With print giving way to digital media, architectural publishing—and architecture—will never be the same.
Cathy Lang Ho
A version of this article appears in Madrid-based Arquitectura Viva 124 (June 2009), devoted to the theme "Banda ancha."
Much has been written about architecture's dependence on—and some argue its very definition by—its representation. Architecture's parallel progression with the development of mechanical printing, photography, and mass media, including books, television, film, advertising, exhibitions, and magazines, culminated in recent years with the still hotly-debated conclusion that architecture doesn't need building at all; it only needs media. So what does the latest media revolution—the shift toward digital media—mean for the creation, definition, and perception of architecture? Not long ago, the general attitude was, If a project wasn't published, it might as well not exist. In other words, it came to be regarded as architecture once it was published. (To a certain extent, this thinking still holds logic, for publications are the touchstone of history.) Now, particularly among a younger generation of architects, the prevailing sentiment seems to be, Unless a project is Google-able, it's as if it doesn't exist. But is a fruitful web search and live link really enough to satisfy architects and abet the field's unending quest for progress and relevance? And how is this new representational mode changing our sense of what's considered good, hip, important, canonical?
Print's demise began long before the economy's crash, which is simply accelerating the industry's freefall. In under a decade, the Internet has decimated print publications of all genres, diverting readers and advertising revenue while changing our general reading/information-gathering/communicating habits. While the extent of people's dependence on the web varies culturally (for example, Americans and Brits are reading the daily news and watching television programs online more regularly than, say, Italians or Spaniards) and developmentally (e.g., print still thrives in countries without widespread web infrastructure or computer access, such as Brazil), one thing is certain: Every publication, whether news daily or entertainment tabloid, literary weekly or academic journal, feels compelled to have an online presence that extends its brand and content, or else face certain death.
Architecture and design publications represent a small corner of a larger gloomy landscape in which several major cities are in danger of losing their daily newspapers (spurring the debate of whether journalism should go nonprofit to survive), once-leading titles like US News & World Report and the Christian Science Monitor have abandoned print and gone entirely digital, and dozens of popular magazines, including Condé Nast's shelter titles House & Garden and Domino, have been shut down. Not long ago, the United States had four national architecture magazines; today, only two serve the nation's 100,000-plus architects: the AIA-affiliated Architectural Record and upstart Architect. ( Architect put Architecture to rest in 2006, acquiring its subscriber list and the PA Awards; ironically, Architecture did the same thing to Progressive Architecture in 1998; and Architectural Forum folded in 1974.) Architectural book publishing is likewise feeling pinched, reducing print runs and freezing acquisitions, and the scholarly journal scene is also moribund, causing great strain for academics perennially pressured to publish.
The nature of architecture's coverage—heavy on visuals, with the requisite glossy images and drawings presented in a lay-out or sequence that conveys a clear understanding of a building or space—will perhaps prolong its marriage to print, compared to general news, weather, sports, or politics, for example, which have long since abandoned paper for pixels. Moreover, the way architects use their trade publications—for inspiration and reference—and architects' generally tactile, three-dimensional proclivities underlie an attachment to print that's stronger than, for example, that of economists or political scientists to their trade publications, many of which have gone fully and unsentimentally digital. Still, the less visual aspects of the field's coverage—such as industry news, product releases, technology updates, competitions, exhibitions, et cetera—will eventually (and probably permanently) make the move online, a logical shift given that the real estate in print is increasingly precious with page counts shrinking, as well as the fact that readers are becoming more habituated to the speed with which practical information can be accessed on the ever-updateable web.
