What is the second life of an architecture project?

Ippolita Nicotera – is an architect and Head of Public Relations & Business Development at TOPOTEK1


Marcin Wojciech Żebrowski:
How did your journey with PR and Business Development in architecture start?

Ippolita Nicotera: 
Everything started more or less by chance. I am an architect who studied in Italy and Germany. After finishing my studies, I moved from Italy to Germany during a very interesting time. It was the 90s and Berlin was the most exciting place to be and to work as an architect. At that time, however, I was not thinking of doing PR. Maybe it was also not so important. There was no PR necessity at that time, or no real interest in this at all. At that time in Berlin, there were a lot of occasions to meet young architects and landscape architects who were representing a new generation – and Topotek 1 was one of them. At some point, I had the opportunity to meet Martin, actually just by chance. I met him on the train on my way to Bremen, where I was teaching at the time. He invited me to visit the office as they were looking for support in their PR department, mentioning I have great communication skills. So, everything started in this coincidental way. I thought it was a nice opportunity as I have this ability to talk and connect with people. It was a good base on which we developed my role, and further on, the PR department here at Topotek 1. I think Martin was already seeing the future. Always with a fresh mind, he already knew at that time that PR would be important for the office.

You mentioned that you are a very open person who likes to connect with people and communicate with them. I think that this is a very important part of being a person responsible for PR and business development strategies in an architecture office. But it is not common for architects to be involved in those PR tasks. It is often that we see architects as those introverts, spending a lot of time in front of the screen designing, with their headphones on. So they are in their own zone, whereas as a part of PR team, you need to reach out to people. What type of personality is needed for this type of PR positions?

The same question could be related to architects who work on competitions, while others on construction design. It all depends on your interests, abilities, and skills. Based on those, you need to decide if you prefer to join competitions, to work in the design phase, or rather, to work more on details or in construction sites. I did not like the construction site. I did it at some point in my career, but I never liked the jokes around the construction site (laughs). I never felt comfortable. I really enjoy seeing how things are built and realized, but I never liked the atmosphere on site. So, when I had the possibility to join Topotek 1 and start thinking more about concepts, and also to relate with people; thinking more about ideas; how to present and promote ideas – this felt much closer to my interests than discussing tiles on the construction site (laughs).

It is good that it came very natural, and I think it is important to realize that we all have different natural skills, because we are all different. And this is what makes us good designers, right? So that we use our strengths. How did you feel starting this position? What was the biggest challenge as a PR person? You need to connect design knowledge (good eye for details) with PR strategies, marketing and communicating. How did you see your role when you started?

A big challenge was to learn how to be clear and to identify what we wanted to reach. But at the same time, to find the right way to express things. It is very important to be nice and polite, but also to be clear with what you want to achieve. This is sometimes not so obvious. Maybe as an architect, you are used to discussing details with your clients or with construction companies. But if you want to present or explain something in particular, you have to find the right approach. I think this was the first challenge I met.

Do you think it is possible to learn the role on the go or did you have any educational background for it?

I think it is possible to learn the role on the go, because you can see how it works when you are in such a department or when you encounter a certain situation. But you also have to bring your own sensibility in order to be able to find the right tone. The right way and approach to achieve your goals.

I think that this is a good message for the ones who are listening to us and might be willing to be involved in PR tasks. But is it the same with the business development? Or before, how would you distinguish those two roles? When are you a PR person, and when is a business developer?

Well, I do not see a big difference. I approach both in the same way. I think it is very important in business development to find the right way to connect to people and to put the right teams together. The big issue is always about what kind of team are you going to put together if you want to get a new project. Sometimes we do this by ourselves, only applying with our company. But for very big projects, it is now quite usual and very important that you have a diverse team. And the question of who is going to be a part of this team, who is going to join this team, is a really big question. In order to find the right people, you need to have good communication skills, you need to be convincing. People need to be interested to join this adventure. Every big project is an adventure – because you never know if it will work out or not.

So it is about putting together some puzzle pieces.

Yes. And of course, during the process you already have these pieces, and you only have to think which pieces are the right ones. But it is also interesting to look for new companies and potential partners, because for us, it is intriguing to diverge from the usual stuff, not to repeat ourselves every time.

How does a normal day at work looks like if you combine those two key perspectives on communication and also acquiring projects?

