At one of our annual Reinvention symposia several years ago, we toured a recently built custom home on a waterfront site. It was a very handsome modern house in an area known for lots of other modern houses and a sophisticated market for high design in general. So I and our other attendees were quite surprised to see, attached to the dock next door, an angry looking handmade sign disparaging both the architect and the house we were there to admire.
Not only did this lay critic take to the high seas to make his views known, he also took to cyberspace, maligning our architect friend throughout the Internet. Who was this one-man design vigilante? A disgruntled neighbor. We saw his house, too, when we came to visit. And, let’s just say, it is not destined to win any design awards. It might even merit its own online hate site.
The accessibility and reach of the Web has taken these homegrown scuffles and given them a national—even international—stage. Now and forever, anyone who Googles our architect’s name also will pull up this vituperation. Journalists, relatives, and, worst of all, potential clients will filter this venom into their overall impression of our quite talented practitioner.
In the past, small-town architects knew they might run into neighbors at the grocery store and that kept them conciliatory, if not artistically compromised, at every step of the design and construction process. Well, the World Wide Web, as we used to call it, is now a global grocery store where everyone can run into you—even if you’re dressed in sweats and wearing a cap to cover your dirty hair. You thought you could slip in for a quick quart of milk ...
It’s a sobering, perhaps even staggering, lesson about the power of the Web to make our lives more difficult. We already knew we could use its power for the good of our businesses, but many of us have yet to feel the sting of its dark side.
For architects, the import is clear. There’s a new imperative to really consider the neighbors and context where you work. If your project can be seen by others; others will have a strong opinion of it. You may not want to seek their buy in, but the cost of not addressing their concerns has grown exponentially larger.
How would you feel about a Facebook page devoted to slamming you and your work—with hundreds of fans on board? Alas, it’s happening everywhere—especially on large commercial projects with imbedded controversy and impassioned opponents. Even out-of-town architects are not exempt. Gone are the days when they could swoop into a new city and impose their design brilliance on communities they only superficially understand. Thanks to the pervasiveness of search engines, the court of public opinion is now only keystrokes away. In other words, what happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas.
Maybe this new accountability isn’t such a bad thing. Our editors at the magazine have recently spurned a number of projects for publication because of the heartless treatment of existing structures. Some of the new work is quite good in isolation, but none had the luxury of pure isolation. Instead, these projects mounted a full frontal assault on their surroundings.
One wonders what those neighbors are Tweeting about the architects. Here at the magazine, we talked only among ourselves, before we quietly hit the delete button.
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