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“Beauty Is the Splendor of Truth,” or How to Write Like an Architect

The wise words of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe apply to storytelling just as well as they do to building a skyscraper.

Photo by Lauren Manning (CC BY 2.0)

A few months ago I wrote here about how non-verbal media can help us with our writing. I talked specifically about music and visual art; today, let’s turn to architecture.

It might sound odd, at first, to think of a built structure as anything but a collection of materials arranged in a way that fulfills a function. A house: a (hopefully comfortable) place to live in, sheltered from the elements. A shopping mall: a sprawling maze in which we can easily spend our money. A gelateria: a worshipping space where we can celebrate our bond with our favorite ice cream deities.

We must remember that everything depends on how we use a material, not on the material itself.
– Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

But look a little closer, and you’ll see that the buildings we inhabit and visit frame the types of actions and interactions available to us. They tell stories and create narratives as we make our way through them.

Gothic cathedrals are built to inspire awe and reverence. A pachinko parlor is designed intentionally to disorient and daze us into an overstimulated stupor. Even our more intimate spaces — our living rooms, our offices, even our bathrooms — tell stories about us and subtly direct those who visit them to move and act in specific ways.

Perhaps the most direct connection between writing and designing a building is how a limited number of materials and techniques results in a near-endless variety of outcomes. It’s the careful choice of elements, each fulfilling a specific function, that renders a building — and a story — unique. Nobody has said it better than modernist master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (he of “Less is more” and “God is in the details” fame):

We must remember that everything depends on how we use a material, not on the material itself.

[…]

The long path from material through function to creative work has only a single goal: to create order out of the desperate confusion of our time. We must have order allocating to each thing its due according to its nature. We should do this so perfectly that the world of our creations will blossom from within. We want no more; we can do no more. Nothing can express the aim and meaning of our work better than the profound words of St. Augustine: “Beauty is the splendor of Truth.”

— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, inaugural address as Director of Architecture, Armour Institute of Technology, 1938

It strikes me as a difficult, but worthy ideal to strive for: using each building block in our writing — words, rhythm, structure, tone — to serve its purpose, and nothing more. At the very least, it can push us to think more carefully about why we do certain things when we write. If something has no clear purpose (and yes, sounding beautiful or channeling something unique about yourself is a clear purpose), perhaps it doesn’t belong there in the first place.

Are you a minimalist or maximalist at heart? Are you more of a “go with the flow” writer, or do you obsess over each detail’s function? 

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