SPATIAL EXPERIENCE IN SPOKEN WORD PERFORMANCE
Throughout the recent history of architecture, architects have grappled with the optical dominance of architectural communication. Architects share their work online, in presentations, and in advertising based on the optical merits of the project, which has in turn affected the design process, to the point where potential architectural projects are advertised in terms of their potential ‘instagrammable’ locations. However, it is also clearly understood that the experience of occupying architecture goes beyond merely the optical.
By examining performances such as speeches, sermons, sportscasting, radio dramas, and tabletop roleplaying games, this paper takes an overview of the ways in which space and spatial experience are communicated exclusively verbally. Through this process, several techniques are identified, including early articulated intent, use of emotive metaphors, deliberate pacing, use of physical references, employment of point-of-view narration, and management of technical detail.
Examining alternative means of conveying occupation suggests means by which architects and designers can be more deliberate in how they share and communicate about their work. In doing so, this paper highlights ways in which architecture is understood outside solely the image and posits strategies for capitalizing more fully on the verbal experience.
In attempting to understand the methods by which other disciplines make the best usage of the restrictions of verbal communication, this paper examines five iconic and high-quality examples of the conveyance of spatial experience verbally. In each selection, first the relevant historic and cultural context is shared, followed by a brief summarization of the entire piece. Then, one specific excerpt is called out to be examined and expanded upon. From this excerpt the speaker’s intent, technique, and methodology are highlighted and assessed.
Following the analysis of the five selected pieces, the identified techniques are discussed together in order to call attention to the methods used in these fields to most fully convey spatial experience through a limited method of conveyance. Finally, in the conclusion, means of utilizing these techniques in architectural discussion and dissemination and speculated upon.
Just over two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered one of his iconic ‘Fireside Chat’ radio broadcasts to the United States (Roosevelt, 1942). This broadcast was intended to update the population as to the status of the United States as it ramps up involvement in war following its long period of pseudo-isolationism. The broadcast had the additional goal of soothing some of the anxieties felt around the country and to inspire nationalist motivations regarding the hardships that were sure to follow in the coming months.
The broadcast begins with referencing the fact it occurs on Washington’s birthday. Roosevelt then draws a comparison between the struggles of the continental army and the ongoing situation in the United States. He describes this as a new kind of globe-encircling war, never seen before, using the physical maps he had encouraged his listeners to acquire previously. No longer can the United States pretend to be isolated on the globe. Roosevelt then goes into a more nuanced explanation of the situation in the South Pacific, including MacArthur’s defense of the Philippines. He diverges slightly to discuss the importance of information and recognizing propaganda, before finishing with a motivational and passionate call to arms, again drawing the comparison between today and the days of Washington.
President Roosevelt’s description of the ongoing conflict in the south Pacific is noteworthy for its attempt to convey the significance of vastness of the campaign to the public for the purposes of maintaining support. After establishing the undeniable significance of the war and the importance of lines of communication, he emphasizes the importance of safety and defense along the lines. To do this, two types are aircraft are used – heavy and light. Light aircraft are unable to fly the great distances, and thus must be shipped. However, Roosevelt emphasizes in the short period of time since joining the war, a great number of these aircraft have already been transported along lengthy shipping routes – again highlighted on the map. He then goes on to describe the present state of the attacks on the Philippines (at the time, an American colony.) As the islands were not significantly fortified, and were quickly encircled by Imperial Japanese forces, a slow retreat and war of attrition was planned. MacArthur’s defense, nevertheless, extracted a heavy toll.
The techniques in this broadcast all serve to project a sense of calm strength and patriotic tenacity. President Roosevelt had previously encouraged his listeners around the country to acquire a physical map of the world, and this broadcast, he made significant reference to it. Although the listeners could not see the spaces that were being described, they could come to grasp the vast scale of the war effort. The specific narration is thorough, without being tied down by specific details. The speech seems technical and empowers the listener to feel involved and informed without alienating anyone through esoteric vocabulary or complex concepts. Roosevelt also bookends the speech with patriotic and historic references, comparing the war effort to that very foundations of the country. By contrasting the ‘insider knowledge’ with metaphor and allusion, the audience is drawn in to intellectually occupy the environments around the globe and ultimately convinced about the sensibility and inevitability of Roosevelt’s plans.
