31 December 2009

LV versus NY

I was interested that the opening of CityCenter in Las Vegas prompted comparisons with the World Trade Center. The collaborative love-fest among the starchitect participants in CityCenter was also contrasted with the various forced marriages that have dogged the WTC since Herbert Muschamp first convened his ideas competition. As I recall, the strongest entry was Norman Foster's twin-tower "kiss" - produced without partners. Other pairings, right up to the Freedom Tower and its proposed neighbors, seem stillborn in comparison. And almost nothing has been built. Meanwhile, MGM MIRAGE got CityCenter done in five years. Of course, Las Vegas is a completely different development context from New York. (Ironically, I remember listening - in 1999 - to the real estate honcho of a big German bank wax nostalgic about how easy it was to build in Manhattan compared to Frankfurt. I guess these things are relative.)

30 December 2009

Decade Top 10

Various architecture critics have been running "decade top 10" lists. I went through John King's yesterday, focused on San Francisco. This decade has produced oddities like David Chipperfield's revival of the stripped-down classicism so popular in fascist circles in the 1930s (and later with Philip Johnson). I wonder if the Burj won't be the signature building of the decade when historians look back at it, the way the Empire State Building came to epitomize the 1930s? Design per se isn't really the deciding factor - consider the popularity of SF's Transamerica Pyramid. Despite their mediocrity, these buildings capture the Zeitgeist. That happens less frequently than once a decade, I imagine. SF's Ferry Building (1904) is another that does so, which suggests a much longer cycle (per city).

25 December 2009

Blogging away

Six months have passed since I started Writing & Design. It began as a place to write notes and observations about "design writing," but has evolved to take in topics like the fate of print and the nature of design criticism. It's still one paragraph at a time, I note - that format seems to work best for me in this medium. My entries ebb and flow, but I enjoy writing it. It's hard to know who reads it - it gets hits from all over the world, but there's never been much feedback. (I'd be glad to get it: j2parman@gmail.com or post a comment.)

09 December 2009

Design Vanguard

The 12/09 issue of Architectural Record includes a survey of "emerging talent" that's really good - new faces, strong work. I'm really glad to see it. What's especially nice about it is the amount of space they give some of the practices, so you get a sense of their body of work, not just single projects. There's also a thoughtful essay by Martin Filler that relates to the survey theme by discussing the perils of youthful fame and, in the case of Frank Gehry, of late blooming. Filler, who writes for the New York Review of Books, is always worth reading. I wish they'd have him more regularly as their essayist. Anyway, bravo! I was starting to lose hope.

06 December 2009

Print, RIP?

Jeff Bezos is interviewed in this Sunday's NYT Magazine, and he pretty much predicts the demise of books as we now know them. I wonder. Bay area booksellers like William Stout and University Press Books say that Amazon is what's killing them, turning their stores into Mr. Bezos' showroom. I can see the point of digital books if the content is inherently ephemeral - like textbooks that are constantly revised. There's a big push on now by Murdoch and others to grab digital space for magazines, but again I'd make a distinction between those you toss away and those you don't. There's Gourmet, of course, a mag with such a devoted audience that it would probably follow it into any medium. Watching Gourmet in use in the kitchen, I picture a lot of greased-spattered Kindles. (In the interview, Bezos claims to read in the bath, his Kindle safely inside a Ziplok bag. Sounds like Martha Stewart.)

Built time

A lot of postwar buildings, especially in places that were decimated in the war, physically and economically, were built for the short term: get 'em up. Yet the immediate work, especially some of the civic and institutional parts of it, was good, even great, reflecting the influence of movements like CIAM that enjoyed a rebirth in the first decade after the war. What's being torn down in the UK now is mostly the work of the 1960s and 1970s. Not everything "Brutal" was bad, but the UK had more than its share. A lot of it was also put up with the expectation that it would be pulled down when the lease expired in 20 or 25 years. That's not true, of course, of civic and institutional buildings, often equally dreadful. Does dreadful deserve a place in preservation? We preserve a lot of older buildings of no special merit, considering them part of the fabric of the city. Is this an argument for preserving more recent ugliness, or is it better to acknowledge the blight and get rid of it? (But is blight not also an inherently subjective word? Should we save some of it just to find out if someone else will like it better?)

30 November 2009


The well-publicized troubles of Dubai have drawn renewed attention to what's been built there. Much of it reminds me of what Marx called "the fetishism of commodity," buildings detached from any underlying purpose and made pure vehicles of (apparently idle) speculation. Not every development in Dubai fell in this category, but the emirate had more than its share. Even when Las Vegas was in its thematic phase, there was method to the madness.

25 November 2009

Awards (2)

Architect still does the PA Awards, which focus on unbuilt work, perhaps the only category that can still produce surprises. (The Aga Khan Awards, because of their non-Western focus, sometimes do so, too. I miss the foundation's mag, Mimar.) The jury comments in the latest Architect built work troll, especially Aaron Betsky's versions of "rock my socks," were not very interesting, but this is typical, I think, of remarks made in the moment. The SOM Journal juries are a notable exception - the transcripts of their comments are consistently good reading. Perhaps what makes them so is the knowledge that they'll be published.

21 November 2009


I just read the current Architect, which documents an awards program. The jury was fine and its choices reasonable, but what's there isn't all that interesting. A while back, Architect took a step out of the "biggest firm" box by asking some new questions that might point to influence, not just heft. Perhaps an awards jury could be convened where each member brings her own candidates forward and makes a case through them for what might deserve our appreciation and why. No prizes, then, but a discussion worth reading about work worth noting.

18 November 2009

Blog notes

I spent 90 minutes today discussing the front end of a new blog that I'm helping to launch. The project is a recasting of an online design 'zine - web-delivered, but with a magazine format. While freed of the cost of printing, it was very time-consuming to put together. Those of us involved with it found it difficult to put out more than one or two issues a year. (It reminds me of the cooperative preschool my oldest son attended as a tot: more about process than product.) Blogs devolve a great deal to the contributors. The editors act as impresarios and curators, but within a context of improvisation rather than design. This makes it easier to attract contributors and to keep the flow of content going - at least, that's the hope!

