Amid closed theory and overwork, memes offer oppressed young architects humour, hope and a release from pressure, says Will Hayter, commended in the 2022 RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition
Architecture has become suffocated by development – a money-making machine in which the process of making buildings is appropriated by the forces of capital. The architectural worker sits uncomfortably within this machine; a mere cog driven by the brute force of profit. Within practices, their status is in the hierarchy is clear, reflected by the office layout and a pecking order in which the youngest assistants are left with long hours and unpaid overtime, all under the veil of achieving experience.
During my own Part I placement I found this mode of working tedious, and at times traumatic as the work-related stress of other staff was passed down to me. The work I carried out felt increasingly irrelevant to real needs, but geared to a world where, above all else, form follows finance. A lot of working life failed to live up to the expectations of an architectural career I had held as an undergraduate student; after all the long hours, the all-nighters and constant pressure, was this really worth it?
At the time I found comfort in architectural memes - images which swept through my social media, an instant gratification centred around silliness. The term memes, first coined by biologist Richard Dawkins to describe the spread of ideas through human culture, has been appropriated by the internet to describe a method of communication which can transmit, absorb and spread information faster than any building could ever dream of.
Within this world lies threads, chains, media which can all be absorbed, laughed at, and then sent on. Architects of my generation, who grew up straddling the worlds of closed book theory and open-source technology, have taken to this new form of image-based understanding enthusiastically. Popular Instagram pages such as Dank Lloyd Wright – an account with a knack for in-jokes and humorous asides about architecture – create communities of like-minded people. That account uses its reach to advocate for the importance of free time and to question the morals and ethics which underpin the institutions surrounding architecture.
Memes posted every day range from the surreal (taking a joke based on the movie Zoolander to extremes) to the downright empowering (a meticulous takedown of a precarious job advertised by a star architect). The page has its own mantra – sleep 8-10 hours every night – something which, though utterly simple, deliberately provokes the culture which surrounds architectural production, of long-hours and self-sacrifice.
Dank Lloyd Wright is acting as a whistle blower on the abuse students and workers have suffered from their respective institutions
Pages such as BOysfirm, Socially Condensed and sssscavvvv appear on my Instagram feed and instantly stick out; there is no order to the grid of images, no intention of subscribing to the aestheticized image-making that Instagram usually supports. If social media is increasingly geared towards the commodification of things, memes can offer a method of undermining the aesthetics and ethics we have become accustomed to.
While the stereotype of the architect relies on an invisible army of workers assisting an individual genius — usually old, white and male – the networks of meme pages are run by collectives of anonymous admins and sharers but typically have no figurehead. This position offers an objective criticism never seen before in architecture, in which platforms can be u sed to instantly offer feedback.
In a world in which the role of architects feels increasingly under threat from the forces of development, memes offer a sanctuary, a reminder that others share the same values. As a form of social commentary they offer not only explanations of the politics which surround architecture, but also a tool for activism, an online space where individuals can become participating citizens in the world of architecture. And as a form of communication they are remarkably powerful: if a picture can speak a thousand words, a meme undoubtedly offers even more.
We all are bearing witness to a new turn of events; Dank Lloyd Wright is acting as a whistle blower on the abuse students and workers have suffered from their respective institutions. The page’s 64,000 followers are becoming more actively engaged with taking a stand against the cultures we have inherited, learning to expect more from the precarious positions we are placed in.
The social platforms of the internet, though governed by profit, can still provide ample space for interaction and mobilisation, where we take stock, criticise and imagine a world in which the architect is also an engaged citizen. Conversations in the form of funny, punchy memes can co-ordinate the necessary effort to reinvent our structures of practice and open up our institutions. The future starts with undoing the culture of overtime and creating a caring, empathetic mode of education and practice, one meme at a time.
Will Hayter is a Part II student at Central Saint Martins