1. You are standing in a niche
The world is already full of architectural magazines—more and less interesting ones. Historically, they occupied a particular niche and today they occupy an even smaller one, where they tend to speak in a common language. Even the ones that reject paper printing do so with masochistic pleasure. Paper, however, is not the only tool and today it may not be the most relevant one. There are many ways to create a public around architectural ideas.
Over seven intensive days, we spoke to more than twenty contemporary practitioners who share a motivation to intervene publicly in architecture and who take different approaches to do so. This manual is a synthesis of their mistakes.
It represents a first expedition, a sprint through some possibilities and tools available today. There are many others, especially from outside architecture, where we encourage you to look.
This manual uses a variety of tools including a game, diagrams, narratives, absurdities, a read-along video, a fake newspaper article, and algorithm-generated text. They appear throughout—not just in the section on new tools.
These tools trace a collective effort of people, which is the only way to change anything.
“At any time there are only 1,500 people in the world willing to buy a serial publication on architecture.”
Across the range of experiences relayed by our interviewees, a pattern emerged: beyond vanishing streams of sales and advertising lie networks of different methods for funding interventions—both in and out of academia, business, and institutions.
The further you go away from magazines, the further you go away from their economies.
On precarity, temptation, and failure, with Michiel van Iersel
What is the most recurring reason for failure?
Michiel van Iersel:
It’s the market. It’s a certain expectation that there will be a demand for something, or that a building will have a certain use value, and then it turns out not to be the case.
Or, it’s the replacement of a certain political and economic system by market capitalism. But it’s always related to financial forces. That’s also our weak point: we have a very limited understanding of the financial dynamics that are shaping the built environment. The spreadsheet bankers in the City of London are running the show and we’re still imagining that architects are in control of the situation. This is definitely not the case.
This is also something that I want to focus on [while on the Loeb Fellowship] at Harvard. It’s also something we want to incorporate by having editors with that kind of background, and by doing more interviews with people who work in finance. How can we unmask some of those perversities that are obstructing progress in the field of architecture? If we join forces with others, maybe we can make a difference.
“We” meaning architects?
“We” as in the people I represent in this interview: fifty brains who are trying to make sense of the world.
Is there a temptation to go into consultancy? Is it important to avoid blurring into commercial work?
A lot of people who contribute to Failed Architecture want to be architects. So, eventually, they start their own practices or join firms. They want to have an income from design practice. But some people want to participate from a critical position—as writers, artists, or activists—and these roles should provide sources of income for them as well. I’m describing how the situation is right now, but I’m not sure that it’s sustainable in the long run. If you depend on new people joining in, how’s that going to work out? You’re making yourself very vulnerable if you keep on going the way we’re doing. And I’m honest about that.
We never thought we would be asked to work for commercial parties. But it’s happening and it’s fascinating. We were approached by the biggest real estate conference in Moscow to make an exhibition for a trade fair. We were utterly surprised, but from their perspective, we’re these young, urban, critical people who are also potential clients. If today it’s fashionable to be critical, then they embrace that. This beast eats everything. It also eats us. So we refused.
It was tempting to imagine entering those worlds as a Trojan Horse. But we always refuse offers to work for developers or architects. A big office in the Netherlands asked me to work on a monograph of their work from a critical perspective. But they’re highly commercial and very successful. For them this gives credibility, so that’s what we have to offer. We’re aware of it and we know that it has a certain value. We probably could have a proper income from Failed Architecture if we accepted those kinds of invitations.
A lot of our conversations have circled around Audre Lorde’s question: can the master’s house be dismantled with the master’s tools? Which tools are useful for that dismantling and which would you lay aside? You wouldn’t go to Moscow to do an exhibition, but you would go to Harvard.
Harvard is a tricky thing for me. But we really believe that by engaging a new generation things can change. Wherever we go, people join us—some from very commercial firms, some who have been active in politics (though not necessarily on our side of the spectrum), but they’re eager and they want to change things.
At the same time, we’re not a loud voice. But because we’re heard by a lot of different people, people take us seriously. I think we hover over the shoulders of some architects at bigger firms when they talk to clients. That’s more like soft diplomacy; making them aware that there are other options. I’m not very optimistic, to be honest, that we can change things now. But maybe in the long run…
One of our core members is working at a big office that employs over one hundred people. She’s a board member of Failed Architecture and she’s also working with this company. If we can spread the gospel of Failed Architecture by inserting ourselves into these existing organizations then over time we will definitely have an impact. I’m hopeful about that.
