A seemingly never-ending debate exists regarding the authority of architects to dictate design decisions to the wider public. Given that it is those people who will ultimately inhabit and live with the structures we create, what right do we have to tell them what’s good for them? Is our lengthy architectural education enough to negate their lay perspective, assuming they will trust in our professional judgment, specialist knowledge, and theoretical standpoints? Do we really know best?
Of course, the optimistic amongst us will be confident that our thorough education and subsequent years of professional experience puts architects in the best position possible to shape the built environment for the benefit of society as a whole. However, simply producing great designs is not enough; the clear communication of those designs is critical to winning the support of our clients, local residents, city councils, and the public at large.
Zaha Hadid’s recent loss of the 2020 Olympic Stadium commission in Tokyo is a notable example of what can happen if we fail to convince each and every one of these influential parties. On the flip side, the collaborative effort undertaken by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro to realize the High Line goes to show how popular a project can become with the help of ongoing dialogue and input from the local community.
So, what can architects do to enhance their powers of persuasion? Here are five firms who utilize different mediums to communicate their ideas, sometimes to individual clients — and occasionally to a much larger audience.
BIG’s diagrams for West 57th, the Meatpacking District, New York City
1. Diagrams by BIG
Bjarke Ingels has developed a sterling reputation as an architectural storyteller, and his firm is particularly well-known for its diagrams, which aim to promote clarity and remove pretension from the design process. A great example is the graphic sequence used to explain the pyramidal shape of the West 57th apartment building in Manhattan.
By now, you will no doubt have seen at least one of the studio’s step-by-step model manipulations. The simple, Sketchup-style renderings are easy to understand, giving clients and the wider public a clear idea of BIG’s project development. While they can sometimes appear formulaic, the diagrams have caught on as an accessible communication device, and dozens of firms have adopted the medium.
Richard Meier Model Museum, courtesy Richard Meier and Partners.
2. Models by Richard Meier and Partners
We recently reported on the power of models to bring design concepts to life, as Allied Works Architecture prepare to display theirs for all to see in a major new exhibition in Denver. Another firm to harness three dimensions more than most is Richard Meier and Partners, which now has an entire museum dedicated to models of some of its most famous creations, including detailed renditions of the iconic Neugebauer Residence and Smith House.
By allowing people to get up close and personal to these finely crafted works of timber veneer, Meier gives everyone a chance to get under the proverbial skin of each project, and it is safe to say that the clients are much more swiftly convinced of an architect’s intentions when they lay their eyes on these miniature masterpieces.
3. Visualizations by Squint/Opera
They aren’t architects themselves, but they have quickly become indispensable to major firms around the globe with their brand of unique and often breathtaking animations of the buildings we envision. Squint/Opera’s team of digital artists create quirky architectural trailers and stills that have that rare ability to make clients smile, a fact that has spawned great success: people buy into big ideas much more easily when they are enjoying themselves!
The principle is encapsulated by the Squint/Opera’s tagline: “Great Stories Told Well.” Firms that have benefited from the studio’s animated box of tricks include the aforementioned BIG, designers of the utopian Europa City on the outskirts of Paris, and international players AECOM, which tapped Squint/Opera to bring its Rio 2016 Olympic Park masterplan to life.
4. Presentations by Heatherwick Studio
Sure, not every architect is going to rise to such prominence that they can book themselves a slot on the prestigious TED stage, but Thomas Heatherwick’s talk illustrates the potential for multimedia presentations to help tell stories and communicate our ideas to both clients and the wider world. The list of TED speakers from the architectural world is quite something: Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, and Architizer’s own Marc Kushner of HWKN have all taken to the platform in recent years.
The scale of event matters not, though: even in a meeting with developers or the board at your local town hall, these same communication skills can help support your designs. By talking with passion and enthusiasm about your project, you can show genuine belief in what you are proposing. Clients appreciate a candid pitch, and a dash of humor also goes a long way!
Via the “Life of an Architect” Facebook page.
5. Social Media by Malone Maxwell Borson Architects
Most architects still use Facebook and Twitter to broadcast factual news about their firms. That’s just fine, but Bob Borson of “Life of an Architect” fame has shown that we can do so much more to communicate our working process to clients and a wider audience.
Circa multiple online platforms, Bob paints a detailed picture of studio life, offering thoughts on everything from conceptual sketching techniques to real-world design details. Critic Alexandra Lange nailed it in her article on Dezeen last year, proclaiming: “Social media can do more for architecture than showcase pretty faces and soundbites. Architects need to start thinking of social media as the first draft of history.”
Top image: London 2012 Olympic Park by Squint/Opera.