Why we’re :grinning: and :grimacing: over the use of emoji on buildings.
An architect in the Netherlands just made the design internet go all :heart_eyes:. Changiz Tehrani, who works for the firm Attika Architekten, decorated a new mid-rise building in the Dutch city of Amersfoort with 22 cast-concrete emojis. The faces punctuate bands of concrete that run along the building’s main facade, winking, laughing, and blowing kisses.
Tehrani told The Verge he wanted a style of ornament that would speak of its time. “In classical architecture they used heads of the king or whatever, and they put that on the facade,” he said. “So we were thinking, what can we use as an ornament so when you look at this building in 10 or 20 years you can say ‘hey this is from that year!’”
Some articles have described the emoji-casts as gargoyles, which they’re not, technically: A gargoyle has a spout for diverting water. (The word derives from the French gargouille, “throat.”) These are more like grotesques, sculptures of fanciful human and animal forms, which were also common in buildings of the Middle Ages.
From images of theater masks in ancient Roman wall paintings and mosaics, to medieval grotesques and Renaissance putti, to the Darth Vader head installed on the Washington National Cathedral in the 1980s, there is a long tradition of using faces in architecture. But emoji? The little icons are new to mass culture—does it make sense to incorporate them in buildings that will stand for decades to come? When you look at Tehrani’s work, do you 😬 or 🙄 or 😖? At CityLab, opinions are mixed:
Amanda Kolson Hurley: The building in Holland reminds me of a church in rural England, near the border with Wales, called Kilpeck Church. It was built in the 1100s and is famous for its carvings: There are snakes swallowing their own tails, lions’ heads, and a NSFW sheela-na-gig (a Celtic figure thought to be associated with fertility). My favorite is a pair of animals, a dog and a rabbit, who look down inquisitively from one of the corbels supporting the roof. They’re surprisingly modern—cartoonish, like they just jumped out of a neighbor’s TV.
I like the emoji grotesques for the same reason I love the hound and the hare at Kilpeck. The building in the Dutch suburb isn’t a house of God, but it’s a pretty sober building otherwise, and the emojis humanize it—despite being only abstracted human faces. They’re small and quite subtle, and they’re arranged precisely across the building’s very rational facade, so it doesn’t cross the line into kitsch. I have only 👏 for what Tehrani has done here.
Kriston Capps: One of the lovely things about Postmodernism in architecture is its playfulness. That same game spirit moves emojitecture. Drop an arch in there! Give me that 🔥! I’m here for it. Without going into a whole thing on Postmodernism, architecture can be light and sweet and filled with visual relief, even gags. Not everyone loves fun.
Sure, emojis are bound to wind up as a generational oddity, like Betamax or tamagotchis or JNCOs. The thinking goes that it’s tawdry to enshrine flashy trends in the built environment. That’s all wrong. It’s better for all knowledge of emoji to disappear entirely, just after a few of them get stamped onto buildings. Mysteries give writers who write about architecture a problem to solve. Please. Think of us.
Here’s the question that gets me: Which emoji? Which one makes the best gargoyle? Maybe that’s like asking whether pyramids or columns make better Postmodern motifs. Throw ‘em all in there, Charles Moore–style! But given just one, I’ll go with a classic: 😻. That is a cat with heart-filled eyes. Direct. Focused. Gaga over you.
Jessica Leigh Hester: Emojitecture opens up so many delightful opportunities to tuck architectural Easter eggs into nooks and crannies. Who isn’t game for a scavenger hunt? I love the idea of someone ambling along a street five, ten, 50 years from now, craning their head up to look at something, and encountering a puzzling little critter. (One cheery example of this: The scurry of carved squirrels perched in the rafters of the Chalet du Mont Royal—a flock I didn’t expect to see when I went in search of a bathroom.) Imagine someone spying ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and asking a hapless docent to explain the cult of the shruggie.
Adam Sneed: Part of what makes emojitecture so wonderful is its potential to go wrong in unpredictable ways. The most obvious problem is that it won’t age well—it looks like Tehrani’s creations are modeled on iOS9 emojis, meaning they’re already out of date—but that’s not such a big deal. The bigger issue is emojis’ malleability.
If you give Kids These Days a simple, innocent lineup of meaningless icons, they'll do what they do best: create a new and efficient language for sexting. Sure, no one today would suggest installing an 🍆 at the farmers market, but who knows what something as simple as a shrimp could come to mean someday?
So there are two things to do with this information. One option is to play it safe—that’s what Tehrani did. A smiley face, kissy lips, and a grimace will always keep their meaning no matter what. The other, better option is to hand the entire concept of emojitecture over to the true emoji artists of our time. People who know the limitations and don’t hold back, who don’t let the potential for an embarrassing mistake sidetrack them from the pursuit of art.
Might I suggest Cher?
Andrew Small: Sorry, 👎. Emojis work fine as language, but not art. Grotesques and gargoyles induce emotions; emojis merely depict them. One reveals human imagination; the other imitates it. My objection is not so much that this is new to architecture, it’s that emoji belong in a different medium 💾. They’re skeuomorphic today, but many will soon be anachronistic. Putting them on a building is the equivalent of carving Morse Code dots on a monument or handing in a history paper written in hieroglyphs. It autocompletes the burial of the original emoticon as a creative workaround on the ASCII NET in 1982 :-)—or maybe it started in 1862 with a transcript of a speech by Abraham Lincoln ;).
The point being, emoji are a clever tool to adapt to the limitations of our phones and fingers, and turning them into a copy-and-paste icon to plaster everywhere would let the code of the tweets go to 💩. Sir Patrick Stewart is actually playing that emoji in a movie, which is admittedly kind of fun. I might sound like a dad cautioning against getting a tattoo, but this feels like using chatspeak for an epitaph. To paraphrase a classic blues song, make sure that my grave doesn’t read TTYL.
Tanvi Misra: Look, I’m playful A F—OK? I like Postmodernism. And I am an avid emoji deployer myself. And it’s not like I’m all 🙅🏾 to emoji-themed haute couture, art, or poetry. I agree that emoji are a great time stamp for our zeitgeist, and sure, we could all use some whimsy in our life. I just think this rendition is too cute, and makes me go 😒.