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Moving towards PRrchitecture

Black box: Pop-up practice Pernilla & Asif brought PRchitecture to the masses, writes Rory Olcayto

The future of architecture is in public relations. Soon, rather than actually designing the building, the architect will be hired to simply ‘front’ a project, speak for it, explain it, make sense of it for the masses. You could argue this is actually what a starchitect is today: the front of house spokesperson for a luxury products workshop. The profession has steadily been moving in this direction - towards PRrchitecture if you like - for the past 20 years.

Technology has played a key role. Computer aided design has put a great distance between the originator of a design idea and its eventual execution. The lead architect need not have conceived of every nut and bolt. But they can tell you what the building means, why it looks the way it does, why it is of importance, and what change it will undoubtedly bring.

Architects already embody this emerging paradigm. For the BBC’s new studio in Cardiff for example, no one took interest in Holder Mathias, even though it did the bulk of the work. Rather FAT, who conjured the project’s basic idea but had nothing to do on-site, was used by the developer to sell the bigger story. FOA’s skin wrap for Birmingham New Street, which Atkins are largely behind, is another such instance of PRchitecture today.

Hollywood has long understood this more focused appeal. Creative, passionate, liberal, stylish and hardworking - these are the qualities writers and directors imagine when they place architects in lead roles. Think of Henry Fonda and his pursuit of the truth in 12 Angry Men. Or honest, upstanding - badly paid - Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal. Or more recently, Inception’s Ellen Page, who ‘designs’ the backdrop to people’s dreams in Christopher Nolan’s fantasy thriller.

PandA

Younger firms understand this too. Take Pernilla & Asif; a kind of pop-up practice, in that despite a launch last November, they’ve already split up. Maybe they were never really a company at all: they parted ways as soon as the project that brought them together - the Coca-Cola Beatbox in the Olympic Park - was complete. Job done. Yet their rise has been a masterclass in architectural PR, and more important than their actual design.

Since that first drinks reception ‘at the iconic venue of York Hall in Bethnal Green, London’, much has happened - in the press, at least, despite having no real architecture built in their name. There was an AJ New Practice profile. An Observer profile shortly after, in a section highlighting the best new talent in ‘the world of art and design’.

Then, in February, a stint blogging for Vogue.com. Next, Asif’s triumph in the Daily Telegraph’s Amazing Talent search, alongside Katie Franklin, cake-maker to the stars, (clients: Henry Holland, Zandra Rhodes). Asif won because he ‘creates truly amazing, award-winning architecture’. Guess what? He’s not even an architect.

‘I never got around to sitting my final exam,’ the paper reported. Readers never got round to finding out which of Asif’s buildings was award-winning either. But there was another great moment for the Part II graduate in July: his shift as an Olympic torch bearer in the London Borough of Hillingdon. Every time these stories appeared in emails, videos and news Coke got a mention.

The duo’s finest hour was during the Olympics. Visitors flocked to ‘interact’ with their Beatbox, An ‘architectural wonder’ said Branding Magazine. More amazing than the design, however, and you would have expected Branding to notice, was the large signboard in front of the pavilion. DESIGN: ASIF KHAN AND PERNILLA OHRSTEDT. Somehow they’d beaten the promotions ban. Not even Zaha managed that.

Readers' comments (4)

  • You forgot to mention the excellent West Beach Cafe in Littlehampton designed by Asif - that was award-winning and serves the best fish and chips on the south coast.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • That feels like the perfect comment for this article - thanks Peter!

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • After reading your at first apparently glib article I have now come to notice how well you picked up on the real issues at hand with the architectural profession.

    You reminded us:

    That we are in a recession, and that one of the main sources of work currently lies with big corporations i.e. coke. who still have the capital to fund young architects and take a risk, thus helping fledgling practices startup.

    That these companies will have their own agenda and that its tricky to navigate their territory i.e. being caught up in a campaign celebrating young people.

    How important it is for a wider audience outside of architects journals to take notice of the wealth of talent and creativity our sector claims to harbour.

    How important it is for Architects to learn to ‘relate to the public’.

    And finally, how you managed to articulate so well an image of a profession content to cut of its nose to spite its face (assuming you are a spokes person for the body of people that take an interest in, and practice architecture). How potentially insecure we are about taking on a world that is concerned with image and media, and one that doesn’t understand every screw and bolt.

    I hope this article continues to prompt thoughts about how we, architects and designers, navigate the 21st century, and how, post an idea of architecture built out of a wasteland left by two world wars that started near a century ago we can move on.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • After reading your at first apparently glib article I have now come to notice how well you picked up on the real issues at hand with the architectural profession.

    You reminded us:

    That we are in a recession, and that one of the main sources of work currently lies with big corporations i.e. coke. who still have the capital to fund young architects and take a risk, thus helping fledgling practices startup.

    That these companies will have their own agenda and that its tricky to navigate their territory i.e. being caught up in a campaign celebrating young people.

    How important it is for a wider audience outside of architects journals to take notice of the wealth of talent and creativity our sector claims to harbour.

    How important it is for Architects to learn to ‘relate to the public’.

    And finally, how you managed to articulate so well an image of a profession content to cut of its nose to spite its face (assuming you are a spokes person for the body of people that take an interest in, and practice architecture). How potentially insecure we are about taking on a world that is concerned with image and media, and one that doesn’t understand every screw and bolt.

    I hope this article continues to prompt thoughts about how we, architects and designers, navigate the 21st century, and how, post an idea of architecture built out of a wasteland left by two world wars that started near a century ago we can move on.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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