15 November 2009


I'm reading a reprint of the 2nd edition of Theodore Redpath's discussion of John Donne's "songs and sonets." One remarkable thing is how low Donne's reputation sank in the 19th century, almost falling out of the canon. Yet he now ranks as one of the landmarks of English poetry and prose, up there with Shakespeare and Milton. This made me think about architecture: what remains or is allowed to remain. In England, a considerable part of the built legacy of the postwar period - some arguably monstrous buildings by our current lights - is being demolished. Will the surviving remnants find adherents later, regretting the lapse in taste of an intervening generation, or are these buildings no longer useful? In a talk I heard last week, DEGW's Frank Duffy said that a building is "built time" - that is, it embodies a useful life. And the useful lives of many postwar buildings were often very short.

14 November 2009

According to Fowler

Earlier today, I bought an Oxford reprint of the original edition of a dictionary of sorts on English usage by Henry Fowler. Both the introduction and an appendix note how many of Fowler's pronouncements (circa 1925) have been supplanted. Reading it, it's clear that yesterday's low-class howlers are often today's standard English. Pronunciation is also a moving target, with Fowler's preferences frequently giving way to the alternates he deplored. It must be a useful book, though, for those who coach actors on period speech. For the publications that I edit, I use a copy editor, Judith Dunham, who channels the Chicago Manual of Style. I've always found CMS baffling and hard to use, but I've absorbed a great deal of it by reading through Dunham's corrections. (Then I read the London Review of Books and absorb quite the opposite!)

05 November 2009

Literate cities

Both the NYT and WSJ are making a play for Bay Area readers. While this reflects the wobbling state of the SF Chronicle (which delivered papers gratis to my north Berkeley neighborhood last week, pitching for subscriptions), it also speaks to the region's connection to New York as a center of the written word. (DC is more a center of the talking head.) We're emerging from a period when many periodicals sought to be "entertainment." Some were better than others, but ephemeral was the operative word - and ephemeral has left the building. So will the NYT go the way of Le Monde, focusing on politics and culture, and catering to the cognoscenti? The WSJ under Murdoch is a livelier read than it was, but more and more like other Murdoch papers in look and feel - a blend of Murdoch's instincts and the WSJ's biases, sometimes convergent, but often not. (It's refreshing to find, as I did last night, a WSJ columnist trashing Fox News.) Barron's, part of Dow Jones, seems to fly under the Murdoch radar. I've always liked its mix of cynicism and hucksterism, each well-labeled. The design press would do well to be as forthright.

03 November 2009

In praise of Catherine Slessor

Catherine Slessor writes (beautifully) for Architectural Review. Here's a snippet from a review she wrote that appears in the current issue (no. 1353, 11/09, page 57):

An hour and a half by train to the southeast of Paris, Troyes is a former textile-making town, now stoically enduring the collapse of its industrial base. Prosperity as a trading center during the Middle Ages (the town gave its name to the troy system of weights still used for precious metals) accounts for a conspicuous legacy of half-timbered houses. Within a tight maze of streets, the narrow colombage structures sway and collide like a crowd of elegantly dissipated drunks, heightening the sense of period drama. // Shaped like a champagne cork, the medieval core swells out and around the 13th-century Saint Pierre-et-Saint Paul Cathedral. On its tumescent east, the core is bounded by the Seine, linking Troyes with Paris. Nudging towards the edge of the cork where the urban texture is looser and less homogenous, Lipsky+Rollet’s site lies in the lee of the cathedral, next to the bishop’s house (now converted to an art museum). Yet despite this proximity to the town center, the site was curiously isolated and plain.

A lot of reviewers would give you that last phrase - and let it go at that. Look how much "back story" is packed into these two paragraphs (and with such evocative phrasing)!

01 November 2009

Edting film

Walking back from the Berkeley campus earlier today, I stopped in at Analog Books and bought a copy of Michael Ondaatje's The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (Knopf, 2004). Film editors work from several sources - the screenplay, the rushes, and perhaps a novel or a play from which both derive. They're piecing together a story that has to be told visually and through dialogue, on and off-camera sounds, and music. I never studied film, so I'll be interested to see how Murch approaches it, and also how he compares the editor's role with the director's.

31 October 2009

New op-ed piece

An op-ed piece on the cityscape that I wrote for the West Coast edition of the Architect's Newspaper has just been posted on the AN blog.

28 October 2009

Electric Literature

The NYT (28 October 2009) profiles this new literary magazine, which aims to leverage the augmentative possibilities of digital media. Electric Literature (EL) is available as a print-on-demand publication, and also on Kindle, etc., the iPhone, and as an audiobook. There are related YouTube posts and haiku-like Twitterings. Yet EL is running a 12,000-word story ("a bit long for a conventional literary magazine," says the author, Stephen O'Connor), so it's not all concision, despite the editor in chief's assertion that "everyone is reading short-form text." EL has 800 subscribers, which is pretty good for a mag with one issue.

27 October 2009

A class (2)

As the date of my participation in Topher Delaney's class on "writing about place" draws nearer, I've been thinking about how writers translate the sensory, as for example with discussions of music and wine. So while I will provide some examples that are place-specific, my theme might be better entitled "the writer's dilemma."

19 October 2009

A class

On 3 November, I am to participate in a class that the landscape architect and artist Topher Delaney has organized on how place is depicted in literature. I have to organize my thoughts. When she first mentioned it, I remembered the scene in Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway when Clarissa Dalloway goes out to buy gloves. Lampedusa's The Leopard is another example - chock full, in fact. Place is ubiquitous in literature, needless to say, but I need examples that add up to a thesis.

18 October 2009

Things read

Stephanie Clifford in the NYT (national edition, 14 October 2009): Online magazines are now eligible for awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). "Just what defines an online magazine will largely be left up to the publications and judges, she writes, citing ASME chief executive Sid Holt. "If it defines itself as a magazine, we would accept the entry," he said of the Huffington Post.

15 October 2009

Two new articles

Just published: an article on Shanghai as a global financial center (with Gensler's Michel St. Pierre) in Urban Land 9/09; and a review of the four "Waste" issues of Arcade, the Seattle design mag, in arcCA 09.3 - excerpted in print, with the full text as a PDF online (a likely sign of things to come).

