It’s always fascinating when architecture breaks the bounds of the profession and becomes a topic of debate in the wider profession. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, there is no shortage of such occasions.
Whether it’s the click-seeking cluster of articles that found a client for an improbable cliff-hanging design or the forums that suddenly decided that most modern architecture looks “evil,” the viral trend treadmill ensures that there are plenty of opportunities for the layperson to offer their two cents on the output of our profession.
The flavor of the summer of 2017 is Attika Architekten’s Emoticon Facade. This thoroughly sensible and polite building has caught the public’s attention thanks to its inclusion of emoji-shaped decorative additions. While most of the Internet has responded with heart-eyes, there’s no shortage of people for whom these carved emojis are a clear indication that architecture, and by extension society, and by extension all of life as we know it, is doomed, never to recover. Such an opinion is legitimized by articles like this one in Wired by Sam Lubell, who in reporting on the building found two experts willing to take a big old smiley poop on Attika Architekten’s work. Given the role that these experts play in directing the conversation among the public, their arguments bear analysis.
First up is Sean Khorsandi, a professor of architectural history, who argues that “architecture is serious. We’re using copious materials, and we’re taking up land. There is a responsibility that goes along with that. If everything is a joke, reduced to this disposable ‘I like it in the moment’ fad, that’s a dangerous attitude to have.” Lubell adds that Khorsandi “finds it telling that most discussion of the building has focused on the emojis, not its fairly pedestrian design.”
Okay then, let’s talk about that design, shall we? Located in Amersfoort in the Netherlands, the two-building complex has a simple, austere materiality and subtly civic massing that clearly owes a debt to greats from the Netherlands’ past such as Willem Marinus Dudok and Hendrik Petrus Berlage, or to other prominent North European proto-modernists such as Gunnar Asplund.
In its facade treatment, the design borrows from the Chicago School in the way that the large windows enabled by the steel structure are framed by horizontal and vertical elements; however, where the Chicago School skyscrapers emphasized the vertical elements, in this low-slung complex it is the horizontal white bands which are dominant. The ground floor glass shop fronts create an acceptable, if not exemplary, connection with what appears to be an underwhelming public space.
Emoji decorations or not, you won’t find anyone who considers this design to be a masterpiece, but it’s unreasonable to conclude that the entire project is some sort of bad joke. Even the jokey addition of the emojis serves an architectural purpose: instead of being used throughout the design, the emojis are confined to the key facade on the more civic-looking building in the complex (the one which is topped by the clock face). The extra attention given to this facade establishes a hierarchy within the design, giving it coherence. In conclusion, architecture is serious, and this is serious architecture.
Furthermore, at the risk of adding another unwanted opinion to the pile, by my estimation it is the design’s very ordinariness which makes the emojis work. They appear in a place you’d expect to see a slight embellishment of some sort, but on a building which you’d never expect to have a sense of humor. It’s this bait-and-switch that brings delight.
Another concern raised in the Wired article is that the use of emojis—which in recent years have seen their designs evolve rapidly—might make the building stink a little too much of 2016, the year it was completed. “It might be cute now, in the kawaii sense of the word,” said art historian Susan Kart to Lubell, “but imagine a building that used portrait heads with 1980s-style mullet hairstyles the way this building uses emojis. Not very cute or trendy after the hairstyle passes.”
You know what else really dates architecture? Dates. And yet for hundreds of years, it was fairly common practice for buildings to proudly display the date they were constructed, presumably because designers back then had no sense of shame. One can only imagine how relieved the 4th-century designers of the Arch of Constantine must be right now; their use of Roman cultural references in their decoration could have been really embarrassing, but luckily we still all wear togas on a daily basis and the Arch of Constantine is still totally kawaii.
Taking Kart’s quote a little more seriously, all buildings are products of the time in which they are produced, irrespective of any overt pop-cultural references made by the designer. It’s hard to imagine Postmodern kitsch emerging in any time period other than the 1980s, or Gothic developing in anything other than the religious society of the middle ages. More importantly, buildings tell stories about the societies that built them. Fascinating histories can be told through the medium of architecture, and it’s concerning that an art historian is so dismissive of our ability to create our own stories. A better version of Kart’s comment might be: “it might be cute now, but how long will it be before it becomes interesting instead?”
A final concern is raised by Khorsandi in the comments of the article. Responding to another commenter, he writes: “I see emojis not as decoration though, but as text—ideograms. Unlike other means of literally reading architecture. . .these icons are not heralding high culture, nor do they seek to represent a deeper meaning. They are merely a motley collection of ideograms.”
Here we may be getting somewhere. Emojis are supposed to signify things, and this “language,” simple as it is, was largely ignored in the design of the building. But the perfect is the enemy of the good, and for most members of the public, such concerns would not even occur to them when seeing this building. Perhaps future designs will be able to use emojis in a more sophisticated manner, but Attika Architekten did a service in testing the waters to see how people would react to the idea. And guess what? For the most part, the public really liked it.
To borrow an expression from one Wired commenter, this profession can sometimes seem to have its architect’s scale firmly up its a**. When an architect breaks this status quo—to the delight of literally millions of members of the public—why do some invest so much energy in trying to convince others that it was a bad, ill-considered idea? Why are we so quick to gloss over the thought and expertise that has been brought to a design in order to make architects seem like they don’t have a clue what they’re doing? It’s enough to make one sadface cryingface.