Below is my weekly blog on architecture, art, design, identity, PR and presentation. It has just started so these are the very first posts! To receive post alerts by mail, please subscribe using button below.
Blog post 23 September 2020
How versus What and Why
Last week I did my first on-line teaching session ever as part of the Architectural Association’s Part 3 seminars. It felt very much like the start of term with Summer now definitely behind us. Despite the new format, there was still a sense of welcome normality by resuming another academic year. At the moment, we cling onto the structures and sense of familiarity that we can!
In talking about PR to students, I am keen to get them to think critically about how they use the many tools now available for sharing what they do. I’d like students to differentiate between marketing their work and the discourse around their design. Sometimes these overlap, of course, but selling is not the same as communication.
As in so many areas of life, we’ re taken in by the latest new technologies and platforms. They feel fresh and a bit shiny at first, but then their allure often fades, like Facebook, and they are replaced. LinkedIn seems to be having its moment though. Somehow in this period its wholly unpretentious and somewhat clunky interface has perhaps an authenticity that is attractive.
Students are well-versed about the currency social media platforms hold and both their nuanced language and visual worlds. As well as how these resonate with followers. They are less well-versed in how conventional media works though and often ask about this. How do you get published? What are the mechanisms and processes?
PR people know that as much as you can guide someone in how they might get published, it is most often not a merely technical process. It requires insight into what makes a story, why a particular publication or journalist might be interested in it, which images work for whom and so forth. Often it requires the ability to tap into current areas of interest and to be able to understand when someone is making a meaningful contribution to the conversation, be it about climate change or urban design or future housing. The ability to tap into the parlance de nos jours and be a polemicist or expert or provocateur.
This is why in thinking about PR I, it is important not to get too focussed on ‘how' before you grasp ‘what' and ‘why' you communicate. This is the area I like to work on with clients and sometimes knowing what you want to say is much harder than finding the avenues to say it. Yet this is one of the most satisfying elements of PR.
Traditionally architects have often worked closely with writers and academics and other kindred spirits to clarify their thinking. And in the past many have found that the medium naturally presents itself when the message has been sufficiently crystallised and the architect therefore knows exactly why they should make their mark. And its good to remember that messages come in many shapes and forms. They can be like a manifesto, or the architect's artistic intent unravelled, or an imaginative way of resolving current challenges.
Blog post 12 July 2020
Seeing with The Ears
Podcast audiences are said to be down possibly because people are not commuting much at the moment. Nonetheless, like radio, podcasts are ideal "lockdown listening" because of their ability to make us feel in the presence of someone. By conjuring up the image of the person in our imagination, radio programmes and podcasts can feel more alive, more real, than when viewing characters on our screens. This is especially true of people we do not know. There is therefore a particular intimacy about live radio and podcasts. And there is a strong similarity to reading. The unillustrated written word, too, invites us to form our own mental picture of what is being said. This act of visualisation is, of course, very engaging, making us active participants in what is being said.
When I first started to work in architectural PR, it was commonly assumed that, as far as architecture is concerned, it is not much of a subject matter for radio because of its inherently visual nature. Yet over the years, producers like Susan Marling of Just Radio have challenged this preconception by treating architecture like any other art form that can be discussed broadly beyond its solely visual aspects. In fact, last month she worked on a programme about the Californian architect Chris Downey who is blind. Called "Hearing Architecture", the Radio4 programme goes to the very heart of how architecture is indeed a multi-sensory field that lends itself well to being discussed even in the absence of images. Downey lends a valuable dimension to understanding this, he says "As counterintuitive as it may seem to be a blind architect, the reality of it is no architect sees a building they're designing except through visualising in their mind."
The growing number of events that focus on panel discussions on architecture has, of course, highlighted the fact that architecture is a conversational subject that can be talked about through many prisms which do not require a focus on how buildings look. These prisms include topics like social value, sustainability, education, equality, diversity, prefabrication, gentrification, placemaking and so forth.