Meanwhile, the heart of the magazines—featured projects, critical essays, analyses of trends, often thematically grouped—struggles to retain its audience and relevance. It's true that the format of traditional magazines feels distinctly outmoded. A look at some of the most successful magazines from around the world shows a fairly universal approach to the presentation of projects, which hasn't changed much in half a century. We still see, with slight variations, large-format, pristine images accompanied by texts that veer ever more towards description and away from criticism, explanatory captions, and perhaps a technical sidebar. It all feels a bit slow to our rapidly adapting broadband (multi-windowed, pop-upped, hyperlinked) mentality. When reading an old-school architecture magazine, one craves the ability to cross-reference, comment, forward, follow a thread, bookmark, Yelp, Digg, and maybe even Tweet. The print magazine might be collected, coffee-tabled, and saved on the shelf for years, but one's reading of it feels markedly less engaged.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a veritable explosion of websites devoted to architecture, boasting large and growing readerships as well as advertising revenue (this is true even for blogs). Their abundance and diversity suggest that the existing publications fall short in fulfilling architects' needs. With an endless variety of focuses, they seem to fall in one of five categories:
Websites of print magazines.
The online presence of many of the world's leading architecture magazines remains woefully Web 1.0, geared primarily at selling issues or subscriptions and listing issue contents, careful not to give too much of its content away. However, some are trying to do more than offer pale extensions of their printed selves, offering a good share of its content online in addition to web-only articles, columns, blogs, and multimedia extras. Among the top international titles, Architectural Record has perhaps the most developed (if somewhat dry) site, and it appears to be paying off: Record online, which has 50% original content and is updated multiple times throughout the day (with hundreds of posts per month), gets 100,000 hits a day and 270,000 unique visitors a month, which means 150,000 "fresh" readers beyond its subscriber base of 115,000, one-third of them from outside North America. One notable aspect of its website is its growing video library of interviews and building tours that rightly attempts to address the medium, though they still lack the broadcast polish achieved by other publications that cover design, such as the New York Times and culture magazine Monocle. Still, Record is on the right track: Its online ad revenue is growing "aggressively," in editor Robert Ivy's words, and many of its advertisers are buying web only.
Metropolis' site is similarly dense with content, with links to its in-house film and book productions, as well as videos, live reporting from events, and blogs. Meanwhile, both Domus and Abitare launched new websites in the past year, though Abitare's is the more dynamic of the two, reflecting editor Stefano Boeri's deliberately restless, expansive ambitions for the magazine. Like Record, half its web content is fresh and it is updated multiple times daily. It attracts 50,000 visitors each month (one-third from outside Italy), which is a good number considering its paid subscription is roughly 45,000. London-based Building Design's online version is as useful as its print edition, and one can imagine it going entirely digital someday, since its focus—news—is naturally suited to the web. Arquitectura Viva is launching a new website this month, offering more of its print content online and some web-only features such as breaking news stories and videos. It also takes advantage one of the web's more obvious complementary functions, to provide a searchable index of its vast archive of back issues and AV Monografias.
With regards to the presentation of projects, on architecture magazines' websites—and any website, for that matter—they come across flat, because they ape the print approach rather than attempt a novel, web-appropriate form. Given architecture's almost complete reliance on digital technology, its three-dimensionality, and the field's growing interest in multidisciplinary and sustainable practices, one would presume that it would adapt smoothly to online media. Three-dimensional renderings, animations, video and audio tours, real-time webcam updates, and hypertexts linking projects to related concerns, like ecology or urbanism or engineering or fashion, seem like perfect fodder for an enriched, 21st-century online building review. But as of yet, no site has gone to these lengths or expense, for the simple reason that, despite the steady growth of online-advertising revenue, few web publications have figured out how to be profitable.
As they exist now, web layouts often allow only one or two images to be viewed at a time (whatever fits in the screen; other images must be clicked or scrolled through), with brief texts or captions. It's difficult to read a project based on individually viewed images, compared to the semi-simultaneous and coherently sequenced views afforded by well-designed magazine spreads. The shortening of texts is also a problem: Texts are increasingly tailored to most readers' inability to read long online, which is in turn rubbing off on our print reading habits. But articles were getting shorter and thus more superficial in print for a long time now, due to budget cuts and declining page counts. (This article, at roughly 4,000 words, will seem like an excruciatingly long read online! Still reading? Kudos to you, and to Arquitectura Viva for publishing it more or less in full.) Reading in general, of print and online, has become fragmented, impelling us to skim and surf even more. The casualty of all this is criticism, which does not lend well to compressed or disconnected formats. (Countless experts in sociology, anthropology, and other fields have long studied the impact of new technology on cognitive development and society; for example, neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain asserts that our ability to "decode text" and think critically is declining with the "immediacy and volume of information" afforded by the Internet.)