THE DEATH OF EVIL UPON THE SEASHORE
Two years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that struck down school segregation in the United States (Rothamn 2018), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon titled “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore” in New York (King 1956). The sermon was delivered in the early stages of the civil rights movement and contrasts the struggles of African Americans with the Biblical Exodus. In contrast to many of the attitudes and outlooks at the time, the sermon is optimistic and sees triumph as an inevitability.
Dr. King’s sermon begins with acknowledging the reality of evil in the world, as evidenced by the Bible and the grim reality that surrounds his audience. He goes on to describe the recurring pattern of the struggle between good and evil in history, with, after a period of struggle, good ultimately emerging victorious every time. As a specific example, Dr. King cites the Biblical Exodus and struggles of the Hebrew People. This struggle is compared to the centuries of exploitation in Africa and Asia, as well as the plight of the African American peoples. Nevertheless, in each case, the gradual triumph of good is observed, and, consequently, the audience should not despair.
Of interest to this discussion about verbally conveyed spatial experience is Dr. King’s description of the Exodus. Dr. King is working to build a cinematic image of this Biblical series of events in the mind of his audience. He begins with a description of the present condition while also introducing the major characters of the scene: “the children of Israel were reduced to the bondage of physical slavery under the gripping yoke of Egyptian rule.” Dr King is explicit about the symbolism of the story, describing specifically what each side is representative of. He goes on to introduce the preeminent conflict – the pursuit of freedom. With the stakes and background established, Dr. King describes the action. The Hebrew people, with the Red Sea having been parted by Moses, flee across. The Egyptians follow, but are swept back and destroyed by the waves. Finally, Dr. King pulls back out, ending with a moment of reflection by the characters - “all they could see was here and there a poor drowned body beaten upon the seashore” which he uses to transition into a summary of the implications of the entire event: ultimate freedom.
Dr. King uses several techniques to accurately convey an image to his audience while maintaining interest throughout. Structurally, the sermon begins with an overview of the relevant characters and a reference to the ideas that should be observed throughout the remainder of the tale. Then, the sermon moves into the minute to minute discrete actions, bringing the scale of the narrative down to the realm of personal experience. After completing the summarization and introspection of an indeterminate individual involved in the events, the sermon transitions back out the remind the audience of the embodied themes. Alongside the explicit callings-out of the themes, Dr. King uses highly emotive language, rich metaphors, and repetition to convey the intensity of the image and the scene, keeping the audience fully invested and engaged with the sermon.
THE MIRACLE ON ICE
During the height of the Cold War at the 1980 Winter Olympics, the poorly rated United States hockey team was facing the top-rated Soviet Union team. Over the course of the match as the United States team slowly eked out a tying score and then pulling ahead, the game was a highly charged underdog experience for audiences listening at home (Michaels 1980). The play-by-play narration was performed by Al Michaels, and his exclamation of “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” as the game ended with the United States emerging victorious has gone down as one of the greatest moments in sportscasting history. Sportscasting has the unique quality of needing to respond continuously to ongoing events while trying to capture the energy and experience of watching the game – balancing dual expectations of technical and emotive detail.
The game began with the Soviet Union team taking an early lead to no great surprise. The Soviet team was collection of international professionals and the favorite to win the Olympics, while the team from the United States was largely amateurs. While the American team started to close the gap, by the end of the second period the Soviet team had again pulled ahead. In the third and final period, the United States team scored twice, pulling ahead for the first team. The Soviet team began to panic, culminating in a desperate scramble for the puck with 33 seconds on the clock. Michaels expertly narrates the intensity of the action and the rapid evolving location and control of the puck while keeping the looming presence of the clock always present. As the time runs out, the crowd explodes with enthusiasm, Michaels delivers his iconic line, and the United States team takes home a legendary victory.
Al Michaels uses several recurring techniques to convey the game experience for listeners otherwise unable to participate, drawing from a storied history of sportscasting (Chelesnik 2011). While the individual game possesses a clearly defined beginning and end, Michaels must narrate the game without assuming that the listener has been present for the entire match. As such, he must constantly be mindful of mentioning the score and location of the puck. Building upon this baseline of technical information, he can then layer in more narrative elements, such as the stakes of the match and individual player stories and involvement. Finally, with the what and why continuously built up, he can pepper in small moments of energy and asides to convey the emotive quality of the gaming experience.