12 October 2009

Counter-narrative (2)

A counter-narrative would ask, Why do most new highrise towers resemble each other? The narrative points to what it considers exemplary, but this is the tip of a huge, unexamined iceberg. By understanding what brings it into being and perpetuates it, those who labor in these vastly broader fields might discover avenues of difference, possibilities of breaking through by tackling received wisdom in its own terms.

11 October 2009


I had a conversation with the man behind the counter at University Press Books in Berkeley, who said that editors must need a lot of empathy to work with writers who are often difficult or reclusive. (This is obviously less true of journalism than more rarefied forms of writing, like poetry. We were discussing Frederick Seidel, who mostly shuns publicity, but agreed to be interviewed by his publisher. My impression from the interview is that Seidel edits himself. His depiction of how he writes sounded a lot like how I write, whereas James Ellroy's description, in an interview in the same issue (190) of the Paris Review, absolutely didn't, unless you count storyboards or a list of a few would-be section headings.) Editors are impresarios: they create occasions for writers. They also have to get those occasions out the door, which means, besides empathy, they have to be able to cajole.

10 October 2009

Seidel on form

"The minute you use rhyme, or regular meter, you are doing things to the subject matter. Just as you might very much, even desperately, want to get into your poem the astonishingly gray eyes of the person you're writing about but find the poem doesn't really want those gray eyes, or maybe doesn't want eyes at all. That sort of thing. The poem is making its demands of you as you make yours of it. All the while in this process something is being made, a thing is being made." (Frederick Seidel, Paris Review 190, page 155.)

Computers and writing

Frederick Seidel (in the Paris Review 190, page 163): "It's my feeling that working on the computer puts less distance between me and the poem I'm writing than my own handwriting does. The computer is nearly transparent to me. The more important thing is that it allows me to see the poem on the screen and, immediately after, on the printed-out page, much more quickly than when I was using a typewriter. I revise endlessly, and print the poem out as it progresses hundreds of times. How the lines look, how the stanzas look to the eye, is an important part of weighing them, hearing them, getting them to balance properly."

A counter-narrative of architecture

What would it be like? It could begin by admitting that very little of what's labeled architecture really is. Perhaps a counter-narrative would blow the category open. Or it might limit itself to the real thing, but take the rest seriously enough to ask why we get it more often than not, even when real architecture seems appropriate and desirable. It might note if architecture sometimes answers a question in a unique way that needs to be respected, even if we don't understand the question anymore, or it's lost its original meaning. Needs to be respected: so the counter-narrative would say so with real force: Don't be an idiot! It would condemn architects for their hubris, not just for their delusions. And it would do so in time.

08 October 2009

Peter Gowan, RIP

The current issue (59) of the New Left Review has an interview with the late Peter Gowan, born a year before me (to the day), and dead from an asbestos-derived cancer "probably contracted in the ramshackle postwar building that housed Barking Tech" where he taught early on. (I was reminded of this, glancing at an article in the New York Times today about the ill effects of Chinese drywall.) Gowan described his work as an "effort to perceive what's going on in the world from a non-provincial perspective: to try to make sense of it from the angle of the great mass of the world's population." Buildings have consequences, but then so do markets, ideologies, and fears of the loss of hegemony. To read Gowan is to read a counter-narrative. Cities need one, too, and architecture perhaps most of all.

05 October 2009

Gourmet, RIP

Although signs of print's demise abound, I was still taken aback by the apparent death of Gourmet. Perhaps the idea was to go out with the mag intact, which it was, despite plummeting ad revenue, but it's unfortunate - Gourmet was well done, and it also straddled the class divide in an interesting way, rarely putting anything absolutely out of bounds, and more typically celebrating the obtainable. Several issues in the past few years were standouts. I still have them. Not very many mags warranted keeping. This was one. It used to be family owned, like Sunset. Not many mags survive that transition. Well, there's still Gastronomica!

30 September 2009

Groups & parts (2)

Thinking about it some more, I wonder about the wisdom of abandoning legacy brands in favor of the group name and generically/functionally-named subsidiaries. This is not to say that the group name won't eventually stick, but at what cost? To enumerate the bill briefly, what could be lost is the name value of those brands, the differentiation they've built up over decades, and perhaps their ability to team easily with other firms that may see other parts of the group as competition. I think I prefer the WPP approach of integrated when it makes sense, separate when it doesn't.

18 September 2009

Groups & parts

A conversation a few days ago prompted thoughts about groups - parent companies with a portfolio of AEC firms. Many of these groups keep their legacy brands in the forefront, but others are intent on leveraging their portfolio and building a new brand around it. So how does this work? How do you balance the needs of the group - creating a new and coherent identity - with the needs of its business units? Ideally, the group brand will surpass its legacy brands, making the transition worthwhile, so the group's initial message should stress leverage, synergy, added value, and new horizons. There's also an opportunity to strike a new tone and depict a reality that's deliberately at odds with perceived limits of the legacy brands that are being supplanted: "That was then, this is now." OK, you can do this, but you still have to enable the business units to define themselves in their different markets. You have to help them build on their legacy without reverting to it. This means inculcating a sense of the group across every unit while celebrating each one's remarkable DNA. So its an internal issue as well as an external one - people need to feel they're part of something new and significantly better, and be able to convey that difference to others. Relevant to this is WPP's Martin Sorrell, whose annual reports often address the group vs. parts conundrum. WPP has kept its brands, but collocated them - synergy and leverage are the name of the game. It will be interesting to see where this leads. Does it resolve Sorrell's dilemma or is it a step closer to the day when WPP is the only name on the door?

11 September 2009

Case in point

So, it turns out that my friend Peter Bosselmann's book, Urban Transformations, is published by Island Press. A copy arrived today in the mail, so I went through it with the thesis mentioned below - "deep ideas have rarely been developed outside of books" - in mind. Is it true? I can imagine Bosselmann's book appearing piecemeal in digital form, and then becoming available as a compendium through a medium like blurb.com or lulu.com - production on demand. What would be missing is the editorial skill of Island Press itself, which Bosselmann acknowledges. Recently, I was asked by Yale University Press to review a manuscript. I'll be curious to see how the finished book compares to what I reviewed. The instant book outfits don't provide this step - authors have to do it themselves, either by taking greater care to shape their products or to find and work with an editor. (Circulating the manuscript can help, but a good editor can free the text from the writer's prejudices and prod more work, if that's what's required to get a decent product.) So perhaps the foundations that have ceased to fund Island Press should reconsider. It would be a shame to lose its editorial vision and expertise.