Matthew Blunderfield's series of podcasts - Scaffold - demonstrates extremely well how this boom in discussing and sharing the way architects think and work can be vividly captured - bringing the profession to life in a new and accessible way. The first episode featured Adam Nathaniel Furman who has adopted new media with great aplomb, rethinking how architecture can be presented and made relevant. A very apt first guest for Matthew Blunderfield who himself has made a real contribution to broadening the communication culture around architecture.
I am going to take a break over the Summer from blogging - so back in September.
Blog post 5 July 2020
Looking through Drawing Matter's archive of over 400 'Drawing of the Week' posts demonstrates how this medium is at the heart of architectural culture.
Drawings are still the primary way for architects to design and, in the absence of a completed building, they are the ideal way to communicate architectural intent. Only drawings, like sections and plans, can summarise within one image the different spaces of a building. Drawings of elevations are, of course, closer to how we might see buildings through photographs. Using elevational drawings next to photos when publishing projects can therefore feel redundant.
Axonometric drawings are particularly useful in conveying a readily understandable visual language of what a building looks like conceptually. I am surprised they are not used more often in publicity and marketing materials to tell the story of a project. Overall, architectural PR would benefit from embracing drawings as an essential tool in expressing the ideas behind the work and instead of relying on those "hero shots" of buildings that for far, far too long have dominated how projects are recorded on websites, brochures and other publications.
And as is clear from the commentary that accompanies posts on Drawing Matter's site, drawings introduce a great deal of personality to how things are conveyed to the public. Julian Lewis in Drawing Matter's latest post describes this well, "The so-called ‘hairy drawing’ presented here is one of a series of early drawings used to scope interest and identify proposals and sits somewhere between documentary and proposition."
It is the explorative nature of such drawings that makes them interesting. Of course formal presentation drawings are more resolved; yet they too inhabit this world of process, making and anticipation that allow you to build up an image of a building akin to the way you would actually experience it, gradually, bit by bit.
Blog post 28 June 2020
Picking up the Pieces
Signs of life are emerging. Non-essential shops have reopened and I've been delighted to go back to Julie Phipps' beautiful shop in Bungay, Suffolk. Hers is a shop that is about a way of life. The extension of an aesthetic sensibility.
During lockdown I was delighted to see some colourful, terrazzo-like tiles in her window. They made me smile when the high street felt dead with even the greengrocer shut and to be refurbished into a more suitable post-pandemic space.
I bought a few of those tiles from Julie Phipps the other day and was all the more pleased to find out that these are her own lockdown creations. She has made them in her studio using pieces of broken crockery, bringing life to nearly discarded objects.
For some reason, lockdown has made my family clumsy and we have accumulated broken glass, including a Finnish Kaj Franck designed plate from his 1950s Teema series. I wouldn't mind so much if these could be replaced, but sadly when IIttala recently shifted its production from Finland to Thailand and Romania the blue colour is no longer what it was.
I miss the old blue but have kept the pieces hoping that they might be reused in a tile. Feels a much better end to the plate's story than a bin, especially as objects like this are about a culture and an individual that made things a certain way because of how they saw the world.
And that Iittala blue colour is essential to the Teema series and more important than the sticker that says the company name. Yet, of course, the sticker and what it represents is now essential and the object itself apparently less so.
Perhaps as we plan our gradual return to normality, we ought to re-evaluate what makes so-called "designer goods" just that - as surely this should be more than just a marketing term!
Mid-Summer Musings 21 June 2020
Today, instead of a blog post, I am referring you to the podcast that Floornature invited me to do this week: https://www.floornature.com/
It's episode 5 in their "All Good Vibes - Connecting New Architectural Horizons" series focussing on identity and tackling the post-Covid-19 perspective.
Definitely felt like good vibes taking part!
