How to share architectural knowledge and find your own voice
Social media has allowed us to share our ideas on just about every subject. But free-flowing discourse on architecture styles and design careers hasn’t always been available.
Katharina Benjamin of Kontextur and Jeff Kaplon of Subtilitas have each carved out online spaces for criticism, conversation, and inspiration while spotlighting timely industry topics and unique firms.
Here they share the origins of their projects, the voices they want to lift with their sites, and how sharing architectural knowledge is the key to a thriving professional life.
Create a space to collect projects
Jeff started Subtilitas during the 2009 recession as a way to research and explore a type of architecture that was different from what he had learned about in school.
“A lot of the things that we were seeing was focused around this, in the early 2000s, late 90s, this new sort of digital wave of architectural design that became really popular in the U.S.,” Jeff said. “These really alluring forms and very formal language of architecture.”
While in school, Jeff went to Switzerland, Vienna, and Prague as part of a study abroad program. There he saw a type of architecture that was far different from what he was studying.
“It was stuff that was formed around a certain understanding of craft and building and materiality that I think was maybe absent from a lot of that more showy architecture that I was seeing,” he said.
That type of architecture ended up being the basis for Subtilitas. He began collecting images from his travels and researching the offices he had been introduced to.
“It went from sharing projects with colleagues to wanting my own space to collect them,” he said.
Give a voice to young designers
Katharina had a different purpose when starting Kontextur. She was disillusioned when finishing architecture school in 2017 and looking for a way to improve the architectural scene in Germany.
It was dominated by large three-letter offices that seemed to be building everything. There was little room for a younger generation designers to contribute.
The publications in Germany left much to be desired, filled with “quiet, traditional magazines reporting about competitions and buildings being built by these three-letter offices,” Katharina said.
She and her friend Elaine also wanted to find their own voice in the midst of that scene.
“We said, okay, we have to found a magazine. Maybe we post really insightful, up-to-date architectural content. And it has to be the best, it has to look the best.”
As recent graduates they couldn’t afford to build a site from scratch, so they started with an Instagram account. Before they knew it they had 1,000 followers. Today, they have nearly 80,000.
Talk about money
Kontextur now has a dedicated website where they feature different designers and offices, but the Instagram account is where most of the conversation still happens.
The most common questions they get are related to architect salaries in different cities. It’s a hard conversation, but an important one.
“I think that we became really well known for the money talks,” Katharina said.
New graduates come to them to ask what the best offices are in certain cities or how salaries compare between locations.
“In Germany, it’s totally different if you're looking for a job here in Leipzig or Dresden,” she said. “It's totally different salary levels. And everyone is quite mute about it.”
Kontextur tries to encourage people to talk about salaries with their friends so that people aren’t in the dark about the subject.
It’s difficult to answer these questions sometimes because of the pay disparity between cities and countries around Europe, but opening up the dialogue lets readers help each other.
Index the information you’ve gathered
Katharina said that the problem with amassing a lot of knowledge on Instagram is that it’s really hard to retrieve it when needed.
“It's not an easy way to get it out of Instagram,” Katharina said. “Somehow it's like it's glued there.”
Kontextur is solving that by building an index so they can more quickly answer questions in the future.
“We have a coder, graphic designers on it, and this will be quite really exciting, but it's so much work and there's so much to think about it,” she said.
Questions like what’s their favorite office, which they recommend for the working culture, which they recommend for the architecture, are all things they get often and want to have indexed.
“You have to have indexes about it, which can be searched, which can be where you can work with the data somehow to have an argument,” she said.
Separate aesthetic influence from your design practice
With Subtilitas, Jeff likes to keep himself out of the equation and highlight projects that are unique or resurfaced finds from his research.
Likewise, he prefers to keep his Subtilitas work separate from his professional design practice. That’s because he doesn’t want the aesthetics he’s immersed in to influence how he approaches a project.
“Because it is an image-based platform, it can be really easy for me to approach a project. And if I'm looking at my own site or kind of putting my mind into my own site, you're then thinking aesthetics over methodology a little bit,” Jeff said.
When his team at Part Office designs their own projects, they have a process and conversations at the start so that they’re not swayed by aesthetics first.
But even though he keeps it out of his design process, it has still informed him about different methods and approaches.
“I think there's an immense education that's happened for me just through understanding these methodologies,” he said.
When working on a project, they use references to problem solve.
“It's looking to similar situations and seeing through what process of ideas is the problem-solving happening,” he said. “Even from the big picture of conceptual or even how do you deal with the chimney coming up through a steep gabled roof?’
Keep an eye on the new generation
Something that Jeff and Katharina agree on is keeping an eye on the new generations of architecture offices and seeing the new ways of designing coming through with them.
“There's a very exciting scene of young designers happening in the U.S. now,” Jeff said. “And I'm seeing a lot of that through Instagram.”
He said Instagram allows you to curate your own platform based on which offices and styles you follow. It’s a great way to look at what’s emerging in all different places.
“It's happening in every country and it's fascinating to look at that whole whatever that new zeitgeist is and how all the individual approaches are coming out of their own cultural context is,” he said.
Katharina said the most valuable thing from their account has been the direct messages she gets from young offices and designers who get in touch.
She recently had a young Iranian office reach out to her. They couldn’t have a website because of political reasons, but were able to get IP addresses in order to have an Instagram account.
When these offices reach out to her, she’s able to be the first to interview them and share their ideas and knowledge.
Offices around the world are dealing with similar questions and universal struggles. How those challenges are addressed across cultures is fascinating.
Sharing and amplifying these global voices inspires Jeff and Katharina on an individual level, and helps spread new architectural ideas to a wide audience in the process.
Join us on Thursday, July 15th for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Katharina Benjamin of Kontextur and Jeff Kaplon of Subtilitas about how to share architectural knowledge.
Katharina Benjamin is a co-founder of Kontextur, a digital magazine spinning around architecture based in Leipzig and Berlin. Katharina is a research associate
and architectural educator at TU Dresden (Chair Architectural Design and Construction / Schulz und Schulz).
Jeff Kaplon is the founder of Subtilitas, a website that features a connected visual lineage of contemporary projects emphasizing craft, detail, and materiality. Jeff is a Los Angeles based designer and co-founder of Part Office.