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Convincing artifice can bring buildings to life on paper

7 min read

By Karla Schmidt

Stories of people

‘Fascinating texts need movement’, ‘Texts are static without a story’, ‘The right details can create worlds’, ‘Get rid of the padding’. Those are the statements I use when teaching literature classes. However, the stories I generally deal with are about people, not buildings. People move, have problems, make decisions. Buildings ‘just’ stand around. So how can the description of a building evoke emotions, how can we breathe life into press releases or exhibition concepts? What are the ambitions and attitudes when describing architecture? Buildings do not exist in a vacuum, and if you know how to control the impact of texts, you can write very dynamic pieces on static buildings. This is because you are ultimately always writing about human needs and issues.

Who cares?

To do so, you have to know whose needs are involved. An exhibition project can be aimed at historians or futurologists. Maybe winning a prestigious major project is at stake, or perhaps you want to entertain interested lay people with an architecture blog. And before you write a commemorative publication for a company centenary, you should consider who is going to read it. If you know who you are writing for, you can cover topics and issues that affect your readers. Be aware of the problem you are offering a solution for, the obstacles that must be overcome for this and the perspective on human coexistence you want to show.

Problem-solving models

And then you have to package it appropriately. You need a story. In short, all stories are problem-solving models, and unanswered questions are what reveal problems. Think of any series. The characters have a problem. They overcome obstacles and resistance, and by the end, they have generally found a solution and fulfilled at least an emotional need. The following example is appropriate for sustainable construction. The problem to be solved is mentioned at the very beginning:

building as we have been doing it for roughly the last century has to change. At least if architects want to put their manifold pledges to make a relevant contribution to slowing climate change into action

Having mentioned the protagonists – the architects – we show a solution. According to experts, new concrete and cement should be at the very top of the list of don’ts. For years, people have been trying to use raw materials that release less CO2 than architect’s darling concrete. Renewable raw materials could make a relevant contribution, as they bind carbon dioxide themselves. (1) These are just the first few lines of the article – and we already know the story.

Build the story into the title

You can start even earlier; the title can already convey important information on the subject, problem and solution. Let us take a title for a fictitious brochure intended to appeal to parties interested in a cooperative project: ‘Together in Nature – Living and Working by the River’. It hints at a promise of being able to break out of a fast-moving and individualistic urban environment. Out of the city, back to nature and into the feeling of well-being a community gives you. The title already refers to people, not buildings.

Another example is: ‘Critical Care – Architecture and Urbanism for a Broken Planet’ (2).

This is the title of an exhibition on urban development projects focusing on sustainability and social justice, summarised in a global study.

On one hand, ‘critical care’ means taking care of something with a critical, analytical perspective, with the second meaning of ‘intensive medical care’. There is an emergency, and the projects presented are the solution, so to speak. The solution focus gives the title a sense of optimism for the future. And you can already see the story: living conditions (the topic) are increasingly insecure, the planet is going downhill (problem). However, there is hope if we take action (potential solution) and there are already people (the protagonists) who are paving the way.

Protagonists, subject, problem, solution. And the story is done.

Create atmosphere

Links to human needs are also helpful if you want to deliver factual information or make proposals. Let us assume a city is tendering a new library building. One competitor suggests a reinforced concrete building and starts like this: Reinforced concrete is a very robust and flexible artificial composite material comprising concrete and steel reinforcements. The two components are combined by adhesion of cement as a binding agent to the ribbing of the round steel reinforcements. Loads of up to...

And so on. That may be factually correct, but it is so boring that you give up after two sentences. It is not about the people who use the library, it is not about the building’s function or the feeling you get when you spend time there. It shows zero understanding of libraries. The only understanding you get is for reinforced concrete.

On the other hand, if you emphasise the atmosphere a reinforced concrete library can generate, the text could read as follows: Reinforced concrete is an elegant construction material and not subject to any restrictions in shape. In spite of the material’s weight, expansive spaces flooded with light, unexpected lines of sight and protected reading areas can be created. When combined with timber floors and green inner courtyards behind glass surfaces, the result is a warm, bright aesthetic.