Also thought I 'd mention that last week, I was part of a panel discussion on the post-pandemic city hosted by Future Cities and now available on Youtube: "The City After Lockdown: A Future Cities Project debate".
Fellow Speakers that evening were: Daniel Moylan, former Deputy Chairman, Transport For London & Co-Chairman, Urban Design London; Adam N. Mayer, AIA, Handel Architects (from San Francisco); Kevin McCullagh, founder, Plan, a strategic design & business consultancy. The talk was chaired by Austin Williams, director, Future Cities Project.
The spirit of the city came alive again and as a "complex machine, probably the greatest we ever made", as Daniel Moylan noted.
Blog post 14 June 2020
Super Museum II
Last week I wrote about the Museum of Architecture and Design that is being planned to open in Helsinki in five years time. All going well, there will be an international architecture competition that will lead to a building that embodies the way we'd like to see the world in years to come. Perhaps the design of the new building will mirror the types of Modernist ideals, solidarity and optimism that helped to shape Finnish identity after the country gained its independence in 1917.
The collection of Finnish artefacts in the Museum will be an important showcase for telling this story. There will no doubt be a valuable programme of temporary exhibitions on the work of Finnish architects and designers to give the permanent collection depth and explore it afresh. This is important, but I would also welcome a series of international exhibitions generated by the curatorial team of the future museum. In the run up to 2025 there would be ample time to gather together a major Christo retrospective. His work as an artist has real pertinence to architecture and its communication. Showing Christo at an Architecture and Design Museum would be a valuable way to introduce new audiences to these specialist fields. There are, of course, other artists whose works cross over into architecture and design, like Donald Judd or Dan Flavin.
As design is increasingly equated with consuming branded goods, a cross-disciplinary approach to exploring it is important in understanding its social value. The same is true for architecture, a profession that often shies away from the notion of being an art form. Yet as Finland's leading architectural commentator, Juhani Pallasmaa, says "Architecture Is a Mediation Between the World and Our Minds". To shed light on how this is achieved would be an invaluable service and one that I would like to see the Museum of Architecture and Design embrace.
Blog post: 7 June 2020
The Finnish Government and City of Helsinki have confirmed funding to build a new Museum of Architecture and Design to open in 2025. The project is part of the country's post-pandemic recovery plan but it does date back some years. In fact, in the Finnish press the initiative has already been named the country's "super museum". This reflects its high ambition levels not only as a major cultural institution but potentially as a symbolic landmark for Helsinki and the country as a whole. The location of the Museum could be a prominent one in the heart of historic Helsinki and the very site that was being explored for the Helsinki Guggenheim scheme voted down 53-32 by the city councillors in December 2016.
The notion of a museum dedicated to architecture and design in Finland has always felt an excellent fit owing to the country's strong history of internationally recognised Modernist architects, particularly Alvar Aalto, and also designers like Tapio Wirkkala, Eero Aarnio and many others. Now the Museum of Finnish Architecture will finally merge with the Museum of Finnish Industrial Design. The synergies between these creative fields will be interesting to explore under one roof.
In Finland's leading paper Helsignin Sanomat, urbanist Kaarin Taipale has raised some important considerations regarding the future museum. She emphasises the need to test bringing together the contents of the two currently separate Museums at a temporary address in order to best understand what is required of the new building. This is a case of working very much from the collection and curatorial programme outwards. Taipale also seems interested in the potential of adaptive reuse and cites examples of this type of approach, for instance, in New York at MoMA's PS1.
The notion of adaptive reuse is certainly appealing in today's world and the success of the recently opened new Amos Rex art museum in Helsinki, designed by JKMM, attests to how successful working with existing buildings can be in creating a new layer of experience for a city. Perhaps the very fact that this was a pre-existing cultural institution making imaginative use of a well-known building in Helsinki is a key part of Amos Rex having been so wholeheartedly adopted by both residents and visitors to the city. This has been demonstrated, for example, by Amos Rex far exceeding its visitor expectations in its first months of opening. From its conception, I have been particularly interested in how the Amos Rex project has felt like a museum made not for tourists but for the people of Helsinki; and it is quite possible that this sense of authenticity has made it all the more successful with travellers.
