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What in the meme is architecture?

How a format known for its untidy satire is challenging models of power in the field of architecture.

by Aastha D.Published on : Dec 20, 2021

A caffeinated existence, all-black wardrobe, dark circles under the eyes, a penchant for 'artsy' films followed by their elaborate dissection, using words such as sciography; a sketchbook, charcoal pencils and ink pens carried around in a Moleskin satchel, the ability to make bad doodles coupled with the audacity to call them abstractions, the tendency to touch surfaces, look up at ceilings and take photographs of skyscrapers where their tips meet the sky. Sounds glamorous, or ridiculous, depending on the way you look at it. After five years of micro-dosing on a desire for this elaborate indie-luxury culture and reading (enough to surmise) philosophy, art, sociology, history, anthropology; drawing and rendering; conceptualising and discoursing, problematising, postulating, proposing new worlds (and words) and many versions of utopias, begins a new crusade for starry-eyed teenagers who for decades have walked into institutes that promise to make them architects. If all goes well, that is, if they comply.

A pursuit that most often leads to laughable pay checks that cannot buy enough food but will be spent on artisanal coffee, because misery is honour and intellect, and caffeinated the only state of dignified existence.

The toxic workplace urge to seek "passionate" designers with a "strong" work ethic Image: Courtesy of blank_gehry on Instagram

With ambitions as lofty as they are vague, most architecture students do not know what they are to conform with. They are practically living in the studio, traversing abstraction-history-policy-construction over a course of studios, seminars, workshops and the dreaded 'crits'. Discovering and then feeling emboldened to use newly assigned meanings to words, forgetting how to use regular words, forgetting how to speak with or listen to 'normal' people. Bragging about sleep deprivation, debt, 'star' mentors, the lack of a social life, and viewing the world through theoretical frameworks (Foucauldian and Derridean being absolute favourites). That the agreement is a long list of clauses that only multiply over time, getting sinister by the year, is revealed rather late in the life cycle of an architect.

Unless, of course, one has the stomach and penchant for humour with origins in sordid realities, as is (thankfully) the case today.

The architectural urge to make everything about me(me) | STIRworld
The architectural urge to make everything about me(me) Image: Illustration by Aastha D.

This is a story of what we comply with, comply at the cost of, and when it all starts to seem like an elaborate deception. A commentary on the subculture that is architecture, at best. A rant of a jaded soul at worst. As a scholar of design and culture, it is impossible to look at things in isolation. Objects, spaces, places, words, images, things of beauty, cease to be suspended or autonomous; fleeting or timeless; permanent or without context, simple and literal, and certainly cease to be delightful. One cannot unsee or untangle from the elaborate mesh of complexities this world continues to propagate. One recognises that: for a designer to make any one thing—objects, spaces, places, words, images, things of beauty—is to make them all.

The fun(ny) thing about architecture is the way we talk about it. Which is, the way we talk about everything else but the building itself; brick and mortar, the concrete and glass, the prefabricated cement sheets and reinforcements, the labour, the client, the gentrification, the building codes, the urban policies, their repercussions, the budgets. We are entangled more in the 'aspirations of the soil', the ancient tree that is 'the fulcrum of the plan, the soul of the structure', where lines blur between interior and exterior, voyeurism and the streets, panopticonism, diagrams of desire, fluid walls, interstitiality, motifs, the vocabulary of the material, the narrative of the windows, the choreography of the paths, how the landscape engages with and is a tribute to the local community (after displacing them). We seek inspiration in objects, art, poetry, theories. We take from faces, races, cultures, rituals, nature; to solve poverty, genocide, political unrest, surveillance, defiance, resistance. We dismantle notions of power, the body, the genitalia, the gaze, our own anguish, the 'masters', whiteness as default, gender and other social constructs. We move to 'solve world problems'; propose alternate means of living, make the homeless either more comfortable or less comfortable on the streets, make museums of history, plan utopian cities, reimagine streets, homes and societies, and in short save the world and its destitute with our software and mood boards. We transfer our whims to drawings, renders, diagrams, sketches, stories, and imaginary spaces that (need to) look good pinned up on walls before they are torn apart line by line, concept by concept, by a panel of reviewers one fine caffeinated morning in a room inside an institute. A room we have practically lived in all semester.