10 September 2009

Island Press falters

An article by Cornelia Dean in the New York Times (8 September 2009) profiles Island Press, whose president, Chuck Savitt, took it from a narrow focus on land use to a much broader one (for a niche publisher) "on environmental problems and their solutions." Now, with its foundation support ebbing, Island Press is in trouble. Like so many other print publishers, it's trying to migrate online. Yet, as Savitt notes, "Deep ideas have rarely been developed, no matter what field you are going to talk about, outside of a book." This is an interesting point: Is there a limit to what you can do online? Also, what about digital publishing? It may not be sufficiently developed yet to provide a lifeline, but it has that potential for niche publishers. A colleague commented a while ago that books on sustainable design go out of date fairly quickly. That's probably true for environmental topics, too - another reason to shift to a more malleable medium.

06 September 2009

NY moves into SF

Both the Times and the WSJ are planning San Francisco editions, I read. Both papers currently run articles on business and culture in the Bay Area, and it appears that they would extend that coverage into formal "regional supplements" that would make them stronger competition for the San Francisco Chronicle. The WSJ has a local critic, David Littlejohn, who sometimes writes about architecture. Would the Times follow suit? It would be great if it were someone new, as the region would really benefit from some competition among its architecture critics - we need more (and different) points of view. This would also buck the current trend among the dailies of dropping critical coverage of these topics.

31 August 2009

The FT on media publishing

The Financial Times devoted a full page today (31 August 2009) to media publishing. The articles are interesting but inconclusive. This reflects where things are: the new technology isn't there yet, so neither are the new business models. Meanwhile, everyone's making stabs in the dark. McLuhan's "the medium is the message" remark suggests that the medium is insufficiently compelling at present to generate the breakout content that would finally shift the tide.

25 August 2009

Monocle dissected

Monday's Times had an article on Monocle by David Carr. While expressing admiration and envy, Carr bored in on the editorial/advertising divide and Monocle founder Tyler Brule's cheerful ignoring of it as his magazine serves up product, service, and even city and country endorsements. While Carr suggests that the divide is still honored if not revered in the US, my sense is that it's long since been blown through, not least by the Times itself. I think Brule's point is that readers can trust his discernment. If it doesn't make his map, it probably won't make it into Monocle, either. Malcolm Forbes did this, too, after a fashion, but his eponymous mag and its offshoots were never quite as interesting.

18 August 2009

Getting the story

I discovered recently that the story that I believed to be accurate about a particular project was not exactly wrong, but not exactly the real story, either. What appeared (quite plausibly) to be primarily a sustainability story turned out to be all about the community that the client has attracted from its earliest days - not unlike the following that Saturn has among its devoted customers (but with a lot less heartache along the way). It made me realize that there's a kind of "urban legend" quality to project stories, especially if a lot of different people have touched them. It's a reason to get the original team to tell it - and document the telling. Especially when work is pouring in, that doesn't always happen. Fortunately, the lead designer saw it and commented on it. Even the client, reviewing an earlier version, addressed it in its own skewed terms instead of just saying, "Actually, we had something else in mind here."

12 August 2009

Kindle thoughts

During a meeting I attended last week, the lunchtime speaker held up a Kindle and asserted that "this will kill that" (in so many words - this phrase was actually Voltaire's, as quoted in a book review by Kenneth Frampton). A few weeks ago, when I mentioned the Kindle to a colleague, she replied that because she doesn't take the train, she has no reason to buy one. Today, another colleague made this comment. I realize this is a seriously limited sample, but it made me wonder if the early adapters of this device are business people who fly and workers who commute. E-books are in my sights as a potential outlet for design publications, but they'll have to evolve to the point where the graphics are photogenic. Perhaps this will be Apple's contribution.

11 August 2009

arcCA next?

A note from arcCA indicates that, to make room for the awards feature, the rest of the issue will be exiled to the web. Author photos - now there's an attraction! - and teaser text will be the lure to drive readers there. The goal is to hit the predetermined page length - the inherent limit of most magazines, unless ad revenue dictates otherwise. Having once almost gone under due to a 144-page issue of Design Book Review with no corresponding ad heft, I know the problem. The web doesn't have these "cost of real estate" issues. Its drawbacks are the lack of tactility and tangibility, but Kindle may blow through that soon anyway. On the other hand, I just finished reading Julie Kim's excellent SPUR Urbanist (she's the editor), which appears to be doing well and complements a robust website. It's short and to the point, probably sized just right for a tiny editorial team to put out monthly. That's another virtue of a product with inherent limits: you can stick to them and make them work for you.

09 August 2009

Arcade appeal

I had an email today from Kelly Rodriguez, the editor of Arcade, asking for support. Design Book Review was also perennially in dire straits. I still don't know how we did it with so few people and for so little money. Perhaps that era is over for magazines, but is still possible on the web, which is why I'm here and not there. I'd like Arcade to survive as a print publication, though. It's excellent, and it's also one of just two design magazines on the west coast that publish real criticism. Get out your wallets!

08 August 2009

Copy this

A colleague noted how similar design firms can sound, each describing itself as client-focused, business-savvy, etc. Yet, as anyone knows who's worked for more one firm, the reality is different. The only antidote is authenticity: case studies that are unique to your firm - especially first-person accounts by those involved; metrics and proof statements; and insights based on real knowledge, either gained directly (through experience) or through research. As with fiction, it's better to show it than to state it.

03 August 2009

After the flood

David Carr in the NY Times: "Modern media success is enabled by brutal cost control and using hard, fast numbers to convince advertisers they will get a return on their spending. Once stalwart magazines like BusinessWeek are up for grabs and entire formerly lucrative categories have been wiped out. The magazine canard of associative glamor, of selling aspiration by the bucket-load with page after page of pricey merchandise, is all but dead." Carr notes that Tina Brown's new vehicle, the web-based Daily Beast, "has 1.5 million unique visitors a month. She pays her writers," he adds, "increasingly an exception these days."