Removing the padding

A common misconception is that a text becomes more atmospheric the more words it has. However, this padding prevents depth and density, as the following example on micro-living shows:

To make best use of small spaces, more and more companies are offering intelligent furnishing systems that can be tailored to individual requirements. That means that a module containing both a bed and a living area can easily be activated or moved at the push of a button. […] While micro-living is primarily about an efficiently used living space in a central location, of course the costs play a key role. By implication, a smaller living space means lower rent or construction outlays. Furthermore, the energy-efficient design reduces the utility costs. With space-saving interior solutions, the square footage available can be utilised as efficaciously as possible. (2)

If we reduce these sentences to their core statements, the text is one third shorter and denser: To make best use of space, more and more companies are offering furnishing systems that adapt to individual requirements; for example, one module with a bed and living area is easy to move at the push of a button. […] Though micro-living is primarily about efficient use of residential space in a central location, costs also play an important role. A smaller living space means lower rent or construction outlays. Energy efficiency also reduces the utility costs.

Pars pro Toto

The aim is therefore not to make your descriptions as wordy as possible, but to find details that form a whole. Of course, you cannot simply choose details at random to furnish the text partially so there is no echo. You want to inspire readers to use their imagination. Author Michael Ende called this technique ‘pars pro toto’; one part represents the whole. He called writing a kind of reverse archaeology. Instead of rebuilding an entire culture from an ornament on a clay shard, you invent an ornament that expresses the whole. That means details can say more about people, situations or places than never-ending descriptions.

Significant details

In an exploration of the significance of cabins in cultural history, Petra Ahne writes: You feel sorry for Adam. There he stands, totally naked, with his palms to his temples, as though he cannot believe what has happened to him. His gaze points upwards slightly, perhaps hoping that whoever brought this upon him will reconsider. However, it is not the voice of God that comes down from on high, only rain. Adam is probably just realising what it means to be banished from paradise. […] Adam has to do something; he has to protect himself against this environment that has become hostile. He needs a house. (3)


Here too, the story revolves around a person with a problem, this time with an ironic undertone. The scene is illustrated with highlights: hands, gaze, rain. That works because the problems are directly related to Adam’s problem. In this case, the author even interprets them for us: Adam was driven from paradise; he is desperate, he needs a house.

Use a sensory component

However, such explanations are generally unnecessary. Readers are well able to interpret details themselves. Mentioning steps crunching the snow in a cloister already contains the entire winter-bound monastery. Mentioning the neon lights and urine-stained walls of a railway station underpass creates the impression of an area in social decline.

So, when it comes to details, ask yourself: Which are important for your subject? Which create a comprehensive impression without requiring excessive description? Be specific, sensory and do not rely exclusively on visual stimuli (neon light). Also use odours (urine), noises (steps) or sensations (cold). Architecture thrives on light, space, temperature, resonance and surfaces.

Stories with architecture

Writing about architecture is not always specifically intended to raise funds or generate customer loyalty. Architecture is full of stories that can be entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, inspiring or challenging.

For example, the Louvre Abu Dhabi website is currently hosting an acoustic-visual radio play (5). The story tells of the end of humanity and its legacy of a new civilisation of artificial intelligences against a backdrop of architectural images, with its intricately latticed ceiling. It is a romantic, philosophical story that evokes a strangely hopeful yet melancholy atmosphere combined with the images. The ARTE documentary series ‘Verbotene Streifzüge – Architektur im Osten’ (‘Forbidden Rambles – Architecture in the East’) (6) also generates an ambivalent atmosphere between decay and a new departure.

The radio play and film share the same principles: connecting architecture with people. Be aware of the question you are seeking to answer and show the solution. Find the story in your subject, leave out the padding and instead show details that create whole worlds with few words.

Karla Schmidt …

… is a dramatic adviser, editor and author. She designed the novel workshop courses for Schule des Schreibens (School of Writing) and hosts the regular webinar series ‘Live am Text’ (Live on Text). For more information about Karla Schmidt, visit her website: www.karla-schmidt.de



• Angelika Fitz / Elke Krasny / Architekturzentrum Wien (Hrsg.): Critical Care. Architecture and Urbanism for a Broken Planet.  The MIT Press, Wien, Cambridge, Massachusetts und London 2019
• Petra Ahne: Hütten. Obdach und Sehnsucht.  Naturkunden No. 53 herausgegeben von Judith Schalansky. Matthes & Seitz, Berlin 2019
Hörspiel von Wim Wenders u.a. im Louvre Abu Dhabi - We are not alone
ARTE-Dokureihe „Verbotene Streifzüge – Architektur im Osten“

Portrait Karla Schmidt
Order Magazine