Architects: get Tweeting

As someone running both personal and work-related accounts, I live a bit of a divided Twitter life.

These parallel paths, and the differences between them, have revealed the opportunities that this famously brief medium offers architects and the discussion of architecture and city-making generally.

Here’s why I think Twitter is a neat fit for architects:

Architecture is visual – photographs are the obvious instrument with which to slice the good, bad, and ugly.

Brevity – it's good practice for architects to talk about big ideas using small words.

It’s for listening – every day is like a public consultation on what is missing or not working in our cities. Twitter lets anyone access these comments at any scale; from a poor pavement detail that reduces accessibility, to a major building and its effects on the skyline. As a member of a profession sometimes stereotyped as disconnected from the public it serves, this is particularly valuable.
It’s how we share what interests and influences us – and this goes both ways. For example, my ongoing fascination with music and coding as cousins of architecture has connected me with ideas and people who have shaped my design thinking.

Authorship – one of the strongest reasons for an architecture practice to enter this space is to claim its work. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen Warren and Mahoney work being discussed without people knowing it was ours. One example was a picture posted (by frequent Idealog contributor Vaughn Davis) of a large concrete section of the Point Resolution Bridge being trucked to its site in Parnell. Not only was this an unexpected way for someone to share architecture in-the-making, but being able to post a link to the finished design was a small (but I think important) piece of professional advocacy, and a way to show how that piece of concrete was going to become a new landmark for Auckland.

Culture – despite what heat pump advertisements would tell you, architects don’t all wear black polo necks and own hairless cats. Whether it’s a photo of one of our Friday night internal presentations, Santa visiting on our staff Kid's Day, or the metres of pizza that sustain a late night effort, we like to show that although we are a practice of over 200 staff, we are a tight-knit crew and every day is different.

At my personal account I comment a lot on architecture, but also puns, space exploration, letters to the editor, bad signage, and advanced passive/aggressive office notes. However, as the @warrenmahoney Twitter administrator my focus right now is on building our follower base and promotion of our work. We have some exciting plans for later in the year, and look forward to our Twitter presence being part of that.

There is a high level of interest from the general public, users of our buildings, and those who may commission projects in the future, in seeing the processes of design and building. Across our six studios on any given day this might range from early sketches, to images of the building site under excavation, to materials being swung into place or the cascade of site welding sparks, or a dawn blessing opening a project. This is a strong complement to the traditional focus on completed images of buildings, as well as an insight into what a day in the life of our studio looks like. Likewise, I’m very interested in starting this conversation with students and future architects early, when it’s most valuable.

Twitter is not highly used by NZ architects – many firms are absent, or post only infrequently or in a very one-way fashion. I’m pleased to see the New Zealand Institute of Architects has recently joined, and challenge more architects and practices to get involved in the discussion. Architecture is a very broad profession, and a greater number of informed voices will foster a more diverse discussion, and even a little healthy dissent.

While by its very nature Twitter is ephemeral, with each thought rapidly displaced by the next in line, it remains a permanent record.  As such, we’re increasingly interested in the way it is becoming a valuable archive of not just the appearance, but the experience of an event such as the Christchurch rebuild, given from a variety of perspectives. 

The large number of Tweets and images posted (particularly during demolition), reminded us how strong, and how drawn out, the sense of loss is as the city’s built fabric is removed. It’s not easy to imbue buildings with human characteristics, but the regular images posted during the demolition of the Central Library Building (which Warren and Mahoney designed in 1982) showed not only how fondly that building was viewed and the memories it contained, but also its defiance, resilience, and resistance to the dreaded ‘nibbler’. I was able to share these sentiments with our staff, including those who had even worked on design of the original building.

From my first tentative Tweets and follows, I’ve enjoyed the way Twitter connects by common interest, rather than acquaintance. Add in the virality of the Retweet, and a few doses of serendipity, and I’ve been able to hear (or sometimes, challenge) more views about architecture than I could possibly find offline. It’s given visibility, albeit only virtually, to groups who are absent or underrepresented in our city and these views influence my design decisions every day.

If you’re talking, I’m listening.

@rarchbarch and @warrenmahoney

Richard Archbold is an architect and Principal at Warren and Mahoney’s Auckland Studio.