Monetising Architectural Fame
1. Not many architects get jobs by word-of-mouth anymore. In the past, an architect would design a building, some visitor would admire it, ask who the architect was and commission them. The architect would oblige with a design and a few other services and the client would pay the architect. It was simple and direct. Frank Lloyd Wright’s early under-the-radar buildings in Chicago were some of the last of this type of transaction (at least for him) after working his way through his first wife’s address book. The photo below is a recent photograph but, in 1895, the only way other people could see this house was by driving by in their horse and carriage (as Henry Ford did not start the Ford Motor company until 1903) or by seeing an engraving of it in a newspaper. Back then, architectural ideas did not travel very far, or very quickly.
2. Magazines speeded up the process. 1896 saw the first edition of The Architectural Review. 1897 saw the first edition of the new lifestyle magazine Country Life created by Edward Hudson. He very much admired the architect Edwin Lutyens and commissioned Lutyens for a number of projects, including Lindisfarne Castle and the Country Life headquarters building in London, at 8 Tavistock Street. Most of Lutyens’ buildings were featured in the magazine soon after they were built and much of Lutyens’ fame is due to this magazine. Here is a photograph of Lutyens’ Deanery Gardens, built 1905.
This early function of magazines enabled an architect to advertise his product to potential clients outside the range of his immediate contacts. The readership of Country Life was not aspirational – most of its readers were wealthy already. The process of getting jobs was still much like word-of-mouth, only bigger and faster. 3. This all changed with newspaper photojournalism. In 1897 it became possible to reproduce halftone photographs (such as the one above) in newspapers and selected magazines such as Country Life but the use of photographs in newspapers and magazines wasn’t common until the 1930s. “Did modern photography beget modern architecture, or the converse?” P. Morton Shand asked in a 1934 article in The Architectural Review. Apparently, he never answered the question, but concluded, “Without modern photography modern architecture could never have been ‘put across’.” An earlier post dealt with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater as an early example of photo-op architecture, the accusation being that Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater as a pretty scene that would photograph well in newspapers and magazines everywhere, and that it would bring him lots of attention. It did.
Note the year – 1937. People were now enjoying photographs in newspapers and magazines. It was no longer necessary to visit a building to get an idea of what it was like or to form an opinion of it. This was the end of innocence for architects. Architects might still get the occasional job via word-of-mouth. A potential client might still pick up a magazine, and then the phone. But the real change was that buildings weren’t being designed solely for end users anymore. They began to be designed to make an impression on people who had no chance of ever commissioning an architect. The remainder of this post is about who’s using who and why, and who gets what in return. 4. Architects provide content to newspapers, magazines and online media. They do this for free. Clients are irrelevant, unless an architect wants to generate content about doing the right thing by them, satisfying their individual and unique needs to make them seem special, etc. Architects who create their brand in this way never solve a similar problem for a similar client in a similar way because being “inventive” is their selling point. 5. Online media is targeted at you and me. They want us to search and subscribe. They want to tell us they have something to tell us. These days, if we are not a content provider, then we are a content consumer. If we are all looking at an endless stream of images online, perhaps even like-ing it or commenting on it (and so providing new content for others to like, comment on or discuss) then that online site want to monetize it with some advertising $$. Look at sites like ArchDaily or Dezeen – there’s nobody home, no meaningful editorial, just an endless stream of new images and new comments sent into space – these sites basically run themselves. Sweet. Now, if architects have provided a website with content, and if a website gets advertising revenue, then what’s in it for the architect? Nothing, yet. People who check architectural websites because they’re bored at work aren’t the kind of people who are going to employ an architect. Website visitors get nothing back apart some from entertainment or diversion presented as news or information connecting them vaguely to an endeavour once considered distinguished and noble. Nevertheless, the online consumers of architectural imagery must be generating something of value to architects or else architects would not contribute their content in the first place. What’s more, it must be doing whatever it’s doing better than magazines ever did. 6. We generate “buzz”. We make noise. We make architects famous. Sadly, the architecture doesn’t have to be good or useful. All it needs to do is get us talking about it. By giving publicity to architects who don’t care to make good or useful buildings, we’re actually responsible for a lot of the bad architecture in the world. We’re the third side of this two-way triangular trade. We’re entertained and amused by architectural websites and we give them advertising revenue (and have our details farmed as yet more content for them to sell). We generate the noise so when some rich client who knows nothing about anything wants a building and asks “who’s big right now?” a name gets mentioned. This is why architects don’t want us to forget about them. The fame we assign them is responsible for bad architecture. If we don’t like or aren’t entertained by, say, OMA’s latest, we have ourselves to blame. This is why buildings never get any better. You will notice that once they have reached a certain level of fame, many architects decide to take up teaching positions. They are not going to find clients at a university but they can shape the opinions of the people who create the fame that attracts clients. There are so many famous architects teaching at so many universities around the world, that one has to wonder who exactly is minding the shop back home? 7. Architecture doesn’t progress. It just changes when we get bored. How else can we explain post-modernism? Or deconstructivism for that matter? If it weren’t for the fact it’s all a huge waste of resources, it wouldn’t really matter. Even though we can’t say that architecture “progressed” or what it might have progressed towards, it amused us for a little while. 8. We get to say thank you! Not only do we provide architects with fame but we also provide them with money. We bestow fame upon them and they monetize that fame back at us in several ways. 8a. If we can’t afford a building then we can pay for the experience of some building they have designed for someone else. This pay-per-view architecture happens a lot these days and was dealt with in an earlier post titled Three Nasty Trends in Architecture. The fame of the architect is given a value as part of a client’s business plan. 8b. If we don’t want to visit such a building (or have already done it) the next thing we can do is pay for some goods that architect has designed for somebody else. The only ones on offer used to be furniture, but the range has widened incredibly of late. Hadid shoes, Gehry watches, Foster faucets … For architects in the advanced stages of fame, it isn’t necessary to design buildings for any reason other than to keep the brand alive. 8c. If we can’t afford those, then we could always be a bit retro and pay for a book.
8f. Or perhaps pay to study at some fancy university in the hope of picking up a few tricks.
9. If you’d like to be rich, copy not what they do but how they did it. The world of architecture parallels the world of fashion in many ways. The creation of star designers, for one. The fact that architecture is always changing but never actually improving or moving towards any kind of perfection, is another. But the most important is the creation of a strong brand image via the supposed core product – haute couture clothes in the case of fashion, or creative one-off buildings in the case of architecture. In the world of fashion, the brand is created to shift perfume to the rest of us. In the world of architecture, we can still feel a part of its creativity and glamour by the ways listed above.
10. You can always work for a famous architect for little or no pay. Somebody has to mind the shop and do some work while they’re away lecturing. If you’re really keen, you can pay them to let you work for them. You’ve got to hand it to Frankie. He was ahead of his time in that respect. So there’s no need to feel left out if you can’t afford a building. You can keep the architectural wheels turning and sponsor your favourite architect. Show them how much you care! Live the dream!