alan balfour
U.S. Design Publications ::
Alan Balfour

GSD News                                                                                                        pp. 21-22

Design Publishing

Harvard University Graduate School of Design                    48 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA  02138

Summer 1996                                                                                                    




Cultured Weakness

U.S. Design Publications

By Alan Balfour



            From my perspective as an editorial advisor to Academy Editions, a London publisher, and until recently, the main voice on the editorial board of AA Files, from the Architecture Association in London, the state of design publishing in the United States looks extremely weak.

            At their best, design publications stimulate the pleasures and possibilities of architecture, and, through commentary and reproduction, cultivate the desire for new realities.  At their worst, they are shaped by advertising.  The economic arrangements that support magazine publication vary widely.  Even magazine funded mainly by membership, such as AA Files, must be concerned with maintaining the interest of its readership.  The success of such journals as a+u depends on cultivating a worldwide audience by producing issues of consistently high quality.  Production runs for even the most successful international magazines, however, are still small in contrast to those of more mainstream publications.  In this regard Architectural Digest is at once the exception and the rule, for its influence seems simple enough: in illustrating the lifestyles of the rich and famous, it plays to architecture's most reliable audience.

            There is perhaps more subsidized promotional and vanity publishing in the U.S. than in Europe; yet the proliferation of magazines across the world, particularly in Asia, seems to exist without any obvious source of support \0x2013 until one reads the fine print.  Nothing, it seems, can be done to reduce the amount of useless publication.  Saddest of all are those publications of schools that believe they must validate their existence by producing a magazine; these arrive through the mail looking vaguely familiar, but either through timidity of content or self-consciousness of form, they are mostly worthless.  Still more troublesome are those publications that deliberately deceived.  Thousands of copies of Celebration Journal, the magazine of the Celebration Foundation, were mailed across the U.S. recently, presenting what the Foundation firmly believes is the vision for a "new" America \0x2013 a nation of small and highly conservative towns \0x2013 whose major elements have been formed by some very significant current practitioners.  The only clue that this is not some benign attempt to articulate a vision for the public realm is the tiny word "Disney" at the foot of the rear page.

            U.S. design publishing, particularly in architecture, may be among the weakest in the developed world.  This is not, in my view, the fault of the publishers, but a result of a dramatic decline in interest in architecture as a significant element in the broader culture.  No amount of money, no brilliant editorial invention, will change that.  In a nation of very gifted architects and some of the most insightful intellects in the discipline, it is a paradox that is seems impossible to construct an audience for a journal that would possess even some of the energy of Australia's Transitions or Japan's Telescope, or the sensual pleasures of Spain's El Croquis.  Asia has no tradition of critical discourse but revels in spectacular picture presentations.  Europe assesses its many architectures with lively, honest, and scholarly journalism.  In contrast, the U.S. has almost no effective environment to develop critical journalism; even the best such journalism in the States is tentative.  Unlike the U.S., Europe has many different magazines for many different audiences, interweaving design, architecture, urbanism, and construction, and thus giving rise to many forms of illustration and commentary.  Within such an environment, architecture and design become a vital part of popular culture.  The best architectural journals world-wide have strong editorial boards that decide what should be published based on their values and convictions, and their reputation stems from such consistent editorial positions. 

            Internationally, design publishing is alive and healthy.  Never before has architecture been so lavishly published as it is in the magazine of Spain, or Japan, or the Netherlands.  The success of weekly newspapers such as the United Kingdom's Building Design in reaching broad audiences with a range of issues from design to public policy suggests that there might be a large untapped market in the U.S.  So too does the success of a magazine like Blueprint, which represents a wide range of activities from furniture to product design to architecture, creating a unity among design professions which is much clearer in London than it is in New York.  It is significant that despite the weakness of U.S. publications, many European and Asian publishers depend on American sales.  There are sufficient similarities between the production of architecture here and in Europe to believe that the States could sustain an equally large number of distinct design and architectural publications.

