Architects talking to everyone, not just architects

Whenever architects get together, we have lots of things to say to each other. We talk about fees, who won which project, where we traveled, what we learned and what engineers we recently worked with, or didn’t. Like many industries, we talk to each other. While that’s all very good, it limits us because we don’t talk to the public very well. We’re quick to justify our existence to each other, but have a hard time explaining our importance to the general public. Some of this is an image issue, of course, and some of it is our own navel-gazing.

Talking to the public is essential. As it is, much of the public doesn’t understand what architects do, or why. They don’t know the impact architecture can have on the economy, nor its role in society beyond being “the folks who draw up plans.” Architects feel that their role has been marginalized over the last several decades and have the skills to retake those traditional roles in urban design, building envelopes, project management and a host of others, if only we can make the value proposition to the public as to WHY our role is important.

Architects like to get awards. In fact, for some firms, getting awards is critical to getting the next project. There are several awards programs, both local, provincial and national. Many cities, for example, have their own Urban Design awards. Then there are provincial and national awards, and then specialty awards from suppliers or industries like the Ontario WoodWorks or Ontario Concrete Awards. These awards recognize specific aspects of buildings, or the involvement of specific trades or consultants. And, to an extent, the public sees these awards and are inspired by what these architects do. For example, when Teeple Architects won a 2015 OAA Honorable Mention for the Port Hope House, the Globe and Mail article saw national attention paid to a good design, bringing attention to this firm for their excellent work.

At the end of day, does an award program help the public understand the role of architects in society? Does an award, or magazine article help the public appreciate architecture and the role of an architect in a project? When that publication is read almost exclusively by other architects, does that become just an act of self-promotion within our own industry?

Does press coverage that is marketed to architects, by architects, impact the public? I would argue, no, not really.

Press coverage, a glossy magazine shoot, and a crystal sculpture rewards a firm for their work, absolutely, but it doesn’t do much to explain to a City purchasing department why their Request for Proposal is flawed. It doesn’t do much to show a homeowner why she should hire an architect and not go straight to contractor and their in-house draftsperson. That kind of publicity is actually, in a way, detrimental to making the public aware of the value of architecture because it puts projects, and architects, on a pedestal and can makes our work seem unapproachable.

When you pick up a copy of Canadian Architect, you see reviews of other buildings, critiques and thoughtful writing that is accessible to the public. Sure, it’s about architecture, and there are going to be parts of it that are “industry specific” but it has broad appeal. It speaks to the public, and walks a fine line between “being for architects” and “being a general interest magazine about a specific subject.” In other words, my dad can read Canadian Architect, and get something out of it.

As OAA President, I had the opportunity to write a quarterly piece for a Canadian architecture magazine, as well as contribute to periodic publications directed to building officials, as well as newspapers and other media. This was a great deal of fun, and turned me on to a love of writing that I carry with me to this day. But does a magazine about architecture that is only for architects speak to the broader public issues of raising awareness, engaging the public, and increasing the public’s appreciation of architecture? What sort of outward facing communication achieves these goals? I already talk to architects enough: I want to talk to the public, to politicians and buyers so that they “get” the value of my profession.

So what does outward facing communication look like for architecture? Who do we talk to if not ourselves?

Communication for architects should be about talking to the public. It should be about engaging with everyday people about #designmatters and how #architectscanhelp every day. It’s about reaching people who don’t know how design works, and showing the value of design and its impact on our society. I don’t need to convince other architects about the value of architecture; they already know.

Outward communication is reaching out to people and showing that architects can help influence social or fiscal policy, or that the design of the built environment affects human rights, public safety and the ability to meet #climatechange targets for our cities. It’s about communicating to the public that the way we fund infrastructure projects has an impact on our municipal, provincial and federal budgets, and affects the next generation through long term contractual complexity that they will end up paying for.

We need, as architects, to talk outside our bubbles. We need to talk with city, provincial and federal politicians. We need to talk to voters, to show them that who they vote for affects the built environment so that they ask the hard questions too so that it’s not just architects who realize that #architecturematters, but that we all do.

By all means, architects need to keep talking to other architects. That’s inherent to the nature of the business. And we’ll keep doing that, but it’s critical that we talk to everyone because architecture impacts everyone, every day.

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