April Fool's or something far more serious? How the design world gets punk'd every single day.
David Serero wants you to know, first of all, that it was not a hoax. It was not, as many claim, a publicity stunt. And it was certainly not an April Fool's joke. "We do have this tradition also," the Paris-based architect told me in an email. "But our project was released three weeks before. Isn't that a little early?"
For those three weeks, whatever it was unfurled through the design world like gigantic Kevlar petals rippling open atop one of the most iconic structures on the planet. By late March it was common knowledge that Serero Architects' winning idea had claimed victory in an open competition to temporarily remodel the public reception and access areas for the 120th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower.
On March 24, the Guardian synthesized the information from all the blogs and took it it one step further, reporting that Eiffel Tower officials had issued a statement confirming that the design had indeed won its competition. But two days later the Société d'Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel actually did issue a statement--this is translated from French--"[We] did not launch any invitation concerning the installation of the top of the monument and the Parisian cabinet of architects quoted never stood as a candidate to any consultation launched by the company."
In three short weeks we went from from gawking at our monitors in disbelief, to raising flutes of Champagne on a temporarily-bolted 580-square-meter viewing platform, to gawking at our monitors in disbelief again.
I kept hearing at conference after conference that ideas were becoming far more important than the reality they produced. Innovation was spurred on by conceptual work, competitions and really good Photoshop skills.
Don't worry, this is not going to be a story about those irresponsible, drinking-in-their-pajamas bloggers. Namely because I'm drinking in my pajamas right now. For two years I tossed up posts exactly like this as editor of the design blog UnBeige. If I was still there today, I can guarantee I would have posted this without hesitation, dutifully linking back to whatever blog I found it on, and moved on to captioning images of Yves Béhar picking his nose on the ICFF floor. (If you possess such items, please contact me ASAP.)
Unbelievable things dropped into my inbox daily. A floating bed. A cell phone by Apple. Pretty much everything from Dubai. But I remember one link more distinctly than all the rest. You've all seen it: the squiggly, sketched-in-the-air, rapid-prototyped furniture of Front Design. I was completely, 100% convinced that there was no way in hell that wobbly table came out of what looked like a vat of lard fitted with a laser pointer. But why wouldn't I post it? What did I have to lose?
Magnetic floating bed by Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars.
Plus, as I heard at conference after conference, ideas were becoming far more important than the reality they produced. Innovation--if that's what you want to call it--was spurred on by conceptual work, competitions and really good Photoshop skills. The more I could get the word out about these outlandish ideas--real or not--the more I'd be helping the design community. Right?
According to Serero, that's what they were trying to do with their proposal. By creating what he calls a "manifesto to consider innovation in France," his team hoped to inspire a national dialogue about the Tower's staid image. "The issue raised here is less whether the project will be approved or not," says Serero. "It is rather about all the reasons why it is not possible to propose such a transformation. The Eiffel Tower transformed the city and this was originally not accepted. Our proposal was very similar in a way and we received thousands of emails of protest against the project from people all around the world."
Provocative proposals pepper the web with good fake fun, from the History Channel's City of the Future to White House Redux to some of the entries in Core77's own Greener Gadgets. But if gorgeous renderings can convince an audience of some rather radical ideas, they're also going to be used as potentially misleading marketing tools to sell the less-than-radical ones.
Brad Cloepfil's controversial Museum of Arts & Design on Curbed NY.
The best example of this, of course, is in real estate. Sure, it's absolutely designers' jobs to make their projects look like sparkling jewels against a perpetually blue sky, and they can't always predict if a material will be, say, a million times more blindingly reflective than expected. But writers have started questioning these images. On Curbed, the planning and development blogs for New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, a new feature called Rendering/Reality recently began pairing design drawings with the actual finished project. A recent New York Times article by architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called developers "magicians" when pointing out discrepancies in one project's render stage.
Those snazzy visuals can make blogs unwitting arms of design PR machines, says Geoff Manaugh, senior editor at Dwell and founder of BLDG BLOG. "They just send freaky renderings out to bloggers, who will promote it all for them, free of charge," he says. "Those bloggers make a few hundred bucks a month off Google Ads, and they see their blogs racing up the Technorati scale, and so they don't realize that they are literally just selling products for corporations and being paid less than minimum wage to do so."
"In general I think the 'cut and paste' nature of most online journalism is ironically leading to a kind of high-tech equivalent of medieval superstition and reality is sometimes in danger of getting clouded out," says Marcus Fairs, founder of Dezeen. But he posted Serero's proposal because he sees Dezeen's role as more of an intermediary for its audience, like a news wire service, posting a constant flow of imagery directly from the designers. "I put out raw information as fast as possible and other people can make what they want of it."
Eric Owen Moss' proposal for LA's City of the Future competition.
Fantastical proposals move into publish-mode even faster if they contain one magic word: competition. Stephani Miller of Architect and Jonathan Bell at Things Magazine (where the Guardian's Sean Dodson said he first saw the project) both say Serero's project was pitched to them as a solicited design. For Miller, it was the competition factor that compelled her to write about it. "There would be little value in pursuing a story on a project that was simply a concept with extremely little chance of ever being built. Unless," she says, "it had won a competition for design concepts."
Laced with manufactured drama, competitions are a design writer's best friend. "Hopefully competitions are held to find the best candidate," says Kristen Richards, editor of ArchNewsNow. "The reality is that they're hoping for a healthy dose of media buzz for their project or organization." Richards says the recent proliferation of design competitions is 'abso-tively' due to frenzied blog coverage. Competitions give a much-needed time hook to the design process. It's another chance for a writer to possibly get an exclusive, and to be--let's say it all together--FIRST!
If gorgeous renderings can convince an audience of some rather radical ideas, they're also going to be used as potentially misleading marketing tools to sell the less-than-radical ones.
In an interview conducted with Dodson by the Guardian's public editor, Dodson said all misinformation aside, he still thought there was something about the Eiffel Tower renderings worth reporting. "'The story shouldn't have been published without checking with SETE and Serero,' he said, 'I could have written about the proposals anyway. It's a fascinating structure.'"
The Palm Islands, the largest artificial islands in the world, off the coast of Dubai.
But would anyone have read it? Renderings make us fall in love with half-baked ideas: that ambiguous, heart-pumping Excalibur spire piercing the clouds, the slick, glowing biomimetic blob perched on a darkened table. But they don't get you 671 Diggs worth of attention unless they're happening. That's why all of us--and maybe Serero, too--decided together that the story of the frilly chapeau on the Eiffel Tower was best told as fact.
Anyway, all we need to know today is that something might be erected, fabricated, manufactured, produced, stocked on shelves at our local Target. By the time it actually happens, we'll have long forgotten, having moved on to the next brilliantly-hued, misty-edged, unbelievably beautiful illusion.
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Alissa Walker writes about design and architecture for a myriad of publications. Her new blog, Gelatobaby offers commentary on design, Los Angeles, food, Star Wars, and every so often, gelato.