Opinion

Criticism in crisis? Justine Clark and Andrew Mackenzie in conversation

May 21, 2012

As the global debate about architectural criticism heats up, the past editors of Architectural Review Australia and Architecture Australia ask: has architectural criticism in Australia lost its bite?

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Andrew Mackenzie: I would like to start by challenging a common cliché of architecture’s relationship to architecture media. In my time as editor of Architectural Review Australia I was struck by the conflicted relationship that architects had to the magazine. On the one hand it is to be courted and used almost like a professional support service. On the other hand it is to be resisted, as an enervating influence on architecture’s higher principles. In either case media is cast as an effect that is ‘done’ to architecture, with good or bad outcomes. Common codes of representation, such as the missing human presence, the tendency towards perspectival distortion, the partiality of reviewer to subject reviewed, are seen as codes owned by media and perniciously imposed on architecture.

This is a convenient story, as it offshores the agency of mediation outside the territory of professional practice. However, if we consider other art forms, such as theatre, film or literature, the critical review of architecture appears conspicuously constrained. There are many reasons for this, but to a large extent those constraints seemed, as an editor, to be exerted in some part from without. This is not to deny media’s agency, but to suggest that its effects are the results of an interaction that you could call collaborative, or perhaps more accurately collusive.

Is this something you recognise from your experiences at Architecture Australia?

Justine Clark: Yes, I recognise the cliché – in fact, one of the things that irritated me most was when an architect treated me as if I was their PR agent. It rarely ended well. And yes, the courting and resisting you describe are flip sides of the same condition – a fairly simplistic understanding of what are, in fact, complex relationships. Architecture and media have been intimately entwined for centuries and the representational codes you outline are deeply entrenched. This entanglement has been well documented, analysed and critiqued. I found this work crucial to my ability to do my job as editor of AA; it allowed me to think my way through the more prosaic day-to-day activities of making a magazine within bigger frames of reference. The conventions are very hard to shift, which is the nature of conventions, but I nudged them wherever and whenever I could, usually in small ways.

I agree that any publication is the outcome of a collaborative, or possibly collusive, interaction. This can be problematic, but I am not sure it is necessarily something to bemoan. Like any ‘work’, a magazine is a product of the culture that we operate within, and we – editors, authors and architects – are all cultural agents, even as we attempt to shift that culture. This is not to deny the agency of the editor, but it is to acknowledge that deploying that agency is a constant act of negotiation rather than a straightforward expression of singular intention (it’s rather like making a building). I always liked the idea that this ‘authoritative’ magazine was always slightly beyond my (or any one person’s control) – that all those involved, including the reader, brought something to it which could never quite be predicted.

I am interested in the way that architectural culture is constructed through communal activity and engagement – between and among us all. This is another reason why the publishing-as-marketing paradigm is impoverished – one can never quite predict how a work will be received. This means that, for the architect, publishing a project is more risky and more generous than the self-aggrandisement of self-promotion (whether or not the architect recognised the risk or the generosity). In publishing a project you are both contributing to the building of architectural culture, and exposing one’s work in ways that are outside your control.

AM: Perhaps I should be more specific in my use of the word collusive. It is rather weighted. As you say, the project review involves both generosity and risk, and there is often a high degree of integrity in the relationship between participants. But participation is the issue. The specific proximity between reviewer and reviewed, which is uniquely framed within architectural criticism, places limits on what is said and what is not said. The conventional project review is in fact a form of embedded criticism, as the reviewer generally needs the architect’s permission to do the review. This makes the architect a participant of sorts.

There are strategies one can put in place to more or less mitigate this, but it nevertheless impacts critical independence. I’m not saying independence is only exercised when we condemn something, but there is a problem when punches are pulled and criticism that might rightly be levelled at a specific piece of architecture is self-censured or gets displaced to an ‘issue’.

Why is this? It might sound counter-intuitive for an art form that exists theoretically in the public realm, but the business of reviewing architecture is tightly bound to privacy of access and ownership – of property, photography, plans and sections. I know that in nearly a decade, I never commissioned a single review of a project where the permission of the project’s architect was withheld. So while those parts of the magazine that covered book and conference reviews and general industry news were sometimes positive and sometimes not positive, when it came to the project reviews there was polite decorum at play, as a consequence of the internal conflict of participants.

