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Why Can’t the World’s Best Architects Build Better Web Sites?

I’d love to write about your latest architectural masterpiece, I really would. If only your Web site wasn’t such an information architecture disaster.

architizer

The best way to describe Architizer might be to call it a Facebook for architects. That’s probably simplifying things a bit, but for an undertaking like this, simple is key.

At Architizer’s West Coast launch last week, the turnout was as diverse as
the thousands of projects represented on the site. Hundreds of firms–from the big names to the no-names–have created profiles and uploaded
information about their work, including photos, credits, materials, even some
renderings or sketches. Each project has its own dedicated page. And–perhaps most critically–every location is
mapped in Google Maps so you can actually go see the building in real life.

I put the site to the test when I was looking for a recent project I needed to reference in a story (as I often do). Locating the project on the Architizer site took two clicks, compared to two minutes and four clicks to find the exact same information the architect’s own Web site. As more and more firms learn that the ability to find and share their projects trumps their own antiquated interactive experiences, I’m hoping they’ll put their projects here. Though it’s not the slickest-looking online destination, usability
is what makes Architizer such a welcome, needed tool for the industry.

Why? Because most architect Web sites suck.

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro

Architects are the original interactive designers. They’re skilled at creating navigable structures. They specialize in designing rich experiences for their users. But if architects designed their buildings the way they designed their Web sites, they’d all fall apart.

Let’s visit the site of what I would say is one of the world’s smartest and most progressive architectural firms, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. Designed by Pentagram’s Lisa Strausfeld, a celebrated interactive designer, their site is undeniably gorgeous. It’s pretty fun to zip through, too, with the images standing up like little structures themselves, giving me the feeling that I’m swooping down over city blocks like Spiderman.

DSR

But if I’m visiting your site, it’s a good bet that I’m not Tobey Maguire. I’m probably a wildly wealthy potential client who wants to send one of your past projects to my business partner. Or maybe I’m an architecture student who wants to quickly reference the location of one of your buildings on my phone so I can visit it.

If your site is like most architecture firm sites, I can’t.

Most architects’ sites rely on an animated technology like Flash. While this is perfectly appropriate for some interactive experiences, is not what you want to be using if your site is–like most architecture firms’ sites–a long list of projects that you want to be easily searchable. Flash sites often rely on gimmicky navigation using images and rollovers instead of simple, clickable text. And in general, a Flash-based site can’t generate a URL for each separate page. So say you do end up finding the project you were looking for–you’re not able to index or email it. This is when you find yourself saying things like, “Click on projects, then roll over the little museum icon, then click Michigan, then click on the floating image in the white square…” Can you imagine giving the same kind of directions inside, say, a building?

A Flash-less iPad sails into our hands as early as next month, making a real case for how companies who have relied on bells and whistles will have to rework their interaction strategies to make sure their sites can work across many different platforms and browsers. But architects–perhaps the most design-savvy business people of all–suffer from an industry-wide anti-usability epidemic. And the higher-profile the firm, the sorrier the site. As a response to a design criticism exercise proposed by Leagues and Legions, a new think tank on models of architecture and design publishing, the site Over, Under examined a dozen top architectural firms sites after enabling Click-to-Flash, a Flash-blocking plug-in. The result is a depressing gallery of mostly-blank screens, referring to the world’s top architects by first name in a lonely, empty-screened roll call.

In fact, a quick survey of the past 15 years of Pritzker Prize winners reveals that out of 13 practicing architects (two laureates have died) only Lord Norman Foster‘s and Lord Richard
Rogers
‘ sites provided easy navigation and proper URLs for each
project. Something must happen to your interactive acumen when you get knighted.

Thom Mayne’s Morphosis has one foot in each camp: I suggest
bypassing the completely useless official site Morphosis.com and going straight to the Morphophedia, a fun Wiki-like listing of projects
that’s infinitely easier to use.

Zaha Hadid

But the sites of four major architectural players–Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas’ OMA–are
all completely Flash-reliant. These use label-less maps, wordless
grids, sketches and other graphic devices with rollovers as navigation,
with no easy way to locate or share projects. Two sites took a full
minute to load. One had–gasp!–a pop-up window. It was so 1998!

And then there’s this befuddling fact: A surprising number of Pritzker laureates don’t seem to have Web sites
at all. But maybe in this case, that’s a good thing.

I’m not saying that architecture firms should relinquish their
corporate sites in favor of a social networking platform. In fact, I
can actually learn all I need to know about an architect just by taking
a quick look at their site. The most un-usable architecture firm Web
sites are often exactly like the buildings those architects design:
Created to make a statement, rather than focus on everyday livability.
Perhaps they have to solve one problem before they can tackle the other.

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.

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