Ownership structures have in some ways remained consistent, with institutional and corporate backing for established magazines and independent production for more critical and experimental titles.
This International Standard is not applicable to the following types of publication:
a) publications issued for advertising purposes, where the literary or scientific text is subsidiary and where the publications are distributed free of charge, including
1) trade catalogues, prospectuses, and other types of commercial, industrial and tourist advertising, and
2) publications advertising products or services supplied by the publisher, even though they might describe activities or technical progress in some branch of industry or commerce;
b) publications considered to be of a transitory character; typical examples are
1) timetables, price-lists, telephone directories,
2) programmes of entertainments, exhibitions, fairs,
3) company regulations, reports and directives and circulars,
4) calendars, and
5) electronic texts under development;
c) publications in which the text is not the most important part, including
1) printed music documents where the music is more important than the words, and
2) maps and charts (with the exception of atlases), e.g. astronomical charts, hydrographical and geographical maps, wall maps, road maps, geological surveys in map form and topographical plans.
The ISO offers no specific definition for the magazine, only for the periodical: a “serial under the same title published at regular or irregular intervals over an indefinite period, individual issues in the series being numbered consecutively or each issue being dated.” It further specifies that “Annuals are included; newspapers and monographic series are excluded from the definition,” and “Microforms are included.” Magazines are not differentiated from other serial publications like newsletters, yearbooks, or journals. Its limits are defined by exclusion.
2. The people around you speak in a consistent way
The Oslo Opera House is one of the most viewed buildings on the Internet. As its poorly-edited press release circulated across Dezeen, ArchDaily, E-Architect, and other media platforms, few typos were corrected and most of the text remains the same ten years later. What is this relationship to the written word?
The most popular Instagram photographs taken at Villa Savoye are collaged together as an architectural “hero image”—always photographed from the same perspective.
Such images can be captioned by algorithms trained by generic descriptions from greatbuildings.com:
The medium specificity of even the most successful historical project was always contingent. It would not take the same form today, just as today’s projects cannot rely on successful precedents for a relevant strategy.
3. The familiar tool is paper
In 2005, C-LAB researched “Broadcasting Architecture” by looking into the most distributed printed matter on architecture. They argued that euro bills, with their images of historic building styles, in their reach outweighed even the most important architecture books and magazines by a factor of scale.
It is interesting to revisit these questions today, in the age of social media.
A tool is never neutral. The ongoing shift towards immaterial media appears inescapable, but today’s practitioners use a mix of print, digital, and time-based media strategically, depending on what they are trying to achieve. The positive qualities of one medium are always present in another one.
Throughout our interviews, the decisions and challenges described by practitioners began to suggest strategies for action. But in such a changing environment, are these one-offs or do they constitute replicable instructions? What slogans will encourage positive action, and how do you get people to accept advice?
One way is to pretend they were said by heroically successful architects:
Seizing the Means of Distribution, with Ming Lin
Could you talk a little bit about how questions of distribution and flows of physical material became your focus?
We (I am working collectively with Elaine W. Ho as Display Distribute) have been engaged in many self-publishing projects, as are a lot of other artist-activists that we’ve encountered in East Asia and Southeast Asia. One of the conversations that we kept on having when meeting up with these colleagues was the lack of distribution, not only within our respective countries but also inter-Asia. There are various factors contributing to this, among them a lack of common language. So everyone is just lugging around stock on their shoulders, or else it’s gathering mold in someone’s basement.
We realized that what we really needed was a distribution system and this realization dovetailed with the themes of distribution and circulation that we had been interested in our own work. Now we’ve started stocking publications and distributing them, and『CATALOGUE』is where we assemble the information about all of those. We’re calling it a catalogue, but it’s also a reader’s digest. We’re calling it a catalogue and reader’s digest. Our mantra is “conflating content with its means of circulation.”
Our own artist-run distribution network, Light Logistics, is a decentralized system that relies on the surplus carrying power of couriers. That means literally people who travel from A to B and have extra space in their luggage to carry stock. We built an online system in which we can make calls to find travelers between two places, but also meticulously log all of the steps of getting the product from publisher to customer. What that’s really tracing is a network of relations, what you could view as the neglected processes taking place behind large-scale logistical enterprises—moments of encounter and flows of knowledge.
We identify Light Logistics a “never-in-time enterprise” as opposed to a just-in-time enterprise, which is to say that we are concerned less with efficiency and progress, the usual imperatives of a supply chain rhetoric, and more concerned with the one-to-one scale, moments of autonomy and also of stillness that occur along these lines of circulation.
