At VCC, we believe that best-practice communications can transform individuals, practices and the design profession as a whole.
We recently interviewed Machteld Kors (Director, Communications), Karen Murphy (PR Manager), and Stephen O’Reilly (Digital Media Officer), the PR team of renowned Dutch architecture firm, UNStudio, to learn how communications impacts their practice and the work they do.
UNStudio specialises in creating distinct architecture at all scales internationally. Their local work includes ‘The Green Spine’ design concept, winner of the 2018 Southbank By Beulah competition.
VCC: Why is communication important to UNStudio?
UNS: The strong media presence from UNStudio comes from our company culture: our belief that it’s important to participate in the international architectural debate. Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, who founded UNStudio in 1988, have taught (and are still teaching) at various international universities.
Our media and marketing activities are planned around topics and themes that we think are relevant to share with our audiences. Those topics have shifted over the years from a focus on design processes and techniques to larger societal topics that impact the built environment. This is a global trend. We see that there is a clear shift in interest towards the ‘4th industrial revolution’ and the affects this will have on how we live, work, consume and relate to the spaces we occupy.
We plan our marketing and media activities around these human-centric themes that are engaging for a large audience.
VCC: What is the value of having a dedicated person/team to manage the practice’s communications?
UNS: UNStudio is a company with staff from more than 20 different cultures, with as many different languages. We want to make sure that we have one coherent tone of voice, bold and clear in everything we communicate. To achieve this, it’s necessary to have a dedicated team.
‘Architecture’ and ‘Communication’ are very different professions that require different skills. To create content and to craft stories around the work and knowledge we produce, we need to be able to connect different topics in a coherent story, preferably with as little architectural jargon as possible.
Booking.com headquarters, currently under construction. All images kindly supplied by UNStudio.
The UNStudio PR team at the 2018 ArchiBoo Awards, where they won both the Best Use of Social Media and Best Offline Event categories.
UNStudio + Cox Architecture’s winning design, The Green Spine, for Southbank by Beulah’s international design competition. Above and below.
VCC: How and why does UNStudio use social media?
UNS: Right now, most design practices use social media as a shop window; an aesthetic tool to showcase design features. But being social by design, social media should do more than simply that.
One of our main strategies recently has focused on knowledge sharing, which is a huge part of our internal office culture. Social media allows us to share that knowledge beyond our office walls and engage our community as we do so.
To do this, we live-stream in-house lectures to Facebook and Instagram, create podcasts, live tweet lectures we attend, and hand our social media channels over to designers at critical points in the design process.
Followers can shadow architects on Instagram Stories during a build, or ask questions to our researchers on Twitter. By handing channels over to colleagues who have a key stake in the design process, we are able to give our audience an interactive insight that they would never get from a website news item or research article.
We also use social media to examine how people occupy the spaces we design, adding a human layer to post-occupancy. Instagram users who geotag themselves at specific locations or use #unstudio are pulled into a pool of posts that we can examine to determine the quality of the space beyond standard post occupancy measures or interviews. Spaces might be used for dance performances, fashion shows, music concerts or in ways that we never expected. Our homepage shows a series of these posts with flagship projects showing posts from their geographic location.
Furthermore, we can use social media to revisit older projects, or breathe new life into projects that were never built or were temporary. By experimenting with 3D models, followers can explore these designs in their own time and in their own way, taking whatever value they like from the experience.
VCC: What is the impact of UNStudio’s social media use on the practice culturally, socially, and architecturally?
UNS: Architecturally, there is a strong feeling in the office that social media does not influence our design. The projects that we want to work on allow us to address particular human needs first and foremost, and solve problems within society such as social health, wellbeing, and sustainability.
If, within one of our finished projects, people want to share images to their social media channels, then we would see that as a confirmation of the value we have created. However, as mentioned above, if we use social media posts as part of a post-occupancy analysis, it can act as a litmus test to check whether our designs are in fact adding the kind of value that we had anticipated.
As for our own office culture, social media has had a big influence. We encourage our employees to be active on social media, and share posts about their travels, talks and experiences within the office. Social media can also be used as a tool for internal communications as well as external. If a colleague cannot make it to a lecture that we’ve hosted, they have the ability watch the lecture on our livestream, or simply listen to a podcast we have created in their own time.
VCC: Is there a specific example of a media or marketing activity that had a direct impact on UNStudio winning a project?
UNS: Getting new work is very much a team effort, and it would be too big a claim to state that the marketing activities impact 1 on 1 the competition results. Although we do strongly believe that business development, media and marketing are very much intertwined with our architecture, and therefore impact on winning new work.
VCC: How has marketing and media/communications shaped/changed UNStudio as a practice?
UNS: Media and communications is one of the many drivers of our practice. Together with Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos as our leading visionaries, an incredible dedicated team of directors and senior staff, an enormous team of creative spirits all around, and the facilitators, coordinators and organizers (Secretaries, Finance, HR, ICT) – everyone in the office has in some way shaped UNStudio as a practice.
During the last few years we have invested enormously in research and we continuously strive to innovate within our practice. This innovative approach greatly shapes who we are, what we do, and why we do it.
Arnhem Centraal, photographed by Hufton + Crow.