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A way with words

Helen Castle

Being a good designer is only half the story. To win promotion, and projects, you have to be able to sell your ideas to colleagues and to clients

Sir Peter Cook at the recent show of his work at the Bartlett (23 February–13 March 2017).
Sir Peter Cook at the recent show of his work at the Bartlett (23 February–13 March 2017). Credit: The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

‘Words don’t come easy’ for many architects. It tends to be their aptitude for design rather than the written and spoken word that led them to study architecture. Only once students qualify and enter practice does it become apparent that a way with words is a necessity.

So much of the work day gets taken up with written communication rather design – everything from Slack messaging to client emails, bid writing, framework proposals and project descriptions, all requiring very different tones and formats. Richard Hoag, an architecture professor at Kansas State University, has identified 30 genres of writing that architects habitually use in practice.

In practice, words play a vital supporting role to images. In 2010 Hoag and his colleague, English professor David Smit, undertook research funded by the US National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). This enabled them to characterise communication in architecture as essentially ‘persuasive’ and ‘multimodal’: that is, it typically puts forwards an argument, relying on a combination of words and images. This is because ‘images alone can be interpreted differently according to the background and experience of those looking at them, architects cannot rely on images alone to persuade their audience that their designs should be accepted’. The text in effect ‘cues’ the audience as to how they should interpret the images. Written and verbal communication is so critical to practice that anecdotal evidence suggests firms are prepared to pay 5% more to architects with good communication skills. This was enough to convince Hoag and his university that they should introduce a comprehensive communications programme for their architecture students. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests US firms are prepared to pay 5% more to architects with good communication skills

Communication is similarly valued by UK practices. Camilla Neave, HR partner at Make Architects, agrees that ‘the ability to communicate with a variety of audiences, both externally and internally, is key’. ‘Communication training for our employees is largely informal and arranged as needed,’ she says. ‘However, we have invested in the quality of our written communication by employing a copywriter and an editor/proofreader, both full-time, who help shape everything from marketing material to competition entries to design and access statements. And we encourage employees to discuss different communication styles with each other – it’s not seen as a bad thing to ask someone to read over an email before sending it, for example.’

At PLP Architecture, staff are prized if they are good communicators, often being promoted into management positions. There are 45 different nationalities in the London office. Good communication ‘helps to reduce the barriers erected because of language and cultural differences’ and aids collaboration, efficiency and morale across teams, says Sonal Rathod, the practice’s HR manager. With the increase in global projects, it also prepares staff for working internationally, so they understand cultural nuances and which terms may or may not be acceptable in different parts of the world. Induction and employee training programmes support new staff in the acquisition of communication skills. Rathod says one of the most effective ways of encouraging good communication styles is from the example set by senior staff.

Cook, a renowned wordsmith, handwrote captions that accompanied his work at the Bartlett show.
Cook, a renowned wordsmith, handwrote captions that accompanied his work at the Bartlett show. Credit: Bob Sheil

When architects become client facing, communication skills are crucial to winning work. The experience of RIBAJ editor Hugh Pearman bears this out. He has participated in panels on the client side where he has witnessed some ‘atrocious presentations’ where architects have ‘retreated into jargon and archi-speak’. ‘Architects’ private language is no use outside the world of architecture and academia,’ he says. ‘It does not travel well to developers.’ So, what does work? ‘A style that is conversational without being condescending. Architects need to express themselves in a way that is straightforward and witty and demonstrates that they can solve problems – that they have the skills that can help the client.’

Sir Peter Cook is just such a wordsmith. He is as renowned for his delight in language as for his vibrant and ingenious drawings. For the recent show of his work at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, he produced handwritten captions that featured many of his favourite words, such as: ‘spooky, idiosyncratic, weird, layered, banal, boring, dreary, tedious, cool, chirpy, cute, pain-in-the-arse, lateral thinking, boffin, joker, work ethic, tweak, quirky and succinct’. Cook puts his pleasure in the evocative quality of everyday words down to ‘a fascination with gossip and repartee’. ‘It helps enormously to be able to describe things and exude genuine enthusiasm for them,’ he says. He has a fervent dislike of jargon and ‘those who arrogantly expect you to value it’, while recognising and admiring eloquence in others. He makes special mention of ‘the late Cedric Price, of course, interestingly Thom Mayne who used to be inarticulate, Will Alsop, Amanda Levete, Nigel Coates and Liz Diller’. 

The captions featured many of Cook’s favourite words, such as ‘spooky’.
The captions featured many of Cook’s favourite words, such as ‘spooky’. Credit: Bob Sheil

Neil Spiller has transferred his own joy in language and flair for drawing from the Bartlett to the University of Greenwich where he is Hawksmoor chair of architecture and landscape and deputy pro vice-chancellor. For him the crit system remains crucial in architectural education, providing ‘experience and confidence in public speaking’. ‘Responding to verbal questioning and expounding the reasons for your work is basic to being a successful architect,’ he says. Language enhances images: ‘I’ve always loved architects who do something different and particularly love those who can write too, to create a combination of words that interplay with the images of projects to take the strangeness of the project further. Michael Sorkin, Lebbeus Woods, Albert Perez-Gomez and Tony Vidler jump to mind immediately. I am interested in the surrealists, dadaists, futurists and their poetry – a favourite is Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s work as she made objects and wrote explosive dadaist poetry.’ Like Cook, Spiller has a penchant for the playful and the naughty and when asked for a list of his favourite words says: ‘Only a few are printable: ones like “maelstrom”, “multivalent”, “cosset” and “augmented”, “drawing”, “love”.’

Pearman emphasises that successful communication for architects is not only about how you communicate, but using it to demonstrate your problem-solving skills – particularly in front of a client: ‘Architects need to show they are effortlessly competent. They shouldn’t be craven,’ Pearman says. ‘They need to be prepared to say what they would and wouldn’t recommend. They always need to bring it back to the user, taking the focus away from themselves and their concepts.’ It is not just a matter of doing a good job on the brief, but going beyond the brief. He quotes Will Alsop, quoting Cedric Price, recommending to a client: ‘You don’t need a new house, you need a divorce.’ 

It is when the architect is able to perfectly combine a silver tongue with a deft use of the pencil that everything comes together in a sleight of hand that has been mythologised as the napkin sketch – when the ‘original’ concept is seemingly pulled out of a hat on the spur of the moment, belying many hours of preparation. It is a mark of showmanship that can only be pulled off by the most adept of communicators.

Hugh Pearman is talking on the subject of communication in architecture at the RIBA Future Leaders: Coming to the Fore event on 16 May 2017

Helen Castle is head of professional programmes at the RIBA and consultant editor of Architectural Design



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