• by Barbara Burke

Building Knowledge Series: War of the Words

War of the Words:

Communication in the Age of Buzzwords

Ask a client for their project wish list and it will probably consist of “something ‘green’ that’s open and light, with collaborative space and a timeless feel.”

Ask an architect about their design, and it might be described as “a celebration of hierarchy that juxtaposes the dynamic procession with the porosity of the interstitial space.”

Why, one may ask, is there such a linguistic disconnect between these two parties who work together so closely? Are buzzwords, both client-requested and architectural, to blame?

Client Buzzwords

An architect’s goal is to understand a client’s needs and desires, and problem solve in a way that efficiently and eloquently satisfies both. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize that many clients seem to want the same things.

Certainly some traits are universally desired, and for good reason. The quality of a space impacts the human psyche and subconsciously affects mood. Light and color, for instance, are scientifically shown to have “physiological impact.”[1] But some requests are open-ended, up to interpretation, or simply what “everyone else is doing.” Watch an hour of HGTV and you may hear some of the following:

“Green”/Sustainable: It’s not easy being green, but it sure is trendy. “Green” can be visible, in the case of green roofs and living walls, or invisible, as with locally-sourced products, brownfield redevelopment, recycled content, and low-emitting materials. However, if these result in a LEED certification, odds are they will become highly visible on media outlets. I can’t shop at Kohl’s without being reminded that I’m in a LEED Gold building.

“Google-esque”: Google offices are notorious for workplace innovation. Slides, scooters, climbing walls, and giant hammocks are commonplace in environmental themes that range from “space station” to “funhouse.”[2] However, clients who claim to embrace Google-like forward thinking often desire contradictory features like standardized workstations, or lack the space/budget/corporate buy-in to realize these dazzling funscapes.

Open: Just as “open concept” is all the rage in house design, workplaces and schools alike are finding perceived benefit in eliminating division (see: Collaborative).

Collaborative: The “two heads are better than one” mentality is lowering the cubicle wall. While certain industries benefit from constant collaboration, others are operated by individuals who rarely need to interact/overhear each other’s phone calls.

Timeless: Just as everything aesthetic is open to personal interpretation, “timelessness” will never be agreed upon. No matter how “timeless” your grandma claims her sofa is, you know that pastel paisley’s time has definitely come and gone.

Architectural Buzzwords

Architecture’s foundation is in the arts and sciences. Therefore, much of its discourse embodies the colorful language of theorists. The earliest recorded architectural theoretician was Vitruvius, who wrote that all architecture should have three qualities, “firmitas, utilitas, and venustas,” or firmness (structural stability), commodity (function), and delight (beauty)[3]. In the 1920s, Swiss-born architect LeCorbusier declared, “a house is a machine for living.”[4] Louis Sullivan, the “father of skyscrapers,” coined the familiar phrase, “form follows function,”[5] and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a modernist, left his mark on the English language when he said, “less is more.”[6]

The most well-remembered architects developed theories that characterized their works. History and theory play heavily into architectural education, impressing upon each new generation the vocabulary of these architectural greats, foreign and ancient language included.

In addition, describing space, essentially the absence of anything, may justifiably require some inventive adjectives. Where conventional words fail, existing words may be redefined and new words may simply be created:

Space: It is everything, and nothing. It is the answer, and yet, the question. A room is a space just as the distance between two objects is space.

Program: Architects use “program” to describe the function of a space. For instance, classroom, office, and hallway are programs found in a school.

Parti: Not to be confused with its more fun cousin, “party,” parti is French for the most boiled-down diagram of a design.

Phenomenal Transparency: By definition it’s an oxymoron. To some, it means “implied transparency.” Say this in a client meeting and you can expect phenomenally transparent stares.

Charette: French for “design a project…by tomorrow.” Charettes are intended to promote short bursts of production and creativity, and are usually followed by long durations of sleep and inactivity.

Placemaking: An admittedly egotistic made-up word that implies that a place is not a place until it has been properly planned, designed, and curated to be the best place it can be.

Condition/Moment: Possibly the most overused words in the architect’s lexicon. It’s not a wall, it’s a vertical condition. That’s not a hallway, it’s a perspectival moment.

Moving Forward

Most every profession has occupation-specific lingo. As one architect laments:

“Professional terminology is, by definition, non-inclusive. We wouldn’t dream of asking a nuclear physicist to change his formula—or a playwright to simplify his/her vocabulary—so that we can understand it. A pseudo–democratic call for universally transparent language is misleading and disingenuous. A leveling/flattening of expertise and knowledge should be dreaded, not aimed for.”[7]

So why are architects often viewed as aloof and intentionally exclusive for using language that effectively describes their abstract medium? There is certainly a time and place for “archispeak” - for instance, in architectural discourse among architects. But the bottom line is that projects are lost when clients feel that they can’t relate. Architects need to gauge not only what a client desires for their project, but how they desire to interact.

One way to find common ground is a simple exercise in project visualization, an activity where clients are shown a variety of images of existing architecture, and are asked to identify what they like or dislike about each. Visual dialogue allows for words to take a backseat to imagery (and according to the Social Science Research Network, 65% of people process information best when it is presented visually[8]). Similarly, 3D modeling allows a client to see rendered views and even “walk through” the project as though they were experiencing it firsthand. Just as visual cues (gestures or pointing) can allow a foreigner to communicate, communication through image may be the path forward for more mutually understood client-architect relationships.


About The Author:

Barbara Burke is an Architectural Designer focusing on religious and higher education projects. She resides in Victor, NY and loves to travel. Her favorite destination is Scotland. Shoot Barbara an email or connect with her via LinkedIn.


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[1] Gruson, Lindsey. "COLOR HAS A POWERFUL EFFECT ON BEHAVIOR, RESEARCHERS ASSERT." The New York Times. October 19, 1982. Accessed September 17, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/10/19/science/color-has-a-powerful-effect-on-behavior-researchers-assert.html?pagewanted=all.

[2] Dunne, Carey. "8 Of Google's Craziest Offices." Co.Design. October 4, 2014. Accessed September 17, 2016. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3028909/8-of-googles-craziest-offices.

[3] Vitruvius, Morris Hicky H. Morgan, and Herbert Langford Warren, Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture (United States: Kessinger Publishing, 2005).

[4] Corbusier, Le. Vers Une Architecture. Paris: G. Crès Et Cie, 1923.

[5] Sullivan, Louis H. The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered. Lippincott's Magazine, March 1896.

[6] Rohe, Ludwig Mies Van Der, and Werner Blaser. Mies Van Der Rohe - Less Is More. Zürich: Waser, 1986. Print.

[7] Simone Ferracina, “In Defense of the Architect’s Lingo,” Organseverywhere.com, February 6, 2011. Accessed September 15, 2016, https://organseverywhere.com/2011/02/in-defense-of-the-architects-lingo/.

[8] Bradford, William C. “Reaching the Visual Learner: Teaching Property Through Art.” SSRN. Las modified December 7, 2012. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id-587201.