William Stewart

A few months ago, a commuter in A Washington, D.C., Metro station was so engrossed with something on his iPhone that he walked right off the platform and into the path of an approaching train. Only quick action by two bystanders saved his life.

Technology sharpens our intellects, but engaging with it can also dull the senses that make us sharply aware. Sometimes I think we’re so saturated by Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram that our mental bandwidth is at the risk of crashing, whether the subject is politics or an oncoming train. For many, checking a smartphone is their last action before bedtime or the first thing they do in the morning. According to some researchers, the average person interacts with their smartphone more than 100 times per day.

What does this have to do with architecture? More than you might think. In his 2009 book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky observes that all businesses are media businesses “because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information.”

In that sense, yes—architects are in the business of managing information, information about a profession that has a significant impact and influence on people’s lives.

Thanks to innovations in social media, individual architects and firms have many more ways to cultivate the public’s interest in architecture. Using these tools—and doing so wisely—should be part of every architect’s business plan. At the same time, we should not confuse the number of click-throughs with long-term and consequential engagement that leads to meaningful action.

As undeniably useful as social media platforms are, as a tool with which to talk about our work, they are no substitute for face-to-face engagement, which banks emotional capital and builds trust.

While you’re still forming (or now executing) your social media strategy, with engagement and business development goals, old–fashioned outreach remains vital to a healthy practice. AIA components everywhere provide creative opportunities for members to get together with each other, AEC professionals, and potential clients. In some cities and towns, centers for architecture provide other opportunities to make personal connections. And the AIA Foundation’s five Regional Resilient Design Studios, which will provide targeted information and training on how weather events have (and will) impact our communities, offer yet another opportunity to forget about “likes” and retweets for a while, and commit to a purpose-driven process that relies on your cooperation with the person sitting next to you.

In my own state, I’ve seen how the public’s innate curiosity about architecture can be transformed into passion. In the 10 years since the Virginia Center for Architecture opened its doors, a powerful public constituency pushing for design excellence in Richmond and throughout the commonwealth has emerged.

This rise in an engaged public is not unique to Virginia. From coast to coast, architecture centers and foundations are fostering a demand that public officials be held accountable for decisions about natural and designed resources, and that public input be solicited at the very beginning of discussions affecting the shape of their neighborhoods and communities. Indeed, their very lives.

As our work gets better, I’m convinced we become better at doing our work, thinking more critically, and designing from a broader foundation of awareness and experience.

So keep tweeting or pinning or sharing or posting, and people will continue to learn more about your architectural practice and the value of what architects do. But keep contributing—in person—to the hard work that needs to be done in our communities, too. The future may be enriched by social media, but it will be shaped only by the design decisions we make today and the real spaces we’ll inhabit tomorrow.

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA
2014 President