Microblogs and Content: Does Anyone Care?

What happens when a personal blogging project stalls? If the expectations for the blog rest mainly with the person who came up with the idea in the first place, does anyone else notice, or care?

Telling Storeys, the microblog I created a few months ago to photograph, document and share the buildings of Birmingham has had an interesting run so far but I find myself in a quandary.

The idea started life with me striding around the city armed with just the camera on my phone, randomly snapping pictures then researching buildings with the limited resources I have (a couple of architectural guide books). I then published the photos with a description onto a Tumblr blog and using the scheduling function I would line up several posts at once, and arrange for a tweet to be automatically sent through a dedicated twitter account whenever a post goes live. The system seemed to work well.

So far I have attempted to keep things very simple: one photo and no more information under the image than absolutely necessary – name of the building, location, architect, year of construction and any other facts that I deemed to be interesting. I didn’t want the site to become too cluttered and I figured a photo and brief description was enough to pique the interest of the reader, and might encourage them to seek out further information themselves. I was hoping to inspire readers to just be a bit more interested in the architecture of the city.

Fast forward a few months and things are a little different. The more observant will have noticed that activity has slowed almost to a stop. I had a break for a couple of months, then realised I had to start spreading my remaining content out – stretching it to 3 or 4 posts a months (ish). Over the last few months, opportunities for me to photograph buildings as I walk around the city have become virtually non-existent which leaves me with no more content for the site. You see, I hadn’t ever thought that I would be finishing the year 8 months pregnant with twins (waddling a couple of hundred yards is a challenge – striding around a city taking photos is definitely off the cards).

Originally I thought Telling Storeys might tire because of the time it takes to upload photos to Tumblr and look the building up, but this, as it turns out, is the easy bit. It’s the old problem of simply not having enough content to sustain the idea.

So, what next? Well, I’m not going to be able to solve the content generation problem myself for a good few months at least. So is there an easy way that the site might self-generate (good quality) content? Should I ask people to submit images to Tumblr and just see what happens? It might be interesting to see where it takes itself.

Alternatively, should I try and find someone to help me by taking the site on for a while? With more content and more people shouting about it, I know it could do well – I had a really positive response when I set it up so it has potential.

Or finally, does anyone really mind if I take a few months off and drop back onto it when I have more time? Am I worrying too much? After all, this is a project that was created purely out of my own interest in Birmingham’s architecture. No-one is paying me to run the site, but a couple of hundred people seem interested enough to follow the tumblr and twitter accounts, so there is a certain pressure not to let them down.

I know I got myself into this, but what would you do?

Putting it another way: help!

Financial Management in Architecture

I was delighted to be invited to guest lecture at Birmingham School of Architecture at BCU recently. Ruth Reed, Programme Director of the Prost-grad Diploma in Architectural Practice needed someone to talk to Part 3 students about Financial Management in professional practice. I have over 10 years of experience working at management level in small practices, a large proportion of which […]

Madin Birmingham

I’ve got a bit of a thing for the work of John Madin. He’s the architect responsible for several of Birmingham’s more well known buildings (Central Library and the Natwest Tower on Colmore Row to name but 2) and the practice’s portfolio is full of wonderful examples of the brutalist style of 1960s architecture.

Birmingham isn’t well known for its architecture, and some might argue that it’s always suffered from an identity crisis – constantly reinventing itself and obsessing over becoming the next [insert name of high profile city]. In order to address this, Birmingham ought to celebrate itself for what it is: a culturally diverse city with a fascinating industrial past and a collection of buildings which cover a broad spectrum of architectural styles.

But Birmingham City Council are determined to demolish the city’s finest example of brutalist architecture. In 2003 and 2008, English Heritage recommended that Madin’s Central Library should be statutorily listed. In 2011, the World Monument Fund called for its protection. Nevertheless, the Government’s Heritage Minister agreed to grant the library immunity from listing.

I understand the city’s concerns about this part of town, and that they feel the library effectively blocks pedestrian routes through to Centenary Square. I know the council have concerns about the state of the building because hasn’t been well maintained. I understand that this is no longer a building fit to operate as a library – I’ve talked to the librarians who work there. I understand that there is a commercial value in the land on which the library stands and they feel a new development would add value to the city.

I get that.

But I also think that they haven’t considered the impact on the feel of the city when much of the 1960s architecture is removed to make way for new development. Yes, this is largely an emotional factor and I’m no urban designer, but I know it’s REALLY IMPORTANT to give a city a vibrancy through a variety of architectural styles.

