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.
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.