Making sure architects stay open, relevant and engaged

28 June, 2018

The Archiboo Web Awards is celebrating its third year. Here founder Amanda Baillieu explains why architects’ online presence has the power to shape how they think, work and ultimately design.

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years negotiating architects’ websites and like people who work themselves up into righteous indignation when they spot a typo, I feel the same jolt of outrage when I see websites where tiny text is on a light grey background and basic details like a phone number is buried somewhere in the footer.

While the bad days of surprise pop-up menus and Flash animation are more or less over and practices have started to invest heavily in their online presence, it hasn’t yet transformed the way architects think and do business – and perhaps it never will.

This is not a surprise. Architects are slow to move and unwilling to change and some continue to see a website as another form of vanity publishing but with infinite space.

Does this matter? While an architect’s website is their shop window like any business, it is not having to sell directly from it. And maintaining a web presence takes time and commitment that doesn’t easily translate into commissions.

Australian architect Sean Godsell, designer of one of the Holy See Pavilions at the Venice Biennale, proudly told me he refused to use any social networks. Meanwhile his website is just a list of his completed buildings, exhibitions, awards and contact details. “If people want to get hold of me they can email,” he says.

Like other architects with an impressive back catalogue and who is heavily published, his view is that if you need to look on the Internet, you’re really not worthy to commission him anyway. This is perhaps the reason why Herzog and de Meuron didn’t have a website until 2011 and Peter Zumthor still doesn’t.

Yet among younger architects social media platforms and networks are its lifeblood because it’s where you can connect with others and it’s what clients increasingly expect.

But is this new way of interacting with clients and the interested public really want architects want? I’m still not sure but I launched the Archiboo Web Awards partly as a way of finding out.

After two years of running the awards I can report there are plenty of glimmers of hope.

While architects were initially suspicious of the way the Internet allows images to be shared easily, quickly and for free, architecture has become a hugely popular topic of conservation on social networks and architects have become avid users of Instagram, no one more so than Norman Foster whose account, officialnormanfoster’, which he runs himself, has over 200,000 followers.

While practices themselves still struggle to balance corporate language with creativity, architectural debate is alive and well on Twitter – not always to their liking because architectural criticism is still seen as specialists turf. But as the number of paid critics dwindles, it is Twitter and other social networks where the real debate is taking place.

Of course, there will always be clients who enjoy the rather lengthy courtship that has to be played out in order to persuade Rem Koolhass or Renzo Piano to design your new office or opera house but it is hard to imagine this will last. With just one swipe of your phone, you can see the work of any architect in the world and what people are saying making it difficult for bad architecture to hide.

David Miller, whose practice David Miller Architects was the overall winner of the Archiboo Web Awards in 2017 said: “We believe that openness and transparency are increasingly important attributes of practice…and by giving the visitor more freedom we’ll continue to move away from the over-controlled image to a more transparent representation.”

His is just one of many practices that understand architecture can’t simply rely on static imagery to lure people in – there has to be a more conscious effort to explain what an architect does, whether that’s 3D augmented reality capture on completed buildings or finding ways for visitors to look ‘inside’ buildings to see how they perform.

Technology has fundamentally changed the way buildings are designed and constructed. It has provided solutions to problems that have faced some of the world’s most ambitious buildings from the Sydney Opera House to the Gherkin. Now the question is if technology in the form of the Internet can solve another problem facing architects, which is to help the profession stay relevant, open and engaged.

The Archiboo Web Awards are now open for entries.

This article first appeared on Dezeen