An Introduction to Architecture on the Web

By Paolo Schianchi

April 2014, flight from Moscow to Milan. After four exhausting days of work, [blogger] Christiane coverBürklein and I settle into our seats. The plane takes off. The seatbelt sign pings. The airline staff begins serving drinks and snacks. Our turn comes and the hostess looks at us questioningly. She asks us what we would like. She serves us.

Then she asks a question neither of us was expecting: “Aren’ t you from Floornature?”

We look at each other, at a loss. She sees our confusion and goes on: “I’ m one of your social media followers. In the past few years, I’ve seen your selfies in Moscow, Berlin and other cities. I can’ t remember all of them.”

“You mean, you really follow us? Thank-you. I hope you’ve come to know architecture a bit, at least the way we see it”.

She continues: “Yes, I have. I’d love to ask you lots of questions, but I’m working right now”. She smiles and waves, and gets on with her job. We look at each other and burst out laughing. Without realizing it, she made us think about the importance of being real and credible in the world of virtual communication: the web.

Our chat with the hostess set off a debate in our team – formed of people from different professional backgrounds – not so much because she recognized us, but because it also proved that our hard work pays off in unexpected ways. We asked ourselves what was so different about the way architecture was now communicated and how it ended up connecting the experts and the enthusiasts. When it comes down to it, “selfies” are simply the visual representation of extensive research into communication, the result of investigating what we see and how much we really want to see. We have used them to turn the information scattered all over the boundless Internet into something real and genuine. In this case, selfies are simply tools – like so many others – that tie together real things and events, putting them into a context and giving them witnesses. To tell the truth, we don’ t believe that using this latest trend in visual expression is wrong or clichéd; we see it as a contemporary form of communication that helps circulate culture.

In actual fact, we believe that the people on the receiving side of a communication trend may think it is a cliché, but the people who use that trend as part of their project, to convey an ethical message with cultural content certainly don’ t see it that way. If we look at it in this perspective, deliberately using selfies means accepting that projects use the new web media to decipher culture and make it accessible to the public at large, which of course includes architecture experts. And when images are created like this, they can communicate, they can grab your attention and they can be recognized by architecture scholars and enthusiasts alike. Of course, through the years we haven’ t just delved into the world of selfies – they are merely one of the web’ s many expressions. What we have actually done is to explore everything that we thought could promote the awareness and dissemination of architecture. This includes recognizing the subject of an image, critically assessing the project, seeing what is happening in the field of architecture in real time and looking at the built work through the eyes of the social media.

The first thing we realized was that there is no right or wrong way to communicate architecture on the Internet; still, real time strategies are evolving and this is what we need to recognize. Online communication is constantly changing and authors must be ready to change with it, because their job is to pass on cultural information. The elements used for communication may take the form of photographs, short text, infographics and selfies, but good communicators, guided by ethics, always know which one suits which circumstances.

In recognizing these elements, we then internalize, process and plan them, so as to continue our communication and understanding of the complex field of architecture, whose images now engage more than ever with its actual appearance.

The web has altered our perception of reality, it has changed our relationship with space and with time. Still, it’ s just as true and fascinating to note that this change has opened up new lines of communication. While it is true that nowadays things exist because they are on the web, since we come to know them visually, through their images, it is those same images that are the expression of their creative design.

These images exist because they are real and because they influence the design creativity of each and every one of us. If we add that we can no longer distinguish between what we think and what has already been made public visually1, then we need to delve deeply into the web of communication, because now our tradecraft – as authors – is to spin the threads of that very web. All the more so, if you think that the approach to a field like architecture is simultaneously a space to pass through and experience, a representation of its existence and an outline of a thousand-year-old history reaching towards a future of possible successes.

We only need think of what happens when we go online and browse through dedicated sites or when we scroll down the social network pages: in that moment in time, we each see what we are searching for, unfiltered, convinced that we have extreme freedom of thought. But that’ s not really the case, because how can we be sure that what we are looking at corresponds to true freedom of action and physical reality?

In actual fact, the exact opposite occurs – we mainly stumble on the visual mythical rendering2 of a construction or of an event. With this new approach to viewing, web users construct their own possible and plausible truth about the events or the architectural creations, but the communication they actually take in is the result of the mediation of the authors, who use images to convey and spread their messages. So, with its complex spatial reality and its visual representation, architecture needs new rules to be communicated.

From here, our team attempted to come up with an explanation for this user mindset and to develop a set of rules or systems that would help spread a message. The goal was to pass on ethically correct, free information that could also be verified. A real challenge in the World Wide Web, where falsehoods tend to flourish more than the truth. We also determined that when news is published on the Internet, three different moments in time are experienced simultaneously: the here and now, the layering and the research. A triad that occurs in the precise instant that we go online, because users perceive the present as the moment they connect to the Internet. It doesn’ t matter where on earth we are, and it makes no difference if we are searching for the latest news, or for events scattered through time, or experiences in the past. What we see is all there, right here and now and if there is no personal filter built into the new web culture, for users everything looks as if it were constantly in the present.

So, our whole news story – or perhaps a better definition would be our story about the world of architecture – must be contained in the images that are published, composed of words and visual representations, since it disappears and reappears every time we go online. And that’ s not all. Users go in different directions every time they search, even if they are looking for the same topic. For example, you can search for a general “Le Corbusier” as a name, or as an image, or the words “Le Corbusier” plus other words; you can even drag and drop a picture of “Ronchamp Chapel” and find all other similar images, or the same work might be posted on the social media and you can trace the portal or blog that published it. I’ d like to meet anyone who has done a search for information and not come up with at least ten different ways to find it. And on the way, you fi nd out things about the work that you weren’ t even looking for, like its newsworthiness, its background, or its author. To tell the truth, as you click your way around the web, from link to link, you leave a thread, a memory, a map of the direction you took to get to the information you were searching for. And the next time you search for similar information, you’ ll set out on another journey, from link to link, with a brand new set of encounters, connections and digressions to explore. Which is why we need information that can always go back to where it started out, back to its origins, since its purpose is to disseminate a change or a construction, without altering the principles that generated the information, or the people that critically commented it.

At this point in the process of constructing the information through the image that represents it, it is important to realize that it doesn’t matter who was the first or last person to actually construct that information but the person who disseminated it. Hans Belting supports this when he says: “Our inner images are not always of an individual nature, although we totally internalise and keep them as our own, even if they have a collective origin.” He points at the perception of images and as a consequence at the information they embody, because if those images are turned into an element of a project, involving observers and ensuring that they absorb the content, then those same observers will begin to see it as their own, turning it into an architectural myth to share. So we realized that the truth of architecture lies in its myth and we had to learn how to build that myth in order to turn it into the project of our publishing work.

Perhaps now you can approach this book from a diff erent perspective. Four individual experiences, united by the same research and by the same professional relationship. Four experiences built on the ethics of communication, four people who have shrugged off any prejudice they may have had against the new information media in order to turn that communication into a fi eld of study that can drive the consolidated, traditional way of spreading architecture. The four essays are supplemented by the views of a range of authors, snippets of other experiences in the World Wide Web written by people who are in daily contact with the tradecraft of architecture, who appreciate the importance of dissemination.

This essay was excerpted from Architecture on the Web: A critical approach to communication. The book is available for purchase at Libreria Universitaria and Amazon.

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