"It's easy to make fun of Bjarke Ingels
on Instagram"

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Opinion: in her first column for Dezeen, critic Alexandra Lange argues that architects are misusing platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. "Architects need to start thinking of social media as the first draft of history," she writes.


It’s easy to make fun of Bjarke Ingels on Instagram. Selfie, LEGO selfie, girlfriend (I hope), Gaga, monograph, fog, fox socks. His Instagram has a lot to do with the architecture of self-promotion, but little to do with actual building. The same goes for many architects' Twitter feeds: lecture, lecture, award, positive review, lecture. You could say that's just business today. But social media can do more for architecture than showcase pretty faces and soundbites. Architects need to start thinking of social media as the first draft of history.

There's an unofficial rule of thumb that you should only tweet about yourself 30 percent of the time. That's a rule many architects break over and over again. They treat Twitter and Instagram as extensions of their marketing strategy, another way to let people know where their partners are speaking, that their projects are being built, and that the critics like them. Happy happy happy. Busy busy busy. Me me me. In real life, most architects aren't quite as monomaniacal as their feeds. (There are exceptions.) They read reviews written about others. They look at buildings built by others. Heck, they even spend some time not making architecture. That balance, between the high and the low, the specific and the general, the obvious and the obscure makes life, not to mention design, much more interesting.

That unselfish reading, writing, seeing and drawing form part of the larger cloud of association that, one day, critics will use to assess and locate the architecture of today. A more flexible, critical and conversational use of social media could suggest interpretations before the concrete is dry. As an example, consider Philip Johnson, perhaps the most networked architect of his day. Philip Johnson would have been really good at social media. He understood, better than most, that interest is created by association. That was the principle of his salons, drawing the latest and greatest from a variety of cultural realms. Those young artists and architects helped him stay young and current, he helped them by offering literal or metaphorical institutional support.

Isn't that how these platforms work too? I look better when I spread the word about everyone's good work, not just my own. And seeing others' projects gives me new ideas. Johnson was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, but he was also a "curator" in contemporary parlance, collecting and distributing people and objects and styles.

That's why his physical library at his Glass House in New Canaan, CT remains of interest: the shelves reveal what he thought worth reading and keeping. Outside, its form reveals the same: the work of architect Michael Graves, promoted and digested. Even earlier, in the September 1950 issue of Architectural Review, Johnson set out the inspirations – possibly decoys – for that same Glass House. There's Mies, of course, but there are also the less expected references to Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich and eighteenth century architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux. There's an image showing the Brick House, the almost windowless box set behind the Glass House where he actually slept, a building often eliminated from later photography of the site. There are many readings of this combination of text and images, few of them straightforward. But I'll take false fronts and red herrings over pure self-promotion any day. Trails of breadcrumbs like this are catnip for critics then and now. Johnson used a prestigious journal to try out his version of the Glass House genealogy. You architects could be doing this every day.

Instagram is popularly characterised as a more perfect version of everyday life: the artfully mismatched tablescape, the colour-balanced Christmas tree, the accessorised child. But it doesn't have to be that way. We get enough better-than-reality images of buildings on sites like Dezeen. I’ve started Instagramming my visits to exhibitions and buildings, as a way of sharing the first cut, taking visual notes, and focusing on details and moments that didn't make the press packet. We so often see the same images of a building, over and over. What about the rest of it? My unprofessional photographs pick up on different things. At Herzog & de Meuron's Parrish Art Museum, for example, I snapped the sign required to point you to the "Main Entrance." And the ten-foot, blackened, windowless doors that could flatten a five-year-old. These images can be critical in a different way - fleeter, funnier, like popcorn - from the endangered building review. Could architects point out their own mistakes? Or – with love, of course – those of their colleagues? Of their heroes?

At a higher artistic level, there's the example of the Instagram of architectural photographer Iwan Baan. His Instagram reveals that he has seen more contemporary architecture (and more of it from helicopters) than anyone. I find something aggrandising, even aggressive, about the relentlessness of his travel and the harsh aerial views. There's also something humanising about his Instagram as a series of outtakes, capturing the surround for the more perfect images that end up on the websites of the architects. We see the faces of people, the buildings imperfectly lit or weathered. The heroic and the ordinary combine in this extra work, and will ultimately contribute to the way we look at the official pictures too. It would be even better if the architects were right there beside him, taking pictures of what else they see. I know architects make design pilgrimages. Why not take us there?

It isn't just stolen moments that social media can capture. Tumblr is an ideal platform for context, before, during and after the run of construction. On a campus project, your building may be in dialogue not only with its neighbours and a predecessor, but with the whole history of development and style across campus. A project-specific Tumblr could allow an architect to show a wider audience that they recognise that legacy. That they are able to see a site as more than a blank slate or frame for their contribution. Client and community engagement doesn't need to be limited to a specific forum. Why not share images of favourite or inspirational details? Moments of conflict? The materials palette of the campus? On a new building at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, I started snapping pictures of all the adjacent modern and postmodern buildings' backsides, newly prominent now that a plaza has replaced a parking lot. Who but an architect would document those?

