies when the brain shifts into this creative gear. Suddenly it was Sunday night, the castle only three-quarters done, and delicate negotiations going on between parents and students about bedtime. With good intentions the discussion started, "yes, learning design is important and your teamwork is admirable, but..." In the face of the students' commitment to design and build the arguments finally wilted and took on a desperate tone "...just because!" If you feel the urge to build and create, please don't resist and build build build!

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