Get back to reality

Words:
Ben Derbyshire

Be clear who your audience is, and speak to it, to connect

Travelling across America, the global nature of architecture is everywhere. The same international stars seem ubiquitous, the profession’s challenges are apparently universal, and everyone seems obsessed with the idea that more and better competitions will solve many of our difficulties (I’ll come back to that). But what lessons are there to be drawn from the difference in approach to communicating the impact of the profession – especially comparing the Venice Biennale where I also stopped, with the Chicago Architecture Foundation?

Both organisations enable architects to present our work to a wide public. Both take advantage of their surroundings and the audiences they draw.  But the Chicago Architecture Center has lessons for us with its clear focus on making architecture accessible, enjoyable and stimulating to people outside that community. The centre is building a new home in the base of Mies van de Rohe’s last ever project, a classic tower overlooking the Chicago River at 111 East Wacker Drive. It is to be filled with a skyscraper exhibition, a model of downtown Chicago, a learning centre, auditorium and shop. From within, unobstructed curtain walling will make the city itself an exhibit.

But most striking is the foundation’s commitment to the use of plain English to explain the purpose of architecture. Its 450 volunteers are trained how to communicate to a lay audience and they provide a knowledgeable commentary on the tours of the city that the ­centre offers from its bookshop and from the river wharf where its boats are docked.

The concerns of the profession can seem esoteric, our dialogue self-serving and exclusive

The foundation’s director, Lynn Osmond, told me that no visiting architect may lecture there without submitting their presentation for scrutiny. She has seen too many audiences drift off as a red pointer dot hovers lovingly over an obscure detail that means everything to the presenter but precious little to them.

I enjoyed my first Biennale visit, where there is similarly immense pleasure and stimulation to be found in the great work on display. Nowhere else, I should imagine, comes close to the energizing atmosphere of so much talent in one place – and which is an augury for the car-free city of the future. And this too is an exhibition that addresses the public. Vaporetti plying the waterways have great scarlet billboards advertising the Biennale to all comers.

I found much that really matters at the Biennale, displayed to convey real meaning to a lay audience. But there was an unease too. The language of architecture is often impenetrable. The concerns of the profession can seem esoteric, our dialogue self-serving and exclusive. The problem occurs when we are unclear who our audience is, or when both professionals and lay people are present. As the seasoned commentator and lay enthusiast, Pat Brown, observed, much of the discourse she heard in such circumstances had little relevance to the lives of ordinary citizens affected by it.

And that serves as a useful reminder. When clinicians talk to each other their terminology will be precise and technical, such as to convey complex and sophisticated meaning appropriate to highly trained professionals. But at the bedside, they use plain English and take care to speak in lay terms. Dare I suggest our profession should pay more attention to this distinction? It may even be that our propensity to be drawn towards the arcane leads in itself to sophistry. Our desire to find uniquely interesting, original points tends towards obscurantism, so that in the end the language distracts us from issues that are relevant to the public we are supposed to serve?

I suppose I am posing the question: just who are we trying to impress? Each other, or the public whose wellbeing ought to be the outcome of our endeavours? Which brings me back to competitions. Remember, these are set and judged, often as not, by our peers. They surely cannot be the only model for delivering quality outcomes. I’d argue that it’s equally, if not more, important that the consumer of our architecture be the arbiter of our success. 

@ben_derbyshire

president@riba.org