The condition of publicity (and its effects on architecture) (2005)

The following is a presentation text for a lecture given by Mark Pimlott at the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) in Rotterdam on 8 April.

Mark Pimlott
Art Design Publicity at ADC | 1 August 2010
This text served as the basis for Pimlott’s "The continuous interior: Infrastructure for publicity and control" in Harvard Design Magazine (Fall/Winter 2008/2009).

"Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of their communication."

— Marshall McLuhan in The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, 1967.

Contemporary architecture and media

The past few years have seen a notable increase in the production and projection of architecture that is indebted to the processes and appearances of publicity. The existence of architecture so oriented is not particularly new. One can trace a fairly straightforward history of this phenomenon back to the end of the eighteenth century and the emergence of the modern public. It becomes a prominent characteristic of commercial and public architecture, for example, in the forms of the arcade, the department store and the exhibition building, throughout the nineteenth century. The sense that there is now much more architecture indebted to, dependent on, in the thrall of, or strongly related to publicity is in no doubt partly due to the pervasive nature of contemporary media. There are myriad leaflets, newspapers, journals, magazines, radio and television broadcasts, internet sites and message services all issuing factual, fictional and speculative "information" on an encyclopædic range of topics twenty-four hours a day, worldwide. There seems to be an ever-present welter of material being produced and disseminated without cease, and a correspondingly growing audience to consume it. Rather than dwelling upon the cliché of an "information overload" (pages can be left unturned and all receiving equipment can be mercifully turned off), one should regard omnipresent media output as a fact.

The object of architects becoming involved with the media would seem to turn initially on the aspect of visibility. Visibility begets attention, attention begets discussion, discussion begets notoriety, perhaps work. Work begets visibility and so on, in what appears to be a natural cycle. The tradition of architects’ visibility is simple: trained as professionals, armed with the authority of their specialised knowledge, architects acquire work through both their contacts and the skills they demonstrate in making buildings. Built work gradually ensures wider circles of attention for their practises, and correspondingly more work, increasing in volume and in complexity as a reflection of their growing contacts and expertise. This tradition certainly is broadly true for the majority of architects. There are others, more intellectually inclined, perhaps, whose ambitions lay in having more direct impact on the environment: one could describe this as almost political ambition. The connections have to be pursued more aggressively, the level of achievement is set higher, the cultural pretensions of the work are similarly high. In the past, quite often such architects became the heads of academies (Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer) in order to be part of the political system, to be closer to the nexus of decisive political power. Another route to visibility for the ambitious architect was the radical group, the exhibition, the competition scheme, the private publication, the manifesto (Le Corbusier, Mies)–– the building as a means was not always available to such architects, whose connections to or influence over private individuals or corporations willing to spend money on building, were very often limited. The majority of the acknowledged masters of Modern architecture (in Europe, in any case) and members of the avant-garde had these "qualifications" in common, forming a tradition of their own and providing a template for future generations of architects with ambition. It is worth noting that these architects were referred to by public and profession alike as "masters". It is worth noting also that this tradition is still very much in place today: there are architects sustained by their directorships of academies, and architects who survive on the basis of hypothetical projections. The publicity value in each lies with outmoded perceptions of the authority of academic work and the artistic honesty of "independent creative research".

In the professional milieu, publicity has a rather more pragmatic role to play. All architects need business in order to survive, and it is widely acknowledged that advertising is one route to business. An old-fashioned route is word-of-mouth, which hails from an age when decisions regarding commissions were often made through advice offered in the gentlemen’s club. This is, as it always has been, a means with limited prospects of success. Those who have followed the lead of the avant-garde continue to regard publishing as a viable route to commissions: increased visibility in the architecture and design press, mostly directed at other colleagues, is intended to attract the attention of those colleagues and students. This, too, can lead to work. Better still would be exposure in the non-professional press, such as newspapers; or even better, popular magazines devoted to design or "lifestyle". All of this type of exposure requires some hustling on the part of the architect or someone pushy in the architect’s office: phone calls, lunches, informal meetings, chats at openings; and until only a few years ago, the preparation and provision of project descriptions and medium— to large— format transparencies, as well as plans, sections and elevations of buildings drawn especially for reproduction. This remains a simple route for simple exposure. However, it does not meet the needs of effective publicity.

