Architecture and the Age of Creative Disruption
To understand change, you must first accept it. Architecture has always been subject to manic cycles, booms and busts, but this year has been different. The pandemic ushered in a season of jarring change. This post started as an essay by me, a monologue, but it morphed over time into a discussion with my editor and friend Martin Pedersen. As his notes became longer and more discursive, it seemed a good idea to turn the dueling perspectives into a dialogue. —Duo Dickinson
Bottom Up PR and Media
DD: It is beyond obvious to say that “things have changed” in the last year. But architecture is going through seismic changes that have nothing to do with Covid. The pandemic did, however, force everyone and everything onto the internet, which accelerated a lot of trends that were brewing. Architects seem happy to trade the credibility of established journalism for instant universal access. I’m old enough to remember a small design media world, a finite number of magazines and newspapers that controlled what people saw and heard about architects and architecture. Now the vast majority of information is the internet, where there are zero copy editors, let alone fact-checkers. Everyone has images, everywhere. There’s very little editorial perspective, and not much factual reality, beyond what the architect wants people to see. This is nirvana for self-promoters, but where does that leave how architects are viewed?
MCP: The good old days of print didn’t always have a whole lot of fact checkers and copy editors either! Still, there’s no doubt that the landscape has changed radically. As far as the perception of architects is concerned, we’re really talking about two distinct groups here: The insular world of architects, academics, writers, and other people with a professional association to it; and the general public, who for the most part remain largely indifferent, even oblivious, to Architecture-with-capital-A (even though they’re surrounded, virtually every moment of every day, by architecture of some variety). This disconnect is really on architects—and perhaps accounts for the woefully low percentage of buildings actually designed by them.
Everybody Gets An “A”
DD: This change from top-down to bottom-up PR and media extends beyond promotion. There were once a few national award programs: the AIA, feature magazine issue selections, and the international awards like the Pritzker. There was a defined award universe. The word “starchitect” emerged in the late 20th century because some architects were on the speed-dial of the editors and awarding groups. So the “winners” of awards and publication appeared year after year. Now there are thousands of “winners” of hundreds of design competitions for an unending number of websites, blogs, and magazines. There are so many winners that winning does not mean much anymore.
MCP: As a man of my advanced age, it is tempting to look at the current media landscape, wring my hands, and throw a Boomer tantrum, bitching about how everything is going to hell, etc., ad nauseam. That reaction is a cliche, a sign of age and encroaching irrelevance—and it’s boring to boot. The world spins and evolves, ceaselessly. The old award system, with a handful of gatekeepers at the front of the line, clipboards and agendas firmly in hand, was flawed, elitist, and not particularly “wise” (in retrospect). So now that we’ve gone from arguably too few awards to far too many, the inevitable end result is less impact. It’s like grade inflation. An “A” doesn’t quite have the same meaning. The Pritzker Prize is still a big deal, but with constantly churning news cycles, it has a single day of mainstream coverage (leading on NPR broadcasts), and then it slinks back into obsolescence until the next year. And the proliferation of competitions is an attempt by architecture and design media to create a reliable revenue stream, to offset the losses in print and the diminishing value of digital ads.
The Robots Are Coming!
DD: A universal and free internet has upended architectural hierarchies. Small firms can now compete with larger ones on many levels once unavailable to them. Below the super-large firms, there’s been a free-for-all. That can be energizing, but I worry about firms getting hired to create things beyond their ability to perform. I fear there will be a backlash that fully plays into the unfolding reality of AI, which threatens to eventually cut out the middlemen of engineers and architects entirely. It will start with the elimination of the so-called CAD monkey, someone with more skill than an intern, but with no authority, who produces drawings with extreme efficiency and skill. But no person can do what AI will do, or do it as cheaply. So I think this means that far fewer architects will be needed in the near future.
