This article was originally published on Common Edge.
Architects compete, and the internet provides unlimited opportunities for competition among all who wish to offer up something for consideration. None of this is news. But there’s been a change in both the expectations and the etiquette around all of those offerings.
Earlier this month, I was asked to submit to two small competitions. I had completed successful projects that matched each competition’s focus, so I dove in. We confirmed that our entries met the criteria and deadlines; we knew the day of jury deliberations and the release date of their decision. As usual, we lost (success only comes for those willing to accept failure); also, as usual, the verdict for us and for all other runners up was silence.
Similarly, I am often “invited” to submit ideas for potential projects. A few months ago, I was asked to compete against 20 other firms for a project. After meeting the potential client and providing ideas, there was no communication for two months, so I sent an email them asking for an update. “It’s down to three of you,” I was told. So I continue to wait, as architects always have, the pleasure of the patron. Only now, the technology that allowed me to easily submit some pretty snappy ideas was not reciprocally used to inform me of … anything. Patience may be a virtue, but common courtesy reduces the need for it.
In other words, no news has become the new “no.”
Architects have always offered their work for judgment. Competitions, publications, potential clients—there are any number of submission opportunities, but precious few rewards. And with nearly everything provided quickly and easily via uploads and email attachments, it often feels like a dreary, high-tech version of speed dating: a perpetual loop of maximum exposure, but minimal interaction.
Shouting into the void is now the expectation. The harvesting of competition fees, the procuring of free art and editorial content, the open-ended trolling for design ideas—all of this has become as simple as getting people to hit “send.” It should be just as simple to respond, but that etiquette has largely disappeared. Why should this be so, when it’s easier than ever to contact multiple parties simultaneously to say, “Sorry, we didn’t choose you”?
The perversity of this new ethic mimics virtually all internet transactions: The false promise of intimacy and engagement, followed by stony silence.
Rejection has always been part of the deal for architects, but indifference cuts harder. Meanwhile, an endless parade of architectural fantasias appears on the internet. Who chooses them? The perversity of this new ethic mimics virtually all internet transactions: The false promise of intimacy and engagement, followed by stony silence.
Of course, analog submissions were lame in their indirect, time-consuming product fetishism: bound photographic prints and paper drawings, lovingly packaged and gently carried about like offspring. (And then, eventually, returned.) But at least it was a dance, a dialogue of sorts, a dynamic between supplicant and absolute judge. Now digital technology is fully baked into every part of our culture, and the price we pay for its vast efficiencies is cold indifference. Almost no human ever touches an Amazon order or a hotel reservation, and the losers of design competitions rarely have any sense that a human ever saw what they offered.
To further complicate matters, the objectivity of blind submissions is nearly impossible in a world where everything is shared instantly. Losers may be the last to know (if ever), but the work of everyone entering has been on the internet long before the competition happens. So while embargoes are still required, how can they be effective when the work can be universally spread, independent of the designer? Anonymity is virtually impossible in this new world. The thousands of sites available end up making the designer part of the judgment. This coarsely efficient ethos isn’t insulting, because you cannot insult what you do not know, but it is cold.
In the 20th century, clients generally found architects through personal contacts. Now everyone can review entire portfolios without any interaction, exchange of thought, or chemistry. Architecture is offered and viewed apart from the designer. As with a dating site, the resulting rejection is anonymous. It is assumed that what is found on screens is a viable substitute for actual contact.
There is a paradox here. This new, nasty indifference is actually part of a bargain that’s been struck, whether we realize it or not: We’ve accepted the instant, free, open connections of the web in exchange for our invisibility. And despite that, it’s clear that almost every aspect of communication and design is better served by this technological explosion. This revolution connects, effortlessly, but more often than not that attempt at communication goes unreciprocated. We live in a world of infinitely projected monologues.
Some competitions allow entrants to see all entries. If that’s possible, then thanking the losers for their efforts seems equally possible. But there is a new ethos, one in which the power of instant interaction and judgment rules over the messy humanity of manners and dialogue. Get used to it.