In July this year, the online portal ‘common edge’ asked: “Does architecture have a “fake news” problem?” In their article they make a case against the growing compartmentalization of architecture online portals resulting in the disappearance of all projects that do not meet the stylistic requirements of that very publication. With that approach, they state, architecture and architectural debate become poorer and poorer. Debate consists of argument and counterargument. With the latter disappearing, debate also vanishes and makes room for an echo chamber of one’s own noise. That leads to a growing disconnect between the virtual reality and the physical experience we have in our cities where the eclectic mix has increased in recent decades. However – adding more diversity can still be achieved here by allowing other voices in.
When architecture steps out of its ivory tower of ‘grey cats strolling through otherwise empty and clean interiors’, then things get a lot dirtier. Building in cities not only is a process of physically erecting them. It also is a political process of getting permissions to do just that. Here fake news turns into a new tool that local communities use to fight anything they deem undesired. Manipulation of imagery is used as the weapon of choice. With photoshop and a bit of training, that is easily doable. By use of social media, one can quickly spread the manipulated picture and render the problem huge and the building inappropriate.
This currently happens to a project my own office is designing in Brussels. We have invested utmost attention to creating a city block that fits the context and in terms of scale refers to. Admittedly architects are not without guilt when is comes to showing their designs in the ‘best possible light’. As masters of illusion, they are using all sorts of tricks to achieve that – sometimes even manipulating the pictures of their own buildings. But there is a difference between what might look the same but serves different purposes – artist impressions and verified views. An artist impression is what it says it is – the impression of an artist – an artwork which does not have the ambition to convey truth but a state of mind, an atmosphere or an aesthetic statement. That architects use the help of computers to render these impressions does not turn them into something different. With verified views that is different. They are made to represent the outcome as close as possible. Using refined modelling techniques, eye level height and focal length that resembles that of a human being, their purpose is to show a future reality in all its advantages and disadvantages. Manipulating such a view therefore is not using a piece of art and altering it and eventually infringing on the authorship rights of the artist. Manipulating here is deliberately creating fake news – fake news to build support which otherwise would not be there in the same way. It is the same tactics Donald Trump or all the other populists use.
The question is – how do we avoid that the work of architects get manipulated and sabotaged by unfounded allegations? One way could be that cities require verified views for all projects and that only verified views can be used in the public debate or as tools of communication with the public. But there could and there should be more: architecture and urbanism – how we build our cities and how we live in them should become subject to a much wider debate. A debate that gives room to a wide group of people and invites all people and not only the ones who shout the loudest to engage in the look and feel of our cities. This would not only make cities more by the people for the people, but it would also render the voices of those NIMBY populists less dominant – something not only architecture would profit from but probably we all would.
by Markus Appenzeller