If you’ve ever been on the internet you’ve seen a meme before.
How can I be so sure of this? Because memes are all around us, simultaneously representing and constructing a social and cultural understanding of the world.
Often misjudged as nothing more than a silly image, a meme can immediately communicate a relatable experience or feeling. The term meme was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe the cultural equivalent of a gene. In the evolutionary sense of the word, a meme represents a unit of imitation or replication which spreads between people, thus shaping and defining cultures. In the digital realm, internet memes have adopted their namesake through the creation and distribution of items which share common attributes. While maintaining a clear resemblance to a mimetic group, creators take and alter parts of a trope to contribute their own ideas or opinions.
Technologically speaking, memes can travel (via the internet) across borders quicker and easier than ever. An increased use of digital communication platforms over the past several years reflects the shift towards human communication being managed digitally. The recent global requirements to stay within the confines of our own homes only progressed this shift further, with most interactions occurring solely on digital platforms, and social network sites becoming burgeoning spots to stay in touch with each other. Online participatory cultures are reflected in statistics from last year, where over 1 million posts mentioning “meme” were shared daily according to Instagram. Consequently, the popularity of developing and sharing digital-born content has expanded, adapting, heightening the potential for our cultural connections to be shaped online. These multiple related instances aid in the construction of widespread digital cultures that lead to the creation of more localized or community based digital sub-cultures.
As someone in the design community it inevitably came to my attention that broader cultural memes were being adapted for various aspects of architecture and design. Social media has provided a platform for the publication and distribution of industry-related experiences, allowing for discourse to arise and for communication to occur regarding architects and architecture. With this new tool, poorly photoshopped images and intentionally ugly fonts provide a platform to distribute dumb, bad, yet very real narratives to mock the architecture world we all inhabit. Through humor, the blatant ridiculousness of memes assaults the very nature of our personal experiences.
Ultimately, the creation of these memes and the perspectives they provide act as a form of contemporary architectural criticism. Commentaries that were once reserved for the critique section of a newspaper are gaining traction to provide insight on architects, specific buildings, architectural styles, design work, student culture, client relationships, and the transportation and planning industry. Rather than attempting to entertain the notion of architectural discourse through traditionally formal venues, the creators of architecture memes use historical references, call out the problems associated with them, and poke fun through a shared cultural understanding.
What I find most fascinating about this, is that the mimetic process allows for content created by a specific voice within a niche community to be understood more generally through the reference of a culturally accepted trope. For example, without requiring explanation, we have a mutually shared understanding of the “distracted boyfriend” meme. So, when contextualized with architectural styles, the message is easily comprehensible regardless of prior education or industry background. By understanding that there are culturally situated images which act as reference points, the unit of a transformed meme can provide a framework for knowledge sharing and act as a new method of communicating within and outside of the architectural industry.
Through a wider audience and an increased ability to share knowledge, architectural discourse manages to re-enter the public sphere after years of attempting to develop an insular and specialist industry. Rather than maintaining this exclusionary ethos, the shift towards memes mirrors the population and their cultural references, finally revealing to society the frustrations and issues within the built world that affect us all. Popular design meme account with a name that addresses both architecture and meme culture, @dank.lloyd.wright, started posting in April of 2020 and has grown to over 35k followers in the course of a year. The creation of the account and it’s rapid growth demonstrates the desire for and consumption of architecturally specific cringe-worthy content. Perhaps, it is the silliness of the meme which allows for commentary and critique to be shared again. For design practitioners, the serious nature of a critique is relaxed and an informal space to foster discourse emerges. However, those who exist outside the god-complex of the architecture industry can still observe the informal structure of the commentary and can both understand and shape opinions on it. An increase in shared comprehension doesn’t decrease the importance of those working in design, but arguably increases the collective mentality which can ultimately lead to addressing common problems.
Unfortunately, most of the content referenced in architecture memes remains fairly incomprehensible to those without architectural experience. Without an interest or background, the critiques and commentary presented remain inaccessible to the greater population, almost reversing the meme as a social leveler back into something insular and elite. The everlasting debate surrounding the life and death of architectural criticism continues – however this time it’s through a meme.
Asaf Nissenbaum and Limor Shifman. “Meme Templates as Expressive Repertoires in a Globalizing World: A Cross-Linguistic Study.” , Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 23, Issue 5, September 2018, Pages 294–310, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcmc/zmy016
Kaley Overstreet. "Why the World Needs More Architecture Memes" 27 May 2018. ArchDaily. <https://www.archdaily.com/894378/why-the-world-needs-more-architecture-memes> ISSN 0719-8884
AD Editorial Team. "A Selection of Name-Based Architecture Memes" 13 Jan 2017. ArchDaily. <https://www.archdaily.com/802255/a-selection-of-name-based-architecture-memes> ISSN 0719-8884
Instagram Blog. “Instagram Year in Review: How Memes Were the Mood of 2020” 10 December