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.