PR good or bad?

02 of December '22

Article from A&B issue #11/2022

Are architects allowed to promote themselves? It seems that the answer to this question is obvious, but the presence of architecture and its creators in the media raises many emotions. Is it a matter of good taste or rather a lack of ability to promote one's architecture?

I like to stay up to date. I have favorite sources of information, I subscribe to social media archikanals, I look at professional portals. The Polish-language ones are distinguished by a clear preponderance of materials devoted to single-family houses. This is a little sad, but understandable—such a product has a chance to interest the widest audience. Unfortunately, there are times, however, when I start to be afraid to open the refrigerator, because a news item about more awards will jump out of it, repeating like a refrain. PR problems, however, are much more than—as it may seem—ubiquity or over-representation of a narrow group of players.

When asked about this, Robert Konieczny (KWK Promes) says:

The best PR is to do good projects that are later appreciated abroad. After such successes, all the media will speak up on their own, we don't have to do anything. Interestingly, we didn't have to apply for most of the awards at all. We suddenly found out about the best public space awarded by the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, Wallpaper's house of the year or awards from other portals. Instead, we like to compete in the World Architecture Festival or the Architizer Awards, to chase the best and be subjected to the harsh judgment of critics. I regret that so few Polish studios do this, and I'm happy for each of their successes. It serves us all right.

So why the controversy surrounding the subject? Konieczny replies:

Since A&B is asking, I will quote a conversation with Kuba Szczęsny, who collaborates with you, which may explain it a bit. Once Kuba told me not to do anything anymore and to make way for others [the statement was in the form of a joke—A&B editor's note], because I have already achieved enough. And I invariably wish him the best of luck, that he will have such projects as the Keret House without number and that he will be successful.

Post Koniecznego

Robert Konieczny's post published on Facebook

il: Alicja Gzowska

It's hard not to agree that other people's successes are less gratifying than one's own, but at the same time it's hard to close the topic on this. Before we face a long list of accusations, let's start with a definition. Kuba Snopek, co-founder of Direction, a research and identity design company for places, explains:

In Poland, PR functions widely as a buzzword substituting for terms for various, mostly misunderstood activities. It is confused, for example, with marketing, branding or product design. In a nutshell, PR is the management of a company's communications, carried out mainly by maintaining and managing relations between the company and external parties. These can include the media, but also local governments (known as GR, government relations).

Do architecture graduates receive any training in this area during their studies? Usually they don't. On the contrary, they are instilled with the belief that the very realization of a building is a manifesto, a work of art and an advertisement. If good architecture is created, subsequent clients will come forward on their own. Reality cruelly verifies this thesis—realization is one of many steps leading to both awards and market success.

Snopek continues:

Architectural firms rarely behave like businesses. The realization of a building is a matter of ambition and more important than money. This is not only the case in Poland, it is a belief deeply rooted in the architectural profession.

fragment strony internetowej pracowni Studio Okuljar

Excerpt from Studio Okuljar's website

il.: Alicja Gzowska

Architect Patrycja Ok uljar (Studio Okuljar) tells us:

In Switzerland, if you win an architectural competition, you are promoted from the very announcement of the results, which takes the form of a vernissage. This is followed by publication. If you are good, you flow out in the environment, you start to be recognized. Of course, this is nowhere near the prevailing system in Poland of allocating contracts through tenders, which does not guarantee the quality of what gets built. Completely mediocre projects are built in the country, but they have a huge PR machine.

The difference between curated blogs and sites and portals, where you simply pay to post pre-prepared content, is hard for a layman to tell. And it is content from the Internet and social media that now shapes the image of what is considered good architecture. It should not have escaped notice that recently addresses with a certain reputation, such as Dezeen, have been changing owners. Will this entail a change in the quality of the message? Time will tell.

Post Barbary Ziemby

post by Barbara Zięba (simple architect) published on Instagram

il: Alicja Gzowska

Meanwhile, Barbara Ziemba (simple architect) assesses the measure of success tartly:

The profession of architecture is practiced in Poland by people with huge egos. They care so much about promoting themselves that they design things that are primarily to look like. Then there's a photo shoot with countless adjustments in Photoshop and cramming the material wherever it goes. When one manages to attach such a realization to an article, ends up on the cover or receives an award with a strange, preferably English-language, name, one can proudly trumpet success. Continue to publish, tag and unreflectively burst with pride, because what more do you want!

