Today, many architects design with a building’s final images in mind. They create their work according to how the building will look on a screen. Most clients are even asking specifically for Instagrammable architecture and, overall, I believe that the quality of architecture and interiors has improved dramatically. Clients are now exposed to beautiful design, recent and not, from all over the world, and they want more from a brand’s environment. They know in real time what is being built in Japan, London or Shanghai, and they expect the same quality for the interiors or the buildings in their direct vicinity.
If we want to analyze how this started, I believe we need to go as far back as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao. In terms of images, it seems this was the first building that exploded in popularity (today we would say that it went viral), as it was published outside of the limited circle of architectural magazines. It was completely radical, unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, especially in the previously low-key, traditional city of Bilbao.
Indeed, it is said to symbolize the “new Bilbao.” Bilbao was clear proof that modern architecture could be not only a building, but a show, and a show brings people, popularity, tourists and of course profits to the city.
From here on out, the “Bilbao Effect” was coined and increasingly replicated.
Parallel to this, probably not entirely coincidentally, was the booming advent of the internet and, of course, social media.
Humankind experienced several technological breakthroughs that changed the way we designed our environment: the discovery of the arches 4,000 years ago, cable-suspended bridges, reinforced concrete, the car, etc. Cities like Brasilia, for instance, were entirely built on this new means of transportation.
Social media and smartphones are changing the way we interact with each other and, therefore, the way we experience architecture. In the next few years, with the diffusion of virtual and augmented reality, we will be able to extend our senses even further and architecture will need to adapt again.
I remember in my early 20s in Paris, I once spent a long time looking for Le Corbusier’s Cite’ de Refuge while I was basically standing in front of its colorful facade. I could not recognize it because I had only seen black-and-white images from my school books.
Today you can find hundreds of images of the building on Instagram and an astonishing 11,900,000 pages on Google. The way we perceive architecture is through the millions of images people like you and I take every day and, most importantly, through the way people use and experience architecture, which might be very different from what architects and clients originally imagined.
Social media demands consistent updates of projects, and this requires many, many more photos and much more content overall, not just the 5 or 10 images that architects used to take just a few years back.
This is something about our society that needs to be celebrated; atomization and individualization equals greater diversity of voices and greater democracy of voices. The art and architecture critic is no longer the superior judge that could celebrate or sink years and years of hard work; it is the people who do it.
Instagram is making people much more aware of the designed world around them. Users collect and share details, signs, facades, color patterns, murals, textures and much more, and all this in well-curated pages that have nothing to envy from the professional publications of just a few years ago.
The new Instagram world is pushing architects to design better places, and clients to care more about what is being produced. This means less focus on the pure modernist function (finally!), and more fun for your eyes and for your senses.
On the other end, there is not a real discussion on the deep meaning of the work that is being produced beyond the images we see on social media. Everything happens on a superficial level because there is no time for profound discussions in the hectic scrolling of our screens.
Today, we have to be able to communicate a message in a split second. When you scroll through Instagram or Facebook, you operate through your immediate visual reactions to whatever you see. Shortened attention spans and higher aesthetic standards heighten this, and we have reached a point where everything has to be immediate.
This is how making and sharing content now functions: We are being pressured to present images of our work that can be understood in no time. So how can we as architects or entrepreneurs adapt to this and still maintain our integrity? How can brands use this trend to their benefit?
Maybe architecture has changed so that it needs to be read at an emotional level first, long before the intellectual one. A building needs to appeal to your senses, to your emotions, to your guts, in order to emerge in the billions of images that are viewed every day, physically and digitally. It is like when you see a person and — bang! — you know they are The One. Your heart races, and you can’t take your eyes off of them. Buildings or interiors today need to pass that test first. Only then will they be judged for their function, longevity and capacity to interact with the environment, represent the society we live in and improve our world.
Maybe we are back in a primitive state of instinctive behaviorism, at least until the next disruptive technology.