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The Message in the Medium

Say what you will — but how and where you say it matters.

Photography: Cervin Robinson

Architecture has enjoyed a love affair with photography since the latter’s invention in the middle of the 19th century. With the development of photographic reproduction in ink-on-paper journals, the relationship began to mature, and photographers and text writers came to be business partners.


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By the 1880s, an architectural journal could include impressive photographs of a building and a related text, each printed by different processes on different papers. By the end of the century, “halftone” reproduction allowed printing text and photographs on the same page. Thereafter, neither a text nor its accompanying set of photographs stood on its own two feet. Each was propped up by the other—and the architectural journal was on its way to becoming the dominant medium for the presentation and discussion of architectural ideas.

Publication in the form of photographs became increasingly important to architects. Some designed with publication in mind; others did work that editors regarded highly but knew would photograph badly. In some respects, the architectural life of a building lay in published photographs.

Until well after World War II, the photographs in journals were initially black-and-white pictures taken by photographers with recognizable individual styles. By the 1980s, however, color reproduction started to predominate, and individual styles were becoming less apparent. Reproduction was more expensive, and architects began to share in magazine costs and take part in the selection of pictures (never mind independent journalism).

It was also an era that marked a change in the tools themselves. For many years, architectural photographs had been made with large cameras. But a shift soon came to smaller 4-by-5 cameras that would accept the Polaroid films used to determine exposure times. Camera technology continues to evolve with the development of digital cameras.

The ease of digital photography and the proliferation of inexpensive digital and online publishing media, combined with the demise of many ink-on-paper architectural journals, have persuaded many architects that adequate and certainly less expensive pictures can be made by their own office staff.

Yet there is a place for professional architectural photographers. We live in a world of visual media, where there is still a demand for high-quality images. And many photographers have found success and satisfaction in new directions, such as fine-art photographs of architectural subjects, often in the form of enormous prints made with large cameras—a form of picturemaking with which the inexpensive digital camera and the inexperienced photographer cannot compete.

The field has seen challenges before. In its early years, the introduction of dry plates made picture taking easier than with wet plates, increasing the number of pictures taken but initially bringing down their quality. Presumably photography will similarly recover from the generally lower quality of digital work today. In many ways, the life of a building still lies in its photographs, whatever the publishing medium.


Newspapers: John King, San Francisco Chronicle

As a member of the dwindling band of architectural critics who ply their trade at newspapers, I’m well aware of how lucky I am—and how my approach differs from the best critics who came before.

In the beginning, there was exquisite provocation: The likes of Allan Temko at the San Francisco Chronicle and Ada Louise Huxtable at The New York Times arrived on the scene in the early 1960s to give readers a good shake. Their audiences learned what was at stake as grand buildings fell and oppressive ones rose, why change is neither a given nor necessarily a good, and why we can’t leave our surroundings in the hands of developers and hacks and the powers-that-be.

Now such notions as “contextual design” and “managed growth” are part of the civic dance. Architectural review boards operate in cities large and small and are often constructive but also capricious. The definition of historic resource gets stretched by some advocates to include anything with four walls and a past. Urban design principles are of little interest to “eco-urbanists” who proclaim the virtues of all things sustainable and dense.

It’s a confusing terrain, with ever-more-varied voices and agendas. Which may be why I find myself trying to connect the dots rather than lay down the law.

That’s not a job description I learned in journalism school, but by all evidence it resonates. In today’s fragmented media scene, I can stand out by drawing on age-old tools of the newspaper trade: Before putting on the critic’s hat, I covered City Hall and planning and the business of real estate. My editors place more value on lucid writing and solid reporting than on coy references to Andrés and Rem.

There’s still a place for activist criticism that strives to nip excess in the bud, as the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin shows so well. But there’s also a need to bring the landscape around us into sharper focus. Think of it as an ongoing course in design basics: why the experience on the ground is as important as the silhouette in the air, why the cosmetic appeal of images shown to planning commissions isn’t nearly as important as an actual building’s materiality and craft. Architecture writers can help readers—the public—see more, and more smartly. We can help them understand the implications as we shape tomorrow’s civic realm.

This is the unique role that general newspapers can play, precisely because of their general nature and because they have yet to be replaced as the primary community forum. My readers aren’t architecture buffs receiving glossy magazines in the mail or turning to their favorite like-minded website. They’re people who know that buildings and spaces can be deadening or dynamic, even if they’re not sure why. They do know this: They want help making sense of our urban terrain.


Exhibitions: Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley, pinkcomma gallery

At a time when old media institutions such as publishing houses, journals, and newspapers face increasingly dire financial prospects, the gallery remains a flourishing site of cultural production and dissemination. We see the role of the gallery in an era of new media types as even more urgent for its ability to respond to a changing landscape of human ideas and interactions. The gallery is here to stay because it is good at things that virtual or printed means of dissemination do less well: putting people in physical space to interact with one another face-to-face in the presence of objects and artifacts. Discourse is at the very core of what makes a gallery an active site of exchange rather than a destination for passive leisure. This social and spatial coupling cannot be easily replicated online.

