Writing Architecture (1/4): The Book Killed Architecture
An architect who had a library once said, “The book killed architecture”. Although, really, that sentence is pure clickbait (from a time when clicks didn’t even exist yet!). Let me translate it for you: writing about a project means denaturalising it. Architects are people who build, people who put everything they possibly can into their interventions. The best thing they can do afterwards is go away and let others experience and interpret their work, which is, after all, another way of experiencing it. I’ve always believed in self-referential art. That’s to say, art that tells its own story. If you’re capable of doing that—something which (oops) doesn’t always happen—you just let your work stand up for itself when it’s done and move on to the next project. There’s no need to justify it, or provide a list of references, or write a book about it. The very thought of doing that is redundant. To prove it, look at the books written by architects about their own works: those that are worth reading can be counted on the fingers of one hand. So now that we’ve shown the emperor to be naked, the question arises: Is it possible to exercise architecture in writing?
The answer is yes. Writing is a vehicle of design and, more importantly, writing is a means of architectural construction. This article is the first in a series of four that explains how. To write the series, I disregarded everything to do with operational writing within a design project. In other words, I’m not going to talk about the critical thought processes so typically found in architecture and often expressed in note form. Neither am I going to talk about architects who, following on from the previous point, write in order to design.
Here, I’m going to look at everything that writing—understood as a job, an art, a profession—can do for architecture, preferably from within architecture itself. I’m going to talk about how architecture can be exercised in writing. This is something that’s not addressed—I repeat, not addressed—in those books that kill architecture by trying to justify finished projects by providing what they claim to be keys to their interpretation. Depending on an architect’s degree of integrity and/or good faith, I call that literature, fiction, or speculation. In those cases, it’s easy to fall into the temptation of over-interpretation, of creating a book that’s better than the design. When that happens, both are rendered meaningless: the design because it didn’t live up to expectations, the book because it used up energy that should have been spent on the building.
Architecture is the art of place building, and as such it’s centred on built reality. But that built reality is so complex that it requires written support. I invite you to join me on a journey through some of the ways that support can be provided.