02 August 2009


My takeaway from reviewing the regional architecture and design journal Arcade is that specificity matters, both for print and digital publications. This echoes Rick Klau's advice. (His remarks at a panel I attended several months ago motivated this blog's creation.) Arcade's focus is on the northwest - Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver and their environs. This permits a wide range of topics, but viewed always in regional terms. This perspective lends coherence to the journal and makes it interesting to outside readers. The challenge for Arcade may be to broaden its impact. Regional journals (El Croquis, for example) certainly have the potential to find a larger audience. That audience is hungry for difference, I believe, and specificity is part of what provides it. The other tack is to try to cover the world, but this is viable only when there's a specific (and compelling and enlightened) editorial rationale for what's being shown. Among design magazines, Abitare and Domus have it. In another realm, Monocle and Wallpaper illustrate the difference between having it or not.

01 August 2009

Reviewing Arcade

Today, I went through four issues (volume 27) of Arcade, the Seattle-based design journal. Doing so triggered a lot of thoughts about the merits of print vs. digital as media for covering design. One of the issues has a great piece by Trevor Boddy on architectural criticism. He talks about the merits of film and about the web's potential to "broadcast" criticism, but he also notes the greater immediate, local impact of newspaper-based criticism. Yet (as he notes, too) as local newspapers decline, architecture critics are the first to go. Arcade is a beautiful thing - tabloid format, 48 pages, even glossy color printing for a photography feature. It's also really and truly regionally focused, without the parochialism that this can sometimes engender. It makes me nostalgic for print, but it has all kinds of limitations that the web doesn't. On a personal level, I initially organized my own tiny journal, Common Place, as a printed publication, and then ported it to the web. Now that I've launched it there, however, I find myself wanting to go directly to that medium. It's a dilemma.

30 July 2009

Freelancers and design mag blogs

I heard today (so this is hearsay) that freelancers are paid less to write for design mag blogs than to write for the printed versions - "less" meaning "zip" in at least one case. This is for original content, not the reuse of articles that previously appeared in print and were written for that purpose. The gist was that design mags regard such writing as being tossed off anyway and worth the freelancer's doing mainly or merely for the exposure. Does this mean that they're not making money on their blogs? That so many people blog for free that this lowers the standard for everyone? That blogs aren't taken seriously by the design press, although they feel obliged to have them? It may be all of the above.

27 July 2009

Certeau's ocean

Michel de Certeau calls the sum of individual producers an ocean in which established players (those who control and charge rent for "space") exist like islands that the flood tide constantly erodes. In the sea of media, the space of players like newspapers is diminished, although their reach, ironically, has never been greater. Will we evolve something like a BBC or CBC that serves as a (nominally) neutral platform for journalism? Will the Times and WSJ end up being "value-added" platforms, selling their ability to package the content of free agents - and paid, in effect, for their discernment? And design magazines? One could picture the Cooper-Hewitt or MoMA filling the void between commercially-driven sites (take your pick) and those conducted more or less voluntarily (often as voices for a city or region that is itself "dispossessed" from the mainstream except as it manages to draw occasional attention to itself as a phenomenon).

26 July 2009

Certeau on "tactics"

"I call a 'tactic' a calculus which cannot count of a 'proper' (a spatial or institutional localization), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tactic belongs to the other. A tactic insinuates itself into the other's place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance. It has at its disposal no base where it can capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances. The 'proper' is a victory of space over time. On the contrary, because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time - it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized 'on the wing.' Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into 'opportunities.' ... The intellectual synthesis of these given elements takes the form not of a discourse, but of the decision itself, the act and manner in which the 'opportunity' is 'seized.'" - Michel de Certeau, "General Introduction," The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, 1988, page xix.

Certeau on "strategy"

"I call a 'strategy' the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an "environment." A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, 'clienteles,' 'targets,' or 'objects' of research. Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model." - Michel de Certeau, "General Introduction," The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, 1988, page xix.

New Media thoughts

Reading Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life makes me realize that new media (or, more specifically, web-based media that are user-initiated) are tactical (in Certeau's definition of the word), whereas old media are strategic. (For definitions, see above.) Blogs, twitter, etc. are a microcosmos, while the web itself is a cosmos or, more aptly, a commons. Reality shows and programs like Britain's Got Talent are attempts (and they are perennial) to capture the bottom-up, demotic nature of new media and harness it for old media's purposes. Old media purveyors are constantly trying both to fence in the commons and charge rent for it, and to create commercially-viable platforms for essentially demotic content. Obama's healthcare initiative exemplifies the binds that arise when top-down initiatives attempt to co-opt the crowd. Obama's brilliant campaign, which owed much to Howard Dean's earlier one, was much more tactical about new media, in part because it was all going his way. It would be better to use the crowdsource aspect of new media to throw the debate open and reshape the initiative (perhaps through the use of interactive queries - surveys that invite you to join an ongoing community) around people's actual preferences. Even the legislation might build in the potential to revisit its basic assumptions as healthcare reform plays out in real time.

25 July 2009

The baleful influence of Massive Change

Reading books on urban agriculture for a paper I'm writing, I noticed in one of them what I would call the Massive Change strategy. I'm unsure if Bruce Mau pioneered this or merely exploited it, but its hallmark is to jam the pages with short contributions around the nominal theme in the hope that something will stick or that their sheer quantity will distract the reader from their actual content and, more to the point, their real value as a collection. Less than the sum is my take. I felt this a bit reading through four recent issues of Arcade on "waste," that in some cases the content felt "obligatory" and therefore perfunctory, repetitious, needless.

24 July 2009

Mr. Shulman has the last word

An article in the WSJ sheds light on Julius Shulman's position on who calls the shots when it come to photographing houses: "Architects know nothing," he said. "I don't want them to show me the house. I want to show them how their house looks." Of course, how a house looked to Shulman, who had an eye for form and sensuality, would differ even from other architectural photographers. Helmut Newton, the fashion photographer, seems most like him in the effect his photographs have on the viewer. The article notes that Shulman encountered architects like Neutra who insisted on removing the furniture, although he preferred to shoot furnished houses with people in them, usually posed in what might be called David Lynch style - another [sometime] photographer who resembles him.