In creating architectural exhibitions, curators have tended to follow two approaches. The first regards exhibitions as “atmosphere” (to use Henry Urbach’s term): temporary stages for spatial experiments freed from the constraints of more permanent or conventional commissions. The second, which is closer to gallery practices outside the architectural field, regards the exhibition as a form of knowledge: a site in which visual, historical, or data-driven content can be brought together to instigate discussion around issues of concern to the discipline. Although design plays a crucial role in how this material is shaped and presented, it is content, not format, that drives the making of such exhibitions. The first approach treats the exhibition as an excuse for design production, while the second regards it as a form of cultural production.

We lean toward the latter, seeing the greatest disciplinary relevance of galleries not in more spectacles but in their ability to promote discourse that can reshape the discipline. We stake our bets on exhibitions that challenge the viewer to think more deeply or critically about issues concerning the built environment—and to engage with colleagues and the public in ways that other modes of design production, whether physical or virtual, rarely permit. Recent shows employing a range of techniques to provoke conversation include: Clip/Stamp/Fold, curated by Beatriz Colomina and Princeton PhD students at Storefront for Art and Architecture (displaying an archive); OMA/Rem Koolhaas’s Cronocaos, at the Venice Biennale and New Museum (instigating a critique); and Jean-Louis Cohen’s Architecture in Uniform at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (producing historical scholarship).

The gallery is one of the few types of dissemination that has not been entirely overturned by new media formats precisely because curation and social engagement remain central to a gallery’s mission. Although these formats enable broader possibilities for installations and more opportunities for outreach, the basic function of the gallery remains unchanged—a counterpoint to design practice and a site for commentary, reflection, and discussion.


Building Information Modeling: Phillip G. Bernstein FAIA, Autodesk

When the idea of Building Information Modeling (BIM) started to hit the full consciousness of architects a few years ago, it was seen mostly as the next version of CAD, best used to create precisely coordinated drawings from a 3D model. But there was another idea in there somewhere, a vague notion of collaboration and integration, a thought that moving from mechanical drawing to parametric modeling might mean something bigger in making buildings. Does it?

Of course, the raison d’être for BIM—and how most young designers pitch it to their older, less savvy managers—is productivity. But, much as CAD was initially adopted as a tool for faster drafting but soon launched the age of the curvy façade, maybe the “building simulation” that is full BIM is likewise leading us someplace unexpected. It was Alberti who first asserted that the building’s design exists apart from its construction and that the builder should slavishly execute that design model. When that design is now a BIM model, however, it’s the architect’s authorial role that may well take a hit. Is that a bad thing?

Architectural labor theorist Paolo Tombesi suggests that BIM is “likely to produce a lowering of social transaction costs by making information less subjective, its exchange speedier, and its monitoring more precise.” There’s that precision argument again, but with a twist: a lowering of the “transaction cost” of participating in the design itself. A building designed with BIM is not encoded in the special language of architects—plans, sections, and elevations—and is thereby accessible clearly to everyone involved in the design process: collaborators, builders, even clients. Some of that “authorial mystery” of the designer evaporates, and in its place appears the precision of a digital model that gets hot and cold, has operating doors, and can generally give everyone a great idea of what’s alleged to be. From this democratization might well rise greater design literacy and even bring an “architectural springtime” much like what’s been inspired of late by Facebook and Twitter. Better design has to be the result.

While Alberti might disagree, the authorial role of the architect isn’t completely pulverized by BIM. Tombesi also suggests that BIM’s “simulative and predictive capabilities” decrease the subjectivity of the result. But if BIM provides “just the facts, ma’am,” it also creates an opportunity to leave the mundane tasks to the technology, allowing architects to spend their time finding, testing, and implementing even better ideas.

BIM won’t replace design talent—and may even quickly expose its lack—but like any tool in the hands of a master, it just might empower the process of design as never before.


Publishing: Kevin Lippert, Princeton Architectural Press

I was a bit taken aback to read this first sentence in the manuscript submitted by the author of a forthcoming book: “Media’s pressure to make architecture into a consumer product concerns me. The resulting artifacts are conceived as disposable, only useful until the new model comes along.” Wait a minute, I thought. Is this a dig at his publisher, who is arguably part of the media pressure to make consumable products about architecture, books on “the latest model” designer, buildings, and other hot topics?

We all—architects and publishers alike—want to be in the business of producing lasting objects of significance that transcend the unforgiving cycles of fashion. But even though Princeton Architectural Press prints all its books on acid-free paper and sews their bindings, the inescapable truth is that publishing is very much a business of producing consumables, whether paper or electronic, and consumables are, by their very nature, products of fashion. This surely informs our thinking in the kinds of books we publish (What are our readers interested in now? What topic can we define that might create a trend to capitalize on?) and how we publish them. (What’s a “sexy” package? What’s an appealing price in a crowded and often difficult market?)

Architecture is richer, better made, more functional, more beautiful, more useful—whatever criteria you use to evaluate buildings or design—as a result of the written and published discourse around it, whether in books, magazines, or well-executed websites. Although I might regret our tacit participation in a culture of producing consumable goods, especially when some of those must be literally disposed of (the publisher’s nightmare: the horrific “pulping” of unsold excess inventory), I truly believe that the library of books from Princeton Architectural Press has improved the built and visual environment.