            There appear to be two major reasons why this does not happen.  First, architectural culture in the U.S. is not so diffuse that there is no nationwide audience for architecture outside the profession.  The diffusion reflects the loss of the public realm to private interests, whether these interests be arrogant "new urbanists" or the not unrelated corporations that increasingly interfere in the ordering of cities and towns.  Those without vested interests don't seem to care.  In addition, the architectural stars mostly achieve celebrity through the construction of their private fantasies, and the audience for their work is satisfied by monographs (although even those dealing with American architects are better produced in Asia and Europe than here).  Second, design criticism is a precarious activity in the U.S.  Only a handful of architectural critics currently serve on the staff of major newspapers.  One gifted writer friend of mine, who for years has given wise advice through the pages of a major northeastern newspaper, told me recently that if or when he leaves, he doubts the paper will replace him.

            As is true for all the arts, a strong critical environment is important not only for the refinement and development of issues within the discipline, but also for the stimulation of public interest in the values and intentions of the medium.  This should be particularly true for so public an art as architecture.  However, apart from a few newspapers and two or three arcane theoretical journals \0x2013 whose discourse is becoming increasingly marginal \0x2013 there are no contexts within the U.S. in which design criticisms can develop.  Unlike Europe, the U.S. provides too few career opportunities for critics to attract sufficient numbers of people of sufficient quality to have an impact.  Finding good writers who could insightfully and entertainingly place the uneven inventions of architects within the larger culture was a continuing problem at AA Files, but nothing compared to the current problem in the U.S.  In London writers on architecture come from fields as diverse as art history, psychoanalysis, and literature, and find employment in the many publications that London sustains.  In recent years there have even been several television series on architecture and design that made much of personalities (which didn't really hurt the cause) and advanced public understanding of the built environment.  In the years I was in London, three or four new design magazines have been able to find both an audience and advertisers, despite the fragile British economy.

            Unlike in the U.S., even in New York, journalism in London is a tough, cut-throat activity in which people are continually hustling way of finding work and having a say.  Design publishing in Britain is much more journalistic than academic, more concerned with the bitchy political maneuvering necessary to get a building approved that with its political correctness.  On reflection, a larger difference between New York and London is the willingness of English editors and writers to be actively involved in the formative forces of culture production and to view the journal as an instrument in this struggle.  Witness the fierce debate over Zaha Hadid's Cardiff Opera project.  U.S. magazines have never seen \0x2013 would never publish \0x2013 such fierce commentary.

            Robust and influential design criticism can exist only when there is a broad public interest in architecture.  That seems not sufficiently present in the States; at the least, that is the assumption of editors and publishers.  If a public art ceases to be of interest to the public \0x2013 except to some marginal subset of the fashion industry \0x2013 then there is no effective context for critical exchange outside the increasingly precious theorizing from the academy.  The low level of popular concern with architecture in the U.S. may reflect complex changes in the social and cultural uses of architecture.  Undoubtedly, Asia's enthusiasm for architecture is due to its ability to serve as a recognizable symbol of progress and wealth.  Europe's preoccupation with architecture continues to reflect the heavy burden that comes from and architecturally rich history.  But perhaps, in the U.S., architecture has attained a mediocre level appropriate to this resilient and fungible democracy \0x2013 or perhaps the culture at large is simply disinterested in the high-art elitism of the profession's most influential figures and bored by the others.  Or perhaps the public feels excluded from a culture increasingly shaped by private interest.  A more tempting explanation may be that architecture as currently formed is too constraining an imposition on the future and must bend to the formation of new realities being shaped in the pages of magazines such as Mondo 2000, and Leonardo, and in proliferating internet products such as FEED.  The writers those publications attract draw from a much wider sea of experience and scholarship than has emerged from the narrows of architecture theory.  However, at this time, the New York Times remains the single most influential journal for the discussion of architecture, and its is disturbing that the perceptions of a nation should be constrained by the modest ambitions of the newspaper's critics.



Alan Balfour is dean of the School of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and author of Berlin: The Politics of Order, and Cities of Artificial Excavation: The work of Peter Eisenman, plus other books.


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