The explosion of the culture of publicity–– in which exposure has become more important than that which is exposed–– has placed particular demands on those who seek visibility for their work. The call of publish or perish has a new urgency in this context. It is therefore necessary that the architect pursues new outlets for the publicity of work. These new outlets in turn demand different sorts of presentation: each medium, each outlet has its own specificity, its own audience, its own forms of address. Greater sophistication is correspondingly required in the production of media-specific publicity material. Greater flexibility and nous [a sort of street wisdom] is necessary in crafting texts and images for different readerships and different contexts.

Normative effects of media platforms

To become visible in the outlets of the media, one has to submit oneself to its norms, practices and demands. The submission of "information" for the consideration of media outlets is the first step of entry into the arena that makes that information visible. The first demand is the cogent press release. Many assume–– one only has to look at the conventional release of a private gallery showing contemporary art–– that the press release text is obliged to explain the work from the point of view of the creator or the enlightened critic. However, regular contact with media outlets and growing acquaintance with what they want reveals the obvious: that specialised professional discourse is virtually unreadable to those outside the specialisation, and that the press release is instead, ideally, a completely digested version of what an audience might want to read or hear. In the case of each media outlet, there is a precise idea (thanks to market research) of who constitutes that audience. The material to be consumed by the audience is tailored to the audience, so that the material is consistent with its expectations. Its expectation is the provocation of its desire (again, market research provides a sophisticated picture of what this might be), which the media outlet responds to and feeds. The press release, and the material that accompanies it, must therefore conform to certain criteria which will allow it to fit into the media "package" without too much disruption. From the media outlet’s point of view, this does not mean that material submitted to this context is intended to be bland: quite the opposite. The material must contain enticements for its audience, as does all the other material. The audience must be constantly stimulated; everything must be equally ravishing. If the entry of architecture into the mainstream of publicity–– in order to reach a mass audience (hundreds of thousands as opposed to thousands of readers, for example)–– is to be imagined, then the effects on its presentation, display and argument will be profound.

The first transformation that work must undergo is perhaps the most significant, and is effected at various levels of media "presence". This is the shift towards representation, which begins with fitting the project into formats and expectations that are foreign to it. The project must become a picture of itself: It must in some way conform to media norms, conditions of parlance, appearance, innovation and repetition. These are difficult requirements for architecture, which carries its own discourse, history, complexities, specificities. Yet, for architecture to communicate in the milieu of mass media, these internal characteristics have to be subdued or appear to be abandoned. This can be an uncomfortable process, as discarding these characteristics significantly diminishes the project’s raison d’être. Through acclimatisation, however, this discomfort is reduced, and the architect or the architect’s agent in this regard finds means of tailoring the representation of the project accordingly.

This is all in the nature of a process of simplification for the purpose of access to mass media. Through experience, one is aware that mass-media are not particularly discerning about what is being promoted. Rather, mass media is interested in material as a kind of fodder, which always must be present for the continuing existence of the media. Everything can be promoted and publicised given the correct formats for entry. However, there is material which is especially attractive, material that grabs the attention of the media-consumer, and it is this material, its qualities and the aspiration to the condition of its particular attractiveness which is of interest here.


The idea of publicity is to attract attention to a product so that it may be consumed. This is either by a direct sale strategy ("here it is, buy it"); or an indirect one of association. In a glossy magazine like Vogue, for example, a series of associations are generated that hold a complex of material together. Advertisements, features and editorial content are all contrived to work together. Although each, strictly, has a different format or appearance, each defers to its associate; each promotes and so constitutes a kind of product. All of these products are both adjacent and interwoven, configured to complete a complex that is the media platform. From this platform, "products" are "consumed" because of their associations with other ‘products’. It enables text, for example, to be illuminated by the glamour and high production values of fashion advertisements. That very text may be legitimating the values or importance of the products featured in these same advertisements. A feature on architecture may similarly and not inadvertently cause it to be associated with the glamour projected by the object of fashion. Each element of the media platform works in concert with the other, each is in a kind of agreement with the other–– what does not fit is assigned to the periphery. This, in miniature, is the problem with publicity. Publicity works as part of a complex of values, with essentially one direction.

That one direction is the character of the relationship between the media platform and its audience. Although it may be described by media outlets as, alternatively: "our readers", "our viewers", "our audience", it is also described, especially by its directors and market analysts, as "our market". The audience, or the public attracted to the media platform’s package, is reduced to the role of the consumer, whose habits, likes and dislikes have been researched, with the following purpose: the magazine’s market must be enticed to consume the platform in whatever format, whatever form it may take, and then be encouraged to consume those products that really pay for the platform’s continuing existence. The platform exists to be the platform for its sponsors, who are visible through advertising and directly promoted through features. The media platform therefore has a political dimension determined by the economic logic of its sponsors, and so reflects the value systems inscribed within that economic logic. This value system is the inadvertent consumption of the audience.

The consumer is involved in a one-way contract, presented with an array of products entangled in an environment that must be associated with, desired and consumed, without a disclaimer clause. This is a manipulative relationship, in which the consumer agrees to be dictated to by the promoter. Yet it is presented as a tacit agreement between the media platform and its "audience". (There is a bit in the film The Italian Job, when Michael Caine says to his assembled crew of robbers: "The key to this job is teamwork, which means, you do everything I say.") The public is diminished the to the condition of a consumer, whose responses are limited to those predetermined by the promoter. It is the logical evolution of what is always implied by "A Consumers’ Republic": we are all free to buy what we want; through consumption, we reiterate our differences, our inequality. [1]

The medium is the massage

"The medium, or process, of our time…is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing––you, your family, your neighborhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to ’the others’."

— Marshall McLuhan The Medium is the Massage

The media platform is, itself, a medium. The medium can either aspire to the condition of reality, which necessitates its transparency and hence, its own invisibilty; or it can recognise its own artifice. The medium is the message. Artifice is the veil of desire that promises, but never delivers, fulfilment. Artifice is necessary to the production of desire.

Media (I use the term to refer primarily to advertising, publicity and their sheltering vehicles–– magazines, television, mainstream cinema) presently seem to indulge in an exaggerated artificiality, partly because it can be achieved, and partly because it constitutes such a profound departure from the everyday. This artificiality is characterised by an extensive, fetishised, synthetic surface, crafted by photography and the computer–– or, if you prefer–– analog and digital visualisation. The object of this attention to the surface is its acknowledged power of seduction, which is realised through movement, through detail, through abundance, through repetition, through allusion. All the imagery that has passed can be called upon to contribute to the surface’s attributes. The surface is sophisticated both in terms of its production and its "awareness". The surface discriminates in that it succeeds in its goal of communication with its targeted audience. It is keen to the conditions of its contexts, the scenes of its visibility. This sophistication is honed through the combined efforts of executives, market researchers, publicists, advertising agency’s art directors and copywriters, production art directors and technicians, modeling agencies, casting directors, stylists, make-up artists, photographers and post-production art directors and editors, and public relations specialists. So many individuals and teams are involved because the productions of these surfaces is so expensive; the money is good, rewarded with the success of the promoted entity in the marketplace. The crafted surface that results is profoundly artificial; a complete representation.

In the case of publicity, representation has a specific purpose, which is to direct the viewer, or the consumer, to an agreement to its fantasy. This fantasy has a commercial purpose and agreement to fantasy constitutes the commencement of an agreement to terms, which begins with the association of the representation with the product, and is consummated with the act of consuming: financial commitment. I suppose that it all sounds relatively harmless, merely the efforts of a company to get the public to be interested in his product and buy it. However, the deep stereotyping that is involved in the crafting of these surfaces, the inter-relationships between these surfaces and their supports, and the extensions of these networks into the public world, is malignant and corrosive. Publicity, in its efforts to secure financial reward for its patrons, shapes society to conform to predictable patterns of consumption. This is not something completely new. Rather, it has a history whose consequences for political and social relations can be learned from.

Consumers’ Republic

In the period immediately following the Second World War, the United States re-oriented its internal economy as a matter of necessity. The country had become wealthy due to arms production during the war and the worldwide spheres of business and political influence secured in its wake, capital that was in the hands of producers rather than consumers. [2] There was also a corresponding demand for new, better living conditions from both returning soldiers and women who had discovered a new role in the workplace. Both wanted to put the experience of life before the war, characterised by economic deprivation and backwardness, behind them. The transformation of these conditions from being problematic to being productive came to characterise what we presently think of as "affluent America": left unattended, the conditions could well have led to significant civil unrest, as had been historically consistent (the economic crises of 1871, 1893 and 1929 were followed by long periods of labour and civil unrest). Due to concerted efforts of government, business and labour, a situation was generated where Americans felt they could comfortably consume, and a culture of consumption was born, kick-started by enabling house purchases, houses that were mass-produced and yet appeared to be unique, on huge new tracts within the reach of city centres by automobile:

"The photograph of DuPont worker Steve Szekalinski and his family posed in an A&P cold-storage warehouse in Cleveland, Ohio, aimed to show the material abundance–– two and a half tons of food worth $1300, to be exact–– enjoyed annually by the typical American household of four. It was one of the many depictions rampant in the post-war period of Americans enjoying the fruits of post-war prosperity, thereby participating in a fundamental reconceptualization of the American economy and culture following World War II that I call a "Consumers’ Republic". This new ideal, embraced by a far-reaching consensus among business leaders, government policy makers, and organized labor, had major consequences for how Americans made a living; where they dwelled; how they interacted with others; what, where and how they consumed; and the political authorities to whom they felt accountable. It held that an economy built around mass consumption would deliver not only greater material prosperity but also, through that, the long-sought political goal of creating a more democratic and egalitarian American society."

