Josh Fenton reflects on the importance of casual self-reflective writing as a means of opening a door into the ‘other’ part of the architect’s brain and for developing architectural positions and ideas.


Josh Fenton

Jason Ford

Image is everything. The prevalent view in architectural circles is that buildings should speak for themselves and their designers. On the surface this makes sense for a highly visual discipline, but does it hold up to scrutiny? Indeed, buildings exist in reality, inhabited on a daily basis, and observed as part of the shifting landscape, but the majority of interactions occur in a virtual – space, flattened into pixels or lines of ink on a page.

This type of ‘seeing’ is framed by a series of cues; the outlet, image quality, photographer, composition, and even the coherence of the captions hastily chosen by an image editor. Worse still, we are incapable of seeing things for what they truly are, perception is always obscured by a hazy montage of everything seen or dreamed throughout a lifetime. The famous ink-blot test proved thatpeople see what they expect to see. So, perhaps image is not everything?

If only to supplement images then, words are important. However, as a writer with practical design experience, and having helped architects find and refine their written concepts I am acutely aware that for some architects writing is not a core part of the discipline. I was fortunate to be nurtured by academics with a passion for putting writing in parallel with making – first studying at The University of Edinburgh and then at The LSA. At both institutions, though for different reasons, students were encouraged to read as widely as time would allow in between the chaos of crits.

Later, the New Architectural Writers programme showed me how broad the linguistic approach to critique could be; from introspective prose to the clipped summaries of architectural ‘news’. All of this made it clear that as well as supplementing images, words by themselves have value. Beyond aesthetics, there are so many areas where writing can be used for definition and elaboration of a position; sustainability, urban planning, social integration, regeneration, private versus public spaces, construction methodologies, and even cost control.

There is space for writing that exists for its own sake, writing that involves taking a pen for a walk just to see where the path leads”

Architecture is a business, an art-form and a socio-political tool all at once. Depending on the importance placed on each of these aspects, the notion of self-narrating the decisions behind the concept becomes more or less important. Where architecture is seen primarily as a ‘business’, any writing produced tends to focus on demonstrating credibility and reliability. At the artistic fringe of architecture however, we see architects who have a predisposition to write about their work and process.

Several reasons are given for hesitancy towards writing; commonly cited is the ‘visibility’ and risks of being drawn into combat with keyboard warriors. For others, there is a sense that writing is too difficult, demanding mental muscles that simply aren’t there. Writing doesn’t have to be formal though and it doesn’t have to be public. Casual, personal writing is vital. Writing. Where. You. Do. What. You. Want! It unlocks new ideas and modes of thinking that are invaluable. Roland Barthes rightly noted that writing and images, do not exercise the same type of consciousness. To limit production, commentary and critique to images alone is therefore limiting.

There is space for writing that exists for its own sake, writing that involves taking a pen for a walk just to see where the path leads. This form of thinking allows fears of judgement to be dispelled. What you write, could be something or nothing. The first steps might be unsteady, but sooner or later you will find your stride. Progressing down the blank page, it is only natural that each new thought brings hesitancy, how particular should one be? Not too particular. The main goal after all, is to explore the transition from concepts to words.

These ‘walks’ should be part of a treasured mental and physical archive. Keep everything, (or as much as space allows). Even if your views on your work, or architecture more broadly change, keep hold of those errant musings. All that we write captures an abridged history of our minds; whether in personal reflection or through the inspection of others there are always going to be some ideas that need time to take on a patina we can truly appreciate