It’s all about the narrative

February 13, 2012 — 20 Comments

In approximately 3 1/2 months I will be standing on a stage in Washington D.C. at the American Institute of Architects 2012 National Convention talking about blogging and social media for architects. Most of the people who swing through here probably don’t much care about that – and I don’t blame you (you already know that I’m making it up as I go). However, what struck me this morning as I was standing in the shower (where I do some of my best problem solving), was how blogging, my presentation for the convention, and architecture in general, all have something really important in common …

the narrative.


definition of narrative


Technically, a narrative is a constructive format that describes a series of events. Whether I realize it or not, that is what I am generally doing when I spew forth one of these blog posts – at least, that’s what I’m doing on the good ones. There is something I am talking about and despite my tendency to ramble, I have a point I am trying to make and I typically deliver it wrapped up in some sort of anecdote. It makes my point more interesting for me to write about, and hopefully, more interesting for you to read about. I don’t think it’s very newsworthy that having a story to tell makes the delivery of information far more enjoyable but how does that work with architecture?

When we get a new client or project, one of the first things we do is try and find out who they are and what they want. This is the most important step in the initial process of design. According to our proposals, this falls under the category of “programming” – it’s when you tell us what you want: 3 bedrooms, large eat-in kitchen, covered seating area outside off the kitchen, etc. Essentially the client is telling us a story about how they would like to live and use their eventual home and we, as their architect, are essentially their editors (more this part over here, delete this section, focus in on the development of this concept, etc.). This is at the root of why I think getting a project specifically designed for you by an architect is superior than something that already exists in the marketplace. I can assure you that a 3 bedroom, 3 bath house designed just for you by an architect will be decidedly different than some other 3 bedroom, 3 bath house assembled as a kit of parts by a spec-home developer.

The difference is in the narrative … the story that you bring to me and my eventual interpretation of how to effectively communicate your story. That’s why every project is different (despite the same requirements) and why some architects are better than others.


Just something I was thinking about and thought I would throw out there to anyone who felt like adding to the story.



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  • Anonymous

    Nice blog entry Bob!
    I’ve been writing stories all of my adult life…but it really started, as a child sometime in the mid 70’s. Since then, I have penned volumes of books in the form of houses lovingly shelved in neighborhoods and settings across the country…you see I am an Architect with a little ‘a’ but more on that later… The stories I create begin as my clients ramble on about their domestic dreams during initial meetings…Experience has shown me that everyone has a unique story to tell, they just don’t always know how to express it or, more importantly, how to truly begin living it…They commission me as sort of a Ghostwriter to create physical settings to house their life stories. Truth be told, I’m really more of an AuthorTect with a capitol ‘A” …My role is to listen, learn…maybe laugh a little and launch into a composition of spaces that ultimately define who they are and who they dream of becoming. It’s truly an amazing miracle experiencing how the places we reside mold and define our lives…only the best designs, written clearly, can render a life well-lived.
    The most skilled of AuthorTects understand, it’s not that people are unaware of what they want…they just don’t know how to tell you, or even themselves, what it is. The simple act of diagramming their stories in quick napkin sketches unveils the hidden shape of their desires…Just like creative writing, these sketches, whether a few lines penciled out as a conceptual plan or a few sentences describing a verbal “sketch” of rooms, begin “Showing, not Telling,” everyone involved what their story really is…It’s exactly what the popular wall plaque states, “Home is where your story begins.”

    • That’s a great story and I am going to start using “AuthorTects” – I love that!

      Thanks Dan, I appreciate you taking the time to add your voice to the commentary.