Websites of architecture institutions or organizations.
While these sites are aimed first at promoting the missions and activities of their organizations, they often provide intelligent, useful content that architects once accessed only by being participants in these groups. The Architectural League's recently launched UrbanOmnibus is a compelling online project that "explores the relationship between design and New York City's physical environment," featuring news, moderated discussions, tours, criticism, in various multimedia formats. Meanwhile, the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona's website links to an archive of outstanding urban design projects from over 200 European cities, culled from the hundreds of entrants to its biannual European Prize for Public Space. Another phenomenon is the emergence of sites created around fleeting events or exhibitions which end up having lives of their own, such as the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum's 2007 exhibition Design for the Other 90% or FreshMadrid, a showcase of young Madrid architects held at the Fundación Arquitectura COAM in 2006. The web enables institutions to prolong the relevance—and multiply the returns—of what were once ephemeral endeavors. And for the architects and artists who participate in these events, what was once a line in their CVs has become a continuously current gig or honor. The websites of conference-based Urban Age and TED are other examples of editorial-worthy resources for architects: These sites are repositories of current creative thinking, offering videos of inspiring lectures that provide a window into each organization's exclusive gatherings. Another traditional idea bank for architects, the school-based journal, is finding more manageable expression online, for example, (h)ortus revistadiarchitettura, a web magazine produced by the architecture faculty of Sapienza Università di Roma. This is all to say that architects and designers can now find a wealth of information from a broad range of sources, diminishing their dependence on trade magazines. The fact that architects today are just as likely to find useable news and inspiration from something like the hip online science magazine SEED or, even more efficiently, a strategically key-worded "directory-welcome-page" reader feed, challenges print's traditional authority in defining who and what are pertinent to the field.
Listings, directories, databases.
These service-oriented sites run the gamut from competition listings ( DeathbyArchitecture) to job boards and networking (Archinect), reference (Greatbuildings, Architecture.About.com) to product databases (McGraw-Hill's Sweets Network, Architonic, Arcat, GreenSpec, DesignerPages), and even compilations of other architecture-related websites ( SoloArquitectura). Architects' own websites fit in this category too, for they fulfill essentially the same function as a Yellow Pages directory, ensuring they and their projects are findable, giving them a chance to convey their philosophy and hopefully attract clients. Indeed, architects' websites have become a form of self-publishing, fulfilling the publicity-generating function of the traditional monograph, which might explain why vanity publishing is now on the wane. Meanwhile, the website World-Architects, created by Zurich-based PSA Publisher, and its spin-off city versions (Japan-Architect, Brazil-Architect, Mexican-Architect, and so on) proffers "profiles of selected architects" in a clear, frequently updated format that includes ample images, CVs, and chronologies. PSA positions itself as a kind of agent or broker, making introductions to developers and potential clients, which is evidently a good way to get architects to pay to be included on its site. A new interesting website is NewItalianBlood, whose content is entirely supplied by architects, designers, and landscape architects who are invited to self-publish their works, competition entries, writings, and ideas. The site trumpets its goal of "self-publication, without editorial interference," but it is really more about networking than publishing. Each project is presented straight, via a few images and architect-authored (i.e., cryptic) texts, often without indication of whether projects are real or theoretical. The site seems to accomplish little more than provide an added opportunity for an architect to be found online, though of course this might be more than enough for young practitioners, who are clearly the site's constituents.
Dedicated architecture and design web magazines.
