about online platforms for discourse

conversation held over email between PAUL PETRUNIA and MISHA SEMENOV (M. Arch I / M.E.M. ’19)

Misha: I’m wondering if you could begin by talking about the kinds of discourse that the Archinect platform enables. Who participates in them, and how are these conversations different from those found in other places?

Paul- At Archinect we facilitate a variety of different platforms for discussion. Our discussion forum is the most open and accessible platform, allowing anyone with an Archinect account to participate. While the platform is open to anybody, the type of conversations that emerge tend to attract mostly practicing architects, architecture students, and prospective students.

Due to the nature of this online environment, discussions can be wide-ranging, covering a vast variety of issues in architecture and related fields. There are also many discussions revolving around issues completely unrelated to architecture. Since Archinect caters specifically to an architectural audience, these unrelated discussions can be quite fascinating, as they offer an architect’s perspective on topics that are in the news or generally discussed among a more diverse community. While there are often brilliant conversations that emerge from our discussion forum, it takes some patience and an open mind to find them as many of the participants like to troll others and hide behind an anonymous screen name while expressing opinions they wouldn’t dare in real life.

When we want to have serious conversations, we present them in the form of interviews with individuals who are experts, or experienced, on the topic of the conversation. Interviews are conducted in person, over the telephone or via email, and presented either in text format, on our website, or in audio format, for our podcasts.

M- One of the things about the Archinect platform that differentiates it from, say, Dezeen, ArchDaily, Architect’s Newspaper, and other such blogs/news sites is that you run substantial stories that encourage conversation–and in order to comment, you must be registered with the Archinect system, which allows people to easily see your comment history and engage with you, but also means it requires a certain commitment to join the conversation. Archinect also does a great job of giving a bio and contact info for authors. Do you think that this enables a higher-quality online conversation? Are there things you might change to encourage the discussion to continue and grow off of each article?

P- We have made the intentional decision to power our own commenting system on Archinect. We want to provide the opportunity for our members to associate their commenting history to their Archinect profiles and publishing history, to provide a more holistic record of each person’s contributions. For our members that have published articles and/or spent time crafting their individual or firm profile, this association absolutely encourages a more responsible self-moderation and thoughtfulness.

There are a number of changes we’re planning on making to our discussion forum and comment portion of our editorials, to encourage more productive and intelligent discourse. We will be incorporating a level of curation to discussion threads and individual comments to make the experience of reading our forum more valuable and less frustrating. We will also offer more moderation tools for our users to help each person define what and who they would like to follow (or unfollow).

Archinect has been around for a long time, before Facebook, Twitter, and most other social media. We’ve watched the discussion on our site evolve tremendously as social media entered the landscape. Social media offers the ability to carefully manage your social circle, to the individual level, but Archinect continues to offer the ability to start a conversation with an entire industry, regardless of your social, geographic, or class affiliation.

M- One of the things that our peers complain about, perhaps because of a climate of pluralism or political correctness, is that we are not disagreeing enough with each other. Many architects work with “safe” ideas like “placemaking,” “contextualism,” “environmental design” etc that are hard to argue with. A good example of this I personally visited is the Chicago Biennial, where the projects didn’t really seem to conflict with each other or suggest a discourse or argument within the discipline so much as announce that Architecture would save the world. Do you think it’s true that we are more afraid of offending each other, and that the field has become much more bland, practical perhaps, and much less polemical? Who are the provocateurs today and how can their voices get heard?

P- Considering how quickly the world is changing, and how truly multidisciplinary the architecture field is, it’s unfortunate that we’re not seeing a more radical exploration of ideas in the community. I think the tech industry is starting to become very competitive with architects and urban planners by looking at ways of applying new technology to solve problems that have historically been the responsibility of the architecture and urban design community. I think architects need to stop looking to each other for ideas and inspiration and start looking at other fields more. This has been a strong belief of mine since I started Archinect in 1997 when I adopted the internet as my medium of choice, to help improve this type of insular behavior. Two provocateurs in our industry, who were especially vocal during the Chicago Architect Biennial, are Francois Roche and Patrik Schumacher.

M- How do you think the architectural discourse has changed as a result of the advent of websites, blogs, and comment sections? Has it become democratized or more exclusive? More inclusive or more segregated into niche groups?

P- I started Archinect almost 20 years ago, believing the internet would provide opportunities to expand architecture discourse outside of the closed environments I had experienced before and during my architectural studies. In the beginning, it didn’t take long to develop a large community of participants, excited to share information and stories with others around the globe. These early discussions were smart and encouraging, formed mostly by fellow internet pioneers who shared my wonder with this connected network. The early communities didn’t take the internet for granted as later generations of users seemed to do. Social media emerged a few years later, providing a completely new way to communicate among smaller, more selective groups. Many of our members who had used Archinect as a social platform began moving their conversations to social media where they could have better control over who they communicated with. The “security” of social media felt like a step back, in terms of expanding the architectural discourse, returning back to the insular, self-moderation, that lead to the uninspired echo chamber that is architectural communication.

M- Can you talk a bit about the podcast medium and how you can use it to encourage discourse? What prompted you to branch out into podcasting, and why is podcasting appropriate for architecture in particular? How can we make that medium more participatory?

P- The podcast tends to be a unidirectional, non-interactive medium that I’m still trying to get used to. What the podcast brings, however, is an opportunity to share conversations at a more personal level. Just hearing the human voice helps communicate a message in a richer way than transcribed text. Our conversations are intentionally not rehearsed. We don’t share questions with our guests ahead of the recordings. We often talk about issues that are unexpected.

We have been hosting live podcasting events that have helped introduce a participatory component to our podcasting. We call these events “Next Up”, and have hosted a number of them, including an all day event at the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial. .

M- Last question: what is the top thing that you think architects need to urgently discuss that they are currently ignoring?

P- Raising public awareness about the value of architects, and architecture. The last recession destroyed the industry because architects were seen as unnecessary. The knowledge and experience an architect develops is important and necessary, and it’s our responsibility to prove that.

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