Unlike most consumer goods, if you put ours on a climate-controlled bookshelf, they will last, our paper manufacturer tells us, for 300 years or more—not too shabby for “disposable” media and certainly a lot longer than electronic media and even most buildings, especially those built today. Since its origins in reprinting classic 19th-century tomes (such as Letarouilly’s Edifices de Rome Moderne, still in our catalogue), the Press has become a keystone in a massive act of documentation of the architecture of the 20th and 21st centuries, a project in which publications such as ArchitectureBoston are also important participants. I’m happy that the books we make today will endure long enough that another publisher might reprint them from the originals a few centuries hence, ensuring that the architecture we document will last long after the forces of fashion or commerce have knocked it down to make room for the new.


Animation and 3D Visualization: Lon Grohs, Neoscape

Architecture is itself a tangible subject: visible, physical, concrete. The experience of architecture, however, is anything but that, and is profoundly visceral. It’s a sensation, an impression, a feeling.

Communicating the physical characteristics of architecture is a relatively forthright technical exercise. Conveying the emotive aspects of architecture is a different matter entirely.

A range of visual techniques and media including sketches, renderings, models, and photographs, are traditional means of conveying information about the experience of a building. In the past decade, we’ve witnessed a remarkable evolution of these longestablished media types, and visualization and animation have swept in to become part of the lexicon.

So-called 3D visualization now offers a sophisticated projection of an architectural experience that, despite the common moniker, is still essentially a two-dimensional snapshot of a building at one point in time. But new technologies are already expanding the media arsenal.

Foremost among these is architectural animation. At the turn of the millennium, a standard walk-through or fly-through was a meaningful and sufficient experience. It provided a glimpse into the future world, allowing the viewer to analyze and subsequently synthesize an impression of the space, and was a useful means of transmitting physical information about the architectural design. At the time, however, technology and skills had not advanced far enough to successfully convey the spirit of the design. The technique was met with harsh criticism—rightfully so, because it was interpreted as cold and lacking a soul.

But innovation in this medium happened rapidly and almost exponentially. By the middle of the decade, the terms “walk-through” and “fly-through” seemed a vestige of the past. The “architectural film” had evolved, and a new genre was born. In fact, the visual language of the architectural animation progressed so quickly that the story became the motivating factor.

This new medium is no longer an unadorned expression of a physical realm yet to be built, but a manifestation of a specific glimpse into a future world. It presents an exacting and layered environment complete with flora and fauna, likenesses of its inhabitants, specific atmospheric conditions, precise times of day, and ambient sounds—all of which can be varied within the narrative of the film, thus adding a new dimension to architectural representation: time.

And this is just one example. Other types of media are evolving at a similar pace—including augmented reality, rapid prototyping, and real-time visualization—all of which promise new tools not only for presenting architectural ideas but also, with increasing integration into the design process, for creating them.


Blogs: John Hill, Archidose.org

When I started the Web page A Weekly Dose of Architecture in 1999, I had no idea that my site, which featured building reviews, was a “blog.” Now, 12 years later, more than 156 million blogs are in existence, according to Wikipedia; a tiny fraction of those are related to architecture. In the supersaturated online realm, how influential are architecture blogs? What are their contributions to architectural discourse? And in what direction are they heading?

In the past decade, I’ve witnessed the changing role of online media in architectural journalism. Initially shunned by respectable journalists, bloggers have seen their influence rise with readership and as some have expanded into successful online businesses; many journalists now blog in addition to their print articles. With the widespread use of blogging software to structure Web pages of all types, blogs have reshaped both the way in which content is created online and its character, as the medium favors brevity and frequency.

The most trafficked blog, ArchDaily, churns out the equivalent of one Architectural Record magazine every day or two, including news items and scads of photos and drawings. Yet most posts typically feature only text contributed by the projects’ architects, not unbiased critical commentary from people who have visited the buildings in person. This breaks with magazines such as Record that balance the architect’s intentions with first-hand description and criticism, and is part of what some see as an unfortunate trend that values image over experience. In fact, many architecture blogs simply regurgitate press releases, with an “editorial process” as easy as copy, paste, upload, and publish. The role of the unique voice that is at the root of blogs is being lost amid the relative ease of syndicating PR content.

Of course the focus of everybody’s attention these days is not on blogs but on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Google+. Architizer and Archinect follow this trend with user-generated architectural content, but the projects, profiles, and features are curated by editors to let certain content rise to the fore. This “hidden hand” points to what defines social media: It’s not enough to post something online; that information has to be shared. But blogs and social media are strongly linked because many links shared via social media point to blogs, which are still the easiest and quickest way to combine text and images online.

As the differences between blogs and traditional journalism blur, and as browsing the Internet is superseded by sharing, everybody using social media becomes a curator, influencing what others read and in turn what blogs and journalists create. In this sense, the origin of content is irrelevant. Awareness of this role as curators ultimately sensitizes people to quality. Readers, the future of architectural media is in your hands.