25 March 2013

Bay Area Design Mags: A Personal History

Princeton Architectural Press's collection of Pamphlet Architecture 1-10.
When I first arrived in the Bay Area, local followers of Guy de Bord and Raoul Vaneigem, theorists of the May 1968 movement in Paris, were selling translations of their books and handing out small Situationiste pamphlets on the streets. Using doctored comic art, these booklets lampooned the work ethic of the postwar era. Pamphlet Architecture, started by Steve Holl, Bill Stout, and William Zimmermann, may owe something to these political one-offs. While it wasn’t strictly speaking a magazine, the Pamphlet Architecture series—rooted in San Francisco and New York—spoke immediately to a bicoastal audience.

Archetype issue on "The Presence of the Past."
Archetype, started by Andrew Batey, Henry Bowles, Diane Ghirardo, and Mark Mack in the late 1970s, redefined this audience as also including Asia and Europe. At the time, Sunset magazine’s Western Home Awards were still taken seriously in some quarters. One reason for Archetype was to draw attention to a new generation of Bay Area architects with wider horizons. It signaled a break with a Bay Regionalism that was seen as stale and defensively provincial.

In this same era, Concrete was launched at UC Berkeley's CED by Richard Ingersoll and others. It had two incarnations, starting up again in 10 years later. When I was in Eindhoven in 1977, an issue that included a debate between Chris Alexander and Jean-Pierre Protzen was passed from hand to hand by my colleagues, a big deal for Alexander's numerous Dutch fans. I was struck by its distant influence, proof that good copy, especially if viewed as coming from the source, will find an audience. 

DBR's "Orientalism" issue.
In the early 1980s, Oppositions and Skyline started in New York, Arts+ Architecture was revived in LA, and Elizabeth L. Snowden and I started Design Book Review with Richard Ingersoll as editor. Amazingly, DBR outlived all three, remaining in print until 2002. As the internecine warfare in NYC grew more bitter, our cottage-industry image, and Richard’s prescience as an editor, kept us out of the fray. He and our managing editor, Cathy Lang Ho, took on topics like “gender” and constantly experimented with virtual symposia and other innovations. Cathy's shepherding of the "Other Americas" issue, guest edited by John Loomis, won DBR a national award from the AIA. She also oversaw the "Humanism" and "Anti-Humanism" issues in which Liane Lefaivre and Alexander Tzonis were involved. 

DBR was co-published in the 1990s by MIT Press, an arrangement which ended badly. Laurie Snowden and I gave it to California College of the Arts, CCA, in 1999. With Bill Littman as managing editor and Mitchell Schwarzer, Barry Katz, and John Loomis as editors, CCA published three more issues (for a total of 35). A "California" issue edited by Loomis was in preparation when then-CCA President Michael Roth pulled the plug, saying that it had outlived its usefulness. Not his project was my take, but at the time it was also probably more money to run than CCA could afford.

I learned from publishing DBR that quality matters more in the long run than quantity, and that independence is preferable to dependence. These lessons are contradicted, of course, by Places, which Donlyn Lyndon and other started at CED around the same time as DBR.  

Place's "Future of Metropolitan Landscape" issue.
Places was initially an academic journal, with contributions reviewed by anonymous readers. Converted convincingly as a blog journal by Nancy Levinson, it has kept some that apparatus and a coterie of academic sponsors. Tied now to Design Observer and its family of blogs, it's arguably the one online design journal that counts with academic writers. (Places followed Landscape, a terrific journal founded in 1961 and initially edited by the notable landscape writer J.B. Jackson, and edited by Bonnie Loyd when DBR started.)

A still-extant journal that resembles DBR closely in spirit is Arcade, the Seattle quarterly. Although it has a different focus—more specifically regional—Arcade has always been really well done. Detached fromthe profession, academia, and single-issue non-profits, it’s still in print. Like Places, but unlike DBR, Arcade has a fundraising arm. It also enjoys significant local support—financial and otherwise—in part because it hosts numerous live events for the Seattle design community. Its readership is correspondingly local and regional, but the magazine itself is not the least bit insular.

Professional Publications
The profession in the Bay Area and California began publishing, too, in the 1980s. Architecture California began unpromisingly until Tim Culvahouse took it over and turned into arcCA. AIA/SF started a print magazine, Bay Architects’ Review, in this period, led by the San Francisco architect Michael Stanton, but couldn’t sustain it. 

LINE's parking issue, edited by Yosh Asato.
In the late 1990s, AIA/SF launched another magazine, _line, with Yosh Asato, Eric Fang, and Bryant Rice as the moving force. The dotcom crash led Asato, Kenneth Caldwell, Sharon Tucker, and me to move to _line online. With no printing costs, the editors started a real magazine. Several issues, including Asato’s on parking and Caldwell's on social architecture, drew a wider audience and re-posts and reprints by others

Prompted by a lack of local criticism of a questionable set of condo towers proposed for SF's Rincon district, _line hired  Canadian critic Trevor Boddy to review them. Its forays into criticism led to conflicts with the chapter board, especially after the architect of the towers, Jeffrey Heller, complained. (He argued that since the members' dues paid for _line, it shouldn't criticize them.) While _line survived, even winning a chapter award, the chapter declined to pay to convert to a blog. (It also apparently failed to pay the hosting site, so the _line archive is gone.)

Three of _line's editors—Asato, Mallory Cusenbery, and metook the initial lead in developing TraceSF. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it was and what it would do. A site concept was designed, but then the world of blogs blew wide open: WordPress released a new generation of templates that were more compelling and a lot more flexible. Yuki Bowman and Brad Leibin joined Asato and Parman as founding editors and, with Brooklyn-based web developer Jonathan Butterick, gave TraceSF a new look using WordPress's Tanzaku template.

TraceSF, designed by Jonathan Butterick.

We wanted to do a blog journal for several reasons. One, ironically, was to cover local events in a more timely way. (We sometimes do, but more often don’t.) We were impressed by what Nancy Levinson did with Places, but were quite sure we couldn't replicate her full-time involvement with it. We thought about possible sponsors, including SPUR, but concluded they had their own fish to fry. (I’ve been impressed by the efforts of Allison Arieff and Julie Kim to remake SPUR’s newsletter as a print magazine, The Urbanist, but sense that SPUR's real focus is advocacy rather than criticism—a bias shared by AIA/SF. One of the oddities of San Francisco is that, despite a culture of "popular opposition" that sees Hayes Valley neighbors battling a new Starbucks, for example, there's a reluctance to engage in criticism. The closest organizations like SPUR get to it is to sponsor debates. The aim tends to be "balance" and "giving both sides a voice." This works up to a point, but breaks down when the issue in question—the Saltworks project in Redwood City is an example—is egregious but involves actors [like Peter Calthorpe in that instance] whose ties to the organization rule out the kind of criticism that would make a difference.)

The leisurely pace of TraceSF reflects the time demands on the people involved, yet, five quarters after its launch, it’s visibly taking shape. It uses its Bay Area focus as the platform for a wider view. Independent, it doesn’t have to answer to anyone. Although deliberately open to different voices and viewpoints, it’s not open source—the editors are pretty involved, which works against speed but ensures the quality of what appears. Slow has its own connotations, the opposite of the fast that’s seen as the hallmark of the digital world. TraceSF.com is slow in that sense, too.