WAR OF THE WORLDS
The science fiction novel written by H. G. Wells in the buildup to World War One found a new audience in the years leading up to World War Two, and a new medium in the form of the radio drama, written by Orson Welles. Although the beginning and end of the broadcast referred to the fact that it was a drama, throughout the duration of the show it was presented as factual and ongoing (Welles 1938). Although many of the claims about the panic brought on by the show have been exaggerated, the impact and enduring legacy of the unique performance is undeniable. It stands as an insightful look into both storytelling techniques and radio reporting methods of the era.
Following the out-of-character introduction, the play begins as an innocuous weather broadcast. A brief note is made of some flares visible on the surface of Mars, before it is discovered that a meteorite has landed in New Jersey. A monster emerges and seems to wreak some initial havoc, interrupting the broadcast and resulting in a brief interlude. Upon the resumption, it is discovered that there are widespread casualties and martial law has been enacted around the landing site. Alongside the initial alien creatures, weaponized tripodal machines have emerged and are laying waste. The slaughter reaches New York and the broadcast is again interrupted, resulting in a long period of silence. This silence is eventually broken by a lengthy dialogue and monologue where a professor discovers the aliens have fallen prey to airborne germs, and the invasion has ceased.
The segment of the broadcast wherein the professor character monologues about exploring the ruins of New York alone provide a good reference into the techniques used to keep the audience engaged and understanding the scenes. The initial description is more technical – describing the individual streets and roads taken. As the monologue progresses, more experiential notes are included, such as smells and a running dog. By the middle of the excerpt, the location information consists of only passing mentions between the sights and sounds populating the spaces. As the professor reaches the abandoned Martian equipment, the descriptions become increasingly poetic and metaphorical. By the end, the first-person description has pulled back out and was now entirely conceptual and introspective, transitioning into the overall end of the entire performance.
Orson Welles reverses the pattern seen in many of the other selections by having the character beginning with technical environmental data before filling out the section with experiential prose. As this is an entertainment broadcast rather than an informative one, the reversal of the order capitalizes on the preexisting audience investment to get past the technical prerequisites and spend the bulk of the time thereafter painting an evocative picture. As a conclusion to the entire piece, Welles allows the transition into flowery language to slowly draw the audience out of the minute to minute broadcast experience and into reflection and contemplation on the show as a whole.
DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS
As a donation incentive for Red Nose Day in early 2019, Stephen Colbert and Matthew Mercer played a brief session of Dungeons and Dragons (Mercer 2019). Dungeons and Dragons is an asymmetric roleplaying game, in that one player takes on the role of referee and adjudicator, while the other players take on the roles of individual characters. This session was designed as a brief, enclosed adventure, with Matthew Mercer facilitating the game while Stephen Colbert plays. In contrast to the preceding selections, this type of verbal spatial experience is unique in that it continuously adapts and respond to the input of the audience. Not only must an evocative image be formed for the audience, this image must accurately convey the breadth of agency available to the players, such that their ensuing decisions function sensibly within the diegetic environment, and in turn, informing the next series of descriptions.
After a brief introduction to the gameplay mechanics and the charitable cause, Mercer opens the adventure with some initial exposition. The narration zooms in to focus on Colbert’s specific character, investigating an orchard. Following a brief combat encounter, the game progresses into a hidden passage and up to a narrow bridge. Upon successfully navigating the bridge, a research chamber is explored, leading Colbert’s character to a locked door, behind which the final confrontation occurs before successfully completing the task at hand.
The scene in which Mercer’s techniques regarding conveyance of spatial comprehension is the navigation of the trapped bridge. Mercer opens with a rough description of the environment, highlighting the unsteady nature of the bridge, the width it spans, and the pair of statues facing the length. Colbert is hesitant – upon hearing the description of the bridge’s shaky nature, he is immediately skeptical of crossing, but sees little alternative. He investigates potential alternatives, such as using a rope or flying, but these bear little fruit. Still concerned, he inquires whether he can locate any projectiles. Mercer responds in the affirmative, indicating that there are small stones about, which Colbert then uses to dislodge one of the two statues. Pressed for time, he moves to pass over the bridge. Mercer informs him that, as he passes along the length, the statues were in fact trapped, and the open fire, potentially setting fire to the bridge. Colbert immediately runs the remaining length, escaping the trap, and proceeds along the adventure.
