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INTERNAL: Developing Informed Architectural Languages
Tom Diehl
Applied Research and Design Publishing, 2021

“INTERNAL: Developing Informed Architectural Languages” by Tom Diehl, an associate professor at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design, is the author’s first book and the result of a 10-year dialogue between himself and 11 architects at eight notable architecture firms in North America. It is a deliberate attempt to ferret out the use and value of language-based approaches to the architectural design process and is a resource for anyone interested in the relationship between architectural intention, the design process, and realized architectural work. Structured as a collection of eight interviews, the work includes discussions with John and Patricia Patkau, Hon. FAIAs, Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA, Tom Kundig, FAIA, Enrique Norten, Hon. FAIA, Thom Mayne, FAIA, Brian Mackay-Lyons, Hon. FAIA, Niel Denari, FAIA, and Eric Owen Moss, FAIA. Each architect was asked the same questions, a format that provides readers with an objective view of and opportunity to assess each designer’s approach to language-based design strategies for themselves. 

“INTERNAL” does not attempt to classify specific design approaches; instead, Diehl asks the architects questions that help elucidate their unique approach to internal, rather than external, design motivators for each project. This strategy distinguishes itself from typical architectural journalism or theory publications wherein the respondent can shape the inquiry or use the interview to promote his or her own portfolio. “INTERNAL” is distinctly different from architect-approved monographs, such as “S, M, L, XL” by Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, which include interviews that act as an extension of the architects’ self-promotional activities.

Diehl notes that the book can be read in multiple modes. For those interested in a specific line of inquiry, he invites them to read each architect’s response to a singular question. This provides a horizontal or landscape view of a single concept of architectural intention. Each interview could also be read in a separate sitting to provide the reader with an informative or entertaining view of a single architect’s approach to a single project. Or, for those interested in Diehl’s larger interest in architectural intention and the attitudes and approaches of varied architectural practitioners, one could comfortably read the entire book over a single weekend. As with most architectural theory, there are moments in the interviews where language itself hinders the transfer of meaning; in such cases, the author is careful to ask the architect follow-up questions that help frame the discussion around more tangible concepts.

Of all the architects interviewed, Thom Mayne may be the most aware of Diehl’s audience of design students. To one follow-up question, he responds, “Not only do design decisions have to make sense, but they have to lead to some payoffs.” Mayne seems to understand that students of architecture are part of the book’s intended audience, and he uses this fact as an opportunity to share some of his core values with future practitioners. Eric Owen Moss takes a more idiosyncratic approach to Diehl’s inquiry. For him, design is more personal. “Authenticity comes from the ability for one to not accept it as a rule, but in a manner that makes it belong to the architect,” says Moss. His work, as well as  the project discussed, demonstrate the personal nature of Moss’ own architectural process.

When I interviewed Diehl about “INTERNAL,” he relayed to me that he had begun the book project because he found that at the design lectures he attended, design processes and intentions were taking a back seat to conversations on document production and gestural references. He became concerned that students or junior practitioners were missing a vital component of the discussion regarding the generation of architectural organizational strategies and the verbal approach to design development. While working on the project, he specifically had students in mind as the primary audience; however, we discussed how the objective approach of this book could be equally valuable for experienced professionals who wish to hone their own approach to design intentions. Ultimately, Diehl hopes that the reader gains a richer understanding of the multitude of strategies that may be employed to add meaningful complexity and richer architectural design inquiry to the design process. 

At the end of our discussion, I introduced the subject of the impending changes and innovations that artificial intelligence may bring to the architectural profession. Diehl laughed and replied that while he never had any intention of linking the two, in light of recent developments in AI he would share that his final note on the subject was this: Understanding architectural intentions and language-based design strategies — their sources and the ability to describe them verbally in ways that clients, collaborators, and perhaps AI design software can understand — are clearly valuable skills. Each reader may choose to take away what lessons or observations they wish from “INTERNAL” — and that is the specific value of a book project that starts with inquiry and leaves the conclusions to the audience.

Since the publication of this book in 2021, the topic of artificial intelligence in design has begun to take over the discussion of the future of innovation in architectural practice. As I write this book review, I find that I have become more sympathetic to Diehl’s concerns and interests. If much of architectural document production is going to involve AI or algorithmically generated strategies, what is the role of the human? Understanding the value of internal and external design motivations will become more important for practitioners who choose to embrace these tools. Having better discussions about these motivations and their intellectual and emotional approaches will likely be how architects in the future distinguish the quality of their work. As software becomes able to produce more competent documents with less labor from practitioners, it will in fact be a practitioner’s ability to contribute to the conceptual value of a building that will demonstrate their architectural skill. Diehl’s book and interviews offer important insights into the value of ideation, verbal design processes, and internal and external motivations for design solutions. If you would like to reach a better understanding of these topics — or simply gain more insight into the work of the architects interviewed — this book is worth your time.

Alex Lahti is an urban planner and landscape designer based in Houston. He is currently pursuing a Master of Architecture degree at the University of Houston, where he studies the strategic reuse of mid-century buildings and landscapes. 

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