On Writing: Marie Law Adams and Dan Adams

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.

Marie Law Adams and Dan Adams are architects, designers, researchers, and founders of the Boston-based practice Landing Studio. Marie is a lecturer in Urban Design at MIT in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Dan is the Director of the School of Architecture at Northeastern.

MU: What is the role of writing in Architecture?

MLA: I think it’s something that gives us time to reflect and combine disconnected ideas. It’s a process of trying to put words to things we’ve done that we may not completely understand. In writing, something you read six months ago, a project you’re working on right now, and a project that you wrapped up two years ago suddenly come into conversation with one another.

DA: We actually don’t write a tremendous amount, which is funny because architecture is often more easily validated through writing than through the work itself. It’s almost an insult to architecture’s ability to speak for itself, and for drawings to speak for themselves.

MLA: I still think it’s necessary to write about what drives your interest in the work.

DA: But I find it so aggravating, actually, because the writing process often reduces the project to a statement. You end up having to describe your work in a semi-singular way, which is something that architecture, in and of itself, actually avoids. Architecture and design can be so multi-dimensional and nonlinear, but the delivery of writing tends to be quite linear and prescriptive.

MLA: But to that point, we end up writing differently about the same projects, and in that way explore their many dimensions in isolation. Developing and executing a project are, of course, essential, but if you don’t continue to return to the project you neglect the latent meaning in the work.

DA: I would still say that it’s a very frustrating process, particularly because our work—we like to think anyway—confronts so many things. We’re negotiating industrial and urban systems and often referencing projects that we’ve sampled and learned from. So when writing, we’re often forced to exclude many of the ideas that are embedded in the work, all in order to present it in clear and easily consumable way.

MU: You lectured on a project called Lumen, which we understood as an exploration of how industry manifests itself in the landscape through architecture. Writing underpins so many industrial frameworks, through international trade laws or zoning ordinances, for example. How does architecture operate not only within these written frameworks?

MLA: That’s an interesting question because you’re talking about an entirely different type of writing, one that regulates architecture and the built environment. All of our projects are trying to incorporate infrastructural landscapes and industrial environments—programs that don’t typically have public access—into the public realm. So we’ve had to closely explore the language of regulations in order to find this kind of potential. A specific example I have in mind is the PORT. One manifestation of that project, equal to the physical intervention, was a contract between the city and private entities. There was a memorandum of agreement comprised of text written mostly by attorneys and our drawings showing different layouts of salt stockpiles.

DA: Our work challenges legislation and zoning regulations that generally function to separate things. This ultimately becomes a kind of language game. What happens to the existing laws when you merge things that are typically considered incompatible? Do you write new legislation to allow for it? In our experience, overlap that is codified by legislation becomes the only acceptable form of overlap, beginning a whole new game of pushing the next barrier or preconception.

MU: Your response to the first question seemed to suggest that writing is an explanatory exercise in your practice, but your answer to the second question took on writing as a potential ground for design. In that case, it was a part of the design process. It’s interesting to hear this perspective because we knew that writing is not the primary focus of your practice. As you’ve mentioned, there are obvious limitations to language. We’re interested in hearing how far you think writing can go in the beginning stages of the design process, but also the point at which you think it begins to fall short, where you might need to make a drawing or a model.

DA: Drawing can articulate so much of a project’s concept. Think of Mies’s drawings as an example. He doesn’t have to write a tremendous amount because the drawings can communicate so much of his intention.

MLA: But I think we get quite a bit from reading others’ interpretations of Mies’s drawings; take for example Robin Evans’s writing.

DA: Well Robin Evans did write great analyses of Mies van der Rohe’s drawings, but it makes me think that we’re not taught to look critically at the spaces around us. How do cities, or in our case industrial environments, communicate? How does a sophisticated reader derive meaning from the environment? We often refer to this awareness as a “metropolitan consciousness.” I’m embarrassed when I read Robin Evans. I feel like I should have been able to see the things he writes about in either the building or the drawing.

MLA: But writing is also a means of recording the observations that aren’t immediately intelligible. I think there’s a different between the intuitive realm and the conscious realm.

DA: I find that words often become a crutch for a drawing; the explanation of a drawing in any form, say caption or essay or embedded text, should be unnecessary. The plans of great architects embody the theses of their projects. It’s a failure when you need to layer little explanatory icons or arrows onto a drawing to make what is inherent in the architecture intelligible. That’s when you’re defaulting to certain linguistic characters that are universally understood instead of understanding that space can also communicate. Architectural structures have meaning, and I think one should work with that palette of communication. It’s a personal bias, but I like the language of built forms.

MLA: I think that what you’re calling a reductive process could also be generative. Yes, the writing will shed a lot of complexity from a project and change it into something else, but that can be a good thing. It starts to become a new way of thinking about it and it can re-inform the work or the next project. That’s important when you are trying to do projects that build on one other and deal with similar issues. The work that we’re doing is not necessarily driven by clients’ agendas, but rather our ideas about how infrastructure and industry should exist in the city. All of these things come together for us, but writing about one project really starts to tell us something about another. That’s the most generative writing gets for us; that difficulty in translation is the critical moment.

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