The diversity of purpose, the cloud of connections that work so well on Twitter is all wrong on Tumblr. There, you need to specialise, hone your theme to a single word. How else could Fuck Yeah Brutalism have 100,000 followers? Are you obsessed with the architecture of the past? With a particular designer? A place? An ingredient of whatever kind? How better to get that monkey off your back than by creating a trove of the best, most suggestive imagery. Who knew that many people liked Brutalism? As a side benefit, here's a handy way to mobilise the opposition the next time someone talks about tearing down, say, Government Center.

Architects might also consider the archival angle. Graduate students start Tumblrs for their dissertation research, creating a daily log of their best discoveries. Museums and archives have launched Tumblrs to showcase their collections, or to do a deep dive into a particular archive that is in the process of being digitised. I'm fascinated by the Documenting Modern Living project at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which shows the process of digitising the photographs, fabric samples, architectural drawings and order forms that went in to making Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard's Miller House, commissioned in 1953. Making such a house, and maintaining such a house, well documented. Designers of a certain age might think about doing something similar with their own files, again starting the wheels of interpretation and reflection.

A book like The Images of Architects, for which Valerio Olgiati asked famous architects to send him images important to their work, performs a similar task. But there's something so static, so precious about this presentation. Don't wait to be maestri or maestrae. Don’t wait to be asked. Start showing what you're made of now.

Are architects witty? Twitter would be the place to try. Or pop culture mavens? Tell us when you spot the John Portman-designed hotel in the movie Catching Fire? But more importantly, Twitter has proved itself valuable as a place of protest. If architects don't speak for the quality, importance and ubiquity of buildings, who will? The hashtag #FolkMoMA collected visual and verbal salvos against the Museum of Modern Art’s plans to demolish Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s 12-year-old Museum of American Folk Art. The hashtag #DayDetroit collected posts from 20 art blogs, and then their readers, detailing what would be lost if the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts could be sold as just another city asset in Detroit's bankruptcy proceedings. As Christopher Knight wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

"The premise is simple and elegant: Use the Internet to a) spread the word to a diverse, international art audience about what could be lost if any sale goes forward; b) suggest that readers expand the process by posting their own links and images to social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram; and c) generate support for the Detroit Institute of Arts by asking readers to click through and buy a museum membership (an individual membership starts at $65)."

#DayDetroit was quite beautiful, waking up a wide readership to the contents of the DIA, and generating conversation about the relationships of cities to their art. But it also got me thinking: It's not only Detroit's art assets that are being dispersed and destroyed, it's the architecture too. There’s been a valuable discussion of "ruin porn", and the aestheticising of structures only after they are too late to save. But what about Detroit's incredible architecture that's still standing? Why haven't we had, over the past five years, any number of #DayDetroits for architecture, where a collective of architects point out the irreplaceable built assets that are also disappearing?

Social media can make criticism, interpretation, dialogue and history part of daily life. Don’t leave it to the critics.

In a more recent example, the announcement that the American Institute of Architects would award its first Gold Medal to a woman to Julia Morgan, dead these 56 years, was announced, praised, dissected, and reconsidered, all in a matter of hours on Twitter. Dezeen's own post on the matter quoted me from Twitter; Architect Magazine created a reaction story to its own story by Storifying a discussion between several architecture critics (and didn’t have to pay us a dime). What do architects think of her work? What woman would you have nominated? It shouldn’t just be critics in on that discussion.

Architects sometimes forget what other people don’t know – or forget to share the positive assets of the past before, during and after they are threatened. Social media collects in real time. You can hashtag your firm. You can collate your campus work. You can geolocate your project. You can tip your hat to a colleague. You can tell us what you're reading. In doing so architects contribute to a broader dialogue about what makes a good experience. What social media can do for architects is make criticism, interpretation, dialogue and history part of daily life. Don't leave it to the critics. Don't farm it out to your communications staff. That's boring. Surely you don’t want to be boring? I'd be surprised if one social media platform or another weren't part of most designers' daily practice (at least those under 50). Let the rest of us in, so it doesn't take bankruptcy, demolition or obituary to get people talking about architecture.

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Alexandra Lange is a New York-based architecture and design critic. She is a Loeb Fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Design for academic year 2013-2014 and is the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities as well as the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism.

  • Derek_V

    It’s easy to make fun of everything Bjarke Ingels because he is a bad architect.

  • InTheVillage

    Wow, rough start Alexandra. I quite enjoy Bjarke’s Instagram feed. Architects are human too – they also take goofball pictures.

  • WT

    If you’re looking for a social media laugh go no further than Karim Rashid’s twitter account – selfie, naked selfie, offer to send high res copies of his designs to people who want to tattoo them on themselves, renderings of his dreams, more naked selfies…

  • http://www.greig.cc/ James Greig

    Yet the author has photos of her daughter on her Instagram feed. The narcissistic cheek of it.

  • We-goOverEgo

    “These images can be critical in a different way – fleeter, funnier, like popcorn” Yes, this is top-flight criticism right here. All jokes and no spine. And you wonder why most serious people stay away?

    How about you start making things and then you can stick an iPhone in people’s faces and see if they think you are a narcissist?

