The individual architect and small architectural firm is constantly searching for strategies that help identity formation. Sometimes it takes a long time to form our own identities as architects and find our own voices. This was certainly my experience, the particular architectural education I received did not seem to have the aim developing independent architectural voices. There were too many hierarchies, cults and cliques, rivalries, intellectual fashions, egotistical role models, star-sycophancy and small minded tribal dogmas at the time in the culture of the school I went to. Given my own personal dilemmas all of this only confused me as a I also sought my own architectural identity through my own methods of self-education. It took me a long time, but eventually I became more or less comfortable in my own skin as an architect
For many architects identity formation is seen as a central mode of survival. For some architect seems easier, and may be either as an individual, an auteur or as an architect with a brand name is more effective, and I say this without bitterness, a pedigreed and branded architecture school, seems to help. Yes, in this day and age its all about the brand.
However, rather than ebbing stable, identity, which underpins branding, is largely socially constructed and fluid. In work at Delft by Marina Bos-de Vos and Leentje Volker (2017) studying the strategic management of architectural firms the establish how articulating how professional aspects of identity enable and constrain practitioners to shape and be shaped by their strategic actions and decisions. They conclude that a construction of identity in architectural firms is at odds with the need to develop new business models of practice. Alvesson, an organisational sociologist defines how identities “are constituted, negotiated, reproduced, and threatened in social interaction, in the form of narratives, and also in material practices”.
Architectural identities are constructed and shaped as a result of the social and cultural contexts that architects find themselves in. For the small firm architect the mission to survive in a unstable and chaotic environment leads to creating an architectural self that contributes to both sense-making in this environment as well as the attempt to make, maintain, construct and consolidate an identity that provides a stable reference point. As noted Bos-de Vos and Leentje Volker note “Identity work links individual agency with the broader social context (Kreiner and Murphy, 2016).”
All architects face the dilemmas of branding an identity in a shifting landscape and social context; and in the current digital age, with its cycles of outrage, and pervasive media, identity is more than ever important. Or, at least that is what we are told. Architects are told to market ourselves, brand ourselves, and to get our social media acts together and to expand out networks. But the danger, in all of this marketing and branding advice, is that it is all too easy to latch onto the nearest template, figure or pre-existing identity that comes to hand. Our profession is a swamp of firms specialising in sustainability and housing with very little differentiation between each firm.
For many architects identity formation is often refined to a few prevailing stable identities and reference points. This is a consequence of the economic context in which these architects find themselves within the disciplinary discourse of architecture. With the convergence of new design and construction technologies, social media and the celebritization of politics in the media a new identity has in the architectural firmament has emerged: The Digital Super Hero. The idea of an archetypal hero has shifted from the stereotype of the heroic modern auteur, as exemplified in Anne Rand’s Fountainhead novel, and played by Gary Cooper in George Cukor’s movie, to a new kind of identity. This new figure, which nonetheless retains many of the personality layers of the heroic modern auteur, has come about as media and digital technologies have transformed the global system of architecture.
Numerous star-architects, both global and local, seem to exemplify this new stereotype. It is a predominantly, if not solely, masculine stereotype. For the small architect, beset by volatile macroeconomics and diminishing returns, the promise of and role of the superhero is seductive. This particular identity pervades much of architectural discourse, and it is perhaps more technological, and less ideologically bound to a style, than the early moderns.
Patrik Schumacher with all of his bluster is an example. Alongside the digital super-hero identity goes a rhetoric masks and mystifies the real socio-material conditions of architectural practice. In other words, for the small architect the idea of the digital superhero helps to mask a real situation, the commodification of architectural knowledge, by providing a convenient and easily mythology to either aspire to or cling to.
Two Digital Super Heros
These arguments around identity and its social construction, have shifting biases, As Martin Hultman notes in his study of “Ecomodern Masculinities” (think Arnie Schwarzenegger and Al Gore) gender configurations are important in shaping the “planning of sustainable cities, taking part in climate negotiations and as top managers in global companies, and working as designers geo-engineering planetary solutions for environmental problems.” The same configurations, as identified by Hultman in relation to climate change, are also evident in the way in which technology, both parametric and BIM, have come to be incorporated in architectural discourse, practice and firm workflows.
Digital-technical masculinities easily, and perhaps all too easily, applies to the existence of this new kind of digital superhero in architecture; who, through a immersive engagement and devil’s pact with future technologies, will eventually overcome the volatile economics situation that most small firms are subject to.
In Hultman’s own words “Masculinities are understood as always-in-the-making and part of material semiotic antagonistic discourses, which are an embodied nature of knowledge, materiality and meaning.” This sounds very familiar to me: The digital super hero is always in a state of “always-in-the-making” ; both a part of and producing embodied and material technical discourses; always antagonistic to traditional workflows and other perceived enemies.
The construction of the architectural identity, too often than not as a reactive response to the need to survive economically should be regarded as being problematic and contested rather than being seen as a singular, holistic and a stable domain. Architects have always been vulnerable to vagaries of fame and not immune to the digital celebrity, influencer and thought leader. As a small firm steer clear of the prevailing fashions and the obvious. Don’t opt for easy, or naïve, off the-shelf-ideas branding. Strategic branding for the longer term of a practice is a difficult issue. Your brand needs to be both authentic and memorable; It also needs to burn a hole in the brains of those who have no regard for design.
Finally, and perhaps this goes without saying, but it keeps needing to be said, that the identities that we privilege in architectural discourse need to be more inclusive of difference. The recognition of collaborative practice is perhaps one way forward. Simply recognising and acknowledging difference may not be enough. Rather, in the swamplands of social media, a constant critique and dismantling of the rhetorical images that are presented to us as architects, is both essential and necessary; we also need to constantly dismantle, the mirror images of ourselves as architects, also presented to us in this digital spectacle. If you want to be different then I think your brand, and it’s associated manifestations, should in a sense be critical of and dismantle our received images of brand architecture.
Avoid the digital super hero syndrome. Otherwise, the rhetorical idealisation of the architectural identities, masculinities and techno-auteurs will continue to corrupt our discipline.