Sunday, January 31, 2016

Architecture & Writing: Short Letter


There are many connections one can make between architecture and writing. In this post, we'll look at some of these. Perhaps the most obvious is that they are both creative outlets, both begin with a seed. That may be a notion of how to design a house to fulfill the great american dream or it may be an idea for the next great american novel. These notions and ideas may germinate and grow in the head but they must eventually end up in tangible form if they are to be shared with others - clients or readers.

Both writers and architects utilize specialized tools to help them through the creative process. Writers use word processors and architects use computer aided design and modeling; however, the most intuitive tools writers and architects use are shared - the simple pen and paper.

Sometimes the creative process comes easily and sometimes it can be grueling. Though it is unnamed, there is definitely an architectural equivalent to writer's block. Sometimes the pieces don't seem to fit together. Most of the time there is a solution to this problem.  We call it a deadline! The editor is demanding to have the story on his desk first thing in the morning. The client has just called and wants to meet while she is in town tomorrow. I'm not sure why the deadline is such an effective devise. My guess is that it has something to do with being forced to forgo the perfect solution and simply make do with the best ideas rattling around. (This blog serves as an example. I have a self imposed commitment to blog at least once every month. With only a few exceptions I post late in the evening on the last day of each month.) While many connections between writing and architecture are obvious, others are more nuanced. Following are a couple of examples.

Formula writing is common to most forms of writing expression. Take the short story for example. Perhaps the author will choose a story map to flesh out his writing. This allows him to quickly develop the characters, establish the setting, and advance the plot. The story map can be as rigid or as flexible as desired. The variations are endless, yet the reader has a general sense of how the story is moving along and perhaps even how it might end. Designing by patterns is a common practice in architecture as well. Take the design of a house for example. The architect may use a pattern book to assist in the design of a house. The book guides the architect in what may be appropriate for the chosen style, such as the proper massing, materials, proportion, and the like. Despite the restrictions, the architect has a fair amount of design freedom within the pattern format. None the less, the client and the public have a pretty good idea of what the house will look like and the messages it will convey.
Pattern book houses at Celebration Florida
Detailed Wall Section
In a letter to a friend, the 17th century French mathematician and theologian, Blaise Pascal stated: "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." At first this seems counter-intuitive, but it makes perfect sense when one considers the role of editing in writing and architecture. If the writer simple sits at his desk and pens his thoughts as quickly as they come to mind, he risks superfluous and disordered writing. Proper editing serves to purge and organize, resulting in a more refined and polished product, with one byproduct being a shorter document. Architects edit as well. Successful works of architecture withstand numerous rounds of criticism and refinement. A great example of this is Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House. This project, from the architect that declared "God is in the details", has been edited more than any other building I have ever visited. Every space has been well thought out, each material selection has been carefully selected, with no extra components to conceal poor workmanship. I suggest that this building is the architectural equivalent of a "short letter".

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe
The writer need not possess architectural skill, but the architect can benefit greatly from becoming an accomplished wordsmith. Hopefully this post has helped explain the strong and numerous connections between architecture and writing. The connections between architecture and photography are similarly strong and numerous.  We'll explore that topic in the next post ..... Cheese!