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.
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.