Social media platforms can be linked to everything from conflicts in Ethiopia to teen depression in the United States. Although the built environment can feel like the antithesis of social media—the place the people gather physically rather than digitally—architecture and the architectural profession aren’t immune from its influence.
In the built world, social media has had an obvious impact. For instance, selfie walls have become common features of offices, cafés, and museums. Architectural firms have also changed, with many now hiring people dedicated to managing their social media presence, which has become a key way to recruit talent and build client awareness.
Beyond these obvious changes, individual architects and designers are beginning to use social media in more interesting ways to help them work, gather feedback, and earn a living. Though each of the following examples might feel like an anomaly, taken together, they show how social media may influence the architecture profession in the future.
Building scientist Christine Williamson, Assoc. AIA, is an unlikely social media pioneer. She’s never been a big user of social platforms. She doesn’t have a Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn account (“it felt like a chore”). But after a younger cousin introduced her to Instagram in 2016, she started BuildingScienceFightClub. With more than 80,000 followers, it ranks among the most popular architecture-related accounts on Instagram.
BuildingScienceFightClub found an unusual niche. Compared to the seductive architectural photographs that predominate Instagram, the account shows the gritty reality of how buildings are made and how they fail. The feed is a mixture of construction photos, drawings, and bright pink text explaining topics such as window details in masonry walls and managing runoff from a terrace.
Williamson describes BuildingScienceFightClub as an educational project—a way to help architects understand the connection between “what they draw and what they build.” For its relatively young audience, who may be more accustomed to navigating CAD than a construction site, the account becomes a form of continuing education, dispensing engaging, bite-sized pieces of wisdom from the field.
Williamson supports her account by selling a more comprehensive educational course, “Building Science for Architects,” to her followers (and to anyone else). The course generates enough income to justify the time Williamson spends producing content, but not enough to quit her day job as an independent building science consultant. That suits her just fine. She’s always liked teaching and, despite not being an ardent user of social media, she’s found a way to leverage it and “start a new business that is as enjoyable as my consulting practice.”
Social Good and Advocacy
Another educator-practitioner making a name for themselves online is Alvin Huang, AIA, founder of Los Angeles–based Synthesis Design + Architecture and an associate architecture professor at the University of Southern California. Huang’s widespread internet presence includes his personal Instagram account SynthesisDNA (his firm’s account is SynthesisDesignAndArchitecture). Followed by more than 20,000 people, Huang’s personal account features photos of architecture, his academic endeavors, and his family—three things he clearly loves and celebrates.
Huang’s social media presence began to change when COVID-19 first hit the United States and the country was in short supply of personal protective equipment, such as face masks. Jenny Sabin, an architecture professor and the associate dean for design initiatives at Cornell University, shared on Instagram her first attempts to manufacture PPE using a 3D printer, which Huang and others saw and began organizing similar initiatives nationwide, dubbing it #operationppe.
Huang put out a call to his USC colleagues. Almost immediately, people donated labor, 3D printers, and materials. Over the next few months, 350 volunteers in Southern California manufactured 6,500 masks and 11,000 face shields, which they donated to hospitals and Native American tribes. “That’s one of the beauties of social media,” Huang says. “Although you’re in your space 3D printing by yourself, you see thousands of people doing the same. We started as faculty and students; then it became L.A. designers and architects; then people from high schools, community nonprofits, and elsewhere.”
Huang began using his platform in other ways. As anti-Asian hate crimes increased across the U.S., he began talking about his experiences as an Asian American on social media—something he hadn’t done previously. “It’s never been a part of my practice or professional identity, only part of my personal identity,” he explains. “People of color in design often get pressured into making every project about being a person of color.”
But, through social media, Huang realized he could “leverage the voice I’d developed through my design identity to speak about these other issues.” He began talking about racial injustice online, which led to other invitations to speak and write about diversity in design. He is still surprised to be considered an expert on this subject, but he’s finding his voice through organizations like the National Organization of Minority Architects.
Kate Wagner is an architectural critic and sports journalist perhaps best known for her Tumblr blog McMansion Hell, a site that started as a joke between her partner and a friend. She would take images of gaudy suburban houses from real estate listings and overlay them with her satiric critique of atrocious design decisions. Her first post, in 2016, went viral. Just four months later, she was invited to give a TEDx talk on McMansions.