We could all be less complicit Image: Courtesy of dank.lloyd.wright on Instagram

The way we talk about architecture has not been static. What began as a set of absolute rules written by white men (four books, seven lamps, ten books and so on), progressed as an elaborate rebuttal of the same rules, by other white men. From 'less is more' to 'yes is more'; deeming 'ornamentation a crime' to 'making federal buildings great again'; finding 'god in the details', to size matters (mine is taller than yours); whiteness, maleness and imperialism are hard to shake off from the centre of architectural and design discourse at large (a phenomenon made prominent from the crowd sourced spreadsheet entitled 'shitty architecture men' looking inside the architectural world in light of the #metoo movement). A notoriously loquacious field, conversations on design use and develop a vocabulary and syntax that is committed to gatekeeping the discourse from other disciplines (while largely taking from them), and the public (while always impacting them).

When architecture does find itself in the mainstream, it paints a fallacious image, of glamour, unfettered creativity, and opulence. We know architects who are knights that built gherkins, boys that named entire practices after large gherkins, who never went to architecture school and those who never left. We identify buildings shaped like sea creatures or female genitalia, climb sculptures that mimic an Arab rotisserie, look down from the tallest empty skyscrapers to admire golf courses in the middle of deserts. We witness entire complexes built for and by children's toys, and others desperately rewriting histories in developing authoritarian regimes.

Hehe autocorrects to hegemony Image: Courtesy of Ryan Scavnicky sssscavvvv on Instagram

Architects show the world the finger, literally and figuratively. In reality, architecture is busy performing scarcity, indoctrinating its members into thinking they are 'suffering in service to a higher calling—a magical and crucial contribution to the world—that is undervalued and, in that lies, its true reverence', built with sacrifice.

"I've just been hit by a truck". Boss: "I need the site plan by 5 pm" Image: Courtesy of blank_gehry on Instagram

With more voices (non cishet white male) taking up space, the language of discourse has been undergoing a radical transformation. In the era of awakening—on issues of race, caste, gender, economy, displacement, land, accessibility, climate change—architecture's complicity and complacency in social and environmental regressions has become inexorable. A dismantling of systems of power takes a multi-pronged approach that disrupts and surpasses conventional places and modes of discussion. Symposia, panel discussions, interviews, studio crits, seminars, conferences, biennales and exhibitions become more accessible (digitally), more inclusive, and hence subjected to increased scrutiny and critique by being participatory.

Architects looking at a political problem. "Is this an architectural problem?". Everything is an architectural problem. Image: Courtesy of Ryan Scavnicky sssscavvvv on Instagram

Not only is the conversation no longer limited to these organised and formalised settings, the action has been most robust on architwitter and the ultimate media zeitgeist of our times— memes. The post-truth era of multiple and simultaneous crises has rendered us in dire need of a ubiquitous coping mechanism, to preserve our collective sanities and perhaps simulate hope. Humour democratises discussions while opening up the field to the social criticism it deserves and requires. The language and usage of memes, its messy aesthetic, easy consumption, sharp delivery, wry wit, unforgiving honesty, transposable template quality, short life, and rapid 'virulence' make it an effective vehicle of commentary. Architectural criticism that uses memes as conduits of satire, public opinion, disseminating inside-jokes and their inherent irony, exposing exploitative labour practices, self-referentiality, and insular pedagogies, finds home in some hilarious and critical accounts on Instagram.

Custodians are the real architectural critics Image: Courtesy of Ryan Scavnicky sssscavvvv on Instagram

A couple years ago, Adam Nathaniel Furman took on many global practices (all famous and large), and exposed them for their unchecked policy of unpaid internships (another hyper normalised notion in architecture). Pritzker laureates run firms in Japan, USA, UK, India that unabashedly demand free labour from hungry students graduating from the top (and extremely expensive) universities in the world. Furman crowd-sourced and posted the audacious 'Letters of Acceptance' sent by these firms that disrupted the tradition of exploitation at the junior most levels in these mega firms. Their relentless and courageous calling out of the big names in the field started nothing short of a cultural revolution in the field.