There aren't many made-for-the-web architecture and design magazines and certainly none that compare with e-zines such as Salon, Slate (where Witold Rybczynski holds the post of architecture critic), and Tina Brown's newly launched TheDailyBeast, which have made a big impact on their respective literary, cultural and political realms and are admired for the way their articles, interface, and navigation astutely exploit the medium. In design, the most popular titles are Dezeen and DesignBoom, each with over a million readers monthly. They are energetic and tasteful but both are heavy on pictures, light on commentary. The problem with these and so many other architecture and design web 'zines is that the pressure to turn over content and beat the competition (increasingly stiff now with bloggers elbowing into editorial territory) means that stories are too often non-stories, i.e., little more than product releases, project unveilings, announcements of events or exhibitions, competition winners, and the like. The need for incessant posting also explains why many web editors have no reticence about publishing inadequate renderings and lightly rewritten press releases. And architects, unsurprisingly, have no reticence about releasing sometimes silly, illusory renderings, knowing that the image will float around in low-res form for years before the project will actually (if ever) be built. The result is the mass circulation of dreamy images, vaguely similar in our minds for no reason other than their uniform representational flatness, which we reflexively file in the most forgetful part of our brains.
Two architecture newsletters worth mentioning are PresS/T Letter, which Rome-based architect Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi launched with the aim of having an "open tool…to give voice to people who usually find it difficult to make known their thoughts"; and New York–based Kristen Richards' ArchNewsNow, which aggregates architecture headlines from the world's English-language media and produces some decent original articles. Both claim 15,000 subscribers—a good indication of their popularity. With a team of (volunteer) editors and writers and regularly respondent readers, PresS/T offers a healthy alternative to the dominant magazines, but it is weakened, like so many online outlets, by its lack of editing.
This is by far the largest and most uneven category, embodying the great promise of the web to democratize information by serving as a platform for a plurality of perspectives. Previous to the digital age, architects and writers with a countercultural streak challenged the mainstream by producing little magazines: Look at the wonderful variety and spirit embodied in the independent publications of the 1960s and '70s, including Archigram's rowdy missives (the group actually crystallized around the creation of the magazine, its name drawing from the word "telegram," giving it the whiff of an urgent communiqué—a prime example of media-borne architecture!); as well as Pianete Fresca, which came out of Milanese Ettore Sottsass' living room and covered everything from poetry to psychedelia; and the Parisian Carré Bleu, run by Team X affiliates whose editorial concerns were imbedded in the political and social concerns of the day. (These and many others, with enticing names like Circus, Street Farmer, Global Tools, are included in Beatriz Colomina's excellent exhibition Clip/Stamp/Fold, which opened in 2007 at New York's Storefront for Art and Architecture but lives on as a website, of course.) Today's rebels would hardly be pasting up and mimeographing broadsheets, crashing lecture halls and architecture openings to distribute them: Naturally, they are blogging.
Hundreds of architecture blogs exist (see Rome-based Alessandro Ranellucci's multilingual website Archiblog, which provides a daily digest of posts from over 600 blogs from five countries, or International Listing's Top 100 Architecture Blogs) and they've won the attention and participation of not only architects but also urban planners, landscape architects, developers, planners, designers, writers, and general design hobbyists—constituting a more diverse readership than probably ever attained by trade magazines. It's safe to say that most bloggers and their public are of a younger generation, who rely more on online than print sources for information about their professions. Blogs are an open network, with fairly direct contact among their users and, as a result, many have developed active communities whose members feel they, too, have equal opportunity to grandstand. Blogs have given rise to legions of sidewalk, or rather, desktop critics who animate the conversation about architecture and keep tens of thousands engaged in their art on a daily (even hourly) basis. But while the blogs and other web outlets are expanding the conversation about architecture and design, the question remains, is it improving it?
Like all online outlets, blogs have great potential for promoting the work of less-known figures and projects and unconventional practices and ideas, which should appeal given the field's growing frustration with mainstream media's fixation on celebrity architects and blockbuster projects. While it's true that blogs do turn readers on to a wide array of obscure names and topics, I was surprised to find more or less the same preoccupation with Rem, Zaha, Frank, Renzo, Herzog & De Meuron and other print-endorsed talents. Blogs are apparently as swayed by press releases as any other media (succumbing to the constant pressure to churn out posts), and the fact that a good majority of them merely offer their gloss on articles that originate elsewhere (sometimes simply cutting and pasting excerpts and links) means that they in effect shadow what larger media is covering.
