A way out for architects amid the Covid-19 lockdown
20 April, 2020
At the start of the last recession in 2007, housebuilders were in such a hurry to drop architects they were sacking them by text message.
No one was using technology to stay in work but in the time of Covid-19 the internet has become our umbilical cord to the outside world.
However bored we’re getting of Zoom quizzes, home performances, online art courses and marvelling that our parents can master Google Hangouts – be thankful. The only tools available for remote working in 2007 were email and your phone.
In 2007 I had a BlackBerry, which most large companies favoured so employees could stay connected while out of the office or travelling. But on January 2 that year, a device was launched that would change the way the world communicated and consumed information forever – the iPhone.
The arrival of Twitter
I didn’t have an iPhone until 2013 so I missed out on global sensations like Angry Birds but I was early onto Twitter, which launched in 2006, because I enjoyed the discipline of having to tell a story in 140 characters.
Architects did not take to Twitter, possibly because it only allowed images to be uploaded in 2011, the same year that the mobile app Instagram was launched.
But they did appreciate the flurry of online magazines that were launching around that time, like Dezeen, that were hungry for content and had infinite space and could reach far bigger audiences than traditional magazines.
As an editor of one of those traditional magazines publishing a new building every week, I was less reliant on technology than goodwill as large photo files had to be copied onto a disc and then couriered over to the office by a junior comms person. When I explained this to my daughter, she looked at me as if I was describing the printing of the Gutenberg Bible.
Dropbox launched in 2008 and WeTransfer in 2009 but I don’t remember anyone using it. In those days publishing companies were ruled by the IT department who banned image sharing sites – I’m not sure why. Maybe it was security or maybe they thought our server, which hummed like a large fridge in the corner of the office would crash.
The days when servers crashed
Servers crashing were a reality 15 years ago, especially if a major news story broke. When Michael Jackson died in 2009 Twitter’s servers crashed under the pressure of 100,000 tweets an hour. That’s because there was little commercial interest in upgrading the Internet to cope with growing number of users. Now billions of dollars are spent on upgrading by firms like Netflix and Amazon.
Back in 2007, the Cloud was talked about in a reverential whisper. Nobody really knew what it did or why it was important – we do now. All of us use Cloud technology when we log onto Zoom or any other collaborative or communication tool. But in 2007 and for a long time after that, you couldn’t work remotely because you couldn’t access your files securely and if you needed to talk to someone over the internet, including video calls, you had to use Skype.
In the last recession, architects claiming job seekers’ allowance soared by 760 per cent. Workloads dropped off a cliff and practices battened down the hatches.
One of the big headaches for young architects wanting to set up on their own after finding themselves out of work was start-up costs. Now all they need is a Cloud service like Amazon Web Services.
Few architects invested in upgrading their websites. As late as 2015 practices were still using Flash that suggested they’d spent the past eight or so years under a stone. Nor did they understand that a website was no longer something you could entrust to an intern.
Architects were slow to catch on
It wasn’t simply the technology. By 2014 there had been a revolution in social media and interactivity that left most practices looking desperately out of touch.
In 2015 critic Alexandra Lange took architects to task for misusing platforms like Twitter and Instagram. “Architects need to start thinking of social media as the first draft of history”, she insisted, pointing out most treated it as an extension of their own marketing strategy.
I also wrote my first blog post on architects’ websites in 2015 after what seemed like weeks going through the AJ’ s annual survey of the largest hundred UK practices and checking if their websites were responsive – most weren’t – even though more than 50% of all searches were now starting on a mobile device.
I launched the Archiboo Awards in 2016 because I felt the penny was dropping –slowly. Younger architects particularly were realising that what people want most from a website is an intuitive design that’s simple to use and mobile friendly.
In lockdown, trying to find new ways to communicate including VR and reaching out beyond a professional audience has never been more important to help practices through this difficult time so they can come out the other side.
Just this week I was talking to an architect who runs a large London practice who, under lockdown, conduced an entire client presentation with 18 staff and six clients through Zoom. He used an iPad and Apple Pencil to amend the design during the meeting. He said the client – eight people scattered throughout the UK- was genuinely impressed.
So, in our world of social distancing, desperate for optimism during the COVID-19 crisis, the internet might be the one thing that can truly show architects a way out. Let’s take comfort in that.