Most importantly I’m very uncomfortable knowing what the environmental impact of removing the library and surrounding buildings all together and replacing them will be. Have the council considered carbon emissions? I can’t find anything online to suggest that they have, and that has me very worried.

I know my former colleagues at Glenn Howells Architects have worked hard on the new plans for redevelopment of this part of the city…

But it’s not the only option. Redeveloping the area and retaining the library would still create jobs and have an economic value for the city.

This is why I’m tweeting and blogging and talking to people about this petition set up by Alan Clawley from Friends of Central Library calling for the council to reconsider their decision.

I want my council to be brave and to be proud of its brutalist architecture. I desperately want my council to stand up for itself and say:

“Hey everyone! Look at this huge great big brutalist building we have – pretty cool huh?!”

As you can tell I feel pretty strongly about this so if you agree with any of what I’ve said, I urge you to sign it too. There is more information over on the petition page:

PETITION: NEW USE FOR CENTRAL LIBRARY

Telling Storeys… about the city of Birmingham

A while ago, I got thinking about how important it is to share knowledge about Birmingham’s architecture with non-architects. It came off the back of my talk at Birmingham’s first Pecha Kucha night – I spoke about local Architect John Madin – and I rounded off my presentation by suggesting the audience look up more often when walking around the city and take in their surroundings: notice the design of local buildings, have a closer look at the style of windows, the choice of stonework and brickwork detailing, how it relates to its neighbouring buildings etc.  I also encouraged them to buy a copy of Andy Foster’s updated version of the Birmingham Pevsner Guide because it’s essential reading if you’re remotely interested in architecture.

Well, I’m pleased to say that one or two took my advice and can often be seen walking into lamposts because they’re so preoccupied with the beautiful architecture of the city that they forget to look where they’re going….. I jest…. Incidentally, if this really does happen, please don’t sue me – you’re responsible for making sure you can see where you’re walking.

I digress.

Thanks to that very warm spell recently, timed with a reshuffle of my work schedule, I was finally able to spend a bit of time taking dubious-quality photographs around some areas of the city (Birmingham is HUGE!) to share via a dedicated website.

Ladies, Gentlemen, Children and Architects: I give you Telling Storeys.

I thought long and hard about the format and figured it needed to be kept simple – that’s why I’ve used tumblr which autotweets a link whenever I hit ‘publish’. I’m sticking to using photos that only I have taken so as not to open a can of worms regarding copyright. Each photo is accompanied by a little bit of information about that building or place: name and location, and if I can find it, a bit of background about when it was built, who the architect was, and any other interesting snippets of relevant information.

At the time of writing this blog post, the Twitter account has 69 followers, and the number of Tumblr followers has suddenly risen sharply. I’ve had some really lovely feedback from people who like the simplicity of the format and it’s worth noting that I’ve also been dropping the location of each post (each building) onto a Googlemap which I guess might come in handy… one day.

Building A City

So this is what I talked about at Coventry’s last Pecha Kucha night instead of ranting about the big society agenda:

Silly? Well, yes, a bit. But there’s not enough silliness in the world of Architecture in my opinion. It sometimes takes itself rather too seriously. I vote for MORE SILLINESS PLEASE.

[Being a bit of pedant, I noticed a couple of things that slipped out during the presentation that weren’t factually correct. Nerves must have got the better of me. Answers on a postcard… or in the comments below.]

The Pecha Kucha That Never Was

I got some way through preparing to speak at Coventry’s most recent Pecha Kucha night, organised by the lovely Janet Vaughan of Talking Birds, before I realised it was in danger of turning into a rant about the future of the profession.

But I’m not one to waste something when I’ve put some work into it. These are the notes I made as I was preparing. They are unfinished, and very much written in the style that they would have been spoken to a room full of people. It’s a bit opinionated but I’m in the mood for taking a chance so I want to share it.

I’m what’s known as a practice manager – it’s like an office manager with added marketing and business development duties but I work with architectural practices. I’m interested in web-based technology and communication, new media and how this is creating a new social agenda in the work of an architect, and also across society.
I’m doing this talk because I’ve met some inspirational people, particularly over the last 3 or so years, and because I feel that architects and urban designers are often a little bit misunderstood. I hope to dispel some of the myths about what an architect actually does.

In 2009, the government called for local authorities to involve local people in decisions that affect them. This “Duty to Involve” which incorporated “Community-led design” was scrapped in 2011, and replaced with a new guidance document which formed part of the government’s Big Society agenda. The resulting neighbourhood planning element of the Localism Act gives planning powers to local communities and parishes allowing them to have a direct involvement with developments that affect where they live and work.

