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Architects as Translators April 16, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, books, creativity, essence, pragmatism, problem solving, questions, reading, transformation.
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So much of what we do is listen to the stories of our clients and reinterpret them into physical form. If we can demonstrate to our clients that we understand their story by, in turn, telling them a story about their building and how it achieves their vision and mission, then we can create truly powerful places.

Grace Kim

Architects do many things that others – and they themselves – take for granted.

To name but a few:

Architects synthesize, orchestrate and transform.

They facilitate, collaborate and innovate.

They form-give, order-make (some would wryly add, order-take) and problem-solve.

Architects are seers, polymaths and integrators (the future belongs to the integrators.)

Architects are by necessity optimists, predisposed to act, and at one and the same time both product- and process-oriented in their thinking.

They see – and are able to zoom in and out of – the big picture and minutest detail at once.

Architects are systems thinkers, visionary pragmatists and create the elusive wow effect.

They design buildings, the spaces between buildings and the interfaces between people.

Architects do more with less; make the complex simple and look easy and the invisible apparent.

They see things that to others just aren’t there – but that they alone can see.

Architects make connections; celebrate and make apparent the meeting of materials and systems.

Architects make meaning out of bricks and sticks where only an empty lot existed before.

But perhaps the most miraculous thing architects do – is translate.

Q/A with an Architect-as-Translator

Q: What do architects translate?

A: Words into images into buildings. Some would say: Words into 3D digital models built of database spreadsheets filled with…words. Words to images and back to words again.

Q: What else do they translate?

A: Other people’s dreams, ideas and needs into a cohesive, comprehensive, meaningful whole. And sometimes for themselves. User requirements into a vision. Chaos into order. Architects listen and translate information into a meaningful medium the client understands.

Q: How do architects translate?

A: They observe. They listen. They’re receptive to other’s input.

Q: But how do they do it?

A: No one really knows how it happens – the magical synthesis, the transformation. It’s alchemy.

Q: Is translation strictly a right brain activity? Left brain? Or does it use both sides of the brain?

A: Yes. Yes. And yes. Architects think of translation as a bridge – moving from one modality to another. They bridge one medium to another; one stage of development to another.

Q: Are architects alone in this ability? Is the ability to translate unique to architects?

A: To architects…and translators. No one besides the architect that I am aware of has been able to bridge words and thoughts into images – let alone into 3-dimensional objects – that (purportedly) keep the rain out.

Q: How do architects acquire this ability?

A: Architects first learn to translate words, user needs and directions into spaces, images and form while in school. The irony is – while translation can be learned – it cannot be taught. It is impossible to pinpoint the moment when the architect learns the art of translation. Most do not even realize that they have acquired this transformative skill – going a long way to explain why they take their ability to do so for granted.

Q: Architects interpret – is this the same as translate?

A: Depends on your interpretation. Architects reinterpret.

Q: What do you call translating that involves associative thinking? As when a refrigerator is compared with a cat because: they both contain fish, they both purr and they both have tails.

A: Deluded? Some call it creative thinking. If you were paid for that thought? Design thinking.

Q: What is the future of this architect ability?

A: With gadgets and no-cost services available for translating languages, it would seem that the architect’s mercurial ability to translate written or spoken directions into both analog and digital neck-craning spaces and worlds is just an appa way. But in truth it cannot be replicated except in others who are given – or give themselves – the opportunity to learn it. With the current emphasis on digital technology, architects seldom freehand draw and have lost the ability to translate in front of others.

Q: Where do you recommend I start?

A: Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman – translator of Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” and many of the major works of García Márquez –  a just-released book in the same Yale U Press “Why X Matters” series as Why Architecture Matters, won’t teach you to be a better translator of words into images and form. But in that it argues for the importance of translation and for a more encompassing and nuanced appreciation of the translator’s role – the architect may pick-up a thing or two about this little appreciated, misunderstood and taken-for-granted ability of theirs. Grossman’s belief in the crucial significance of the translator’s work is noteworthy and compelling and ought to rub-off on the architect. But then again, that’s my interpretation.

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