    Everyone assumes that Philip Johnson would be tweeting, but the Glass House was a real place and Johnson was a real architect who had real ideas about architecture. The House was a means to something, not a networking end in itself.

  • Guest

    I feel like a much worse human being after reading this.

  • Guest

    Twitter is the favorite medium of second-hand lives.

    • John E

      You mean Instagram.

  • Guest

    It seems like this current social media trend recycles the brands of the past – culture recycled over and over. Its ideas are not specific things (a building, album, idea) but instead brands: Brutalism, Detroit, Architects. Each are distilled down to their stereotype.

    Your stereotype of Architects is the one that is sold back to them by communications people over and over. But what about doing good work? Are there any ideas about that in this article? What are the design ideas that are valuable to the real world? Are those tweetable? Probably not.

    • davvid

      You’re defining “work” as a building? Architects have been producing valuable non-buildings for ages. Tweets or Instagram photos are work.

  • davvid

    Interesting article. Artists have been able to fold in the culture of social media and the New Aesthetic sensibility of the internet into their work. Architects have not been able to do that yet.

    I don’t think architecture Instagrams need to be more serious or more critical. Architects already take themselves too seriously. I want to see the egomaniacal, narcissistic, passive aggressive, sexually repressed undercurrents of architecture finally become expressed.

  • Unititled

    It’s an incestuous community so they all learn bad habits from each other. From what I’ve seen and heard, architects (in general) don’t REALLY understand technology. I’d even go as far to say as they don’t understand the purpose of graphic/information design or the importance of it in their field.

    They just sit there creating snot in Grasshopper and Rhino, proclaiming to be the next avant-garde in the field of architecture.

  • peterb

    Uhh you went to investigate, Sherlock.

  • mcalpine tankersley

    Excellent article. Heard and understood. I have further work to do….

  • Guest

    Nice to see everybody telling architects what they should and shouldn’t sound like on social media. Perhaps someone would like to try being one?

  • http://www.bradleylbowers.com/ Bradley L Bowers

    Spot on Ms. Lange, spot on! I haven’t heard the differences and proficiency of various social media platforms put so nicely. I agree that social media can positively demystify the star-designers and architects, and shed some well needed light on the up-and-coming. This is prompting me to step my sharing game up!

  • vmayer

    I totally agree on this article. It’s about time that someone writes about architecture and social media! I think that nowadays’ society (not only the architects) don’t do a thing without profiting. That is disgusting. We must not forget that we are still human beings.

  • smtsmt

    I agree that there are better uses of social media than announcing that one has added a new line to one’s CV. No one wants to see that.

    But as for the 30% rule for one’s Tweets, I couldn’t disagree with you more. What is brilliant about social media is that it gives everyone who wants to say anything a platform. As human beings, we all have something to say and for the sake of the world, and for architecture. Thank god we all have *different* things to say. So why not make your Tweets about yourself and your thoughts, and your experiences 100% of the time? Why just share a picture when you can also share your thoughts about it?

    My guess is that you would agree with this idea, but deriding Bjarke Ingels’s Instragram feed, which seems to be a record of his experiences as a human being, and one who happens to make architecture, as “self-promotion,” isn’t a particularly enticing means to get others to share their thoughts and experiences. I’m not quite sure why architecture seems to, more than other fields, mandate – or at least highly encourage – such a suppression of the self that one chastised for taking interest in or caring about things outside of the field.

    But I think that, particularly given the internet’s predilection to dissolve categorical boundaries between disciplines and between personal and professional by rendering everything equal as searchable information, a lot of us – or at least some of us – feel like looking outside of architecture for inspiration and provocation is one of the best ways to ensure that the discipline continues to innovate. If the personal is political, why can’t the personal be architectural as well?

  • Cristov

    I’m sorry, but I will Instagram whatever I please. I am a human, I have a life. If I want to post a photo of my face, I will do so. If I want to post photos of a structure, I will do so. If my cat is especially adorable, I will post a photo of her. My Instagram is a journal of my thoughts and sights. My profession does not define my lifestyle.

    • Rob Hughes

      Yes! Well said @Cristov. I’m not sure where the author gets her ‘rules’ (“you should only post about yourself 30% of the time”). I actually stopped reading at a certain point. What makes social media so intriguing is that it’s personal, engaging and unique for each person. It’s all well and good to offer some suggestions and recommendations but to pick apart someone’s profile/acct is just, well, poor taste IMO.

      I post about my interests, passions, personal life, professional life and if someone isn’t interested, they have the choice to follow me, or not (Instagram, twitter, whatever!).

  • big-off

    After Ingels praised and justified gentrification in an interview with Form magazine (Sweden) I think his Instagram feed is the least discussion worthy subject.

  • Bjarke Pringles

    You must be looking for a job in public relations?

  • Marc Rajha

    The guy has a personal life. Move on!

  • Building_activity

    I understand the concern that architectural criticism shouldn’t be left to the critic, and agree with your hobby advice, but “surely you don’t want to be boring?”, sounds familiarly like one of the wise men in the Circle. Architects are also just people, with the freedom to express themselves in whatever way they wish. Maybe in doing so their god like stature is squashed, but nobody is perfect.