MCP: You’re right. The disruptions caused by AI have only just begun. These tools are tied to Moore’s Law and the sort of infinite power of the digital realm. Who knows where this lands? This will force architects to adjust to this new reality, to understand the process and figure out how they provide value apart from their tools, which everyone will have. If architects continue to fix their economic worth on design hours or drawings, they will quickly become obsolete in a world dominated by near-instantaneous design. But if they figure out what value they bring—as shapers of space, as problem solvers, as builders of beauty and consensus, perhaps as economic partners with clients—they can actually thrive in this new reality. How many architects that world will employ is an open question. And while AI will surely make many of us redundant (as the Brits like to put it), we’re going to need all of the tools at our disposal, including AI, to help stave off ecological catastrophe. If robots can save the world, please, let them have at it!
We’re All Brands Now
DD: At its best, architecture is a human exercise. Listening to more than yourself, caring about what you find in a place and how what you do affects that place, is not pandering, if there are humans truly listening and involved. But if a client has a monologue with a computer and sees a building that’s shown to them by any number of algorithms in a “pay-for-play” universe of self-promotion, what’s the logical outcome? Like most architects, I have jumped into this world. I spend one or two hours a day, every day, tending my Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and WordPress accounts. An intern in my office spends five hours a week updating our company’s website and blog, and my secretary prepares email blasts at least once a week to several, sometimes all, of the distinct lists we keep (friends, PR, schools, AIA, architects, and others).
MCP: The line between “content creation” and marketing is perhaps forever blurred. This is not architecture and design specific. It’s a cultural phenomenon of global proportions. Everyone today is a brand. We all have an internet presence. We laughed (or at least, I laughed) when Kim Karsdasian parlayed an embarrassing (to me, at least) sex tape in 2007, into the creation of a multimillion dollar personal brand. It might have been vulgar, but it was vulgar genius. She was clearly a decade or so ahead of the rest of us. Anyone involved in the broadly defined category of “culture” (architects included) pretty much has to engage in this game to stay relevant and, perhaps more important, remain visible, in a very crowded and noisy room.
We’ve Cycled Through the Styles
DD: Popular culture always precedes, and in fact shapes, the rarified air of the “fine arts.” Virtual art is now selling for millions. Photo-realistic simulations of unbuilt and unbuildable designs are presented alongside reality. Kim’s face and body have little resemblance to what she was born with, and we love both anyway. We fulfill our own desires in the “swipe-left/swipe-right” mindset of getting what you want, regardless of the criteria. Celebrity is paramount in a world where meaning is virtually aesthetic. I think the next century could produce some spectacularly sad buildings. But more people than ever will be empowered to build—a good thing. It’s all a very mixed bag.
MCP: We’re nearing the end of the fossil fuel–powered Industrial Revolution that gave birth to virtually all of the buildings and styles of the past 150 years. There’s a reason we’re “post-style” right now: All of the existing idioms are exhausted! But there’s some hope here. This void is an opportunity. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it was the need to reexamine existing paradigms; most of them appear broken. This is certainly true for architecture. But remember, architects and designers are inherently problem-solvers. It’s often precisely why you hire an architect. Out of chaos can come ingenuity. It’s also why I have always argued that architectural education has a utility, separate from designing and constructing buildings, that’s useful and transferable to other fields.
It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst…
DD: All this job-killing change is happening so fast that it leaves talented people with the tools of a design education and no traditional career path. So a huge effort to suss out digital, product, and entertainment venues is on full blast. I guess if Kim Kardashian is “entertainment,” then architects do not need buildings to create “architecture.” There is a diabolically evolving Wild West of internet publication, involving untold numbers of website platforms, often without any discernible criteria for publication. My guess is that this way of exposing your work, without a journalistic filter or imprimatur, is the future of design journalism. Until things collapse.
MCP: If things collapse, they will collapse due to climate change, but that’s a different discussion altogether. If we’re talking about the future of design journalism, then I’m going to take a counterintuitive position. We’re living in a real Charles Dickens moment. It is either the best of times (there’s never been more “content” about the built environment, some of it very good, some of it less so), or the worst of times (thousands of outlets, big and small, are competing for everyone’s finite attention spans, making it increasingly difficult to “monetize” that content). Either we’re in what passes for a golden age these days, or we’re witnessing a weird digital game of perpetual fracturing. The opportunities to write and disseminate writing and criticism have never been greater. Getting properly paid for those efforts is a more complicated and challenging story, especially for younger people.
Featured image via Future of Life.