“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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  1. At heart I am a maximalist writer. I started a photo blog to challenge myself to say something meaningful with as little words as possible. This is pushing me to be creative in a different way.

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    1. I’m the opposite, hence why NaNoWriMo has always been a nightmare – churning out an endless amount of words for things that could be said in a few intense paragraphs = argh.

      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.

      yes, the right word in the right place is my motto. It doesn’t always work like that, sometimes I feel verbose and words might just tumble out and it doesn’t feel like too much in the moment so I let it stay as it is, but usually it’s precision, a line drawing rather than a painting.

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  2. I guess it depends on what you’re trying to portray or express with each piece. Some ask for ostentatious juicy descriptions. Others instead, ask for a reflexive simplicity and at least for me, I don’t know which side I’m going to chose until I’ve started writing. So I guess I’m a go with the flow kind of writer (If you could call myself a writer) and I tell you, it does not work out all of the time. But hey there’s beauty in failure too. Right?

    Let’s say it’s like a roller coaster sort of thing. Imagine a roller coaster without a down fall? Where’s the fun in that? You wouldn’t be able to distinguish the good from the bad, therefore the uphill excitement will diminish its effect and lets face it it would just be boring.

    Wright a Pinteresque play and a Carteresque story. Be volatile and unexpected I’d say.

    P.S. I’m probably writing all this bullshit because I’m still trying to define myself…I don’t know, but it’s a possibility. So yes a ‘go with the flow’.

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    1. Sometimes, when I’m mean with my words i fear the reader won’t get the joke. But, I do think minimalism is the way to go. It makes the reader sit up and pay attention because they feel their time is not being wasted.

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      1. Very true, I guess it depends on the type of text you’re trying to write and the target audience you’re trying to reach. Minimalism is not understood by everyone since you need to have the ability and sensitivity to read in between the lines and empathise with the readers mind. Hence, some readers might find the text dull just because of their lack of understanding or knowledge upon a certain topic. (Which is terrible, I know… but it happens). Thereby, despite I am also a defender of minimalism and truly enjoy it, we must admit it’s not for everyone.

        Therefore, I also believe in symbolisms that don’t affect the readers enjoyment directly. Say you mention red roses “Her lips were as red as roses, her skin was white as snow” ( I know, I know it’s very cliché…) someone who understands the symbolisms will appreciate the wider essence of your work. Nevertheless, those who don’t will still enjoy your description and therefore your story.

        I’m not sure if what I’m trying to say is clear or not…
        Anyways thanks for commenting, I enjoy peoples opinions.

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  3. This essay inspires me to choose words and structure carefully, to tell a purposeful story with texture, color and depth that moves the reader on to the end and leaves them with a satisfied experience. I am often too flowery, thus a maximalist. This advice will help me decide which flowers have essential essence and which don’t.

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  4. I usually sit down to write and keep typing the words that come to my mind.There are times I feel I’ve written more than I wanted to, I read and when I think nothing is wrong with it, I edit a few misplaced words and hit the publish button. I cannot tell what kind of a writer I am.
    Perhaps i do not fit in any category.

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  5. Great piece, thank you for sharing your, considerable wisdom. 🙂
    A sturdy structure, in architecture as in literature begins, out of necessity, with a sound foundation. I fall somewhere in between, I like my words to convey a thought, economically, but the poet in me, demands to be represented. I start with the bare bones, and add flourishes where, I feel, they will have their greatest effect.

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  6. Writing without thinking is nonsense. True writer always constructs a meaning in everything (word choice, style, technique, sound, figure…) and thus has a strong layer of meaning. Only non-educated writers blindly stick to the plot and/or emotions they want to convey.
    I never revise because I always think and plan which affects my ability to write fast. Also, I don’t expect the majority here to understand because there’s extremely small number of people who create hermetic/symbolist’ prose and poetry nowadays (like Stéphane Mallarmé, for example), which is one of the rare genres that can be achieved with excellent (if not extraordinary) mental capacity.
    PS: Apologies for English, it’s not my native language, I write in Serbian.

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  7. I am trying to become a minimalist but it is my nature to say very little with all the words in a dictionary. I get so tied up in the details that by the time I am to my point people are asleep. Reminds me of Moby Dick.

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  8. This is truely amazing ,well-structured and clarifying. Minimalist or maximalist depends on what you have to SAY and who your audience. are , this cleared make whatever choice easier. Thanks for elaborating.

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  9. Although I really love details and really descriptive stories (probably because I am a visual person) I am always intrigued when someone can say so much with so little. I find Hemingway’s 6-word-story concept fascinating. And thank you for posting on this topic. I never thought about relating our writing to architecture. But you’re right, our writing can be related to through many other venues in life.

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    1. That sounds more like it. The more I go with the flow, the more effortless and sincere my writing becomes. My work is more accessible. It takes practice and it makes me happy. Pleased to meet you and Ben too. 🙂

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  10. So it was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that we got it from “Less is more”. Well I never. Pleased to meet you Ben and thank you for the reminder that what is key in life is what we do with what we already have. I like that. 🙂

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  11. My aim when writing is to condense it sufficiently so that the story that emerges, its characters and settings, continue to colour and haunt the mind of the reader long after reading. One of my inspirations is Borges, but though I admire his powers of prosodic concentration, I prefer a little more simplicity in my expositions.

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  12. What an inspiring piece, thank you. Beauty in thought and word bring beauty to the world. Just think, all those stunning architectural completions began as a thought. The most profound writings began as a thought, its lovely to know that beauty will never fade as long as people are thinking, writing, speaking and sharing uplifting ideas. I’m new to this blogging, I started because I had been so jaded, and only in the past decade began seeing the good in life again. I’d really appreciate a bit of your insight if you have few minutes to read over one of my posts and give me any insight Ben, or anyone else who value the wisdom in this piece.