Okuljar adds:

Interestingly, the men (!) who most often portray themselves as thoughtful visionaries in black clothes and expensive shoes are the ones who design second-rate real estate development, hotel chains or other poor things. This is how they try to sell themselves and compete in this narcissistic environment. And there are people who buy it. Meanwhile, the better, harder-working architect is, the more carefully he chooses the forms of promoting himself. He is unlikely to appear as the face of tiles or windows.

In view of this, are awards the hallmark of good architecture? At the beginning of 2017, American designer Ben Willis published the text "Do architectural awards matter?". His answer can be summarized as follows: "they do, but not as much as you think. And there's a lot of room for improvement." Indeed, there are so many awards given in architecture nowadays that it is difficult to get a grasp of them even on a national level, let alone on a European or global scale! In addition, they are awarded by architectural organizations, magazines and web portals, according to various (sometimes quite obscure) criteria. If only for these two reasons, winning an award will not always be a springboard to success. Does it enable you to reach new audiences or potential clients? Probably yes, but it's worth looking at who shows up at award ceremonies and reads the archinews—aren't they mostly competing architects?

John Hanocock Tower

John Hancock Tower in Boston, designed by I. M. Pei, Henry N. Cobb, completed in 1976—a building widely known for its structural flaws; inadequate wind strength and windows that fell out; a 1973 photo shows openings covered with plywood panels

Photo: Ernst Halberstadt, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, public domain

There are several other problems with the awards. First, these are individual awards. One, maybe two or three architects come out on stage and are photographed with the trophy. Yes, most often they dutifully thank the rest of their office colleagues for their efforts, but this is the only, very brief moment when it is pointed out that architecture is a team effort. This is one mechanism for reproducing the pathological culture of starchitects. Second, architectural awards go mostly to older, sometimes younger, men. Some time ago Anna Syska cited statistics:

The Honorary Award of the Association of Polish Architects, which has been awarded since 1966, has been given to six women, only three of whom have received it alone. Most recently, in 2021, Ewa Kurylowicz broke a bad streak lasting more than forty years.

Barbara Ziemba adds:

It's becoming more and more common for jury members to look only at the pictures and not at the realization itself. I get the impression that hardly anyone is interested in the context of such a building, the course of the investment process, customer feedback. There is no discussion at all about how one lives, works or stays in such a space. There is no reflection on how this architecture looks after a year of use, how it will age.

In his text, the aforementioned Ben Willis cites two of the winners of the American Institute of Architects' Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Award: the John Hancock Tower in Boston and the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington. Both with serious and very costly façade defects. Despite this, they were awarded as buildings "that have set a precedent over the past twenty-five to thirty-five years and continue to set the standard for excellence in architectural design." The author of both is I.M. Pei, winner of both the AIA Gold Medal and Pritzker...

wschodnie skrzydło Galerii Narodowej w Waszyngtonie, proj. I. M. Pei, ukończony 1978; wielkie kamienne płyty zamontowane na autorskiej konstrukcji po jakimś czasie zaczęły się przechylać, grożąc odpadnięciem z elewacji

The east wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., designed by I. M. Pei, completed 1978; the large stone slabs mounted on the author's structure began to tilt after some time, threatening to fall off the facade

Photo: licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Good PR is not just bragging about what we have done," explains Kuba Snopek.—It's necessary to know what our goal is and focus on it. This entails determining tactics on how to manage such content. What channels to share it with and to whom. One office may want to reach as many of its potential customers as possible. Another—to specific decision-makers, such as mayors. Still another wants to reach potential employees by communicating its advantages as a place to work. These are three completely different goals that will be pursued in different ways.

This, of course, generates costs. Large architectural firms usually employ at least one person to find addresses of potential audiences, prepare content and handle social media. Others prefer to outsource such services. What does this look like in Poland?

Robert Konieczny admits:

We don't have a PR department. I have access to Facebook, and so does my assistant, but we forget about it. We have so much content that we could add three posts a day, but we don't have time because we work.

A quick review of architectural firm websites shows the extent of neglect. Lack of up-to-date content (sometimes no content at all, including phone number and email), opaque layout, domination of graphic design over functionality. Let alone talk about the use of social media.

This backwardness opens up a big opportunity for smaller entities. Without large financial outlays, but with knowledge of the tools and their use, it is possible to effectively build relationships on Instagram or TikTok, which have strongly changed current modes of communication.

Another possibility is pointed out by Kuba Snopek:

It's 2022, product design matters, because marketing without a good product doesn't work anymore, including in the architecture and real estate industry.
It is sad that there is any discussion at all about what is good and what is bad PR," concludes Konieczny, "because the right PR serves us all. Everyone's success serves us all. The more there is about architecture in the media, the greater the chance of increasing awareness of the profession's role—and that is very important.


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