Instagram culture is changing architecture around the world, but is quality being compromised in pursuit of a striking selfie?
[the] social media platform, now counting 800 million users – more than a tenth of the world’s population – has since grown to become one of the most influential forces in the way our environments are being shaped. For a place to be shared on Instagram is no longer a chance by-product of a photogenic design, but a primary concern that drives the ambitions of clients and designers. The idea of “doing it for the ’gram” has moved from the preserve of Like-hungry teens to board meeting discussions and multimillion pound budgets.
It is easy to despair that the influence of social media is reducing the designer’s role to providing jazzy backdrops and quirky props, flattening the world into a selfie stage set. The recent appearance of a pop-up Selfie Factory in Shoreditch – a saccharine “funhouse” of ball pits, confetti rooms and doughnut walls, calibrated for the sole activity of taking photos of yourself – might make you think the end is nigh. The feeling of doom is perhaps only matched by the fact that one major architecture practice recently installed a swing in a show apartment for a luxury residential development, after their client was concerned it didn’t have enough Instagram allure.
But could our obsession with capturing and sharing also represent an opportunity for innovation? Shouldn’t architects be welcoming a platform that encourages people to look more closely at their surroundings? Sam Jacob, designer of the forthcoming Cartoon Museum in central London sees no cause for concern. “It’s merely an extension of the ‘Kodak moment’, or those seaside cut-out boards where you put your head through a hole,” he says. “Architects have always designed their buildings to be photogenic. Someone who worked on the Barbican told me that they exaggerated the rough concrete surface and the contrasting white tiles, so it would look better in the high-contrast black and white photography of the day.”
As for our selfie obsession, he adds, architecture has a long tradition of being specifically designed to frame people. “It’s exactly what a church or a cathedral does; this is a sort of democratic version of it. And it’s a good challenge: Instagram culture moves so fast and gets exhausted so quickly that you have to keep evolving your architectural language, whether in drawings, models or actual buildings.”
Perhaps we should be thankful that architects have embraced Instagram – if only because it brought us a vision of Norman, Lord Foster of Thames Bank, floating on a giant inflatable unicorn.