The success of McMansion Hell allowed Wagner to become a professional architecture critic. Today, she still blogs but she also writes for more traditional media organizations, such as The New Republic. Although social media helped kickstart her career, she’s not convinced it’s been a positive development for the profession as a whole. “The landscape of media is very different,” she laments. “You used to have architecture critics in every newspaper.” With the rise of social media and the decline of traditional news organizations, marketing departments and public relations agencies have stepped into the void, she says: “It has become harder to discern between architecture writing for PR and architecture writing for criticism.”
Wagner also worries about social media’s tendency to become an echo chamber. While the design discussion online can be vibrant, it can also be insular. People share stories and jokes that speak largely to other professionals, thus excluding interaction and feedback from the broader public. “People are going to build McMansions regardless of an online architectural critic,” Wagner says. “In terms of a lasting impact on the built environment, patterns of consumption are more powerful than cultural influence.”
A good example is the recent controversy around the proposed design of Munger Hall, a 4,500-person dormitory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The proposal was conceived by the unlikely duo of Navy Banvard, FAIA, a founding principal of VTBS Architects, and Charles Munger, the project’s principal donor and the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.
The project leaped into the news when Dennis McFadden, FAIA, resigned from UCSB’s design committee in protest of the design proposal, and his Oct. 24 resignation letter went viral. In the letter, McFadden states that the dormitory’s “eight-person living units were sealed environments with no exterior windows in the shared space or in 94% of the bedrooms.” This led him to conclude that “the basic concept of Munger Hall as a place to live is unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent, and a human being.”
Across social media, people were quick to pile on. In a video seen by 300,000 people on TikTok, design critic and founder of Extra Office Ryan Scavnicky began his review of the project with “What’s up, Archi-TikTok? I’m back with one of the most disastrous building projects I’ve ever seen in my life.” Over on Twitter, posts comparing the dormitory to a prison received hundreds of likes. And on Instagram, the popular meme account Dank.Lloyd.Wright roasted the project in a series of posts. The online furor led NBC to run the story "Windowless, billionaire-designed UC Santa Barbara mega dorm horrifies the internet.”
For his part, Banvard says that “most of the public feedback found on social and in print media is based upon misinformation.” Defending the project, he points out that all of it is to code, that “there are more than 1,000 exterior windows, glass doors, and window walls,” and that “all bedrooms will have substantial fresh air supply and a real or virtual window.” He also says that some design tradeoffs were necessary to give every student a private bedroom—rather than putting two or three students in a room—while keeping the apartments affordable; he estimates the units will be 15% to 20% below market rate.
Although the social media blowback has been fierce, in some respects it hasn’t had much of an impact. Banvard says that the project is still going ahead. When asked whether he was planning to make changes based on the feedback, he says, “We do not plan to address any of the false narrative.” He also notes that the university has a process for gathering feedback and is “currently undertaking an extensive outreach effort that is focused upon faculty, students, and alumni as well as other interested parties. We expect thoughtful suggestions will result from that process and the design team is open to any and all ideas that will improve the project.” UCSB didn’t respond to my requests for comment.
Online, interest in Munger Hall faded fast. Within days, people moved on to new topics, jokes, and controversies. “The memes are funny,” Wagner says, reflecting on the role of online criticism. “Of course, there are broader critical points to be made, but I don’t think making memes is doing praxis.”
These days, many architecture firms use their social media accounts to post benign photos of completed projects and snippets of thought leadership. In this guise, social media isn’t particularly important to architecture beyond offering practices a new channel for marketing and business development.
Yet, for members of the design community like Williamson, Huang, and Wagner, social media has enabled them to carve out new careers as educators, to develop their voice in the design community, and to advocate for causes and social good. As they’ve navigated these new opportunities offered by social media, they have blazed pathways that others can follow.
For the architecture industry, the changes could be significant. We have entered a world where a junior architect might learn more about window detailing from the BuildingScienceFightClub Instagram than walking sites with an experienced mentor. And where a TikTok video critiquing a project might get thousands of more eyeballs than a lecturer at the best architecture school.
Many in architecture remain baffled by or skeptical of social media. When we think about technology influencing practice, we tend to think about the tools we use to design and construct buildings. But the technology here is in communication, and its potential impact and reach are significant.
Frankly, how or even if architecture firms should engage is not clear. The sources in this story warned that attempts by companies to jump on social media trends often come off as laughably insincere. Perhaps the best course of action for firms is simply to sit back and enjoy the memes.