Depressed Slab Image: Courtesy of blank_gehry on Instagram

Ryan Scavnicky (@sssscavvvv), a practicing designer, critic and professor, deploys memes to address a very specific problem in architectural discourse, its inaccessible vocabulary and prolixity. With memes as the primary mode of posting, people on the outside of the design world are given a simplified and satirised peek to the inside. Using internet vernacular, 'hot takes', trending meme templates and neologisms, Scavnicky's Instagram page makes discussion architecture participatory, open to critique, and fun. When asked why architects tend to deliberate on an inaccessible vocabulary and syntax while talking about the field; what it does, how he uses memes to subvert this, Scavnicky says:

'Many fields establish a vocabulary often inaccessible to outsiders. Architecture has a responsibility to be clear about its limitations to the broader public, but it is also a service industry, so design studios are incentivized to make big promises. When architecture makes big promises that it can't keep, it eventually is blamed as the problem instead of trusted to deliver a new solution. This is where I feel our ability as communicators falters and is most damaging.

Meme formats help communicate in-group ideas to out-group communities. By communicating via memes, we can talk about architecture in a way that makes clear to outsiders the difficulties of building and working in this field. Memes ultimately test the in-group and out-group dynamic in a way that is instant, clear, and slowly opens the border between the two otherwise irreconcilable worlds.'

The infinite loop of academic nonsense Image: Courtesy of dank.lloyd.wright on Instagram

Blank Gehry (@blank_gehry) describes itself as an 'Interdisciplinary design studio focused on shitposting'. With a panache for existential nihilism, the account works excellently in tandem with DLW's posts. From meme-ing the world's most famous architects (all white, old, male, often bald) doing wealthy white things—driving vintage cars, cycling in the countryside, flying Gliders, sexually assaulting young interns by exposing their genitalia, appearing in two-second cameos in fantasy drama television series, to name a few—to drawing analogies with the world's richest (also white, male, often bald) outside of the architectural world, the Instagram account targets billionaires and the system that creates them with sharp wit and scruffy images.

The masculine urge to make shit like this instead of going to therapy. Image: Courtesy of blank_gehry on Instagram

Dank Lloyd Wright (DLW), run by a team of anonymous admins, holds models of power to account, especially when power manifests as aesthetics, and how ideas of 'elevated' aesthetics (a symptom of whiteness again) in turn manifest in the world. Through this medium of memes and an ethos of challenging powerful institutions and individuals, the page inadvertently becomes a platform that calls out capitalism and its friends—exploitative labour, gentrification, predatory culture, racism, sexism, to name a few—in very tangible and blunt ways, focusing on architectural practices. Unlike most social media outrage and solidarity movements, their work does not dissolve in the reverberations of an echo chamber. DLW's posts have often resulted in tangible and quick collective reactions and results. OMA declared in a job opening, 'We don't believe in 9-5 culture', and DLW's series of posts expanding on the overt and covert implications of the statement led to a campaign that compelled OMA to remove and rephrase. From reminding their followers every few posts to get 8-9 hours of sleep, to asking architects to stop designing prisons, their posts confront head on systemic inequity and exploitation that is normalised, glamourised even, under the pretext of working on 'creative solutions for world's most pressing problems', notwithstanding architecture's complicity in the problems.

The undiscovered geniuses self-hyping forever Image: Courtesy of dank.lloyd.wright on Instagram

When asked on how they'd like to surmise their labour on Instagram, Dank LLyod Wright as a collective, sent a precise and seemingly simple instructive list:

  • Eat the rich
  • F*** abusive workplaces
  • Steal from your job
  • Defenestrate your landlord
  • Abolish NCARB and the AIA
  • Unionise your workplace
  • Stand up for the marginalised, even if it means you lose power
  • Don't forget to sleep 8-9 hours every night

Sleep 8-10 hours every night Image: Courtesy of dank.lloyd.wright on Instagram

These memes place architecture at the centre (where it belongs) of the world's most pressing socio-political-economic-ecological issues, albeit with the objective of demanding accountability and addressing its culpability. The report, critique and campaign on the latest and most pressing issues and architecture's (institutions, practices, policies, individuals) position with respect to them. They make one laugh in derision or relief; smirk and scorn at the call outs that often feel like attacks; or guffaw uncomfortably. They certainly make one think, reflect, and hope for an alternate world where aspiring architects live whole lives full of sleep, leisure, relationships, and being able to afford food, without feeling guilty or dishonourable.

Brb I need a refill, my fifth coffee mug is empty just like my soul.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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