The seemingly effortless existence of buildings eclipses the chaos and cacophony of the design and construction process: a chain link fence goes up around an empty lot, earthmovers clear away every trace of the past, and soon there’s a sign showing the new exciting building coming to your neighborhood. All eyes go to the rendering where thin translucent people stride purposefully through the suggestion of a sparkling and vibrant possible world. And it will completely destroy life as we know it. From that carefully crafted architectural image the anxious neighbor reads nothing but trucks, traffic, parking difficulties, new and different people—they’re translucent, after all—noise, litter, higher taxes, disrespect, and displacement.
Architecture is an allographic activity, to use Nelson Goodman’s terminology; its execution depends entirely on others. The architect’s primary task is to get other people to do things: consultants, clients, neighbors, financiers, permit reviewers, design review boards. The cocktail napkin sketch that is so alluring to colleagues and collectors is perplexing to the design review board and just looks like an inky cocktail napkin to the zoning attorney. Certain architectural drawings are legal documents, on which huge investments of capital, resources, and human energy are spent; others are fetishized as art works. Communicating with each audience should require a change in language–what linguists call a register shift—manifest through a different set of materials inflected through changes in media, tone, size, and line.
The disruptive process of design and construction works better if everyone involved actually understands what’s going on. Yet communication among architects and clients, both inadvertent and contractual, tends to stall somewhere between intentional obfuscation and diffident public ritual. Architects can be far more effective if they develop a better understanding of the communicative powers and limitations of different modes of representation. In short, architects need to pay more attention to what their own drawings are saying.
Susan C. Piedmont-Palladino is an architect and professor of architecture at the Washington/Alexandria Architecture Consortium (WAAC) where she directs the urban design program. She is also a curator at the National Building Museum.
She has authored several books, most recently Intelligent Cities, which focused on the relationship between information and communication technologies and cities. She’s currently working on a book on how drawings communicate, How Drawings Work, to be published in 2017.
Susan received her Master of Architecture from Virginia Tech and her Bachelor of Arts from The College of William and Mary. She lectures and writes on sustainability, American urbanism, design-build, and architectural education.