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    Architects and the Web: Ferraries or Obamas?

    Quilian Riano
    Oct 8, '08 12:57 PM EST

    For the second year in a row I just got back from NOMA's national convention in DC. One of the most interesting presentations and conversations that I had in this surprisingly conservative conference was about the role of web environments in architectural practice.

    This conversation called my attention because at its heart it is about the way we view the role of architecture and the architect in society. It is also a conversation I have had in other settings and seems to be something in a lot of designer's minds.

    When I arrived to the presentation a lot of the older architects present were saying how digital communication feels cold to them. As I saw it, these practitioners were feeling the rug being pulled from under them. They are used to talking closely to people, digital communications do not give them the same type of warmth.

    Then the presenter said something that I thought went to the heart of the argument; he told them that their website should be 'hot and seductive' like a car manufacturer's site.

    Then it occurred to me, that is EXACTLY what architects are doing right now. Currently most firm's sites are cold, displaying architecture as a product trying to seduce their real audience, other architects. Even the few firms that try to bring the process of their work into the sites do it in a way that turns the process into little more than a commodity.

    But what about the ambivalence expressed by this audience? Their argument seemed to me to be about a more traditional role of the architect with strong relationships in his or her local community. Still, their traditional flash architecture-as-consumable websites acknowledge that architects cannot think about only their local community anymore, we are a global marketplace.

    However, if architects (as professionals) are not trying to sell a commodity (an object or style), but rather a more loosely-defined PROFESSIONAL service then I think that the current flash-seductive site simply does not work.

    I would argue that a possible new model can be seen in Obama's website. What makes Obama's site successful is that the campaign opens up some of its process, while allowing you to feel part of a larger community. This site, as those for most politicians, does not try to sell any specific proposal,but rather an overall way of thinking and decision making. All this through video, blogs, and many other media to get into the campaign and their way of thinking.

    Now, I realize that this site works at a scale that is not attainable to most small firms, but some of these principles still apply. Most clients, I think, realize that firms do not have catalogs of designs to choose from, rather they want to be reassured about that firm's process and way of working.

    What I find interesting about the discussion is that it reflects some of the internal tensions within the field as more architects become celebrities with a specific 'style' to sell. I guess the question is if our websites reflect that struggle and how we position the profession moving forward.


    BONUS: some pics from DC:


    • _JC

      Great post...Although I'm a little skeptical about the "flash seductive site" being only a way to try and seduce other architects, and not a marketing tool to lure in clients.

      Consider a reverse justification... By being intentionally ambiguous about process, firms open up the possibility to broaden the clientele they will interest, and display their "commodity" without binding it to any single tradition. In that respect I think they work in offering a loosely-defined professional service.

      "Thinking and decision making" is, in reality, Obama's commodity, not his process. He's neglecting to be specific on his proposals to broaden his audience.

      So I guess my question would be, are clients actually interested in process, or are they just interested in the results?

      Oct 8, 08 5:28 pm  · 
      liberty bell

      I think, JC, that most clients (I do custom residential/remodels and am mainly speaking to that area) who have not worked with an architect are very leery of the "process". They often fear that the process will steamroller them! When I send a proposal letter outlining how we work - options, meeting schedules, review periods, phases, etc - they always relax a little.

      But making that information sexy on a website? At least as sexy as the image-porn I show? I'd really have to hire someone to do it for me.

      We're caught between being professionals and being, as I am with my clients, collaborators. I do agree there is something to be learned, for my practice, from Obama's website. Making people feel that there is excellent leadership but that their input is key is exactly the model of my practice.

      Oct 8, 08 9:11 pm  · 


      I agree, it is a bit of a stretch to say that it is only for other architects. But I guess that my argument is that the general public really cannot read most of the documents we use to communicate design ideas. In this way the images, plans, sections, etc... are there to give potential clients a sense of security that the firm knows what they are doing, but the real audience are other designers who understand the projects.

      I have to admit that I don't fully understand your reverse argument. By tradition do you mean style? I am not sure how showing your past process ties you to a specific way of working. It is evidence of how you work and the different ways the firm has tackled design problems in the past.

      Finally, I would argue (and I did!) that architects are also in the business of "thinking and decision" making. I am not sure this can be considered a 'product' as you are never quite sure what you will get. If one thing is similar about design and politics is that we work with a lot of unknowns and changing conditions. In that sense the public are buying into a process that is in place to take care of whatever comes up.

