What good is architecture if we don’t look up and recognize it? Why bother creating space if we choose not to engage with it? And what good are materials if we have not the senses to experience them?
Last weekend I was walking around a park taking pictures on my phone…when it died. In a fit of rage, I fell back into my bench looking up from the screen in bewilderment and frustration when I noticed something quite incredible. Everyone around me was tapping on the screens of their own phones. We were – as Sherry Turkle says in her book of the same name – alone together. More and more, we find ourselves neglecting the people and places around us for the people and places within our tiny little screens. Like the spaces they create, architects have become just as vulnerable to this shift in human interaction. The more people begin to favor digital interaction over physical interaction, the more irrelevant architecture will become. And as we continue to exchange our engagement with tangible space for that of an intangible universe, unless it adapts, architecture will simply lie in wait like Townes Van Zandt waitin’ around to die.
Fortunately, acknowledging these ideas is easier than waitin’ around to die. But with a continual increase in the number of distractions available to us, it won’t be enough to simply “Like” architecture anymore; rather architecture must begin to participate with us it in a way it has never been available to before. Architects have a pretty exciting opportunity to re-assert themselves as culturally relevant to a society under this premise. I don’t know how it will be done, but I believe that innovative material applications and strategies will lead the way towards realizing these potentials. Sure, architecture students, teachers and practitioners are all more than aware of the ideas surrounding “social” architecture and spaces; they’ve been discussing it for decades. Likewise, these architecture insiders often speak of “cultural” obligations to society, but what they create in response more often than not goes unnoticed as such by the rest of us. But within the social media revolution lie opportunities for architecture to begin engaging with a majority of the population unaware of and apathetic to architectural concepts. In the Metropolis Magazine article titled “Here but Not Here,” Andrew Blum explains that “the impact of media in our experience of space has entirely transformed: what was once one-way (the Jumbotron and the video wall) is now two-way,” and that this very same media “has become as much a factor in our experience of space as the play of light and shadow on a wall.” But how can this be translated into architecture? How can architects harness social media within the design of space like Steven Holl harnesses light to dynamically alter solid surfaces?
After reading Blum’s article, my wife – a social media advertising strategist – made the comment that people don’t necessarily care whether or not they engage with the space around them. She is more right than most architects will ever choose to admit. But what she missed was that the architect has a new opportunity in which to create space that engages those within it. Again, I don’t know what this will be, nor do I have any examples to reinforce my statement, I simply think it’s a worthy topic for designers to begin discussing. But whether social media in architecture evolves from innovative material applications or from the organization of space, architects must adapt to the exodus of physical engagement. Architecture can either continue to stand aside and whither away into irrelevance, or it can adapt to this evolution of social technology to engage us.