Well, this is all very nice and encouraging and positive and lovely and if it all works, David Cameron will have a nice warm feeling in his belly… but in actual fact, community-led design has been going on for a long time already. A really long time.

Where once architects were the master builder at the top construction family tree, now they find themselves at the grassroots of development. They don’t just sit down in front of the people with the money for development and tell them what it’s going to look like, they have a hands-on role from the very beginning. They consider how a place functions and what sort of a societal role that building or place will have.

Good architects are good listeners. They have to be because the role of architect has evolved into urban designer, community planner, communications expert, translator of ideas, social curator, sociologist and in some cases, councillor and therapist.

Architects and urban designers must listen first, then put ideas together, then they share those ideas and talk about them, and then they make changes, then they might think about what it looks like, then they come back again and talk to the local community about their ideas, and they might make some more changes, and listen a bit more, and tweak something and show their new ideas……. and eventually they get to the point where something might actually get built.

Out of that process comes a development, a public square, a community centre, some new houses, a new village, a new city…… it has evolved from the local people who use them, play in them, live in them, asking for what they want. Telling the architects and urban designers how they use their homes, what they like doing at the local community centre, what they don’t do enough of and what they’d like to do more of, what works and what doesn’t work where they live at the moment. They are constantly teaching architects about habits and lifestyles. Lifestyles are changing at such a rapid pace, this isn’t possibly something that can be taught at university.

This process hands the power to communities. They are involved in the process of design and planning, and they take pride in it.

This sense of ownership is of enormous value. If local people have been part of the process, they will care for that place, that community hall, their new house because they are proud of it. And from that spirit of involvement, new communities form, new activities start taking place. It’s exciting and wonderful and uplifting and bellywarming……

And it’s been going on for years.

I want to reference some examples of where architects have been working directly with communities. Some of them are architects I know, some are architects I have worked for and with, other schemes are ones that I’ve seen and admire. Some are recent and show how architecture has evolved (particularly in response to the current economic climate), some show architecture that has been led by a team of social entrepreneurs with assistance from architects – which illustrates how architects have to adapt their role.

Bromley by Bow in London is a fascinating scheme highligted to me in 00:/ architects’ Compendium for the Civic Economy.

Brandwood End in Kings Heath by Axis Design Architects. A scheme design that was very much led by the residents. Have a listen to this audioboo from Podnosh and you’ll get what its all about.

Electric Wharf in Coventry by Bryant Priest Newman Architects. Community consultations during very early design stages, and the role of artists in the process are key to its success. There’s a fascinating case study on the project at Public Art Online.

Other examples that were pointed out to me with the help of colleagues at Axis Design include the work by Walter Segal (a “community architect” who developed a simple timber-framed housing system allowing self-builders to create a home quickly and cheaply) and Ralph Erskine’s Byker Wall scheme in Newcastle (a scheme which was redeveloped with participatory support from residents – most of whom were able to remain on site whilst the work was carried out in several phases).

There are also a couple of young practices of note – recent graduates who are doing things a bit differently to traditional practice. Make:Good in London, and Icecream Architecture – the latter travel the country delivering an architectural service from an old ice cream van. Both are innovative, fun practices who are very much community-led in their approach.

Well… that wasn’t a rant. And now I’ve written it all down, it’s actually quite interesting. Funny how things work out.

I guess it’s just not as packed full of laughs as finding tenuous links to architecture in Starship’s 1985 hit single We Built This City.

New Media and the Future of Practice

I delivered a workshop (of sorts…) to around 30 architects at RSAW’s annual conference at Chapter Arts in Cardiff on 9th December.

The idea behind the workshop was to firstly take a look interesting web-based projects. In doing so, I hoped to get delegates to see the internet as more than just email and practice websites. Amongst other things, I shared Mapumental, FixMyStreet, GoGenieSuchTweetSorrow, Give Me Back My Broken Night, Tales of Things, and Substrakt’s BAApp.

You can view the slides for my presentation over on SlideShare.

I went on to explain how certain web tools are helping to enable community-led planning (based on the recent work I’ve been doing around Neighbourhood Planning) with Slider Studio. We looked at StickyWorld in more detail along with some other ideas that have come out of the study.

This was followed by an open discussion about technology in practice. A particularly hot topic was the idea of monitoring comments and feedback through web channels and how best to manage this. I would welcome any questions that we didn’t have time to cover in the session here. Use the comments box below.