There is no typical day at Topotek 1 (laughs). There are always surprises. We receive a lot of external inquiries, so every day differs. There might be a request for participation in a competition or project. First thing I do every day is to check emails. I usually do this already before coming to the office, so then I am aware of what is expected of me on that day and can prepare myself accordingly. I think it is very helpful to have an overview and to set a priority list, as it is not possible to do everything at the same time. We are also a couple of people working together in our PR department, so it is important to share information and organize ourselves in the most efficient way. After checking emails, depending on priority, we start dividing the tasks for the day.

That is very exciting. I think that this is the best part of it, with so much happening. It seems exciting to tackle those different daily tasks. And as you also said, the most significant things need to come first. What would you say is the most important thing in your work? Where should one focus? On this external or internal work? I guess you need to translate between those two words.

I think that you have to be aware of what you are doing internally before going outside. I think it is very important to prepare yourself for the different internal tasks before going outside and searching for opportunities.

I wanted to talk about how to promote one’s architectural business. What is the importance of the PR and business development teams? And also what is the second life of architecture projects? What happens to a project after you win a competition?

If we win a competition, or even if we do not win a competition, but we like the achieved result, it is essential for us to share it on different channels and media. But I think it is also very important to pay attention to what we share, because right now there are so many possibilities to be present. It is crucial to be present, but in an elegant way, without being too pushy. If possible, maybe to choose where to present the work. So, we have to think about how to be present, not just to be present for the sake of it, and not at any price. I think it is good to be there, but not everywhere. I also think that people get easily bored, because they see so many images every day. With such an amount of images, you cannot recognize the difference sometimes. So, it is essential to show details and images that people will not get confused by. The other issue is to show what happens to the project after realization. I remember when I started as a young designer, it was typical to show visualizations as empty. Architecture photography did not show people. But now, we have a completely different attitude. We recognize how important the social aspect is and what it means for the life of our cities. Therefore, it is essential to show how the project is used and approached. It is significant to show images that really represent the life of a project and not only the project itself. It is not just about nice details, materials, colors. It is more about how people use this project.

There is a better understanding of the architecture—that it is for people. This (new) people centered approach is also very famous in Scandinavia, but also getting popular in other countries as well. I think that it changed for the good, as we started acknowledging the aim of architecture projects. You mentioned the second life of a project after it is being released. How would you present such a lifecycle of a project? Do you think it is still possible to keep a project alive on the internet for the whole time?

It depends on the project, of course, but it is possible through different ways. Sometimes we ask our photographer to take pictures of the same project after a longer period of time (months or years). For example, in a project with a lot of plants and trees, the vegetation needs time to grow. So, when you take a picture at the beginning, you have a very clean project, with no signs of graffiti, but the plants are smaller, young. After a couple of years, you have a different situation. The trees get bigger, the plants get thicker – the mood is no longer the same. It does not look as it was before. We have a good example of a project very close to our office in Berlin where we designed a square with a bench central to the concept. Today, the bench has completely changed its color. It was a natural process. And, I have to admit, I now like the project much more than before because it fits with the color of the pavement and blends in with the other details of the city. It has become part of the urban life. Then we have projects like Superkilen in Copenhagen, where it is not so much about the plants or the colors, even though they play a meaningful part in our design. The project is more about its use. What are people doing there? How are they approaching the site? This is a project that people really love. Every day, we see countless images of people taking selfies and photos at Superkilen and posting them on Instagram. We don’t have to do much work in this case (laughs). The project has its own life.

I am based in Copenhagen, so I could not about to ask about Superkilen. I am happy that you just mentioned it. Because this is a great example of a project that develops and defends itself. As you said, it does not require this much of PR work anymore. The product is well established and known for Copenhagen. It is one of this go-to places when you visit the city. So I assume, that sometimes it is just hard to plan a PR strategy for a project. This one was a very particular case. How did it look like to promote this work, which was in a different country than the one that you are based in? Denmark is still very close to Germany, but it is a different country. So did you have any particular idea or strategy on how to promote this colorful urban space?

Well, we spent a lot of work on Superkilen. The project was very particular. It was clear from the beginning that it would be different from other projects. One of the clients is Realdania – a foundation that promotes social projects in Denmark. The other client is the city of Copenhagen. So, it was already clear that in some way the social aspect would be crucial. Because we were aware of the meaning of this project, we promoted it on different levels. First, we worked with the inhabitants – the communication was already a part of the concept and development phases of the project. Later, we also applied to many awards and further gained a lot of publicity. The Aga Khan Award was one of the most influential awards. Following this, we were asked to produce a film, so there resulted many diverse ways to present the project in the end.