      Oct 8, 08 9:13 pm  · 
      Making people feel that there is excellent leadership but that their input is key is exactly the model of my practice.

      Love this statement LB!!
      Oct 8, 08 9:19 pm  · 
      vado retro

      the only people who look at architecture websites are architects and the people who want to work for architects. stop peddling services. stop bragging that you can meet your client;s needs. find clients that meet your needs by developing some fucking beliefs about what you should be doing as an architect and sell that.

      Oct 9, 08 12:39 am  · 

      I'm glad I wasn't clear, some great comments followed!

      Quilian, I was just trying to question, on the other end, whether sometimes the outcome of all of these seductive firm websites is a new (and worse) client-architect relationship...One where clients care less about their own input and architects enable this behavior with their sites by, knowingly or not, creating catalogs of designs rather than presenting their process.

      As far as the Obama site and the word "product", I was trying to express my feeling that just as a presidential candidate, if an architect has a commodity or product they're selling, I believe it should be defined by their "thinking and decision making", and less by their style, which I think is the same as what you're arguing.

      I'm a grad student with little experience in anything client related, so for me, these are really interesting ideas.

      Oct 9, 08 1:21 am  · 
      chatter of clouds

      i echo vado's post.

      and, somehow, i really can't see an architectural website as being a red-lit architecturally themed cyber whorehouse.

      "call this number and let us take care of your needs, we'll prostate in front of your red hot giant ...wallet. we'll lick each other's creative juices and thrust a huge tower into your virgin skies. tell us your fantasies and we'll make then cum true for you."

      Oct 9, 08 6:06 am  · 

      vado, isn't that what the argument is for? The only difference is that you seem to think it should be analog and I think that the digital still has a strong role to play.

      noctilucent, there is a reason why they are the oldest profession ;)

      Oct 9, 08 8:26 am  · 
      vado retro

      architects need to return to the idea of being principled. regardless of THE principle. the medium is not the message; it is the excuse.

      Oct 9, 08 9:11 am  · 

      so we are basically saying the same thing.

      Oct 9, 08 9:12 am  · 

      are we selling commodities or ideas? both require different marketing approaches. commodities require a brand, while ideas and service is about connections and networks.

      great post q. now I know why those masturbatory flash sites bug me so much.

      Oct 9, 08 11:05 am  · 

      they bug the shit out of me because they take forever and there is no control. its all internalised and sealed off. i don't want to watch a movie i just want to see what i want to see.

      you know last week we had a person apply to our place from overseas. first time for us. we almost wanted to hire the person just because of the occasion.

      i only bring it up because it is true that the internets really do open the audience. it is a game changer. now if we could only find the tie to finish our website so it actually makes sense....

      but with the clients, well right now our website, and the blog we don't pay enough attention to are important as confirmation of our existence to our clients. like being published, the actual publication doesn't matter, but really when people see our work in print it offers them reassurance that we are legitimate. and that is impt. really really impt.

      still, first and foremost the impt thing for us is still the shmoozing. we have to find clients and go to parties and work at meeting as many people as possible. hopefully in a year or two that won't be necessary, and we can let people come to us, but right now it is without a doubt the face-to-face that counts. the rest is just supporting structure....

      beyond that when it comes to getting things built the internet makes communication easier. we send files all over the place when things get going. even the furniture maker is totally ready for the cad dwgs and the renderings and we can get so much done just with a cell phone and some fibre optic connectivity. THAT is a big change from how we did things even just 5 years ago.

      Oct 10, 08 2:00 am  · 

      what's the point of websites other than to showcase a few representative projects (lend legitimacy, as jump is saying) and to give some insight into the office culture to potential employees (with things like blogs)? We aren't selling product to a large international public, we are a service industry to a much smaller community of clients who are connected in different ways. we gain most of our work through reputation and networking - i.e. word of mouth (yes, even international clients are gotten this way). Obama is reaching a much wider audience, and even so, much of his support has been gained away from his website, on the ground, and in the media. and - what he's selling is a different beast (unless our plan is to mobilize our clients into recruiting and connecting with other clients - which is a bit silly since they are often in competition with each other).

      perhaps there is some potential in the web in selling our services, but I think the answer lies outside of a single firm's website.

      (q - great post, btw)

      Oct 10, 08 6:12 pm  · 

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