What we have here is a failure to communicate...

It may be an urban legend, or at least an architectural legend: Architect presents a design for a new house to client with a cool and convincing perspective rendering showing what the house will look like. House gets built and client calls architect threatening a lawsuit. Why? The Mercedes pictured in the curving drive has not been delivered yet. Ha ha. This is clearly a boom-time story, and it usually involves a description of said client as a high-roller, low-clue insert name of nouveau riche nationality du jour here. Everyone laughs...clients, geez, you can’t live with ‘em you can’t live without ‘em. And you obviously can’t leave ‘em by the curb when you’re done with ’em, as Steven Wright says, because that’s where the shiny Mercedes is supposed to be.

A perspective rendering, the mastery of which was the central narrative of western art for millennia, is a surprisingly complex beast in terms of exactly what it is saying and to whom. Not much more than a decade ago—it’s 2010 so we think in decades—architects would commission perspectivists at considerable cost to execute persuasive images of their buildings-to-be. Brunelleschian in their specificity, these lush images were usually out of date before the project was finished. Even with all sorts of dissembling about changes since the drawing was done, these images were still useful to show not only the building but the world that received it and was changed by it. In this way trees, human beings, atmospheres and, yes, a Mercedes or equal, were drafted into this new world both in support of and because of the building. The architects alone held the key to which of those elements to take literally and which to discount as “provided by others.” The Mercedes would belong to the latter category along with such kids with balloons as might happen to wander into the frame.

What we have here, as you’ve guessed from the Cool Hand Luke reference in the title, is a failure to communicate. This is no small matter as the gaps between what the various professions are saying about the imperative of sustainable design and what the public and policy makers are hearing are widening to crevasses. I wasn’t in Copenhagen—alas, I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing that city—but I can imagine the skew lines of proclaiming and posturing, neither parallel nor intersecting, as the scientists warn, the designers (if they were there) propose, the engineers invent, and the politicians cower. It’s really no surprise to anyone that nothing of substance came out of the meeting.

In Sunday’s Washington Post there was an opinion piece by Chris Mooney taking scientists to task for their inability and sometimes unwillingness to work on the craft of communicating with the public: “Scientific training continues to turn out researchers who speak...in a language aimed at their peers, not at the media or the public. Many scientists can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for the maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming.”

Now, let’s re-write that with the word “architect” replacing “scientist: Architectural training continues to turn out design professionals who speak in a language aimed at their peers, not at the media or the public. Many architects can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for the maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming.

Where are we the architects in these immensely important discussions over settlement patterns, infrastructure, zoning, energy? Don't we have something to contribute? We have a powerful language at our disposal, more powerful than the sciences and policy makers have. We are masters of the visual. Yet, as my opening anecdote indicates, we don’t always have command over the more subtle, the implicit, messages that our images convey, over the illocutionary forces of our utterances as the linguists would say. What we say when we draw and what we intend to say do not always coincide. I’ll delve into that in more detail next week, so stay tuned for part two...

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