From Placemaking to Social Media: Takeaways from AIA San Francisco’s NEXT Conference

Architecture Media Professional Practice West
next-conference

The NEXT Conference, sponsored by the AIA San Francisco, just concluded its first year, and The Architect’s Newspaper was there moderating two panels. Day one convened in a historic bayside dock transformed into a children’s Exploratorium. We moderated a session on the urban planning concept of “Placemaking” that featured David Burney, Jennifer Wolch, and two “makers,” Anisha Gade and Sue Mark of the firm Marksearch.

This relatively new way of thinking about planning, particularly marginalized and rapidly transforming the space of the city, is making inroads into city planning circles and art academies and joining these two practices.

David Burney just launched the first academic Placemaking program in the country at Pratt Institute and described how the practice is training students to link policy to the use and ownership of public space. Jennifer Wolch Dean of the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley was more critical and nuanced about Placemaking. She wondered what happens when the makers leave a place and move on to another site? Might this practice inevitably be, Wolch wondered, just another gentrifying agent in an already rapidly changing neighborhood?

The two Placemakers Gade and Mark presented their latest North Oakland project, Communities Crossing, that attempts to “reveal a community in search of its identity.” Follow-up questions debated various aspects of the practice but left the gentrification issue unresolved on the table. The audience and panelists from earlier sessions seemed thrilled to be in the company of other practitioners, so the harder questions about the long-term impact of the practice were not addressed.

The second day of the conference moved to the sagging modernist San Francisco County Fair Building in Golden Gate Park. In a session labeled “Business,” we moderated a panel, Architects & Social Media, with Kenneth Caldwell, Amanda Walter, and architect Mark English.

Caldwell a communications consultant to architects argued that designer featured profiles in traditional or “earned” media are difficult to come by and that today most architects would be better served to have a social media strategy targeted to their existing networks. This he considers professional “owned media.” But he argued content in these media streams should be delivered personally to key those contacts nurtured over many years.

Walter was more direct. She wrote the book Social Media in Action: Comprehensive Guide for Architecture, Engineering, Planning and Environmental Consulting Firms, which is the bible for design firms trying to figure out marketing. Water claimed they should “consider what issues and challenges their potential clients are looking for online and then develop and share content that helps them.”

Mark English, a San Francisco architect who specializes in single-family homes and entertainment projects, spends 10 hours a week promoting his practice on various social media sites. He also claimed that he has gotten four major projects in the last year from his personal blog posts and other media posts.

This session had a flurry of audience responses and questions to these media professionals from both older architects trying to understand this media landscape and young designers just starting out and wanting to know how to position their firms. Created by the earned media, this panel highlighted the difficulties of owned media.

The NEXT Conference was lightly attended and suffered from being staged in two venues (each with its own problems) across the city, but hopefully the organizers will learn from this first event and give San Francisco the professional conference it deserves “NEXT” year.

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