Supporter's Column: Ann Dingli

As architectural writing slips further into a marketing ploy, what is the role of words in both the process and production of Architecture today?

Writing in Practice


In the past, architectural communication was an oxymoron. Articulation of the design process was considered uncouth – buildings could and should speak for themselves. This deliberate silence was arguably a symptom of the ‘architect genius’ condition, characterised by a long tradition of cool detachment and an expectation of automatic understanding of design dogma.  


This changed over time, with the stardom of sole architectural figures relinquishing dominance to entire studio brands. Practice names gradually usurped reputational power. They grew their internal PR departments, competed for the most esoteric website, and finally began writing press releases about their buildings.   


An architect’s need for good press is part of a wider competitive system, increasingly vital to a good success rate in winning work. The result of this race has milled fertile ground for over-manicured project descriptions, with the urge to write for future clients taking precedence over telling the true story of a project. This means PR texts often read as over-sanitised or post-rationalised versions of a building’s real journey.  


Today, the relationship between architecture and writing is morphing. Increasingly, there exists a place for architecture to explain itself to the public without becoming a pitch (see the Architecture Foundation’s own focus on ‘Writing as an Architectural Medium’, as part of its 2022 Architecture Writing Prize). The divide between independent architectural criticism on one side and PR writing on the other is being challenged by campaigns for truth-telling and transparency.


In design studios themselves, there is now a growing writing practice that rejects the superlative lingo of the traditional press release, and instead tries to earnestly discover and reveal why and how architecture can work to fix social, environmental, health and economic problems more clearly. 


As an independent design writer, I work for architects who see language as a tool for evolving and strengthening their design process. I collaborate with various practices of different sizes and have worked the longest with dRMM – who are AF supporters and therefore enjoy the platform of this supporters’ column. I joined dRMM in 2012, when the studio had very little formal PR set-up internally. We went through all the archi-press stages, and of course the studio now runs with a robust, communications department that is fact-led. Today, dRMM’s practice also dedicates resource specifically to writing.


As a team, we use writing in various ways and for many reasons. We use it to refine and clarify ideas; to catalogue decisions and record changes; capture the priorities of the studio’s research, strategy, and practical efforts over time; and, most recently, as a self-appointed surveillance tool for anti-greenwashing and ensuring rhetoric is backed by evidence – and if it’s not, exposing why. More and more, we are auditing our language to make sure what we say is what we mean. In the wake of Bennetts Associates’ ‘Tell the Truth Anti-Greenwash Charter’, which dRMM has signed up to, the studio’s writing, sustainability and marketing teams are all working consciously to ensure its words lead with transparency. And it’s not just about greenwashing – this led to an ongoing review of the way the studio writes about anything.


But writing as an accountability tool goes beyond material design decisions, and the swelling inclusion of in-practice writers within the architectural profession supports this function. Interestingly, writers – or what some practices call ‘storytellers’ – are often listed within teams from smaller or emerging practices. This tallies with a generation of professionals who have overwhelmingly moved past the ‘sole architectural author’ and see the process of architecture as more democratic and representative – or, at least, they want it to be. Writing becomes part of the wider project of opening architecture up, inviting more commentary, critique, and participation, starting internally. dRMM, although not small or new, lives in this space. Their commitment to writing in practice works a tool to edify their principles, but also to help untangle the complexities of what it means to make buildings in today’s world.


So what does writing in practice look like in real terms? It is nebulous by nature, but at dRMM writing activity ranges from everyday descriptions, strategy writing and bid writing, to longer thought-leadership tomes and academic or research texts, to simply helping designers and architects translate their visual ideas into texts that non-designers will understand more wholly. Perhaps the greatest use of the studio’s writing resource is reflective, using text to crystalise priorities and design ambitions without necessarily having it leave the walls of the studio.  


Architectural PR, where the bulk of design writing ends up, often receives a bad rep for spouting ‘puff’ or ‘spin’. But sharing rationale about why and how buildings are made is still important. In recent years, architectural criticism has broadened and diversified, demanding accountability from practice side that feels more robust than it ever has. It follows that in-practice writing should become a more prevalent arm within architectural studios.  


At dRMM, whether writing a project text, whole book, research paper or lecture script, the most challenging pursuit is clarity – expressing what architecture wants to do, and why, in the most penetrable and understandable way possible. Having committed writing resource means the studio can constantly question and edit itself, continue to chase that clarity, and allow the writing process to be as truly reflective as possible of the non-linear practice of design. 


Ann Dingli is an independent art and design writer at dRMM.