Because a session of Dungeons and Dragons requires a continuous back and forth between storyteller and audience, it prioritizes different features than other mediums. Storytellers only have two sentences to a paragraph to convey information to their players before attention starts to wander. Mercer focuses on a brief reference or metaphor to set the tone and mood, followed by actionable details, and ending with a call to act. Players immerse themselves in the image of the location, and act according to their understanding – even if these details are not explicitly called out. As such, storytellers in this regard can convey a lot of embodied information through working in parallel to player expectations. Mercer also works to keep the scenes moving forward – even though he is not in control of all the action and experience, he can maintain a good flow and narrative pacing by the specific elements he chooses to highlight or downplay.
Articulated Intent – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. begins his sermon with a very clear, broad overview of the discussion topic. Evil exists in the world, but it will always ultimately fail. The rest of the following piece continues to touch on this, brining each tangent back home to the central recurring point. Similarly, President Roosevelt opens his broadcast with a central theme – one of shared struggle during wartime – that the audience can continue to reference the remainder of the utterance toward. In both selections, the speakers close their pieces by again referencing the opening central theme, tying the entire performance together.
By making it explicitly clear what the intent of the narration is – whether it is clarification, interaction, comprehension, or some other goal – the audience can frame their interpretation in terms of the intended outcome. Rather than attempting to ‘trick’ or ‘surprise’ the audience, when dealing with an abstracted form of spatial communication it is prudent to ensure that all participants are on the same page. Understanding what the goal is will keep the narrative flow on track and mitigate listeners lingering on details that were otherwise meant to be secondary.
Emotive Metaphors – Throughout each of these selections, poetic, emotive passages are used to convey occupational experience. Much like a wine taster or a critic, often the most effective way to translate experience is to dip into the realm of metaphor and poetics. Purely technical language cannot fully encapsulate the range of sensory and embodied information present in an occupation of a space. Artistically liberal language helps to bridge the gap.
The use of metaphor is something that architecture traditionally does well, but it must, as with any other technique, be handled with care. Metaphor in each of the passages presented here is used to convey specific scenes or moments, taking care to examine the minute to minute experience. Metaphor is not used, however, to illustrate a point about the larger scale intent or conceptual ideology. Leaning to heavily in rendering what is intended to be a real experience purely through poetry stands the risk of abstracting a spatial encounter so far as to become meaningless to the audience.
Pacing – Al Michaels must work to respond to unfolding events in real time while sharing the frenzied experience of viewing a sporting event in person to listeners who may not have the full optical experience. Since attention spans can only be stretched so far, it is critical to alternate the methodologies being utilized. By constantly varying the technical, emotive, and background information, Michaels makes the game a captivating and engaging performance that demands attention, without becoming mired in a slowdown and ultimately losing listeners.
Physical References – In advance of President Roosevelt’s broadcast updating the people of the United States on the progression of World War Two, he asked them to purchase a physical world map to reference. Similarly, games of Dungeons and Dragons often make use of simple gridded maps to keep track of major landmarks and relative positioning.
Verbal performances utilize optical references differently than traditional mixed media presentations. When images are included in these performances, they are not photographic – they are not intended to convey a portion of the desired experience. Instead, these physical maps are used as shared points of reference, for walking through a series of spatial experiences. By including a plan or overview, the entire audience can keep track of the shared conceptual location, rather than having to manage a series of point to point directions or attempting to rationalize an unfamiliar space.
Point-of-view Narration – Dr. King grounds his initially abstract historical sermon by bringing it down to the scale of the point of a view of an individual participant. Orson Welles concludes his radio drama with an extensive dialogue and then a monologue elucidating the consequences of the invasion through the understanding of a single roving professor. Dungeons and Dragons is inherently a second person ongoing dialogue, wherein the storyteller uses the pronoun ‘you’ to describe things the player character is observing and understanding.
When framing an utterance around a high-level abstract concept or historic event, these authors work to maintain a connection to the layperson audience through the lens of a singular character. Although much of the narration consists of omniscient observances, grounding the conveyance in a way the audience immediately understands – through elements of first person understanding – helps to maintain listener comprehension and engagement.