— Lizabeth Cohen. (2003). "Is There an Urban History of Consumption? The Journal of Urban History, 29(2), p. 91.

The right to consume, then, and the environment that directly reflected consumption, were central to the formation of an atmosphere which was political, but one whose political nature was rendered invisible. Tract houses were laid out in the vast areas that the American landscape afforded, a landscape which was already charged with a Jeffersonian political idealism that placed the individual and his rights at its centre. The houses alluded to the homestead, the promise of the individual dwelling on its own piece of land––a promise corrupted by the tiny size of the lots and the social and functional restraints it placed upon the home owners. [3] The houses appeared to be unique, although this uniqueness was simply a variation of paint colour or a protrusion of the plan. [4] The collection of dwellings, occupied by people of consistent social and racial strata,[5] felt they lived in communities, even though those communities had no centre and were utterly dependent upon the urban centres of their regions. Their patterns of consumption were coordinated, and took place in shopping malls accessible almost exclusively by automobile, whose purpose was to concentrate retail enterprise at a variety of scales in one place, recognised by their designers as a replacement for the urban centre and its public life. [6] These centres performed like well-tuned machines, their contents assembled and arranged according to tested formulae, that maximised the financial turnover of stores within, whether large or small. The malls were repeated with some variation, often with franchised outlets of the same retail chains, across the American landscape, offering a consensual and consistent pan-American experience. The experience of equivalence was projected as equality, symbolic of a democratic social order.

Through repetition, variation and evident economic success, the American consumer culture acquired a kind of legitimacy, for white America, at least. Its apparent legitimacy was reinforced by advertising, television and film, all of which portrayed the new American suburban environment back to itself, as a place of plenty, of order, and of symbolism. The tract house on its piece of land (which had its own ritualised forms of use and display) symbolised the realised Jeffersonian ideal of the homestead. The house was full of "labour-saving devices" which liberated women from the drudgery of housework (women who had become quite independent during the War returned to domestic life with some reluctance, and the "labour-saving device"–– vacuum cleaner, washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator–– was partially an enticement to domestic rather than civilian labour). The house was portrayed too as the scene of domestic bliss, with a working father (who worked in the city during the day and returned by car or train in the evening), loving wife, loving children (with girls and boys following their distinct "natural" paths according to gender, designed to perpetuate the relations between the sexes, the idea of work, and institutions of authority), loving pet, all in order, at comfort in their roles, happy at their leisure, and eating heartily. The picture not only presented the order of the family (symbolic of all other families) in a specific arrangement that reinforced an archetypal and gender-based structure of power, but placed that family in a specific relation with authority (the State and its institutions) and others (neighbours and aliens). The family thus owed its happy state (the Horn of Plenty was often used as a symbol of a perhaps undeserved good life in "family" magazines from the 1940s through the 1960s) to the State and its paternal benevolence, and to industry and financial institutions which were clearly attached to the State and appeared to have the interests of American people at heart as providers of labour, commodities and financial means. Advertising, television and film reflected actual conditions in ways that were essentially propagandic (there was another, ideological, war being waged with the Soviet Union at the time), and the order and contentment that was pictured was intended to contain society within a very complete environment of representation. This, too, is the condition of publicity.

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[1] Lizabeth Cohen. (2003). "Is There an Urban History of Consumption? The Journal of Urban History, 29(2), p. 91.

[2] Stephen Ambrose in "The World at War", a 26-episode British television documentary series, original run 1973-74 on Britain’s ITV.

[3] Peter Blake. (1979). God’s own junkyard: The planned deterioration of America’s landscape

[4] Dan Graham. Homes for America, (1967).

[5] Lizabeth Cohen. (2003). "Is There an Urban History of Consumption? The Journal of Urban History, 29(2), p. 91.

[6] Andy Logan and Brendan McGill (17 March 1956). "New city". The New Yorker ; Malcolm Gladwell (15 March 2004). "The Terrazzo Jungle". The New Yorker.