I am having fun imagining what the new Museum of Architecture and Design will be like. It's definitely a boost to imagine something of this type in my old home town during this lockdown period. I am even thinking about the new Museum's possible exhibits and the role these could play in communicating the value of architecture and design internationally. More on that next week.
Below a few cuttings from the Amos Rex Museum architectural PR campaign that I worked on in 2018. Features by Roman Hollenstein in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, by Isabelle Regnier in Le Monde, and Antaxu Zabalbeascoa in El Pais.
Blog post: 31 May 2020
During "lockdown" lots of people are reorganising and sorting out old images, texts and other documents. I have just filed my pre-Lockdown blog posts here:
They are organised by type.
Looking back does feel like another time when we, of course, had little inkling of what was ahead of us. I am not sure about calling our past "B-C" (before-COVID) as some do, but there's no doubt that COVID-19 has created a sense of then and now.
I was very pleased to read that in Helsinki the plans for a new architecture and design museum are still being discussed and as a way to mark a hopeful post-pandemic era. A welcome sign of the City's belief in a bright future.
Blog post: 24 May 2020
Trust and Crisis Comms
I'll always remember way back around the year 2000, during the Millennium Bridge media crisis, Arup's reaction. "Embarrassed but not ashamed", said the engineers as they reflected on the aftermath of the unexpected wobble in the Bridge. Those working in communications will probably be following current events around the Covid 19 crisis and with great interest in how the pandemic is talked about and how short-comings are addressed by various Governments' spokespeople.
I have done so with a keen eye, looking particularly at how the UK and Finland are doing this. In the UK, the Government comms teams have resorted more to branding style communication with what appear to be roadwork inspired graphics and catchy slogans, intended to be easy to repeat and remember. "Stay home" and so forth. In Finland, this sort of sloganeering would be deemed trite in this type of situation and politicians have instead sought to speak to people, resorting remarkably little to marketing tactics, but instead appealing to the nation's conscious and solidarity in a firm and uncompromising way. As in the UK, in Finland, too, there have been criticisms of lacking transparency around decision making.
A wobbly bridge seems far removed from the depths of the current Covid-19 crisis but Arup's response generated trust and respect in a way that all competent crisis communication should always seek to do. When something has gone wrong it is best to address it head on and not try and not make excuses in the hopes of covering your tracks. It is also important to understand that even if in your view the substance is right, as it was in the case of the Bridge - the wobble was a matter of comfort not safety - perception matters. As the Bridge was deemed to be potentially dangerous by public opinion, it was wise to address this issue rather than undermine it or get into an alternative narrative about how some motion might actually be a part of the experience of crossing the Thames. (Especially with social media today, we now have plenty of opportunity to gain a broad range of views on how a crisis is handled and companies' or politicians' attempts to simply distract those affected are thus less likely to succeed.)
After some pressure from the media, the Finnish Prime Minister has agreed to make the COVID-19 proceedings public with a caveat that not everything will be available. In doing this, she is is demonstrating willing and concern about public opinion in an effort to generate trust. Communication is not just about being right. It is about listening with empathy and meeting people half way, about finding common ground. Making things right or changing one's course of action, if done with care, certainly need not look defeatist or weak but quite the opposite. Mistakes and how they are handled can be powerful ways to win people over, to establish trust. So, yes, crisis communication can be an exceptional opportunity but it requires self-awareness, a dose of humility and some guts.
Blog post: 17 May 2020
Beware of Robots
Following on from last week's post, I've been thinking more about how we improve our on-line experience of architecture. Hand-drawing brings an immediate human presence to digital communication which is why I like to use it and have done so on my website.
