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June 1996

"When More is Less and Less is More"

by Peter Blake

Over the past twenty-five years or so, at least half a dozen U.S. periodicals devoted to architecture and design have folded -- The Architectural Forum, Architecture Plus, California Arts and Architecture, Progressive Architecture, and several others that I probably should recall, but don't.

As of this writing, there are only two professional magazines on architecture that publish nationally and regularly: Architectural Record and Architecture. A few magazines deal with industrial design, landscape architecture, interior design, and graphic design. Some are tied to academic institutions or to a specific geographic area; others are little more than promotional pamphlets for the manufacturers of double-hung windows or toilet seats -- or for the promotion of certain "name architects" whose egos might shrivel unless regularly plumped.

In short, most of the American professional magazines still among the living are not exactly scintillating. Fortunately, more and more popular publications have retained reasonably good critics to write regularly about architecture and design.

And fortunately, too, more and more foreign publications are becoming available in the U.S.: several Japanese magazines, like a+u, are worth reading, and are being read; Italian magazines like Domus, Zodiac, and Abitare are more widely read here; and there are British, German, Spanish, and Scandinavian productions that insist on "making sense" and are attracting a growing American readership. And, of course, several American newspapers employ architecture critics, some of whom have actually practiced architecture at some point. (It helps to know whereof you write.)

The best periodicals, in our field, are produced outside America nowadays, and the reason is fairly obvious: most American publications are no longer run by their editors, but by their publishers -- i.e., their business managers. While the editors of past publications -- like my predecessor, Douglas Haskell, at The Architectural Forum -- could be depended upon to tackle almost any design issue fearlessly, knowledgeably, and critically, today's business managers are almost exclusively concerned with the bottom line: is their magazine making enough money?

Thus their magazine must not only contain enough advertising pages, it must also attract enough readers of a special sort -- not intellectuals interested in the design arts, but licensed, practicing architects who regularly specify the products that the advertisers sell. There is rarely any direct pressure by advertisers on editors to publicize this product or that.

The pressure is indirect: if a magazine's advertising salespeople can demonstrate that their readers specify more double-hung windows than do the readers of, say, Domus, then their magazine wins the ad. And if they can demonstrate also that their magazine does not publish anything offensive to anyone -- like the article by Michael Crosbie in the September 1995 issue of P/A criticizing the American Institute of Architects -- well, then their potential advertisers can breathe a sigh of relief. And they will.

And if the number of advertising pages declines, then the business manager's reaction is not to hire better advertising salespeople, but rather to cut back on editorial content and quality. Or to shut down P/A, and publish a plumbing journal instead.

This shift in the center of gravity of design publications exactly parallels changes in the design professions in the U.S. as well. After the end of the Second World War, the key people in the better architectural firms were invariably the designers responsible for the firm's most interesting work; whereas today the key people in those same firms are more likely to be the "marketing experts" who have rarely (if ever) designed anything worth mentioning, but who know how to catch clients and clobber the competition.

In other words, the professional magazines that have survived in the U.S. -- those less concerned with ideas than with catching and clobbering -- seem to be precisely attuned to the state of affairs in the American design arts, or, to put it more accurately, in the American design business.

The business of marketing design -- like the business of marketing sausages, for example -- is governed by very straightforward rules; and some of those rules are quite sophisticated. To market anything successfully, you must make your product recognizable -- you must give it an identity, an image, that every potential consumer will instantly perceive. A sausage, for example, had better look like a sausage if it is to attract sausage freaks; if it looks like a pretzel, it won't sell.

So the marketing principles, when applied to architecture, have to do with creating identifiable images. We all know how it works: if a building looks like a giant jellyfish, it is clearly the work of Name Architect X; if it looks as if it would probably collapse if built, it is obviously the work of Name Architect Y; and if the building is simply a boring work of mid-cult condescension, it is obviously the latest work of Name Architect Z.

Such identifiable images are simple, straightforward, and effective marketing devices. And the magazines that report on all of this play a crucial part in the marketing game: they tell you how the competition is doing; they tell you what signatures our "Name Architects" now employ; and they tell you what your own potential clients may be looking for when hiring an architect.

Very rarely do U.S. architectural magazines discuss completed buildings or projects in terms of their design essentials -- how well their structure relates to the spaces it encloses; how successful the building is in terms of light, sound, or view from within; how much it cost, and to what degree the cost affected major design decisions. Or what worked, and what didn't. In other words, our professional magazines rarely discuss the issues that almost entirely determine the design and construction of buildings in the real world.

