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9/11/13 Architecture and Public Discourse: From Tweet to Failure

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Architecture and Public Discourse: From
Tweet to Failure
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.
How would the Sydney Opera House competition occur today in the face of social media? (Image source: Joriel
"Joz" Jimenez on Flickr)
9/11/13 Architecture and Public Discourse: From Tweet to Failure
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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.

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9/11/13 Architecture and Public Discourse: From Tweet to Failure
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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
How would the Sydney Opera House competition occur today in the face of social media? (Image source:
Joriel Joz Jimenez on Flickr)
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9/11/13 Architecture and Public Discourse: From Tweet to Failure
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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.
Enhanced Communication
In a world driven by social media, the public opinion about what comprises good architecture is as
important as ever. (Photo credit: juque on Flickr)
9/11/13 Architecture and Public Discourse: From Tweet to Failure
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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 theyve 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
9/11/13 Architecture and Public Discourse: From Tweet to Failure
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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, its 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
A show at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (Image Source: Wikipedia commons)
9/11/13 Architecture and Public Discourse: From Tweet to Failure
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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.

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Responses to Architecture and Public Discourse: From Tweet to
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Josh O'Conner
I think a major element in the democratization of the built environment is that there
is no consensus via the canon any more. In other words, it used to be that when an
expert spoke, we were inclined to believe them, but that's not our current reality. I
think we are entering an age where consensus and public relations require
considerable more attention and where the "Average Joe" (or Jane) has a
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considerable amount of influence because of their ability to hop up on their social
media soap box.
I think it's both good and bad, because in addition to managing and responding to
the conversation, we also have to make sure that the conversation isn't being co-
opted by those with more power.
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