Does『CATALOGUE』matter to you as an object? Is it important that it is an object that takes up some sort of space, has some sort of weight, and has some sort of an aesthetic?
I think it’s really personal. We both, me and Elaine W. Ho, are definitely print fetishists and see the value of what the encounter with a print object entails. At the same time『CATALOGUE』as an actual print object is literally the shittiest, cheapest printing you can get in China. This rattiness has sort of become part of our aesthetic.
We’ll also be doing an immaterial realization of『CATALOGUE』for our next edition in Seoul. Here,『CATALOGUE』is unfolding as a series of activities structured as a publication. There’s a cover, intro, body text, conclusion, index—all those things. But they are going to be realized in space.
Do you have a spine?
We were talking about the spine, actually. In an Eastern ontology of print of course there was no spine because the book was a scroll. We saw a talk by a Japanese art historian whose name I can’t remember where she argued that the spine alluded to “Western rigidity” and an obsession with structure and order. We have no spine but that’s definitely something that we’ll talk about.
I think we would definitely consider this project within the discourse of a post-colonial project. And that’s most manifested perhaps in the impulse to use publications as a means of drawing together a network of disparate, radicalized communities in East and Southeast Asia. Another thing is that it wouldn’t necessarily be our priority to translate everything into English, for example, stemming from an ideological decision to prioritize the other languages that our publications are in and not necessarily to make those legible to Western audiences or Western institutions.
4. What tools are being ignored?
URGENT–PRIORITY ACQUISITION LIST 2018
Obviously, these are all sensitive, so be discreet. I want you to start making inquiries on the following for potential acquisition, ASAP:
Archillect’s followers list
Oliver Wainwright’s 2014 Biennale Snapchat review
Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell’s unread e-mails from May 2018
Mimi Zeiger and Ann Lui’s text messages
Iwan Baan’s geo-tracking data for 2016
Real Foundation’s issued invoices
Alexandra Lange’s bookmarks
Andrew Kovacs’s flatbed scanner
Patrick Schumacher’s browser history
Architecture Lobby’s Twitter direct messages
ArchDaily’s rejected submissions folder
Eva Franch i Gilabert’s pending Facebook friend requests from March 2018
Jan de Vylder’s iCloud photo stream
“Shitty Architecture Men” Google Sheet, with changes tracked
Let me know what kind of response you get. With any luck we can stay one step ahead of these.
Director of Collecting For The Future
Engage where free post-occupancy studies already occur.
“If you’re getting a ton of likes on Instagram, who cares about your jury? You can rip someone to shreds, but if they have a lot of followers, they don’t care.”
“Publishers delude themselves into thinking that they’re playing a cultural long game of changing the discourse. You’re not going to change the culture at Gensler by putting an article in front of them, it’s by forming a union.”
Encourage changes that are difficult to imagine—such as a worker collective taking over a major architecture firm—by presenting them as having already taken place. Deal with the consequences.
Our conversations produced many more ideas than were possible to include in this manual. Here are some more of our favourite ones to consider. Take any you want.
5. Notes on Method, and Thanks
This manual is based on twenty-one interviews that took place over eighty-four hours, covering two walls with ideas and reactions, filling sixty-four pages with nearly twenty-thousand words. It was only possible through the exhaustion and dedication of the participants and the generosity of the interviewees: David Basulto, Marianela D’Aprile & Keefer Dunn, Charlotte Grace, Renée Green, Michiel van Iersal, Lee Ivett, Andrew Kovacs, Leopold Lambert, Alexandra Lange, Ming Lin, Adélie Pojzman-Pontay, Fosco Lucarelli & Mariabruna Fabrizi, Julia van den Hout, Murat Pak, Ryan Scavnicky, Jack Self, Catherine Slessor, Pier Paulo Tamburelli, Jeremy Till, Tom Weaver, and Mirko Zardini.
For a more open and frank discussion, we have avoided attributing quotes, except in the interview excerpts.
We also owe a debt of gratitude to advisors, critics, and friends whose conversations shaped this project and made it possible: Meredith Carruthers, Albert Ferre, Francesco Garutti, Jeremy Leslie, Carlo Menon, Tatjana Schneider, Steve Watson, Martien de Vletter, and Sean Yendrys.
How to: not make an architecture magazine was directed by Lev Bratishenko, Curator, Public, CCA and architect and writer Douglas Murphy.
How to is a series of accelerated annual residencies that bring small teams together at the CCA to produce a new tool—physical, digital, or somewhere in between—and rapidly begin to address a specific opportunity or need.
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