Exposing process

In parallel with Writing & Design, I started Notes: Projects, which reflects my interest in making my writing process more accessible or transparent. Of course, it's also the equivalent of index cards (the "hypertext" of my youth), although - thanks to tags - considerably easier to access and sort. I'm now putting the latter use to test in annotating the books and articles I'm reading for a paper on urban agriculture that I'm writing for a conference in France in the fall of 2009. While Writing & Design shows up in Google searches, Notes: Projects does not. I'm not sure why. My "writing process" varies - a lot of my writing is polemical, in which case I just plunge in. This paper's topic is new to me, however, so reading and probably some conversations with local experts are required. (If the topic interests you, my annotations on what I'm reading will unfold on this parallel blog.)

23 July 2009

Website of a design doyenne

The designer and writer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon just launched a website. A few days ago, I found one started by Claudio Naranjo, Solomon's near contemporary and the author of Ennea-type Structures, one of the best books on the enneagram (Sufi character analysis, rediscovered by Oscar Ichazo and taught by him to Naranjo and others in the late 1960s). Noting his misgivings about the medium, Naranjo writes that being on the web is a necessity now. Solomon has just self-published Why?, an illustrated memoir of her remarkable life, and she hopes to find a real publisher for it. The book deserves a wider audience. She's one of design's polymaths, moving from supergraphics, which she pioneered in the 1960s, to landscape design and two exceptionally good books on landscape. An excerpt from Why? appeared in Zyzzyva (Spring 2005). My favorite part of the book is her account of studying design with Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder in Basel. That in itself warrants the book's publication.

20 July 2009

"Architect" postscript

In his editorial in the July 2009 Architect, Ned Cramer points to the NYT Magazine's recent design issue as an endorsement of his own vision of what an architecture magazine should be. That issue was big on infrastructure, which Cramer sees as indicative of where things stand now, and a sign of his mag's anticipatory relevance. Remembering the cover of that maiden issue, with the SOM partner in closeup - an image that was considered risible in at least one studio where I encountered it, I'm not sure it was apparent to every reader where Architect was headed. And what happens when glamour comes roaring back? No doubt Cramer will point to that early cover as evidence that he was on it.

19 July 2009

Man bites dog

The FT, in an article wonderfully subtitled, "Intern in the News," reports on the huge response that Morgan Stanley received when it published a brief report by a teenage intern, Matthew Robson, on his cohort's jaundiced view of both old and new media. "The way the story spread was 'a classic story of a web 2.0 meme,'...'the mainstream media reports it in a prominent place, social media people are intrigued by it and stir up the story, then the mainstream media write the story about the story.'" (The quote is from John Palfrey of Harvard Law School). This reminded me of that frumpy singer who swept out of obscurity recently. Just as no one expects that someone of her appearance can sing so well, no one imagines that teenagers can succinctly report their immediate views in a convincing way. So when one does, the prodigy aspect of it kicks in: "Kid pundit rocks world." It's like Daniel Liebeskind's initial fame at WTC. Cast against type, he won hearts, becoming sort of a star in a reality show, in effect, like that English woman, Jade. (Of course, she proved much more talented at reinventing herself, unto death.)

New media vs. old media

Barron's has an article this week questioning the received wisdom about old media. In passing, it notes that local newspapers (and their journalists) were subsidized for decades by people trying to sell their car or hire a receptionist. The article concludes that companies like Disney and WPP are underpriced, thanks to the widespread but probably erroneous belief that their business models are broken (when they're just taking a cyclical hit). The Times reports that the former editor of Texas Monthly has joined the Texas Tribune, an online startup focused on Texas politics. A separate article announces another that covers celebrities and will be run out of NY by a former print editor. A financial beneficiary of the latter startup is a much-feared blogger in LA, the subject of a separate profile in the Times, whose monomaniacal pursuit of LA's entertainment cluster is ideal for the blog medium and its audience. One of the maxims of La Rochefoucauld says that focusing insistently on a single topic in conversation is a cardinal sin in polite society, but clearly the salon is not the web.

17 July 2009

Praise for Nicolai Ouroussoff

Nicolai Ouroussoff's two recent articles on Toyo Ito - on the man and his recent work, and his new stadium in Taiwan - are really good. Another I liked, on the Israeli barriers in Gaza, was both effective and courageous. He seems to realize that while he's a major critic, the architecture and architects are why people read him. His discernment is on display, but he's not vying for equal billing. He seems genuinely interested in his subject matter, too, and willing to go wherever to get the story. He must be selling papers (as Allan Temko put it), because the Ito articles both got excellent placement.

16 July 2009

US architecture mags (compared)

Architect seems to be holding its own as #2 in the diminished field of US architectural mags. Its Architect 50 list, while methodologically flawed, at least tried to break out of the revenue box that typifies these annual surveys. Between the two, I've found Architect to be the more interesting read of late. Record has definitely broadened its sights, but its coverage often replicates that of offshore mags. The Record Houses issue, with Bob Ivy's defensive and then self-praising editiorial, to my mind begged the question: Is Record even capable of publishing anything that's really and truly new? Architect isn't trying to be El Croquis (or whatever); I suspect Architect's Journal is more its model. Like AJ, it's willing to try things out, reinvent itself, and imagine a real readership.

11 July 2009

Banned in Shanghai?

I heard from a colleague in Shanghai that Blogspot is jammed by the Chinese authorities, so she can't read Writing & Design - that hotbed of sedition, running dog of the Dalai Lama clique (to paraphrase the People's Daily, which I read online during the Beijing Olympics). Perhaps it's encouraging that the same folks that are banning Blogspot appear to have backed down on bigger plans to impose a kind of countrywide Net Nanny (to be installed on every computer in China). Global business weighed in. Plus the example of Iran makes the idea look pretty silly. These days there's always a workaround. Leave it to the young and disaffected to find it!