Blogs are characteristically impressionistic, first-person observations of just about anything, from the blogger's last vacation to the film he or she saw last night. Blogs are predicated almost entirely on personal appeal, i.e., Is this person likeable and interesting enough for me to care what he or she has to say? The ones that stand out are those that display a strong point of view, solid ethics, a sharp antenna for what's cool, informed reporting (though blogs are generally more about spin than reporting), and good writing. Among the better ones: BLDGBLOG (which earned its author a book contract), Subtopia, CityofSound, WeMakeMoneyNotArt, Plataforma, as well as Infrastructurist and Pruned. Many of these were headliners in the Storefront for Art and Architecture's recent Postopolis!, the second of its blogger-led conferences which drew hundreds of attendees and thousands of online followers.
There is also the newspaper- or magazine-hosted blog—essentially the latter-day equivalent of the opinion-driven column. It's a strategy for old media to expand coverage of areas that get short shrift in their printed editions (for example, the NYT has a soccer blog to compensate for the sport's invisibility in its print edition) as well as an easy way to fatten online content and to foster a stronger bond between its writers and readers. For example, even The New Yorker, one of the last bastions of the long literary form, has its venerable writers blogging. Allison Arieff's design blog for the NYT and Javier Armesto's architecture blog for La Voz de Galicia give their respective organizations slightly more personality and sense of accessibility than before. Meanwhile, the blogs of architecture and design magazines generally read like the passing thoughts (or afterthoughts) of over-burdened staffers who are obliged to post regularly and in turn offer painless rundowns of whatever has crossed their paths or desks.
At best, a blog can point one to projects, writings, events, and websites worth knowing about. At its most harmless, it can amuse with its freewheeling, off-the-cuff tone and parodies or absurdities—and it is refreshing to see humor and sarcasm in a field like architecture, which has always taken itself too seriously. At worst, blogs exasperate with their inherent narcissism, lack of filtering (just because an idea flitted to the top of one's head doesn't mean it has to come out at the fingertips), gratuitous snark, and dearth of sustained thought or developed argument. One serious concern is how blogs feed the notion that having opinion and an audience qualifies one to be a critic. In the architecture sphere, many bloggers (and their comment-posting readers) freely "critique" projects based on a minimum of information, deepening the misconception that one can adequately "read" or analyze a building based on a few medium-sized jpegs and light text.
While many blogs do set out to challenge the status quo, they are constrained by the fact that they are often individualistic pursuits. The admired magazines of the last century, both mainstream and independent, were collective efforts, requiring their protagonists to together formulate ideals and a strategy for communicating them, carefully orchestrating images, text, and graphic design as a total message. (To this end, think of Rae Eames' cover designs for Arts & Architecture and Massimo and Lella Vignelli's design of Skyline and lament the passing of the days of Zeitgeisty design statements.) By contrast, blogs still seem less about advancing a mission or set of values than about advancing the people writing them. There are exceptions, of course, and one could generalize that the better blogs are activist in intent, and tend to be left-leaning, eco-minded, urbane, technology-savvy. But so far, the blogs that succeed in carrying on substantial or edifying conversations about design are authoritatively edited and multi-authored—and thus magazinelike—such as DesignObserver, founded by graphic designers Michael Bierut, Jessica Helfand and William Drentel. (The site's focus is graphic design, though it covers all things related to design and material culture.) With a host of well-chosen contributors, DesignObserver and precious few others are appealing because they avoid the monologue-induced tedium endemic to blogs.
Though web 'zines and blogs have vastly expanded the range of what architecture editors and writers should consider worth covering, no example of web publishing yet rivals the best of what has been accomplished in print. We still haven't seen anything online that's comparable to the most memorable print issues of Arquitectura Viva, Domus, Progressive Architecture, Architectural Design, Oppositions and Design Book Review (where I once worked) and so many others that reflected strong editorial positions and intelligent frameworks for stories. Web publishing does not lend well to themed groupings, hierarchical arrangements of articles, or synergistic art direction: Web pages are typically arranged as lists, ordered by date (freshest post first), and only a few posts are viewable at a time. They are still relatively constrained graphically and typographically, limited by inflexible scripts and requirements for usability and accessibility. The traditional editors' decision to put a story on the cover, on page 10 or 50, to give a project or story two or six page-spreads, or to juxtapose it intentionally with other articles was a clear (and hopefully trusted) value judgment. On the web, projects carry more or less the same weight—they all start at the top of a page at some point, they appear (at readers' choice) in large or small font, and they may be read in isolation (the result of a direct search), with little editorial context. The new benchmark for a project's importance seems to be the number of search results it yields. We miss the filtering and framing role of authoritative editors, the informed interpretations of seasoned critics, and the skillful organization of clever graphic designers.
