This article appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #126: Architecture and Infrastructure
Images courtesy screenshotsofdespair.tumblr.com
One of the greatest revolutions in human communications is underway: a plethora of free, simple-to-use software that enables anyone vaguely literate to make a website and promote their work all over the world. Yet it seems that architects have failed to grasp the moment and leverage it to their advantage. Most architect websites are, not to put too fine a point on it, terrible.
Take the one I’m looking at right now. On the front page is a blurry image. Maybe it’s a building facade; it’s hard to tell when it’s washed in an eye-popping shade of yellow. There is some text here and there but it’s white, which on a yellow background is terribly difficult to read. I click on a word at random and find myself on a page filled with tiny pictures. It takes over 30 seconds to load, which in internet time feels like an eternity. None of the pictures of buildings have labels describing what they are. Eventually I work out that if I click on the tiny arrow on the bottom left corner of an image some text will obligingly pop into view. My browser immediately warns me that this might be a malicious script and the whole website pauses for a moment, as if considering its options.
Let’s imagine for a moment the firm whose website I was attempting to view designed buildings like it does its website. For one thing I would have a hell of time finding the front door. After feeling my way all over the facade I would eventually squeeze through an unmarked entry, only half my height. Once inside I’d find myself in a maze of unmarked corridors. There would be no reception desk, only endless, Escher-like staircases, twisting into space. Doubtless I’d find it interesting for a time but ultimately it would become exhausting and I would be searching desperately for an exit.
On Twitter I ask if anyone can point me to architects doing interesting things with their websites. My network responds with a couple of leads. One looks promising, a small, boutique practice doing worthy work with ‘local art collectives’, although most of the images are of the conceptual, never-built variety. The website is design on a shoestring, clearly out of the box with some custom cascading style sheets, but I’m not judging. At least it works. After I spend a bit of time rummaging around, however, I find myself again getting frustrated. Here I am not put off by tiresomely clever graphics but tiresomely clever text.
The language on this site has not progressed from the tediously over-wrought text masquerading as communication on final-year student projects. The word ‘form’ appears a lot, as does ‘territories’ and, for no discernable reason, ‘parametric’. I have three architecture degrees including a PhD (which, if nothing else, should make me an expert in deciphering unreadable designer text) yet I can’t understand it. I find myself longing for simple verbs.
What about the clients?
That’s one voice I never heard from on any of the websites I visited while researching this article. The only voice is architects – talking to other architects. It’s Marketing 101, or so I’ve read, that the very best way to rustle up business is to get other people to do it for you. If you believe the cognitive scientists, we are wired to believe in the personal and emotional over the cogently argued and rational.
A well-pitched customer testimonial builds trust and confidence in your business. It’s better if the voice speaking is not you, telling the world about your interesting experiments in ‘parametric’ form, but a person who has lived inside it for a year – and loves it.
Lived experience has authenticity. Just telling other people how great you are does not. Consider your average house build or renovation. Every single one I have been involved with, professionally and personally, has had moments of high drama and comedy. That’s why the UK series Grand Designs is such gripping – and popular – television, precisely because it brings emotions into view. By showcasing the hopes, fears, fights and screw-ups, the show brings the sheer – well, humanness – of the architectural endeavour into view. The very humanness missing from architects’ websites.
So what can we do differently?
Connect. Don’t just talk to other architects, talk to everyone. Stop worrying about people ‘stealing’ images from your website – get rid of those silly scripts that make my browser go crazy. While you’re at it, delete all that boring text. Save it for your next presentation to architecture students.
It’s startlingly easy to start getting customer testimonials: just let people comment on or ‘like’ the images on your site. Welcome curious people from Pinterest and Tumblr by making your content easy to share. In fact, why not start ‘micro-blogging’ your own self? I long to peek behind the facade because glamorous creatures like yourself fascinate me. Let me see the real you. Blog or start a Twitter feed and tell me about what happened on site today. And while we’re on the topic of communication – talk back to me! Listen to me and let me learn from you. Don’t just post about your own work and how great it is. That’s tacky and shows profound misunderstanding of the ‘social’ part of social media. You are in a position to teach me about design. Seduce me into trusting you. Invite me into your story and maybe, just maybe, I will pay you to help me make a building. Or I will tell my friends that they should, by reposting you on Facebook.
I cannot avoid my share of blame for the very things I am criticising. For over a decade I taught architecture students to make shiny beautiful images and to write mind-numbingly obtuse text about them. It’s been five years since I taught a design studio and being on the ‘outside’ has helped. If someone was to offer me a job back inside an architecture department I would set about undoing some of the damage I have done. I would try to break down the insular culture that architects are so dangerously comfortable with. I would teach those students to talk about their work in ways that outsiders might understand. Oh, and I would remind them that putting white text on a yellow background is never a good idea.
Really – what were they thinking?