Architecture's long tail Alastair Parvin 19/06/08 10.20
ARCHITECTURE'S LONG TAIL
Architecture as a function of its media
What would happen if we were to take every single architect registered in, say, the UK, and see how famous they are in relation to each other? Well - the graph above is...not quite that. There are about 4000 registered practices in the UK, but it shows an (almost random) sample of 300 of those practices typed as "terms" into Google, logging the number of results thrown back. OK - So it's debatable whether 'Google bandwidth' is any reliable indication of fame, but if we can accept that it is a rough indicator of something, it throws up some pretty interesting observations.
Firstly, you get (as you might expect) a power law - that is to say a population where a minority of architects command the majority of the attention. You might have heard of the '80/20' rule of thumb (or the 'Pareto' principle) which is applied to situations where 20% of a population hold 80% of the total wealth..for example. No surprise there then in architecture - but the power law is even sharper than you might have imagined, its a lot more dramatic than 80/20.
Before we get into the anatomy of architecture as a media inequality, it's worth putting architecture as a cultural discourse into perspective. On the day of writing, Rem Koolhaas comes in at a little over 1 million results - making him slightly less 'googleable' than Sharon Osbourne. Zaha, with easily the highest bandwidth of any architect at about three times that (3,170,000 on the day of writing) - may seem to hold a media monopoly on architecture, but is still well below Geri Halliwell in the fame stakes.
So if we treat the architectural discipline as a (relatively isolated) phenomenon - a network of information flows and interactions - what would the system need to have for it to show those characteristics? One of my current interests is looking at the inbuilt tendency of systems - what it wants to do. Looking coldly and logically at the architectural discipline as a system, with all its educational institutions, media, professional qualifications, prizes and conferences, you are forced to come to a couple of conclusions:
1. Architecture, like many systems, rewards success with success. It does not self-regulate, as would, for example, a greenhouse which, upon becoming too hot, opens a window (negative feedback). In architecture, the media-hot become media-hotter (positive feedback), because by and large the more attention an architect attracts, the higher the value of commissions come rolling in, and thus the more attention they attract...
2. Architecture's basic command is: Copy. Rather appropriately, this isn't my idea. In 'The Architectural Brain', Mark Wigley makes the argument brilliantly with reference to innovation:
"The mechanism is designed to minimise the amount of novel formulations". "Our discipline is about as defensive a system as it is possible to imagine… The global infrastructure of professional organizations, schools, magazines, books, conferences and lectures is an array of concentrated nodes that safely redistributes and diffuses energy around the network. More than a million architecture students around the world are efficiently networked to each other to slow things down."
The traditional assumption is that architects, who are seen as a creative bunch, come up with original ideas. But it makes a lot of sense to think about it the other way around, we effectively copy almost everything, from the language we use to the type of projects we do. Sometimes this copying is literal (architecture students hunched over Detail magazine in the week before a deadline), sometimes it is more tactily communicated through the pervasiveness of aesthetic codes and keywords. Architecture books, journals and magazines then become vehicles for 'memes' -ideas which are distributed and copied. So saturated and abstract does this media enrionment become that architects are likely to refer more often to those books and magazines when embarking on a design project than they are to their immediate situation and surroundings. Could that be a partial explanation for the chronic myopia which seems to come so easily to us?
All this should be pretty depressing stuff - but only if we retain our hang-ups about 'originality'. Abandoning the myth of originality and assuming that architects are generally not original might actually be incredibly liberating, allowing us to become more curators of ideas than creators. Assimilating, connecting and applying information from an unlimited, transdisciplinary knowledge base sounds like quite a useful thing for a designer to be doing.
What it does mean though is that the flow of ideas becomes really important. We have to take a critical look at the architectural discipline as an information system and work out where the memes are coming from, where they're going to, and why. In other words, we have to learn to design the discipline.
The current media streams within architecture are, by and large, carrying images and ideas from a few 'successful' firms at the top of the graph downwards to a majority of architects, students and 'laypeople'. Bolstered in importance by monographs, prizes, and glowing documentaries, ideas are flowing in one direction from old to young, from established to not-established, from those with a large vested ( often financial) interest in the status quo to those with less of one. It's probably inevitable that a media system so monolithic is going to have some sort of influence over what sort of ideas and thinking are actually transmitted. If the media system carries memes from the top of big-business (the disguise of 'artist' has long since rubbed off in the heat) down the pipeline to everyone else, we shouldn't be too surprised if we end up with generations of students at architecture school eagerly regurgitating the latest expensive forms in compliance with an industry which is at the service, by and large, of a particular economic market. The discipline is effectively designed in order that we should aspire to it rather than look beyond it.
The problem with that is that it creates a design-culture which is inherently unlikely to evolve. By suppressing genuine mutations rather than amplifying them, architecture is concreting itself into its own cell. Where other industries (particularly music and film-making) have experienced a revolutionary activation of their long tail (chiefly through the web) architecture has yet to do so. Legions of young (and that doesn't just mean 'under 40'), intelligent designers with huge ambition and healthy social conscience are still treated purely as consumers of architectural media. A quick glance at the graph above shows that there are many more designers in the 'tail' of the graph than there are in the peak, so it makes sense that the architectural media system should to be extended to take them seriously as producers of ideas.
Architecture schools in particular, can no longer be seen as institutions to turn out graduates, but engaged, experimental and anticipatory think-tanks, which produce not just each successive generation of graduates, but with them each generation of accompanying ideas (which are then broadcast out towards industry and society). This really isn't such a big leap - architecture schools have always (by sheer force of time) been concerned with the future of the discipline, but no longer can that betrothal to the future be one based on the replication of the status quo. Back in 1974, Buckminster Fuller predicted that universities would become primarily producers of video documentaries. A model within which you can easily imagine design students challenging conventional thinking, and re-engaging (as designers) with wider social conditions and the possible contribution a design-minded approach could make to them.
Makeshift is of course, in part, an attempt to ride on / push that broadening of architectural media - to create a platform for debate, ideas and design thinking where fame or wealth is not a prerequisite for publishing. It's an experiment more than a prediction, but the logic upon which it sits - the observation of architecture's media crisis and the evolutionary necessity to activate its long tail - is held up by some surprisingly large numbers.
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