Responsible Use of Language in Architectural Writing and Architecture Communication


My last post on Place Exploration (the blog where I actually test the communication techniques discussed here) received some vociferous feedback.  I had compared Postmodernism to Punk and I quickly learned from fellow Redditors that my metaphor was probably not a responsible use of language and what do you know?  The next article I had scheduled for my study was titled, Responsible Use of Language in Scientific Writing and Science Communication by Christoph Kueffer and Brendon Larson. How’s that for evidence that architects can benefit from studying science communication?

This week’s science communication article of study exemplifies the compatibility of science communication and architecture.  Take, for instance, the very first two sentences (word substitutions by me):

ScientistsArchitects are increasingly advised to use marketing strategies and strong metaphors or dominant news frames to get their message across (Bubela et al. 2009, Larson 2011, Kuchner 2012, Nelder 2013), because there is growing competition for funding, public attention, and the ability to influence decisionmaking (e.g., Fischer et al. 2012).  We think that this development creates problems to the extent that it invites scientistsarchitects to undermine their objectivity by making assertions that are not based entirely on data.

In other words, these authors argue that scientists’ efforts to dramatize, relate, or simplify messages may increase the risk of misrepresenting the information or polemicizing issues. Although there is no such thing as value-free communication, architecture communicators should reflect carefully on their communication choices to minimize confusion and contested interpretations of uncertain knowledge.  The science communication article in question lays out 4 major qualifications of appropriate metaphors that can be used by architects just as easily as they can be used by scientists; an appropriate metaphor is factually correct, uses socially acceptable language, avoids polarizing language, and its limitations as a metaphor are transparent.

Factual Correctness
Every metaphor simplifies by illustrating certain aspects of a concept while neglecting others. Metaphors can, nonetheless, be interpreted in terms of their factual content, and, in this respect, they can be considered wrong.  When I compared postmodernism to punk, I only focused on the idea that both movements were, at least in part, reactions to overarching metanarratives.  This simplified description probably omitted too much context to still be considered 100% accurate.

Socially Acceptable Language
The same rules that apply to everyday life concerning socially acceptable language also apply to architecture communication. Metaphors that are racist, sexist, or in other ways offensive should be avoided. Kueffer and Larson criticize popular science references to slave-making and negro ants and reference to rape in animal behavior studies.

It’s often difficult to assess the neutrality of a metaphor. Architects should, nonetheless, seek to avoid language that is loaded with emotion, such as apocalyptic warnings and dramatic hyperbole. Architecture communicators are expected to present ideas that invite informed, yet open and critical discussion.

Kueffer and Larson advise communicators to introduce their metaphors as such and acknowledge their connections to the specific aspects of the concept they illustrate.  Furthermore, using similes (comparisons using like or as) instead of metaphors lowers the risk that they will be taken literally.

All in all, architecture communicators must reiterate that the theories, technologies, and data that inform architecture are always evolving.  Architects do not maintain a collection of established facts and solutions but constantly test new ideas and evaluate their success.  Especially in the case of contested and complex societal issues, responsible architecture communication means communicating the facts with neutrality and acknowledging our limited ability to predict the success of architectural interventions.

Kueffer, C., and B. M. H. Larson. “Responsible Use of Language in Scientific Writing and Science Communication.” Bioscience (2014): 719-24. Bioscience. Oxford Journals. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

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