The Dr. House of Architecture and the Non-Place
A colleague – let’s call him Walter Ego – asked me to accompany him as an observer to a meeting he was having with a couple who wanted to build a house. Walter created opportunities with his projects but never managed to close sales.
The couple had bought a piece of land near the coast, in one of those areas between the beach and the nearest village where there are usually service stations, a McAuto, a few orange trees and not much more.
Walter explained his proposal. It was a well-grounded, architecturally impeccable design. And he explained to them that it was based on the consideration of their piece of land as a non-place.
The customer’s expression when he heard that was like Richard Gere’s in…. well, in any Richard Gere film (that guy always has the same expression).
When we’d finished, Walter was delighted with the way his presentation had gone and was convinced he’d won the customers over.
I didn’t see it that way. “Look, Walt, you can’t tell a couple who are really excited about the site they’ve just bought that it’s a non-place”, I told him. Actually, I might have said it in more “forceful” language.
Seriously, though, brutal honesty doesn’t usually work in these cases. Honesty does, but brutal honesty doesn’t. There’s no need to act like Dr. House.
And that story brings me onto the subject of how architects communicate, especially when we want people to value what we’re doing (for example, when we want them to buy a design).
Some time ago I wrote that we talk in whale language. We set ourselves up on the intellectual high ground and talk about concepts that for most people are incomprehensible. But I think there’s more to the problem than that.
A customer doesn’t understand what a non-place (whale language) is, but even if we explain what it means in simple language it still may not be a good idea to refer to his site as one. He may end up turning to another, “friendlier” professional who doesn’t say unpleasant things.
Because communicating effectively requires an extraordinary exercise in empathy.
It’s not just what you say, or the words you use to say it: it’s a question of knowing who you’re talking to, what things they react to, the rhythm with which they interiorise what you’re saying…
What I’m saying is, how do you explain complex design concepts in an age of attention lapses?
What happens if you’re talking to someone who’s used to things that don’t require much concentration, to movie trailers full of explosions that always end with a loud bang?
To sell a film by Tarkovsky to someone who’s expecting The Hangover or Fast & Furious you have to make a big effort, you have to get inside their head and understand what they need and what they value. And that goes as much for that couple as it does for any senior executive in a big multinational.
And if it’s someone with a short attention span, you might have to split what you’re saying up into little chunks, feed it to them one piece at a time, perhaps not even in order, give them reminders, so that they can think things through.
Present your project in episodes, as if it were a series, a disaster movie, a parody, a biblical blockbuster or a western: anything they’re receptive to and will be able to understand.
Seriously, it’s best not to be like Dr. House. Because without empathy, it’s communication itself that becomes the non-place.