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Keeping It (un)Real

Behind the facade of starchitect video marketing

  • “...these clips show architectures whose realisation doesn't appear to cost a drop of sweat or blood to anyone, because to be truly desirable, they first and foremost have to be perceived as friendly.” (Gif courtesy Davide Tom   “...these clips show architectures whose realisation doesn't appear to cost a drop of sweat or blood to anyone, because to be truly desirable, they first and foremost have to be perceived as friendly.” (Gif courtesy Davide Tom

At a time when major developments in Western cities tend to be more “investment” than “dwelling”, the role of the architect has evolved from designer of inhabitable space to producer of financial assets. In his video series The (Un)RealShit, architecture critic Davide Tommaso Ferrando critiques the marketing videos used by architects using video editing as a critical tool to unveil some of the new ways in which architectural ideology is being constructed and disseminated through the web. Here Ferrando explains the ideas behind his series for uncube, and presents three films featuring “self-building buildings”, Bjarke Ingels’ gestures and what he perceives to be the empty rhetoric of Daniel Libeskind. 

That a big part of architectural production is lost to processes of commodification, and that through such processes its main representations – images and words – are being dramatically reshaped by marketing strategies, should be widely acknowledged by now.

Nowadays, most discourses about the “mediatisation” of architecture insist on stressing its proximity to the logic of spectacle and the role of the starchitect – itself a word that puts the discipline in relation with cultural spheres of mass consumption such as music, cinema and sport – as the keystone of the whole issue. It is certainly true that once architects become public figures, their transformation from persons into personages is inevitable – grumpy Gehry and his middle finger, Aravena the anti-starchitect, Bjarke the great communicator – but concentrating on these trivial topics diverts the gaze from the structural logics that stand behind the starchitect smoke screen, which are instead related to the effects of capitalistic dynamics on processes of urbanisation.

To put it simply: buildings designed by starchitects are worth more (and sell better) than those that are not, thanks to the narrative of success that the media spins for them. So the starchitect figure turns out to be basically a simulacrum specifically engineered by the real estate industry, for the legitimisation and reproduction of that – very big – part of the global economy that is based on land speculation.

Now, my claim is that the present situation is characterised by a further evolution of this phenomenon, which goes well beyond the starchitect narrative – although it still needs it – and that has been prompted by at least three recent and interrelated factors: the financialisation of the real estate market, the deregulation of urban planning and the explosion of digital communication.

First, the financialisation of the real estate market has resulted in the separating of “the dwelling” from “the building” and reduced architecture to a mere financial tool. As Alastair Parvin puts it: “…when we talk about the housing market, we should understand that what are being sold are not so much the homes as the mortgages – homes are just the vehicle”. Second is the deregulation of urban planning and the subsequent opening of the real estate market to an unprecedented number of actors – who have in turn been forced to invent specific discourses and communication strategies aimed at guaranteeing monopoly rents from their investments. Finally, the explosion of digital communication has allowed these same actors to create and globally disseminate their narratives via advanced communication tools. In this situation buildings end up entering the realm of communications in the same way as commodities enter a free and extremely competitive market: by means of promotional videos that represent them as friendly, special, unique, original or authentic (did you know that Gehry designs “spaces that have soul”?) so as to make them desirable to a transnational class of buyers.

It is precisely the characteristics of these devices that I am interested in exploring with The(Un)RealShit: an ongoing investigation into current practices of architecture marketing based on video communication. By using video editing as a critical tool I aim to unveil some of the new ways in which architectural ideology is being constructed and disseminated through the web.

What I have noticed, whilst browsing through the swarm of promotional clips posted in the YouTube and Vimeo channels of many architecture firms and real estate companies, is not just the rapidly growing tendency to recur to video communication for the representation of architecture, but also the presence in these clips of recurrent tropes. With The (Un)RealShit I have started to isolate and analyse these tropes separately, so as to better understand the logics they respond to. I then reassemble them into brand new clips that I use to criticise the whole phenomenon. 

One such trope is the “self-building building”. Often used for towers and skyscrapers, this trope can assume a variety of autopoietic patterns: from the spontaneous assemblage of glass panels and steel beams to the weaving of gigantic noodles floating in mid air. Those familiar with the film Frozen will know what I'm talking about, given that Princess Elsa conjures an ice castle from the crust of a snowy mountain in the same way as Herzog & De Meuron’s “ultra luxury condo” Jade Signature sprouts out of a beach in Miami. Some may say that this is basically a cinematographic translation of architecture’s much studied process of Disneyfication. Yes it is, but more than that, it is also what author Robin Sloan calls “the Amazon move: absolute obfuscation of labour and logistics behind a friendly Buy button”. In other words, these clips show architectures whose realisation doesn't appear to cost a drop of sweat or blood to anyone, because to be truly desirable, they first and foremost have to be perceived as friendly. They need to hide the economic, political and environmental struggles that lie behind them, in order that reality can be perceived as a ready-to-buy commodity. But what about the conditions of the workers who will actually build them? Or the lives of the citizens who have been evicted for the privatisation of the land they will rise upon? Or the conditions of inequality they keep on perpetrating? To borrow an answer from Sloan: “We don’t know. We don’t get to know. We’re just here to press the button”. 

If there’s an architect who knows how to take advantage of video communication, it’s Bjarke Ingels. Since the very beginning of his career he has shown a particular ease in front of the camera, starring in several short videos in which digital animations are used to visually enrich the explanations of his design ideas. One of the core ingredients of these clips is Ingels’ simple, visually charged gestures offering a dumbed-down interpretation of his projects, which are presented as the logical outcome of games of vectors and shapes, literally reproduced by the movements of the architects’ hands. “Simplification”, the second trope I have run into, may look like an innocent PR strategy, but there are implications here, namely, the actual relationship established by BIG’s projects with the discourses that explain them.

As much as they seem to respond to his storytelling manner, it would be naive to believe that the complexity of Ingels’ architecture can be reduced to some diagrammatic moves. If anything, in hiding the real process from the result and offering a deceiving and simplified version of it, BIG has found a way to effectively copyrights its ideas. Not only that, but one wonders in what way the architecture of BIG is being influenced by the way in which it is represented. If delivering buildings that can be easily understood in a video is becoming a trademark, then BIG’s architectural production surely comes to be defined by projects that can be explained in this way. Paradoxically, what was meant to liberate architectural thought could become its own cage. 

Finally, I have dedicated the latest part of my video exploration to the “sloganisation” of architectural discourse. This familiar strategy assumes the well-worn technique of empty rethoric. In the case of Daniel Libeskind’s presentation of “Villa Libeskind” – his “first high-end residential project of a limited edition of 30 villas to be built worldwide"  – the architect relies on metaphors, hyperbole, rhymes and other rhetorical devices aimed at casting an aura of extraordinariness on his (terrible) project, so as to transform it into an object of desire for the mass of buyers its promotional video is presumably directed at.

Is there is anything new here? Yes: the fact that Libeskind’s (and others’) words are not written, but acted. Writing demands responsibility for the traces it leaves, as they remain visible and therefore accountable for - as those who follow Patrik Schumacher’s Facebook account know very well. Video communication, on the contrary, is characterised by the continuous replacement of its elements in time; each time a sentence is pronounced, it suddenly melts into air, substituted by the next one. The innately ephemeral condition of these media has allowed architectural language to reach new levels of trashiness, closing the gap between itself and TV advertising while expanding that which exists between words and things.

Davide Tommaso Ferrando is an architecture critic, editor, curator and educator, particularly interested in the intersections between architecture, city and media. He is member of the steering committee of the Italian Pavilion at the Biennale di Architettura di Venezia 2016.

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