Why is architecture in danger of becoming irrelevant?

Intro to the SLD ‘Comms Toolkit’ series

According to Dutch architect and Pritzker Prize winner Rem Koolhaas, the architecture profession is too self-referential and risks becoming irrelevant if it fails to communicate with other disciplines as a way of adapting to life’s faster pace.

Architect of projects in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, Koolhaas said at the US AIA conference in Philadelphia in 2016: “Architecture has a serious problem today in that people who are not alike don’t communicate. I’m actually more interested in communicating with people I disagree with than people I agree with.”

So how do architects communicate with people beyond the profession? What tools, skills and platforms do they employ to meet their business objectives, and speak to various audiences including clients and developers; practice employees; project stakeholders; approval authorities; professional consultants; the media; users of buildings; and the general public? How do architects convey the value of the work they undertake?

In my experience – I’ve been writing about architects and architecture for the past 15 years – most architects tend to communicate in a similar style to the way they were taught at university. Like a studio presentation to a class and lecturer, architects use images, drawings and their own language – ‘archi-speak’ – to talk about projects and design.

Having been taught at university to defend their design concepts, they might come across as combative or defensive, if they are asked to explain aspects of a project, or how they arrived at a particular design solution. And because they speak their own language, and they spend a lot of time talking to each other, they assume a level of knowledge in the audience that may not exist, which only compounds communication difficulties. (I’ll provide a detailed explanation of ‘The Curse of Knowledge’ and how you can overcome it, in next week’s post.)

Once architects finish uni and enter practice, they tend to promote their work in one of two ways: in awards programs (usually judged by their peers, see they are talking amongst themselves again!) or via publication (some of which is industry based, some is read or watched by a broader audience). These methods are obviously poor substitutes for actually experiencing a building in person, but emerging virtual reality technologies may help to overcome some of those limitations.

Luckily for the audience, those traditional media methods usually involved an interpreter – a journalist or tv presenter – who could translate the ‘archi-speak’ into words the average person could understand. But the emergence of digital media has radically changed the communications landscape.

Now, anyone with a smartphone can eliminate the middleman – the journalist or presenter – and communicate directly with the public. Just take a photo, upload it to Instagram, add a hashtag, and bingo, your message is out there in the world.

But what if your audience doesn’t like what they see, on face value? Will you have a chance to add to their knowledge in a later post? What if they don’t understand what they are looking at? Who is your audience, anyway?

In my opinion, the key message that is missing from architectural communications is that good communication is strategic. Every Tweet or Instagram post contributes to a larger story about your brand, and if you haven’t defined that story upfront, what kind of tale are you telling?

For architects to remain relevant in a challenging business environment, and a shifting media landscape, they need to master and apply a broader range of communications styles, methods and skills. 

Of course, architects know that they have a tremendous role to play in the ongoing development of sustainable cities and towns, but in order to remain relevant in a construction industry that views design as a line item cost that needs to be value managed, architects need to define and promote the value of their contribution. They need to share their critical thinking skills, creative problem-solving expertise, and extensive knowledge of design more readily, with the communities they serve.

This series of articles and interviews by Sounds Like Design uncovers some of the successful methods architects have employed to enhance their communications tool kit. If you have an interesting story to tell about communications methods that worked, or those that didn’t, please email Sounds Like Design.