Apple is known for using graphic devices, like yellow pads, for digital notes to create the impression of physical, "real" things in a virtual world. Increasingly we have more personable sounding communication on-line, for example, as we process files a virtual cup of tea might appear and friendly message saying "we're on it".
Those sorts of things are a cute and informal in a manner that makes on-line interaction more grounded and human. Hand drawing achieves this too whether it's a diagram on a screen or a work of art in its own right. These things are really about engaging audiences by doing something slightly unexpected, something you may not readily associate with computers, something that feels less robotic.
And, yes, it is this very notion of not appearing and sounding like a robot - a slick impersonal machine - that is often important to make the messaging impactful. The care in the language and presentation used do matter and they should not be formulaic. In fact, imagination and ingenuity should be embedded in how architects' studios put together their websites or on-line project presentations or talks.
Filmed project presentations and talks being made during lockdown are allowed to feel home spun now that we know most everyone is having to make do with their limited resources whilst working from home. But this amateurish feel can be a strength too, if it conveys an authenticity or an idiosyncratic quality with confidence. Perhaps these current do-it-yourself exercises should, in fact, be welcomed as an opportunity to explore styles of communicating that are less robotic and more original.
Blog post: 10 May 2020
Going Haptic On-line
Last week, I referred to my recent piece for the World Architecture Festival (below) on "Communicating in Isolation". In it I mention the importance of thinking how we might improve the way the haptic qualities of architecture come across on-line. I am thinking of the type of photography that conveys the feeling of inhabiting a space or the use of process imagery that helps explain the way a building has been conceived to someone who may not be able to visit it. Drawings, in particular, are useful and hand drawings by architects are often imbued with character that reveals something very special about the design intent.
In the AD I guest edited, Juhani Pallasmaa raises this issue of communicating the sensory qualities of architecture and a very interesting point about our experience of buildings, "Besides, as designers we are taught to be aware of only focused vision, but unfocused peripheral perceptions seem to have a more important role in our experience of spatial qualities, situations, atmospheres and feelings." This is something, too, that architecture studios should address and that could provide a compelling dimension to curating content on-line. And perhaps we'll find that a series of meaningful glimpses can evoke much more than a conventional tell-all hero shot.
To read an extract of Juhani Pallasmaa's essay, visit Reading Design.
Blog post: 3 May 2020
Communicating in Isolation
Today as my blog post, I thought I would share with you a piece I wrote for the World Architecture Festival newsletter - published last week.
It's about communicating when so much is on hold and we're working from home.
Drawing below by Alan Dunlop from his Lockdown Sketchbook, March - April 2020
Blog post: 26 April 2020
Make it Real
"Is it just me or..." has become the way to pre-empt observations in an effort to sound like the "Tweep-next- door" in an informal, friendly, chatty manner. It doesn't take long for such insouciant language to be adopted by big business and, in the process, it loses something of its unrehearsed and spontaneous quality.
So much of the current way of presenting things is based on this notion of looking and sounding "real" albeit being meticulously studied even to an angst ridden degree. This is well-known by Instagrammers who stage their holiday shots, spending more time on planning and styling these than living out "those carefree moments".
No wonder, it's been fun to see the far less contrived shots of "me at twenty" that have recently circulated on Twitter: #meat20. I especially enjoyed the photo of Eddie Heathcote at the Trevi Fountain, noting how deserted this tourist hot spot was back then. Youth doubled up with a nostalgia for a time when you could travel without getting up at 6AM to visit such sites to avoid the maddening crowds. The #meat20 photo of Helen Castle with her University of East Anglia chums resonated too, taking me back to a period when striking a pose just comes across as more natural, more innocent than it does in today's hugely image conscious society when the reach of such pics is potentially so much more widespread and less private.
As we continue social distancing, I wonder how we could ensure that our increasingly digital communication is less focussed on selling ourselves and more about connecting in a heartfelt fashion. I don't mean wearing your heart on your sleeve kind of stuff, but perhaps toning down the snobberies that have crept in with appearing to "do lockdown" just so.
