Insta-Architecture: How Social Media Will Build Buildings
Katie Dabbs in Social Media, architecture, fifty On, fifty On

Image: Flickr

We have evolved into digitized beasts capable of sending personal statements in a matter of seconds. Whether through images, posts, invites, and tweets, we have the ability to disseminate opinions and ideas – from the half-baked to the fully-fledged – in a moments notice. We communicate daily with audiences comprised of people we know and some we don’t and while many use it to dish out selfies, troll celebs, or express their very public infatuation for a favorite donut shop, I can’t help but consider how harvesting these opinions can (and will) affect the practice of design.

Virtual Reality headsets could have a profound impact on architecture and design. Image: Flickr

Along with the drafting board, gone are the days of glittering hand sculpted models and hardcover presentation books. In is 3D printing, Oculus Rift, rendered videos and social media. Case in point: Rupert Murdoch’s media companies, 21st Century and Fox, pushing aside Norman Foster, now 80, for the young parvenu Bjarke Ingels’ to design the fourth and final skyscraper at 2 World Trade. As Paul Goldberger described in his recent Vanity Fair article, “This change signifies more than Oedipal rumblings in the architectural world. It may say even more about the world of media, and not just Murdoch’s media.”

As a public relations professional having spent my short career working within architecture firms, it’s my job to illustrate to the media what actually goes into making a building. The craft, the materials, the methods, the technology, the camaraderie, the partnerships, the manpower. Social media gives us a powerful tool that consumer-driven companies have jumped head first into while design industry is playing catch up. “Twitter became my form of Google for a second,” said, none-other than social media monarch Kim Kardashian in her recent, and some would say unexpected, interview at the Re/code conference. She’d ask questions to her 34.7 million followers – their review of movies, places to dine, what shade of pink a perfume bottle should be. Although her questions seem trivial, she has proved the ability to gather prized brand insight in a matter of seconds.

Public opinion is playing a greater role in architecture today. Enough scrutiny, especially as it relates to public architecture (think: convention centers, stadiums, museums, airports), can change the course of projects. A quick Google search will show you the public outcry centered around the Frick Collection’s proposed expansion which had considered replacing a prized garden on East 70th Street in Manhattan with an addition. The change proposed in Summer 2014 was recalled in June 2015 with the Frick’s promise to come up with a new plan, one that would spare the beloved garden and respond to public concern. Public opinion is powerful. While the average public architecture project takes years, thousands of man-hours, and typically hundreds of millions of dollars, it significantly impacts the community it occupies. Public architecture can change people’s lives for better or worse. It is therefore necessary to ensure these structures provide maximize ROI – socially, economically and emotionally.

Because it’s impossible for architects and designers to correctly anticipate every potential wart that could plague a project and cause problems down the road, harnessing the opinions of everyday people is one way to cure potential maladies before they rear their ugly heads. Clients who commission public architecture are savvier than ever—they understand what design brings to the table and push designers to experiment and take risks. They also yearn for public dialogue with the end users who will be using their spaces. Making the creative process behind the design more visible can surface necessary critiques before a single brick is laid. Increased public awareness can shed light on the problems that our buildings could and should be solving, but may not be in their current iterations.

This is where social media comes in to play. It’s never been easier to gather and analyze the opinions of critical masses of people, and it’s become quite common for organizations from clothing retailers to consumer product companies to survey social media users which they then use this data to inform their decisions. There’s a certain honesty that social media, as opposed to traditional survey tools, engenders. On social media, people feel empowered to express themselves without any sort of filter. Sometimes users cross the line by spewing polemic or getting downright nasty, but more often than not they provide brutally honest and incisive feedback, giving interested parties a better understanding of what the community expects from the world around them.

Image: Flickr

Architects and designers can and should use social media to achieve similar results. Our profession has long relied on data points and various metrics to measure the impact that design has on its users. Now we can use social media to surface opinions and criticisms of designs-in-the-making and completed spaces in need of a rehab. Instagram and Facebook provide community feedback in a form of a “like” or positive comment; Pinterest illustrates what is truly popular and what isn’t through “pins”. Social media has the power to eradicate the days of tedious data collecting—there are focus groups galore available online. Stuck in a rut? Need an opinion on a material you’re contemplating using? A façade option you’re about to pitch a client? Need to understand how users are interacting with their spaces? Dish the question to your followers. Allow them to react. Convey the opinion to your client. Charge ahead.

Image: Iwan Baan photograph of The Broad, via Instagram

I think Iwan Baan, heralded the most wanted architectural photographer by The Wall Street Journal, has the best social media strategy in the design industry to date. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he is indispensable to the likes of Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Herzog & de Meuron. His photographs are instantly dispensed to magazines and newspapers that fight for the exclusive, but his Instagram account reveals a side of architecture that his polished pictures don’t. His photos take you behind the scenes. Footage of the places he visits, the people he meets during his travels, and the buildings he shoots, sans the gloss. Baan takes us on his journey that resonates with the minds and hearts of his followers. In these stolen moments, people connect with architecture.

My inner Miss Cleo says that this is the way of the future. This is how we will build buildings. We will poll our fans, let the public in, take their temperature, connect them with their buildings before they are built, and take them on the design journey with us. We will make this multifaceted and incredibly nuanced process simple, and possibly superior. We will use it to uncover the best solutions. More information yields more educated decisions. We will gauge real-time reactions before pressing on. Our audience will help guide us.

As the next generation of leaders graduate into the C-Suite, social media is undoubtedly going to play a major part in architecture’s progression. Could it even democratize design? We have the technology in our hands to become bona fide cultural influencers; we just need to be bold enough to use them.

Katie Dabbs is the public relations manager in Gensler’s New York office but her passion for design long surpasses her time working within architecture firms. Born into the industry, with a father working as a freelance architect and a mother an artist, she grew up drawing on tracing paper and using a drafting board with an electric eraser to do her schoolwork. Educated in journalism and media relations, she sees her collection of experiences as an opportunity to provide a unique point of view within design firms. Katie has secured prominent placements in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fast Company, WWD, among others. Contact her at or connect with her on LinkedIn.
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