On Writing: Kunlé Adeyemi

Modern Usage

 Modern Usage (modernuseage.org) is a new interview publication previewing here at v.1. We carry one theme across multiple disciplines, inviting professionals in art and design fields to speak frankly about how their practices contribute to conversations surrounding theory, pedagogy, and professional methodologies. In Fall 2016–Spring 2017, our interviews focused on the role of writing in design practice.

Kunlé Adeyemi is an architect, designer, urban researcher, founder/principal of NLÉ, and Aga Khan Design Critic in Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

MU: How do you use writing in your practice?

KA: We primarily use writing to communicate the basic principles or fundamental ideas of what we’re researching to our audience. We’re not particularly good at writing; I think writing may actually be my least favorite form of practice. In the process of writing, though, I constantly find myself looping back and rethinking my position. In a way, it’s much more cathartic than I’d like it to be as a form of articulating my thoughts. However, I find that it’s very relevant if it’s communicated in an interview, and I’m happy to rethink or reevaluate my position after having read it. So, it’s a very useful tool for me to understand how I’m communicating my thoughts and my ideas, and to what extent I’m really listening, responding, and documenting my process.

MU: It seems you have a complex relationship with writing then, it is both challenging and useful. With your second iteration of the Makoko Floating School in Lagos, Nigeria, for the 2016 Venice Biennale, you said the end goal was to have a construction manual that could be disseminated to communities to use in building structures themselves. In this sense, it’s a kind of published architecture. Does this approach percolate into your wider practice?

KA: Writing and publishing are a very big part of the way we work. I say we are terrible at writing, but we still produce a tremendous amount of writing. We have tons of books that we produce internally. We don’t have extensive text in our presentations though; we try to keep it almost to a headline style for our clients, reducing the content to its bare minimum. The bandwidth of most people these days is so short that you need to communicate in key words in order to avoid cognitive overload. Regarding the Makoko project specifically, we envision a situation where, with minimal information, you are able to convey an idea of how to implement something in a physical space. We are trying to communicate this to a broad audience, so it needs to be really simple. It cannot just be technical drawings; it needs to be assembly drawings.

MU: Like IKEA-style instructions.

KA: Exactly. It’s the kind of manual that you get when you buy something off the shelf and have to assemble it yourself. It includes the technical information on how to put it together in a clear and coherent way, layering information in a way that is accessible. That’s how writing can be a useful way of communicating architecture.

MU: Your manual reminds us of the Sears home from the early 20th century, a kit of parts with instructions. But it’s not the same as building for middle-class Americans, it’s more similar to Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena’s open-source publications on building low-cost housing, targeted to NGOs. What are the implications of publishing for NGOs working on humanitarian design projects?

KA: NGOs have a specific target or goal socially and economically. Ultimately their goal is to work with and impact people. I’m very interested in how you can get good quality architecture to everyday people. That’s where architecture moves from serving only an individual as a client to serving populations as clients. When you are producing solutions that are bespoke and specific to one individual, architecture doesn’t have the same capacity to be appropriated and improved on by many.

MU: Is there a current writing project you’re working on?

KA: We’re doing an exhibition now in Amsterdam, and there’s a huge question of how much writing needs to go into that exhibition. There’s a school of thought that insists on exhibitions in museums having loads of text, but it ends up being didactic. There’s another school of thought that suggests that audiences just want to know what the work is and have access to the information. Visitors can go on a website and read all of the information at their own pace. The medium of communication is just as important as the writing itself. Architects have to find various means of communicating, whether it’s through text, audio, video, model, or instructions; it’s constantly evolving.

MU: How does publishing, whether online or in print, as a general dissemination of architectural thought, affect practice?

KA: It’s absolutely critical to practice. Traditionally, architecture has been communicated through blueprints, which contain a huge amount of instructions, details, and dimensions. I think that what we’re seeing now is a change in the means of representation, because blueprints are so specialized and inaccessible to a public audience. How do you begin to reduce that to a format that is accessible not only to an elite group of engineers? I want something that most people can understand and relate to. I hope that in the future we have beautiful publications that are much more visual, still including text, but also diagrams and illustrations of the process—a coffee table type of book.

MU: Many of the architects that we’ve talked with have spoken about writing in architecture through theory. You’re describing sort of the opposite drive. It’s not a mystification of architecture through theoretical extrapolation; it’s about compressing the distance between the architect’s intent and the realization of that idea.

KA: It’s a bit of commodification of the profession, but it still retains its values and doesn’t lose itself as a discipline. In fact I think it adds value. I like that architects are delivering their designs to individuals, but how can they deliver it to the public?

MU: Architectural drawings are so specialized; to publish something so legible that even an untrained person would be able to understand it seems very challenging, and, going back to IKEA, existing models have proven to be very frustrating.

KA: Have you ever seen two people happily putting together IKEA furniture? It’s particularly annoying. But the bottom line is that they are able to deliver a certain quality of service and product to their clients because they cut down the labor cost and let the customer take that on. The client makes that choice. Yes, it’s a bit frustrating, but the cost of labor is incredibly high when you look at the ecosystem of production. Human labor is just expensive. So instead of relying on the work of very specialized individuals, can you produce something that allows unskilled people to do it themselves? I’m interested in seeing if we can bring that model to an architectural and urban scale. But truthfully, people are already doing that; we’re just trying to improve those standards. The quality is not good yet; there are no policies that support quality. When you think about agriculture or farming, the farmer looks at fields and crops and decides that these are good seeds or good plants or good crops, and he wants to cultivate them. The instruction manual I have worked on looks at what’s already there and trying to identify the best of those things, as opposed to trying to completely reinvent everything. I think the collective intelligence is greater than the individual’s intelligence.

—Interview conducted and edited by Kevin Crouse (MArch 2018) and Giacomo Sartorelli (BArch 2019) in Spring 2017

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