08 July 2009

New website

There's a new website just launched that links to my various projects. Among them is Common Place, which I began last year as a small magazine, and which can now either be downloaded as such or read online. Common Place includes a blog, so you can subscribe if you want. The entries will announce successive issues, which are likely to appear at a leisurely pace, since I can barely keep up with Writing & Design. In time, I hope to add an archive of Design Book Review issues - I have the whole set. In the meantime, Common Place will include some "greatest hits" from that journal. Issue no. 3 has an interview with the Italian historian Manfredo Tafuri, conducted by DBR editor Richard Ingersoll. When Tafuri died, Herbert Muschamp alluded to the interview in his obituary in the NYT. The topic of the interview is criticism. It's well worth reading. Tafuri felt that architects should do architecture, not write. (If you don't feel like linking, the website is www.j2parman.com; and Common Place is http://complace.j2parman.com)

05 July 2009

The hunt (2)

Six teams, three cities, two continents separated by a dateline: scenarios of this type began for me in the early 1990s. I remember the first time I sent a proposal to HK using MCI Mail, a laborious process punctuated by anxious phone calls. I supported my firm's China practice from SF, which meant that my day restarted at five p.m. and extended into the evening. Like now, China was doing a lot better than California. The short fuse hasn't changed, either. Working over the long weekend with a distributed team, I've found that the means of interaction is not very different. The text I'm writing takes form as successive approximations. Tom Peters's rapid prototyping idea applies to this kind of writing: the most important thing is to pull a draft together. Doing so gives others something to work with, and it gets you into the material enough to start to see where the holes are.

03 July 2009

The hunt

When it's occasional, the pursuit of work is really fun, especially when it's a design competition. Although my July 4th weekend is blown, I'm having a good time working with a distributed team and keeping pace with its evolving work. My own projects - books and magazines - are real to me, but (as someone trained in architecture) buildings retain their appeal. Also, to go back to the overarching theme (writing & design), the interaction with a design team is always interesting. It's not a one-way street. I wonder if architecture critics feel the urge sometimes to join design teams?

01 July 2009

Newspaper thoughts

As part of the newspaper-reading generation - I paid for a trip to Europe when I was 16 by delivering them - I've watched them with particular interest. Of the three I read daily, two - the FT and the WSJ - seem to be doing OK. The third - the NYT - is clearly struggling. Perhaps what distinguishes the NYT from the others is its legacy as a NY paper. For better or for worse, it's planted there. The others have a wider orbit. It's clear that the WSJ has the FT in mind (and in its sights) in its latest incarnation. Murdoch may be ignoring the NYT because he regards it as mortally wounded. (Enter Carlos Slim, but why? To own the supposed US newspaper of record? Is that concept still meaningful?) By the way, there were 14 daily newspapers in NY when I delivered them. The epic strike of 1963, in which the press unions were broken, put most of those dailies out of business. To give a sense of how life has changed, the NYT put out an issue the Sunday after the strike that carried all the news that hadn't fit heretofore. It weighed eight pounds. I loaded my bicycle, and when I tried to get on, it fell over. I had to walk the route.

30 June 2009

Blogs and hubris

A colleague commented today that blogs take too much time and in any case you have to be a narcissist to start one. This reminded me of the Roman penchant for valuing criticism because it counters hubris, thus forestalling the wrath of the gods. It also made me wonder about self-expression in general. Isn't it really a mix of motives? And self-expression seems hardwired. A point my colleague may be making is that effective communication benefits from considering the medium as well as the message. Established media (if operating effectively) provide an editorial filter that can strip out hubris before it hits the streets. Blogs, tweets, etc., don't do this. Another point may be that an audience is assumed, but isn't this also part of what makes us human? It gets wrapped up in ego, of course, but the impulse predates ego's construction (if I'm reading Donald Winnicott accurately).

28 June 2009

NYT Sunday mag revisited

This Sunday's NYT mag opens with letters from readers uniformly praising the redesign. Several point to the trees saved by the decision to shrink its size, but doesn't this beg the question of dropping print (on paper) altogether? I feel that we're on the brink of a new medium, to which the Kindle points, that will let this happen. If it does, what does this mean for the NYT itself? A possible analogy is the switch from the "studio system," where the talent was on the payroll, to today's project-based filmmaking, where studios are gathering places of freelance talent. The business model question that vexes the Times is just as pertinent to the talent that generates its content. Rupert Murdoch's assertion that people will pay for content may be true, but who will they pay - his company or the talent directly? A model from the past that may be relevant to this discussion is the publishing house that Mark Twain established, which gave authors a much bigger stake in their books' fortunes than was then customary (and rescued the family of General Grant from penury, owing to the success of his memoirs).

27 June 2009

Readers from afar

In his SMPS talk, Rick Klau suggested using Google Analytics to track blog readership. So I loaded the tracking code into the main page of "Writing & Design," and was interested to see a few minutes ago that I have readers in Finland, Japan, and the UK. This is the aspect of web communications that I really like. The fact that Twitter became the means by which Iranian protestors organized their activities also seemed very apt. Just a few weeks ago, I commented to a colleague that "the revolution will not be twittered." I was wrong. It turned out to be the perfect medium.

26 June 2009

Monocle as a model

The monthly Monocle has a new issue on cities. It feels like the editors are pushing hard to be relevant in print and at the same time connect with advertisers (and clients of the editor-in-chief's Winkreative) to get branding assignments (even from cities), not just print ads; and to readers through web features (including online films) and (virtual and real) stores. It's a model, potentially, of how magazines can extend their tentacles into many different things in order to have an impact and make money. Magazine resembles the French word for store (magasin), and that may be an apt analogy for Monocle. (Actually, it's more of a grand magasin.)

25 June 2009

The illusion of a break (2)

To create the illusion of a break, you have to do something, however briefly, to get beyond a previous draft. Normally, I would just put it aside (overnight is ideal) to get some distance, but the press of things doesn't always allow for this. The reason that ego is out of bounds is that you have to write in the present (from being), letting things unfold rather than getting stuck on a particular artifact. (That said, keep everything. You never know.)

The illusion of a break

In a communications or marketing role, you sometimes feel like a vending machine of prose. The other day, I was asked to recast a text in light of comments from two different parties, not especially in sync in their suggestions. I'd been working on it for most of the day. To do this, I had to create the illusion of a break: enough distance from the previous text to be able to scrap it and start anew. This was the second time I'd done this. It's helpful not to become attached to a draft, or to take personally someone else's dislike of it. He or she is the audience, whether it's a paragraph or something longer. Attachment in this context just causes friction.