This is not to say that traditional media and publicity-controlling architects cannot stand to be challenged. One wishes for more guerrilla reporting—for example, e-zines and blogs could provide alternative views of projects (e.g., unbecoming backsides, sloppy details, lack of contextuality) as a counterpoint to the carefully constructed images that architects, their photographers and magazines have controlled for so long. Architecture websites can also do more to normalize the language about architecture—as Reyner Banham and Lewis Mumford did so well, and Ada Louise Huxtable, Richard Ingersoll, Martin Filler, Hugh Pearman continue to do—putting architecture back into the realm of everyday concerns, such as housing and city planning, and regaining the interest of a general audience.
The competition created by the explosion of online media is sure to yield better quality in publishing, whether print or digital, eventually. Already, there are countless examples of self-published, web-purveyed bestsellers that are transforming the book publishing industry. The Internet has also fired up political debate, with many blogs and news aggregators (such as The Huffington Post) wielding influence on par with mainstream news organizations. Barack Obama's successful web-driven presidential bid has been heralded as a pioneer for melding high technology with grassroots campaigning. However, it's too early to gauge the impact of the Internet on the actual production of architecture. Perhaps the most direct connection I've seen is the way in which the web is used by students—in the same school or across continents—to document, share, or collaborate on studio projects. Blogging also appears to be a part of the typical arch-student routine (an easy diversion during all those late nights cooped up in studio), and can be seen as a healthy exercise, teaching students to articulate their process and present their work. Archinect's school blog project is a particularly lively forum, with students from all over posting decent quick reviews of symposiums and lectures (proving that some are paying attention) and other mundane tidbits that provide a window into students' mentality today. In April, MIT hosted the panel " Blogitecture: Architecture on the Internet," featuring Javier Arbona and Kazys Varnelis, who both actively blog, moderated by Mark Jarzombek, in which blogging was described as a form of "outsider" criticism. It will probably be some time before blogs have any palpable influence (unlike criticism generated by journals, magazines, and newspapers) over architectural production, but it is surely paving the way for a greater plurality of expression, simply because the Internet has a way of validating almost every position or point of view. (As a related aside, one can only imagine the nightmare that web publishing will pose to future historians, who will have to pore over infinitely more pages and bits and bytes than their predecessors ever did, and will surely be frustrated by rampant dead links and all manner of irretrievable data, forever entombed in obsolete technology.)
As of now, there is a lot more information but also misinformation, more access to ideas but also more confusion, more trivialization but also more entertainment. Media commentators observe that the panic over the death of print based on the fact that we're in a strange limbo, where the old system is on its last legs and the new system is not up and running yet. Architecture will be carried along and hopefully show resilience and resourcefulness in the face of the digital revolution.
Cathy Lang Ho is a New York–based writer and editor who has worked in architecture publishing for almost 20 years. This article is based on research conducted while a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome (2008–2009).
Cathy Lang Ho is a New York–based writer and editor. She is the founder and former editor-in-chief of The Architect's Newspaper (2003–07). She served as editor (1999–2001) and editor-at-large (2001–2005) at Architecture magazine and, with Richard Ingersoll, she edited Berkeley–based journal Design Book Review (1992–99). She is the coauthor of American Contemporary Furniture (Universe/Rizzoli, 1999) and House: American Houses for the New Century (Universe/Rizzoli, 2001). She has written over 200 articles, which have appeared in Architectural Record, Arquitectura Viva, Blueprint, Domus, ID, Frame, Mark, Metropolis (for which she served as West Coast correspondent from 1993–98), and The New York Times.