Technical Detail – Whether it was aircraft specifications for President Roosevelt, precise game information during the “Miracle on Ice,” streets in New York City during the War of the Worlds, or mechanical information during a roleplaying game, the numeric and technical details are of undeniable importance in the sharing of a situation. Nevertheless, too much abstract information can be distracting and ultimately detract for the experience.
While critical for the conveyance of accurate information, technical detail must be utilized with a fine touch. In each case listed here, the authors include just enough detail (or even simply references to implied detail) such that the audience feels like they have a grasp on the situation. At this point, rather than continuing to include needlessly arcane or specific qualities, the authors transition into more experiential quality. The balancing act is one of just enough specification to maintain plausibility and involvement without alienating participants.
Architectural description and presentation can often be disorienting or confounding for observers not intimately familiar with the environment. Presentations seem to typically find themselves somewhere in the extremes of gross technical detail or incomprehensibly abstract conceptualization. Instead, architects can learn from the established methods present in other fields to convey the sense of occupation while maintain attention levels and ensuring true comprehension.
For architects, articulated intent can be the upfront description of programmatic requirements and core design intent. Rather than trying to ease the audience into a mysterious or vague introduction, being explicit about what it is that was trying to be done will allow the listeners to maintain a touchstone tying them to be heart of the project. Emotive metaphors are a place where architects tend to do well – the use of reference and conceptualization of the complexities of architecture is common. Nevertheless, architects can learn from these examples by ensuring their poetic reference is largely limited to first person experience and the moment to moment sensory intake.
Pacing is a key consideration of any presentation. Cycling between the other techniques listed here in such a way to maximize cinematic variability and ensure audience captivation. Even with the methods listed here, dwelling too long on any single point runs the risk of becoming stale. The use of physical references in other media is a key issue architects can learn from. Rather than inundating an audience with optical material delivered at a breakneck pace, the use of a few, targeted abstract images – such as plans – can help the listeners keep up with the flow of the presentation rather than becoming lost. This allows the audience to fill in the spatial experience with ‘defaulting’ to passively absorbing imagery.
Throughout the presentation, tying the description into what the experience is like on a minute to minute, first person level via the use of point-of-view narration is a tool that will keep audiences engaged. The sense of immediately occupy a space is something any listener is familiar with and serves to continually ground their understanding and hold their attention by referring to their own understanding. Finally, architects must be wary of excessive technical detail. As can be seen in these examples, explicit information is useful inasmuch as it provides a baseline understanding for everyone involved, and serves to create a sense of insider involvement, but too much technical information will confuse or alienate someone relying solely on verbal communication.
Whether simply in conversation, in a formal presentation setting, or in the drafting of literature surrounding the project, architects can benefit from the use of each of these techniques, creating more immersive and ultimately communicable projects. The audience will fully grasp the degree of agency present in the space while developing a better sense of emotive emersion.
Chelesnik, Jon. 2011. “Play-by-Play Pyramid.” Sportscasters Talent Agency of America. https://staatalent.com/sportscasting-prep-tools/staa-play-by-play-pyramid.pdf.
King, Martin L. May 17, 1956. “The Death of Evil Upon the Seashore.” New York. http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol03Scans/256_17-May-1956_The Death of Evil upon the Seashore.pdf.
Mercer, Matthew. 23 May 2019. Stephen Colbert's D&D Adventure with Matthew Mercer (Red Nose Day 2019). YouTube, Critical Role www.youtube.com/watch?v=3658C2y4LlA.
Michaels, Al. Feb 22, 1980. Final Minute of the “Miracle on Ice.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYscemhnf88
Roosevelt, Franklin. Feb 23, 1942. “Fireside Chat 20: On the Progress of the War.” https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/february-23-1942-fireside-chat-20-progress-war
Rothamn, Lily. April 3, 2018. “Martin Luther King Jr. Speeches, Sermons, Texts: 5 to Know.” Time, time.com/5221314/martin-luther-king-jr-speeches/.
Welles, Orson. October 30, 1938. “War of the Worlds.” The Mercury Theatre on the Air. CBS, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs0K4ApWl4g.