24 June 2009

Institutional memory

Something happened today that brought home how easily the history of a design firm's work slips out of its collective consciousness. Marketers and rainmakers alike come and go. In an established firm with newer offices, knowledge of the work can be quite shallow. This may be exacerbated by the transition of photography from transparencies to digital files - not everything made it across. What got left behind, even if documented in print, risks being entirely forgotten. Perhaps the solution is to provide an accessible, visual walkthrough of the firm's legacy projects, noting especially the counter-traditions (genre vs. modern, for instance). Then make this part of the learning process when people are hired or promoted - make sure they know it.

23 June 2009

Reviewing Arcade

Tim Culvahouse, the editor of arcCA, asked me yesterday to review four issues of Arcade, the Seattle design quarterly, on "waste." I'd seen one of the issues, which a colleague from LINE kindly sent me. Part of the slant I may take is to discuss what a journal can do vs. what a magazine can do (there's a difference, I think) vs. what can be done online. (I'm thinking here of Planetizen, which often covers topics like this in brief, but I'm sure that there are numerous sustainability sites and blogs that do the same.) I should really compare Arcade's thematic treatment with the "line 'em up" nature of selected blog entries, to see what I get and what kind of sense it makes. I think editing a blog is more curatorial than the traditional editor's role in a journal. This might be a question to explore, although not necessarily in the arcCA review.

22 June 2009

The DEGW model

In the early 1980s, I met Frank Duffy of DEGW in London - a friend of a friend. Even then, the firm was well known for publishing data-filled accounts of its work. I asked him why they did it, and he said that they wanted clients to have heard of them when they called on them. Later on, I saw how good a job DEGW does of documenting its work, so that the case studies they produce have the assets they need - performance data, for example - to tell an effective story. That takes discipline and a willingness to invest in documentation. Most firms don't see the need for this, and then wonder why they're short of proof statements about their work.

21 June 2009

The Times Sunday magazine

While I know that cost considerations drove the NYT to shrink the Sunday magazine, I think it was a mistake. The old oversized format made the Sunday edition special, and the new one makes it feel like the Chronicle magazine or (your city here). There's a loss of cachet. I know the Times is struggling, but cutting costs shouldn't mean gutting the brand. The FT soldiers on with the wonderfully named How To Spend It, and the WSJ is also getting into the game. Both have terrific production values. Having twice urged that Dialogue be shrunk, I take it back - and am grateful that others argued at the time for leaving it where it is. We did reduce it from a larger to a smaller tabloid, which makes it easier to read, but it's good that it's big. Size matters.

Providing local content

In his column, the Times public editor noted reader complaints about the paper's dropping of local coverage (of NY's Westchester county, for example). That's an issue that design firms face, too, if they operate from multiple locations. From a communications standpoint, I think you have to devolve the responsibility - hand it off to people you trust and let them address local markets as they see fit. The blog format may lend itself to this. Design firm websites now typically let users home in localities as they check out credentials. What a blog can do is speak in detail about what the office is really doing in the community, and who's doing it. The firm at large can decide whether to wrap these blogs up directly (by linking to them) or to quote selectively (as content for web features). Meanwhile, the local blogs gain some measure of credibiity and authenticity by being rooted in a place.

The Sunday NYT shrinks

The NYT's public editor devoted his column today to the cost of the Sunday edition ($5 to $6) and its shrinkage (the Sunday magazine is now letter size, for example - too bad, because the old size was better). As a constant reader of the Times and two other papers (FT and WSJ), it's interesting to watch how they're evolving in their print and web versions. None of them have really worked it out. The Times' website is the best in covering the waterfront of what's actually in the paper. The others focus on the big stories. If Apple succeeds in delivering a Kindle-killer that makes it feasible to ditch print altogether (and pay to subscribe, I assume, to get full content as it's posted), this may finally let these "papers" stop printing and embrace a new format. What it looks like is still hard to imagine, but it's clear that there needs to be a way to pay the freight for content (including the architecture critics), or it will soon be amateur hour.

20 June 2009

As our world goes flat

Part of the interest of this moment is the speed with which communication vehicles are changing. It's not just print vs. digital, but a broader spectrum of possibilities. They make communication a flatter proposition within firms - more "open source." As this happens, who is "us"? That's going to be harder to decide. "People under 30 make no distinction between work and the rest of life," Rick Klau said at the panel I attended. "People over 30 do." As those boundaries disappear, the top-down nature of communications will at least have to coexist with grassroots offerings. Some design firms are sanctioning blogs (and twittering), while others just let it happen. My sense is that both approaches have their purposes. Experimenting seems valid, too. People should try things out. The main danger is looking silly. And except possibly for adolescents, that's not life-threatening.

Turning LINE into a blog

LINE (www.linemag.org) is a design webzine, founded in 1998. It started off in print, and now it's being relaunched as a blog. The SF designer Jeremy Mende is developing the look and feel, with WordPress as the platform. Several of us involved with it met with Mende and his colleague this afternoon to review it. It's gorgeous. LINE currently has a magazine-like structure - a feature well and departments. The blog format invites us to let go of it, opting instead for themes and topics that accrue over time. What it will retain from the past versions is our ambition to make it really good. The blog format also makes it easier to broaden the net of contributors. LINE at its best has been a collaborative venture, and the blog format plays into that.

18 June 2009

First post - idea of the blog

I owe thanks to Rick Klau of Google for getting this blog going. I went to a panel in SF earlier today and he showed us how to do it. He also mentioned that blogs benefit from having a specific focus. I work as an editor and writer for the publications group at Gensler, a global design firm headquartered in SF. Although I'm trained as an architect and planner, I've always worked as a writer, first in marketing and then in communications. I've done this since 1972. Along with that, I published a journal of ideas on design (Design Book Review) and have also worked on a design webzine (LINE) that's about to relaunch as a blog. I'll be drawing on my continuing experience to comment on writing and editing as it relates to design. By that I mean architecture, interior design, retail design, graphic design, and planning, plus allied fields like structural engineering and construction. Because I have a day job, the posts will be episodic.