‘Now part of architectural briefs’: Instagrammable architecture, for the people or the platform?

By Maud Webster

Instagram culture has seeped itself into everything we do, impacting our media, our health, body image, and how we interact with our friends and family. Most dictionaries recognise the term “Instagrammable” as a genuine verb now. In our bizarre, social-media-obsessed world, design and architectural practices are now starting to create installations, experiences, even permanent buildings which can appeal to an Instagrammable market, prioritising trendy aesthetics over long-term use and practical function of a building. 

The overtly visual nature of architecture lends itself well to the photo-sharing platform, and with over one billion monthly users, Instagram can blow places up through a cascade of hashtags and geotags. 

The label “Instagrammable” has been architecturally significant for a few years now; one London-based architect Farshid Moussavi commented in a 2018 article for Deezen that creating ‘instagrammable moments’ is now part of architectural briefs, and attractions like hotels include significant instagrammable attractions in their advertisements. 

It appears influencers now decide what makes good architecture; if you look at Amangri, for example, a 5 star hotel in the US, the Instagram geotag is flooded with influencers like @sofiafranklyn posing in front of the hotel’s aesthetically brutalist (concrete being quite a debated upon material in the architectural community) exterior, in the pool, etc. Amangri undeniably financially benefits from this exposure, and leads the hotel to being listed on many ‘Instagrammable hotels’ articles.

The quantity of content on Instagram is completely overwhelming, and due to ‘the algorithm’ deciding what content you are displayed, it’s hard to get an objective sense as to what is actually popular on Instagram. This said, geotags are the best way to get a gauge on what’s popular. 

Big Ben, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace; these examples of some of the most instagrammed structures are embedded in cultural significance, and are popular because of their pre-established significance, not grandeur of their building. However, the geotag feature also adds to this crescendo of interest in certain places, and encourages people to visit the place themselves. Businesses may encourage you to tag them, via their account or with geotagging, and you might do so without a second thought. This little geotag will join many others, providing a business with free advertisement thanks to their ‘instagrammable’ interior or exterior design. 

Experience vs Documentation

Instagram twists experiences into documentation, and as most people have now become accustomed to it, it’s easy to get carried away snapping photos instead of genuinely ‘living in the moment’. Likewise, the platform’s impact on its users means instead of experiencing the built environment, people focus on superficial documentation, prioritising taking photos which will get them likes as opposed to noticing the places and spaces they’re in, not batting an eyelid over how it makes them feel. 

Over time, we might see ourselves further detached from the places we inhabit, visit and travel, stuck with the question: “will this look good on Instagram?” as opposed to “how do I feel in this place?”. Without immersing yourself in other sensory elements of space, aside from just visuals, we risk losing memories and enjoyment of the built environments we experience. 

Veiled advertising: the Instagrammable checklist 

Instagram helps to commercialise design, with many developers considering how to boost visitor numbers, using the social media exposure gained through snappable spatial design. So when designing Instagrammable space, what considerations must be made? Careful attention to colour, textures, contrasts, and how objects in a space are arranged and relate to each other. Basically, you’re aiming to stop someone as they’re leisurely scrolling through hundreds of photos and make them think “wow, what’s this?”

‘Instagrammable moments’ are particularly employed in bars, hotels, restaurants; places where the primary function is to generate profit and attract business. If you look at the restaurant and bar perched on the top of 20 Fenchurch Street (better known as the home of London’s Sky Garden), it checks all the boxes: classy, modern design, impressive views, planting and floral touches. It has half a million geotags on Instagram, and takes a place on many ‘most instagrammable restaurants” articles. The first time I registered the Sky Garden was through Instagram, which led to actually visiting it. Being a social-media sensation has exemplified the Sky Garden’s success of attracting customers to their (extortionately expensive) restaurant and bars. 

Another key tickbox of instagrammable design is a carefully selected colour. Vibrant colour works best on Instagram; eye-catching shades which encourage scrollers to stop on a particularly bold photo in their feed. 

Whilst the phenomenon of Instagrammable architecture is largely centred around explicitly commercialised places – hotels, restaurants, bars – it can even extend to more ‘civic’ spaces, and colour tends to play a large role in which places are honed in on. Take the Choi Hung estate in Hong Kong; it’s a public housing estate, but the pastel exterior of the domestic blocks contrast the vivid blue, green, yellow and blue basketball courts beside them. This image of bold court in the foreground and subdued background is an insatiable Instagram backdrop for many. 

What’s the future of Instagrammable Architecture?

Instagram doesn’t seem to be going anywhere; registration for the platform continues to increase, as and number of active users also rise. And whilst Instagram and it’s impact on contemporary culture exists, we will continue to see its effect on the built environment. 

There is concern that these colourful structures are built for the short-term spectacle, made from shoddy materials which will lose their vibrance quickly. Prioritising, or even just considering the lucrative benefits of designing for Instagram can quickly become damaging for the environment, when short-lasting materials are used. The creation of architecture is a balancing game, in resources, finance, time, purposes of a building; the more we prioritise instagramable appeal, the less we inevitably prioritise eco-friendly design, or accessible design. 

As we place increased importance on ‘Instagramable moments’, it’s important to remember that places are not just two-dimensional visual images, but spaces to explore and experience and enjoy. Next time you’re posing in front of a quirky bit of architecture, feel free to get a good pic for the ‘gram. But also be sure to experience where you are through your own eyes, rather than just through your phone screen.

Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage