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Why Do We Write About Architecture?

Why is it important that architecture is written about, published and publicised? A panel of practitioners, authors and editors weighed in during Archifest 2017.

Why Do We Write About Architecture?

What is the relationship between a piece of writing and a building? In the digital age, why is there a need for architecture to be in print? These were the central points of discussion at the ‘Architecture in Print & The City’ panel chaired by architect and architectural writer Felicia Toh (Quarters Architects) on 15 October at the National Library of Singapore. An event of Archifest, the discussion complemented the ‘Architecture in Print’ exhibition, which showcased a first collection of publications in a new architectural archival project initiated by the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) and housed by the National Library Board.

The discussion began with the panelists discussing where writing and their individual practices intersected. Erik L’Heureux, principal of design studio Pencil Office and assistant professor at NUS, shared how writing is an essential aspect of work that not only informs but completes his roles as an educator and a practitioner. “I try to do it as a way to articulate my thinking and to circle back and inform my design work and the way I educate,” he said. “One of the responsibilities of an academic is to research. It is a vague term that ultimately means the work needs to become more articulate through words and through conversations.”

For Fong Hoo Cheong – principal of HCF and Associates, Executive Director of the SIA, Editor in Chief of The Singapore Architect (SA), and member of Preservation of Monuments and Sites Advisory Board – writing and drawings are crucial and valuable constituents of an architectural heritage: “You think of architecture as very physical. The physical things are surprisingly easy to erase, especially in a place like Singapore. Buildings that I have designed have already been erased in my lifetime… Strangely, the images, the text, the discussion and the plans are the things that persist long after these buildings have been erased.”

Chan Hui Min, Head of Corporate Communications and BIM technology at DP Architects, said that writing was about offering knowledge and thought leadership. Describing the impetus of DP’s in-house publication, Design in Print, Chan said: “If you wanted to compete on an international platform you needed to show thought leadership. And the only way [for us] to do that was to write.”

Melvin Keng, Architect at RT+Q and Art Director of SA, talked about the consideration and artistry that go into the creation of a publication. “It’s just not printed for printed sake,” he said. “There is a story behind how we want to feature a building and how it should be represented to the public from a curatorial and authorship point of view.”

L’Heureux highlighted how there has been a long tradition of the architect operating in the medium of print. “Writing becomes a whole exercise in communicating a knowledge,” he said. Recounting his experience of producing a book, which he had found to be more demanding than designing, he said, “because it required tremendous amount of collating, editing, thinking through and rejecting. That kind of process happens at a very different pace and at a very different level of scrutiny in the print medium rather than in the digital medium.”

Fong offered that drawing and writing are the most viable tools for criticality in architecture. He shared, “It is really difficult for one building to be the critical exposition of another building. It does exist, of course, but it’s rare, and quite difficult. This contention can be done effortlessly in drawing and in writing.”

He added that the publication could function as a Salon des Refusés – a platform for unrealised design proposals. “I always wonder why we celebrate the winner, and there are not more Salon des Refusés,” he said. “I had the chance of seeing refused competition submissions for the Singapore Conference Hall, and it was startling to discover the possibilities that were passed over. The winner is well-deserved and it’s a wonderful building, and now a monument, but certainly the refused proposals in those competition drawings were unbelievably mature. Some of them, if they were built, might have even changed the course of architectural history in Singapore.”

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