The State of Architectural Journalism.
I love talking to people in the architecture industry to find out what makes their jobs exciting, learn about their challenges and use that information to try new things. I often do this with journalists and editors and find it fascinating to learn how to think like they do, and it helps me help them to find good stories for their publications.
When I met with Dave LeBlanc, columnist for the Globe and Mail and well-known for his weekly column, “The Architourist”, I learned a lot about architecture from a non-architect’s perspective. Dave is not a trained journalist, he spent his whole career in radio production and serendipitously fell into writing about architecture a couple of decades ago when asked to produce short radio stories on Toronto architecture. Having been a fan of design and specifically mid-century modern architecture since childhood he jumped at the opportunity, which eventually led him to become a weekly columnist at the Globe.
Dave is as much interested in stories as I am and, similarly, thinks architectural narratives in their current state are a bit dry and factual, too often forgetting to speak about the human stories unfolding within the built environment, in favor of the building as an object, replete with facts, statistics and bombastic declarations, which are no-more than transparent, ego-inflating statements that makes the designers feel good, but leave the people who are looking to connect with architecture on a deeper level a bit hungry for a relatable story.
How Kahn and Mies brought this home.
When I think about some the best and most memorable buildings I've ever had the chance to visit and get to know intimately, like Crown Hall by Mies van der Rohe and the Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn, the spiritual experiences that I've had in those space had very little to do with the architecture itself, but rather with my experience of the space, specifically through the way natural light was managed and let into the building in very specific and deliberate ways.
I didn't care that much that the building was made of metal, concrete or wood but rather that these materials provided me with an phenomenal sensory experience and therefore deeply influenced me. The Kimbell with its silvery natural light flooding from the slits at the top of each vaulted ceiling, grazing the galleries’ surfaces and revealing the textures and warmth of the wood and concrete combination. Crown Hall through the enormous amount of natural light flooding the space from all sides, and reflecting the seasons and time of day, while blocking a direct views on the outside, the black steel curtain walls, terrazzo floors and wooden partition walls taking a back seat to that experience.
I believe this is what Leblanc is trying to convey in his weekly column: how architecture is a machine for sensory experience, to paraphrase Le Corbusier. Perhaps that's what his "Machine for living " idea meant? After all, what is life if nothing but a succession of sensory experiences?
More experiential narratives, less verbosity.
The lesson to retain from this, is that aside from other designers and self-proclaimed design nerds, very few people care about who designed a given building, how much of a celebrity the designers or how expensive the finishes are, because these facts are completely irrelevant to the physical experience of a space. There is a reason the best writers and magazines in the design world are more interested in how the architecture is lived in and like to include the users in their stories. That reason is that it makes for quality content that will capture a reader’s attention. It is an absolute necessity that the story you tell speaks to your audience, or you run the risk of losing their interest.
There is no shortcut for getting to know your audience. You have to spend time engaging with them. It helps greatly to be able to show a vulnerable side of yourself that they may not know about. Digital and social media allows for unprecedented levels of access to your audience at a very low cost, making it easy to be in dialogue with the people who are interested in your work.
Spending the time to craft compelling narratives that speak to the way your building is lived in is the way to go. I know it’s tempting to wax lyrical about the technical achievements of your project, but if they do not directly contribute to the human, dare I say emotional, experience of your space, they can be ignored. Instead the focus should be put on what it feels like to experience your space from a user perspective.
In these days of instant gratification and casual consumption, most people will probably not pay attention to what you are putting out. However the level of care that you put into it will be noticed by the people who relate to what you have to offer. This minority of ardent supporters will go to bat for you. Once you have a few of those, you’ll know you’re on the right track.
A community of followers, the kind of people who will fervently support you and promote you because they believe in your vision, cannot be bought. It is primarily based on trust and that trust has to be earned. There are no shortcuts.
What can you do today to build such a following?
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