A novice’s guide to architectural writing: Alexandra Lange’s ‘Writing About Architecture’

If you want to start practising architectural writing, refer to Alexandra Lange’s ‘Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities’.

I feel it’s only appropriate to end this year by reflecting on the book that changed my approach to writing about the built environment. I stumbled across Lange’s handbook at the beginning of lockdown and I often find myself referring back to her words of advice. Her work is reassuring in the fact that there isn’t a single prescribed way to write about architecture so long as you’re committed to sticking to a theme and developing it.

Lange profiles seven pieces of writing (a mix of essays and excerpts), each written by a renowned architecture critic that covers a different building or urban type. From Lewis Mumford’s immersive critique of Lever House (skyscrapers) to Jane Jacobs’s seminal work on cities, she then follows it up with a commentary on what the critic did well, the techniques used and what we can learn from them.

Alexandra Lange's Writing About Architecture

Establishing an agenda

Lange further goes on to outline four approaches that aspiring critics should consider when establishing an agenda for their work:

  • Formal – describing what you see and giving meaning to the visual organisation of elements
  • Experiential – how a building makes the critic (and by extension, the reader) feel
  • Historical – how an architect’s background fits in with the structures they’ve created
  • Activist – they see themselves as defenders of the city and what socio-economic changes a scheme may bring about

Another way to develop an agenda is by considering themes in one’s work. Some may choose to be sustainability critics, while others may be passionate about exploring the intersection between feminism and architecture. It may mean that one siloes themselves into a niche topic but it certainly helps demonstrate their expertise on the subject.

I would describe my current approach as a mix of formal and experiential as it’s important for me to both visualise and experience what I’m trying to convey. While this may put too much emphasis on the structure itself, being able to experience it in person allows me to situate it in the context of the surrounding area. I haven’t settled on a particular theme just yet but I do find myself drawn to two subject matters: skyscraper design and its socio-economic effects on cities as well as the interplay between cultural identity and architecture.

Concluding thoughts

Part of Lange’s appeal is that she has an innate ability to convey technical jargon into simple language for students and novices like me. She’s not just a critic living in the pages of a newspaper or magazine — she also lectures at New York University and the School of Visual Arts. This allows her to make sense of the ever-evolving profession of architectural journalism. In an age where anyone with a blog can be a ‘critic’ and channel their opinions through various forms of digital media, Lange recognises that the profession must adapt to this change. What will set the good critics apart from the rest is the choice to pay close attention to wherever they are. Architecture is one of the few disciplines that impacts our everyday lives and the more we choose to observe and dissect it, the better we can start to make sense of our societies.

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