  • Doug Spohn

    Thanks for a great narrative about the importance of effective communication.  Not many of us get into architecture because we want to sell stuff.  But describing the “why” of our design/work is an important part of doing the job successfully.  And as others have commented, it’s such an important and decisive part of many, if not all, facets of our lives.  I mean, would you rather go to a good doctor who does his job or would you rather go to one who can also explain what he is doing and why it’s important for you?  
    @Avasquez:  “I have always thought the best training for architects is learning how to read poetry, literature, English class.”  What an interesting view of (architectural) education.  But in this context, so true.  A friend told me he learned to tell stories so he would have something to tell his grandkids.  What’s more important than that?  It’s all about the narrative.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Doug – not many younger architects realize that selling is such a large part of what we do – sometimes we are selling knowledge or specific abilities, but we are always selling the experience.


  • Great post, Bob! It’s a nice contrast to the post your wife shared last week: all she wanted was a kit of parts. 

    The narrative is a funny thing as it relates to architecture. It is a common theme through all project types, but it a completely different story told in different languages. Healthcare architecture uses a completely different language than residential and commercial/retail will probably use their own language, too. 

    That’s what I love about healthcare architecture; there is no “kit-of-parts solution” that a hospital could pick from to design and build their next facility or addition. The design will completely fail if it is not based on their narrative. In residential architecture, one could get by living in a house that wasn’t designed around a personal narrative. 

    Although, the immediate level of super-personal details that must be thought of and designed around when designing someone’s dream home must be very humbling. In order to effectively tell their narrative, the client must let you in to the dirtiest of details about how they live if they intend to get the “perfect” house.

    I’m really enjoying your blog, Bob. I’m glad that we had the chance to work together back when I was a summer intern at Bernbaum Magadini. 

    • Thanks Nick – glad to hear you made it out into the real world.

      Those dirtiest of details you mention are the key to why this job can be as exciting and as interesting as you are willing to make it out to be.

      Send me an email and let me know where you landed – catch me up on things

  • Cieloentierra

    Running water, best thinking ,…
    thank you again for a great narrative! 
    best wishes on the process of presenting to AIA.

    • Thanks – I am anxious to get in front of a room of my judgmental peers and talk about a subject to an age group that probably is there by accident.

      It will be awesome!!

  • Avasquez

    Architecture is, like theatre, movies, a book, the art of storytelling! I have always thought the best training for architects is learning how to read poetry, literature, English class. Learn how to tell a story, spin a phrase, present a project, all the same. The architecture is the visual representation, the narrative is the intention of the architect!

    • I’ve alway thought that all good art tells a story.

  • Steven

    Bob, it appears I can surely depend on your post to give me a positive inspiration everyday I wake up.  Keep the narrative’s coming. 

    • Thanks Steven – I appreciate you taking the time to chime in!

      • Steven

        I appreciate your post more and more everyday.

        • Steven

          Really learning a lot about the architects mindset.
          North Little Rock, AR

  • Rob

    The same rules apply in contract fine art and graphic design. One can go online and “create’ a logo for instance by assembling different elements from a bank of images. While it is a quick and cheap (I use that word on purpose) to come up with something to use, someone else can use the same elements to come up with their “unique” logo. It is like the old Fox and Jacobs homes. You could paint them a different color or change the brick but essentially your F&J home was the same as your neighbor accross the street. There is nothing wrong with that but if you understand what a logo is supposed to do, which is to make you stand out from the rest and make a statement, designing logos from a kit is not the way to go. To create something truly unique for a client it requires that “narrative” up front so the designer gets to know what a client wants and very importantly what they need to come up with the best design solution for them. This doesn’t some easy…you sometimes have to drag it out of them but the process is worth the time to really do a good job for the client. So I find it interesting that the same rules apply across multiple industries. We are more alike and related sometimes than we are aware. We are all interconnected kind of Buddhist like.

    • Yes – the idea of communicating isn’t restricted to the field of architecture. Developing the concept to support the story is just one technique to create ownership and involvement. 

      At least, that’s my favorite way.


  • Todd Vendituoli

    Bob, I couldn’t agree more and on the building side, I try to access a client in the same way. It helps with gaining a respect for what they are looking for and makes the entire process a better affair for all involved.

    • it is their project after all, we are simply their advisers and put in charge of quality control and priority evaluation.

      I think…