This is the example of a project that is physically built, so you have a chance to make fantastic photographs of the space. You took it to the next level, as you have also people taking photos of your project themselves. I think it is easier if you have a project that is already built (finished, opened, celebrated). But what if something is not built yet? How would you promote this type of work? Do you think that sharing some images, or visualizations is enough? Or is there any other way?

It depends on the context of the competition itself. Sometimes there is a discussion going on. Maybe there is an important topic around the site and the media is highly interested in the project because it is important for the public. Then it is about more than just a couple of images. But most of the time it is about showing the most appropriate image, the image that represents the concept or the idea of the competition.

I am curious because I am a co-founder of an urban design collective (Urban10), and we managed to get some special mentions for our projects. We tried to promote it, I put it on the website, we published something on LinkedIn, and so on. But after some time, the publicity for the project dies out because it was just a conceptual proposal in an idea competition. What could be some solutions for such projects to be more acknowledged and promoted? Do you think that networking is the key to everything in this type of activities?

I think that networking is very important today, it is impossible to work alone. We are all so deeply connected. But on the other side, I am not sure if we need to promote everything. We produce so much, and we cannot promote every single detail. It is more important to promote ideas. If we achieve a good result, recognizing what is good, maybe we can in some way rework this idea and reuse some concepts. I do not mean copying, but trying to find a coherent line in the discourse and in the way we approach a project. If when we recognize a certain idea is present in our work more than once, we can somehow use this big idea. We do not need to show just one image of the first competition, but we can possibly show a compilation of more images that are all related to the whole. I think that is more interesting than promoting one single competition or one single project.

It is an interesting strategy and a good tip. To pick and choose not to promote everything, not overwhelm people. To have this strategic approach to what should be shared in the first place as maybe not every project should be shared at all. To conclude, we just said that it is crucial to have this philosophy behind the office. But could share one more piece of practical advice to architecture offices, architecture students and young architects that would like to level up their PR and marketing?

This is a very big question, so I will simply say: be yourself. It is very simple. Be present, but be yourself. Be coherent with yourself.

You mean, to try to find your own style, of communication of PR, of reaching out, instead of copying the solutions that are already out there in the market?

I think that first you need to find your own style, or rather your own language through your design proposals – and only then can you present it.

Would you agree that it is better to be original than copying others?

We appreciate the copies, I think. Everyone wants to be original today, and everyone tries to be original, but I do not know if it is possible all the time. I think that you can also learn from copying; if you copy something good, you can also achieve good things.

I am asking because you have some practical solutions that architecture offices do. And I guess that they do it because it works. But sometimes, as you said, it is also important to be true to yourself. To be original as well. I am wondering if there is a third way, where you copy some parts of the solution, but also remain original in your own style. You often see successful projects being published in world renowned magazines like ArchDaily, but the competition is big. Would it be more efficient to come up with less popular ways, like producing your own book?

There are different ways to present your work. A book requires much more labor and time. We love to do books, and we do books regularly. We have produced and published a lot of monographs and are often featured in many publications and samples. However, for these you need time and work, and it is really different from sharing something on the internet. It is a completely different approach to this idea of being present in the media. I do not think it is possible to compare these two formats. It is not possible to just say “I will make a book,” because you require another level of resources: background, publisher, budget, a good graphic designer. It is a completely different project that requires another approach, in my opinion.

So it is not only about being original, but it is also thinking about what is effective in terms of cost, time, and the success rate.

Exactly. But we need to be aware that a publication on the Internet, although you are always able to search for it, can also disappear very fast. The amount of new images out there becomes bigger every day. You see something, then one week later there are many new images for you to digest. Books are more enjoyable to me, and they last almost forever.

Talking about Creative Infidelities

Summarizing our conversation on a more personal note; what was the biggest thing that you learned as the PR and business development director?

The biggest thing? …well, I learned to take things into my own hands. Yes, I think that is the most important thing. Not to be shy – to look at your work and be proud. Stepping back to appreciate and think “this is great, let’s do something with this.”

Proactive approach.

Proactive approach, yes.

Thank you for the good advice on behalf of people who want to start or develop their PR and business development in their professional work. Would you share anything else with them?

Be responsible, that is important. But in my opinion, with any activity, it does not matter what you do. Be responsible, be yourself, and do something with this!


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Ippolita Nicotera – is an architect and Head of Public Relations & Business Development at TOPOTEK1

If you want to listen to our talk, you can do it below:

77: What is the ‘second life’ of an architecture project? (guest: Ippolita Nicotera – TOPOTEK1)

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