The Private Eye cartoon below says something about this phenomenon... And just to humblebrag a bit, if you need some bookshelf props, I have boxes of books in our garage that are looking for homes as our shelves are packed... Saying that, maybe the next level of behind-the-scenes snobbery would be to just stack these books in piles in front of our cases, "a one up" from the ruly library look.
Cartoon by Ken Pyne from Private Eye, 24 April - 7 May 2020 issue, p. 34
Blog post: 19 April 2020
The Art of Architecture Drawings
Very pleased that Drawing Matter has published this extract from the issue of AD that I guest edited at the end of last year on "The Identity of The Architect: Culture and Communication". Written by Gabor Gallov, the extract focusses on the role of drawing at Allies and Morrison Architects:
Note Gabor has drawn the drawings featured elsewhere on this site.
Alfredo Caraballo, Allies and Morrison, Sunnyside Yard, New York: Masterplan, 2017
Courtesy of Allies and Morrison
Blog post: 5 April 2020
Call for Projects
Instead of my usual posts, I am asking readers of this blog to let me know if they are engaging in any interesting communications tasks during this isolation period that get around the challenges of social distancing.
I am writing a piece for the World Architecture Festival on this very topic and am particularly interested in anyone supporting freelance writers, graphic designers and photographers during this challenging time.
So many practices rely heavily on freelance assistance of this type for enhancing their profile and right now this largely self-employed group will rely on the good will of architects to keep them going.
Please get in touch via my contact page before Tuesday 14 April.
Blog posts will resume after Easter.
Blog post: 29 March 2020
Home-working has added a new dimension to our work personas. A dimension that until now was, for most, a private world of domesticity, but has over the past weeks become an extension of our more public life with colleagues. Even home offices have largely remained like secret dens until this current crisis - but no longer.
When video conferencing it's natural to be curious about the background of someone's screen. The things they have in their homes and whether these fit in with how we may have imagined someone to be when not in the office. The unexpected instruments and so forth.
And with VC, it's a bit like having guests over. I admit to tidying my home office more these days and ensuring our dog sofa isn't quite as crumpled as usual. Saying that, I have no problem with our dogs lying on it in full view while I am on a video conference call.
Watching the news you see interviewees too regularly broadcasting from their homes. Even before this current crisis, I enjoyed seeing French writers and philosophers interviewed from home with their stylish studies covered in books and pictures and interesting objects trouvés. A wonderful mix of old and new things that, like the home of an artist, relays a boho-chic intellectual quality.
When living in Venice for a short period, on my evening walks, I would admire Italian homes with this quality as visible through their lit windows. Their rooms appeared to have an unstudied feeling of a life well-led that emanated years of occupation, layered with idiosyncrasies and warmth of personality. Perhaps during our new found reliance on VC, it is such a very humane quality that resonates so well on our screens and particularly so in an era of social distancing when we hunger for all the richness and peculiarities that make for life.
Blog post: 22 March 2020
When racing around there's little time for reverie. This happens more easily when confined to one place. For many and around the world, this will be in their homes at the moment.
Last year, I happened to work on a book with San Francisco based architect, John Marx that is conducive to reverie. Published by Oro Editions (February 2020) it is called Études – The Poetry of Dreams + Other Fragments and focusses on John Marx's beautiful watercolours. The book also features poems by John Marx, in addition to chapters about drawing, watercolour and Marx's works within in the context of American painting. These chapters are written by by Curator Owen Hopkins, Architect and writer Pierluigi Serraino, and myself. Marx, too, has written a very personal essay about the notion of sharing meaning.
You can find out more about the title here but below are some of Marx's watercolours that are extremely conducive to dreaming and contemplating. Some of the works show poignantly how solitude can be both soulful and poetic.
Drawing by Gabor Gallov as featured in ArchDaily piece 31/01/2020 link below