A few years back I was researching how advertising works in popular websites like ArchDaily and Dezeen. With the fake premise of a product to sell, I contacted these outlets to see how much an average ad would run me. The cost was, unsurprisingly, huge. In the thousands huge. But what I did learn was just how complex the online advertising economy was. ArchDaily sent me a PDF filled with charts describing concepts like “market share,” “impressions,” and “targeting.” After coming to terms with the industry jargon, what captured my interest the most was the concept of sponsored content.
Sponsored content, as you might already be aware, is a post that looks like an article, but is in actuality an advertisement. Much has been written about the culture of sponsored content, influencers, etc. But what piqued my curiosity during this research was how architects were engaging with these new economic value models. Architecture is a notoriously slow profession in many ways yet architecture culture has adopted sponsored content relatively quickly. I’ve witnessed many small firms “boosting” their Instagram profiles for more views and monetizing designed objects or visual media. Architecture schools have also been promoting their programs under the guise of posts in Facebook and Instagram. These posts, while somewhat conspicuous, betray themselves with a little tag labeled “sponsored” at the top (the most recent I can recall was an ad for Sci-Arc’s introductory summer program). Architecture has embraced the economics of digital social platforms.
There is little doubt that what you see on your feed is actively being monetized and quantified into impressions—clicks that gauge interest in goods or services—in real-time. But it seems that this value system has subsumed cultural material as well. For some, sharing an image today is less a communal pastime than an attempt to gain the clout necessary to produce value (read: build). This is perhaps best seen in the rise of architecture-specific public relations firms such as THIS X THAT, a Los Angeles-based agency that represents “progressive architects.” THIS X THAT promotes architectural projects and offices, focusing mostly on younger practices eager to establish themselves. Like other PR firms, their main goal is to provide communication materials and actively promote their clients on social media. And as you can imagine, these services are not cheap. Online platforms like e-flux Architecture could also fit into this category, though they do not advertise personal projects. E-flux will sell you email blasts for your gallery show, symposium, or other cultural event. While the commercialization of Instagram initially allowed independent artists to gain exposure and profit from their labor, the ruthlessness and competitiveness of the market creates and widens chasms between those who can afford exposure and those who cannot. Architects’ social media presence, for better or worse, can now be inflated either through sponsored content or public-relations consultants.
Disciplinary lore has it that firms in the 70s and 80s were kept afloat by selling artworks. The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), for instance, would sell paintings of their projects by Madelon Vriesendorp. Daniel Libeskind sold his experimental drawings to private collectors. Such were the days of paper architecture, the era when cultural capital was accrued through the exchange of paintings and drawings. Of course, this was only possible if the work had some clout, or say was featured in magazines such as Architectural Design or Casabella. It’s not like Zaha Hadid was auctioning off artworks on the street.
Recently some have tried to reincarnate paper architecture’s art-value model. In 2018, the A+D Museum in Los Angeles began commissioning artworks by architects, artists, and designers. Their Impermanent Collection was established as a rotating gift shop of unique treasures that would earn revenue for the museum as well as royalties for the creators. (I myself contributed a small piece that was never sold.) Another instance is the 2020 Design Yard Sale initiated by students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Here, artworks were donated and exchanged as a fundraiser for various social equity initiatives. They ended up raising $126,000. The successes of these endeavors might suggest a reinvigorated appreciation for design artifacts such as drawings and prints. But it’s still difficult to imagine funding an architecture firm today by selling media, even a small one.
So can we liken paper architecture to today’s social media model of value? Though there are perhaps few real “influencers” in architecture culture, there are clear hierarchies discernable in social media. Think about projects that gain traction, or images you see over and over again. In a way, this is related tangentially to Kate Wagner’s notion of PR-chitecture, that phenomenon where projects are driven by buzzwords and glossy imagery. PR-chitecture is abundant on social media and asks: what’s worth more, the project or the image of the project? Value here is more situated in advertising than artistic appraisal; PR-chitecture relies on clicks (read: clickbait) rather than content. Nevertheless, those that do get promoted tend to drive popular perception of the field.
If the above reads like a cynical criticism of advertising and sponsored content, it’s probably because of the difficulty in discussing capitalism’s components optimistically. On the contrary, architecture’s embrace of the social media economy need not be self-destructive. In fact, there are opportunities within these extractive mechanisms that may open up the discourse in unforeseen ways. One example might be the kind of meme-activism pioneered by the Instagram accounts @dank.lloyd.wright and @sssscavvvv. Far from being aesthetically pleasing, these accounts operate using the same influencer model but with different ends in mind. Both promote equity and activism through open critique of systemic injustices and biases in the discipline and the profession of architecture at large. @sssscavvvv, for instance, uses sponsored content to engage other fields such as gaming and internet culture and expand the typically insular bubble of capital-a-architecture. The online magazine Failed Architecture also provides another model of criticism. As a radical alternative to the PR-chitecture of ArchDaily, for instance, Failed Architecture critiques the contemporary built environment and, in their words, reconnects it to the “real world.” Failed Architecture even hosted a kind of roast of recent architecture on Twitch to ring in the new year 2021.
In addition to reinforcing the failures of late-stage capitalism, these rampant economic pressures (to gain followers, to monetize your creative products, etc.) are exhaustive. They extract our desires and mutate them into unhealthy habits. Moreover, I find myself succumbing to many of them, kicking myself every time I accidentally like a sponsored post or think about purchasing a post promotion. It’s very difficult to resist the attention economy, particularly during a pandemic in which my screen-time has quadrupled (a conservative estimate). It’s all incredibly dystopian in the most mundane way. Though there is some dark comfort, at least for me, in knowing we’re all experiencing it together.