Mark Morris and Christoph a. Kumpusch in response to W, C and IKL. Exchanged October 12th, 2013
W: In your article ‘Two Hundred and Eighty-Eight Lines’ in Log 27, you make the case that drawing is both a product and an action-it is both a thing in and of itself and a mode of exploration. In reference to architectural ideas, how does writing operate in a similar manner?
MM: Yes, I think so. Architectural writing should inspire, provoke and produce ideas. One of the rites of passage of any new student of architecture is collecting books; starting a personal library of monographs, histories and how-to books. Then there are (what it is left of) the architectural magazines and newspaper columns devoted to criticism. We draw on this well of writing throughout our careers.As a mode of exploration–putting pen to paper or hands to keyboard–architectural writing takes on many forms: notes in a sketchbook, academic essays, portfolio statements and websites. Some feel more comfortable with writing than others, but we all do it. Some architectural ideas are awkward to express in writing and you have recourse to sketch or diagram your way through it. But a written manifesto or design methodology can function as a design jetpack. Sometimes writing is the most expedient way to advance an argument or announce your intentions.
W: Some would argue that architecture deals only with building. Others contend that it is a way of seeing the world. Can writing function as architecture? How might one participate in the production of architecture outside built form?
MM: I view these positions inclusively. Architecture is about building and ways of seeing the world and about writing. Architecture, as a concept and a practice, originates with written treatises. So these things–building, seeing, writing–have been yoked together from the start. My first reaction to “can writing function as architecture” is to say no, why would we want it to, and, vice versa, architecture doesn’t function like writing. Having said that, some of the most intriguing projects have come from mining relationships between architecture and writing. Peter Eisenman and Jacques Derrida made this juxtaposition seem like the most fertile ground for creativity. Jane Rendell at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London has been looking at this question anew in her book Site-Writing. I encourage architecture students to embrace writing not to make architecture redundant in any way, but to provide a helpmate to the architectural task by clarifying goals, expanding ideas and communicating precisely. Interestingly, some of the best architectural texts don’t feature in manifestoes, treatises or conventional architectural writing, but in novels.
From Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otrantro to Paul Scheerbart’s The Gray Cloth to Philip Kerr’s Gridiron, there are some marvelous moments in fiction where architecture impacts the plot or looms as large as a character. We’re all participating in the production of architecture outside built form in one way or another. A practicing architect authoring a built work is technically removed from the direct manifestation of that work as “built form.” This is what makes architecture and its visual representation so vexing and fascinating at the same time, this distance from the thing itself or the requirement of so many others in the realization of the built form.
IKL: New typologies, forms, and movements require new language or rhetoric in order to be understood, described, and discussed. How does the development architectural language dovetail the development of projects and ideas?
MM: I am not an advocate for developing jargon or enriching “architect-speak.” I think that sort of thing ultimately hurts architectural history, theory and criticism–and, indeed, architecture. Accessible language with which to describe design ideas and the built environment is key; something I argued for in the “Architecture on Air” podcasts.
Language is nimble enough already to accommodate new types, forms and movements. Using esoteric terms or neologisms when humbler language would suffice just cuts others out of the conversation.
Why distance ourselves from each other and broader audiences by not speaking or writing plainly? This isn’t to dumb anything down or staunch new possibilities, but to be mindful of the power and elegance of more direct forms of communication in the tradition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Occasionally you need to define work with an “ism” and new words or modes of critique are required and someone like Charles Jencks usually comes to the rescue.
C: Academic writing seems to be in a state of stagnation: while blogs and E-books exist to proliferate text to previously unimaginable audiences, a hierarchy still exists within academic circles and institutions. Within this hierarchy, books and journals are placed in the arena of legitimacy, while the blog is relegated to a position outside of the accepted discourse. How might this be changing? How do you see the influence of universal platforms and access altering the discourse surrounding scholarly text?
MM: A dissertation is only ever typically read by five people and it takes five years to write! Likewise, an academic book gets a print run of a few thousand copies. A second edition is cause for real celebration, champagne for all the professors. But a successful blog article or podcast can get 50,000-100,000 hits. A MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) can reach even more. Which all goes to undermine the way the academy still values professionally published books so highly. Peer-reviewed work in any field remains important and will remain so regardless of whether the journal is hardcopy or electronic. I imagine issues like peer-review and editorial review are why many blogs are, perhaps, undervalued. But there is also value in access, readership numbers and overall impact.
I think if you come of age at a time when people point to a physical book as the golden tool for learning and communication, the idea persists. When my daughter saw an essay of mine online formatted for her iPad, she thought it was cool; so much cooler than if it were on a bookshelf. Paradigms shift, tools upgrade, but good writing, interesting ideas, should be portable across lots of media.