Most of the commentary that appears in U.S. architecture magazines tends to be almost incomprehensible -- double-talk designed to convey two things: that the critic responsible for the verbiage must have had something profound to say (else why would his or her verbiage be so mystifying?), and that the architect responsible for the building must have had something profound to build (else why would his or her work make even less sense than the verbiage with which the critic has embellished it?).

The corollary of all this, needless to say, is that any building that is clear in form and function is simplistic, and any critical commentary that is just as clear is naive.

But clarity seems to be missing not only in the "cutting edge" architecture that American publications like to cover, and in the commentary which they use to describe buildings; clarity is increasingly missing in the "cutting edge" graphics employed in some of those publications. One of the most self-important magazines currently published in the U.S. is something called ANY, which manages to be not only incomprehensible (due to its verbiage, which might as well be Serbo-Croatian) and unreadable (due to the cryptology employed) but also virtually indecipherable (due to its infatuation with double- and triple-exposure images). In other words, here is a publication not interested in communicating anything, which may be just as well. It does make very nice collage Christmas cards, when shredded in a Veg-o-matic.

Meanwhile, in parts of the globe still interested in the real world of architecture and design, publications still exist that are dedicated to clear ideas, clear images, and clear prose. My favorite such publication is Domus, especially in the beautiful new format introduced by Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, its editor until recently.

Under his direction, Domus has been a publication of singular beauty and intelligence. (Actually, Domus has always been distinguished in content and design, especially under people like Gio Ponti and Ernesto Rogers; but it has become almost dazzling in recent years.) Since the text appears in both Italian and English, and in fine typography, Domus makes perfect sense even if your Serbo-Croatian is rusty.

Some day, the example of Domus, and of some other publications in Europe and Asia, may rub off on U.S. architectural magazines, but I am not holding my breath. Most of our publications have become so deeply mired in double-talk that they are unlikely to resurface any time soon. Especially if they have nothing to say.

But perhaps it is impossible to make much sense in words about something that must be seen to be understood. In recent years I have become more and more devoted to criticism that uses images instead of words.

A wonderful example is the work of my friend, Saul Steinberg, who did, in fact, start out as an architect, earning his degree at the Royal Polytechnic in Milan in the 1930s. Since that time his exquisite drawings have frequently commented on the shapes of buildings -- classical, neo-this and neo-that, modern, postmodern, deconstructivist, and so on. There is no mistaking the meaning of his caricatures, although he hardly ever uses words to make his points. He is clearly the finest architecture critic in the world today.


copyright 1996 Peter Blake. Included in Provocations with permission. Previously published in GSD News, Harvard University, June 1996.

Peter Blake, who has been a practicing architect for many years, was editor of The Architectural Forum from 1950 to 1972, and of Architecture Plus from 1972 to 1975. He has authored numerous books, such as God's Own Junkyard, Form Follows Fiasco, No Place Like Utopia, and others. See complete book list below. Click on any book for more details and to purchase:

Books by Peter Blake:

The Architecture of Arthur Erickson , by Arthur Erickson, Peter Blake (designer), Harper Collins, October 1988

The Architecture of Ulrich Franzen: Selected Works , by Peter Blake, George Weissman, Ulrich Franzen, hardcover, Birkhauser,  May 1999

Architecture for the New World: The Work of Harry Seidler , by Peter Blake, Horwitz Australia Wittenborn, 1973

Craig Ellwood, Architecture , by Ester Mc Coy, Peter Blake, paperback, Hennessey & Ingalls, January 1997

Davis Brody & Associates , by Peter Blake, Rizzoli, October 1987

Edward Larrabbee Barnes: Architect , by Peter Blake (introduction), Rizzoli, January 1995

Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn't Worked , by Peter Blake, Little Brown & Co, February 1978

God's Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America's Landscape , by Peter Blake, hardcover, Holt, Rinehart & Winston

Great Architecture of the World , by Peter Blake, Random House, January 1976

How to Design the Perfect Building , by Peter Blake, R.S. Means & Co, August 1997

Le Corbusier: Architecture & Form , by Peter Blake

The Master Builders: Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright (The Norton Library) , by Peter Blake, paperback, September 1996

The New Forces , by Peter Blake, Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Victorian Chapter, 1971

No Place Like Utopia: Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept , by Peter Blake, W.W. Norton & Co, September 1996

Peter Blake , by Peter Blake, paperback, Tate Gallery, 1983

Philip Johnson , by Peter Blake, paperback, Springer Verlag, August 1996

Private Architecture: Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century , by Roberto Schezen, Susan Doubilet, Peter Blake (introduction), hardcover, The Monacelli Press, November 1998

PROVOCATIONS is an online journal of architecture and ideas.
Editor: Susan Bilenker, info@design-site.net.
Publisher: Susan Bilenker Communications
Opinions expressed by authors published in Provocations are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Provocations.
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