With public opinion being a powerful determinant of value, and social media increasingly acting in the vanguard, comments that are made online have the very real potential to bring about architectural success or cause total failure.
Beyond meeting its functional brief, the economics of architecture continue to rely on the value of a structure. In architecture, value is derived principally from reputation. That could mean the reputation of a given stakeholder (the architect, builder, etc.) or object (the overall building itself or any given component). In architecture, a bad reputation can be an impassable barrier for potential users and future owners. A good reputation, on the other hand, drives demand and has a positive effect on what individuals or organisations are willing to pay to get involved (consider, for example, the premium many are willing to pay to engage a ‘starchitect‘). This is true for many things in life and is hardly anything new. For as long as language and architecture have existed, the former has been used to judge the latter.
As social media continues to demonstrate its immense power through, an unprecedented dimension is added to the traditional architectural discourse. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter (along with countless other interactive platforms) present a public forum of a seemingly limitless capacity. On such platforms, there are no barriers to participating in the discussion, and any participant can speak with authority and without justification.
The New Forum for Public Debate
Combined with a degree of public apathy, the rise of social media is one of the causes for a reduced prominence of architectural critics’ in mainstream media. Experienced commentators such as Allison Arieff from the New York Times or Elizabeth Farrelly are now few and far between. Unfortunately, only a small portion of social media users have sufficient clout to fully drive a debate of any significant scale (for extreme examples think Richard Branson, Stephen Fry or Rupert Murdoch). Instead, we now see an increasing number of (for lack of a better term) “micro architectural debates” occurring throughout various online networks.
Posts, photos, tweets, likes, comments and connections; what was once made in passing is now recorded in minute detail and can be recalled at any time. The causal architectural discourse has been made more formal, while the conventional formal discourse loses its prominence. With participants being increasingly informed, the expert struggles to have their voice heard.
Not an Abstract Discussion
In a world increasingly driven by social media, the effects of public discussion and debate around what comprises good architecture have become more important than ever. This of course also means that it presents real threats to the value of a property.
Before any major architectural project or acquisition is initiated, due diligence should be given to social media assessment. Public relations should form the cornerstone of a leading portfolio and facilities management.
By choosing not to engage with their public, decision makers should at least be prepared for the public wrath that may ensue. The speed with which public judgement can be brought continues to increase, making it extremely difficult to react effectively without due preparation. A proactive engagement with social media and being prepared to lead the architectural debate have become valuable points of investment within this world of architecture.
There will never be a general consensus around architectural taste, however a greater engagement in the process could lead to a greater sense of ownership and acceptance.
The power of social media is often strongest when its users pass judgement in hindsight. The need to deliver quality results and to succeed from the outset are more important than they’ve ever been. Once a reputation is tarnished, it can take a lot of time and effort to repair, and the damage can be irreparable. Beyond the parade of compromise that typifies most architectural projects, most hope their creations will be cherished, even loved. Unfortunately for many, for any number of reasons their projects receive a bad reception.
Social media strategizing is an architectural risk that requires effective management, but can also bring forth immense opportunities. The rise of social media is a positive sum game in the interest of better quality architecture and urbanism. Project stakeholders, industry professionals and the general public can be engaged throughout the design process, and more efficiently brings forth discussions and that can result in change.
Ultimately, increasing the public debate around architecture and urbanism by means of social media should be seen a positive feat. Still, it is something that needs to be effectively managed. There will never be a general consensus around architectural taste, however a greater engagement in the process could lead to a greater sense of ownership and acceptance. When done right, social media in architecture allows a project to be enhanced over bitter compromise. It supports communication; illuminating ideas, problems and solutions that were previously not considered, avoiding problems that by traditional means would be addressed too late.
The Value of Competition
Perhaps architecture can get the most use our of social media in terms of public architectural competitions; a realm where the benefits of professional competitive tention and public discourse are traditionally brought together.
In Australia, for example, competitions have been used for years on select projects. From the world-famous Sydney Opera House to the Middle Park Public Toilet in Melbourne, the results often speak for themselves. Because of its reliance on public discourse, it’s unlikely the result of such competitions can ever be mediocre.
Again, to be successful, such a process needs to be managed, especially when intrinsically combined with social media. In this context “public competition” refers to one which is conducted openly, meaning decision makers and designers can make informed choices, and where the decisions are made in the public eye. Social media brings a degree of openness, transparency and engagement to the discourse around public competitions. To a certain extent, it can be seen as crowd sourcing for all or part of the judging process. The more closed off the judgement of such of a competition is, the less valuable it is going to be.
In such competitions, the justification of a decision is just as (or even more) important than the decision itself. It allows all players involved to understand the issues and progresses the wider debate within the given building culture (or “Baukultur”) while at the same time ensuring a higher quality architectural outcome.
Consider the value of a process where the public see every initial proposal and instigate their feedback, compared to that of a select group of “experts” judging in secret with limited justification. When instigating a project that potentially millions of people will be forced to look at and experience every day for decades to come, the difference in value is quite clear.
A public competition is never the easiest path to take, but it can reduce risks of extra costs and time blowouts, which can be brought about by pressure from the community down the line. By engaging a community upfront and throughout a process through mediums such as social media, push back can be mitigated or even avoided entirely.
In general, making social media assessments and engagement part of the decision making process allows all those involved to focus their energy toward mutually beneficial outcomes. Applying this to the architectural competition is a stellar example of how opportunities can be reaped from such a process.