JC: It is important to distinguish between the magazine having ‘permission’ to publish a project and the reviewer having ‘permission’ to write about it – ideally, the reviewer gains permission through the commission, not through the architect. I agree that it is very difficult to publish a project in a magazine like Architecture Australia without the input of the architect – they almost always supply the drawings and pay for the photography, for one thing, which is certainly collusive. But I was also very clear that it was my job to commission the reviewer – and my job to decide who that was. Only rarely did an architect try to exert undue influence, and if they did I didn’t commission that writer. I don’t respond well to being pushed around. We also had a strict policy of not showing reviews to architects prior to publication (although sometimes the writer would prior to sending it to us).

To put another spin on it, I am interested in the collegial and the communal aspect of architectural culture. In this I am very influenced by Juan Pablo Bonta’s teasing out of the mechanisms through which buildings enter the canon. He emphasises that that is a consensual, communal process which happens over time and through the input of many and varied voices (and that publication and photography are crucial to it). These are important points. Again it doesn’t deny us individual agency, but it points out that we also act within larger contexts, and in relation to many others. A key issue though is who gets to have a voice in such cultures, who is listened to and who isn’t. Another is that the contemporary Australian architectural community is effective at policing itself, particularly in relation to what people are prepared to say in print (in my experience, it is not the editors limiting what is said). And the new building review is the most policed section. But good writers are also very accomplished at saying what needs to be said.

AM: I agree that there are writers who can work around it. You call it policed. I call it embedded criticism.

The question of who gets to have a voice is an interesting one, although in my experience I’d have said it was relatively simple to answer. At AR I published the opinions of anyone in the profession who wanted a voice, had something to say and who could write reasonably well. Even the last condition was optional. I did engineer significant rewrites of terribly written prose, because I thought the content was worth publishing and expressed an opinion that was important to be heard.

JC: Perhaps the online environment has potential here. There is a lot of opportunity with changing media in terms of how architectural writing, criticism and representation might shift and develop. But no one yet knows how to pay for it – this isn’t specific to architecture. Perhaps we can talk about ‘new’ media.

AM: As you say, we don’t yet seem to have reached a sustainable paid content model for online. Free is the benchmark, except of course for the advertisers, who are steadily reallocating print spend to online. So we seem to be in a hiatus, where print is bleeding ad revenue so it’s cutting editorial costs (one of the few non-fixed costs). Meanwhile online is still building its base, and not yet able to support editorial costs in a conventional sense. I’m not sure it ever will, because there is an interesting paradigm shift happening in the relationship between advertising and editorial.

Print architecture titles traditionally rely heavily on advertising to keep the lights on. In many cases it’s 75% of total revenue. The promise to advertisers is simple; the magazine’s high quality content delivers high quality readers (decision makers). Advertisers then place ads next to the content to build brand awareness within the right audience. The promise is, of course, thoroughly unaccountable. Who reads what page, when and for how long, is unknowable.

Online brings a whole new world of data gathering, so the advertisers are happy because they know how many eyeballs looked at what pages and then where they clicked through to. Beyond page impressions, the next phase means more complex data capture, which Google are infamously trailblazing. In no time consumer profiling will be standard in the online media environment. Advertisers pour over such details, yet don’t care at all how long the reader spends on the page. ADR’s average of 2 minutes per page was pretty good by industry standards. But those advertising online don’t care whether you spent 20 seconds or 20 minutes reading something. They want to harvest and interpret traffic and visitors.

So here’s the rub. Why invest in long form essays or even short well-read reviews, if a well-timed piece of churnism can do the same amount of work, in advertising terms? In my own experience, it was a little scary to see a popular three-line news item outstrip the monthly traffic to the entire book review section, in four hours. If traffic pays to keep the lights on, who cares if its 50 words or 5000 words?

That said, the online space is a highly differentiated space. It’s not a piece of cloth. The difference between Dan Hill’s City of Sound and the amebic vitriol that passes for comment is like the difference between the TLS and New Idea. I don’t believe, as some would-be gurus argue, that there are any universal truths about where it’s going or what it’s doing.  But I’m happy for it to give old media a run for its money, quite literally.

JC: Yes, of course. Like any medium there is a wide variety and different economic structures play a big part in what’s possible. The issue of the future of the long form piece is interesting – and there is some useful analysis going on about this journalism, which gives me hope. I am sure that news has always had more ‘hits’ – Radar Headlines was always the most-read section of AA – but the implications of being able to measure this are indeed alarming if that is the only way impact and value are measured. The issue of funding models is enormous – I think many readers underestimate the role that this plays – and we are in the midst of big paradigm shifts.

This is an abridged extract from the book Semi-detached: Writing, Representation and Criticism in Architecture. Edited by Naomi Stead, the book assembles a series of essays and interviews from some of Australia’s most highly regarded architectural critics, academics, architects and photographers. It is available now from Architext or online at www.uromedia.com.au/Semi-detached

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