Mark Lamster is the author of Master of Shadows, a political biography of the painter Peter Paul Rubens to be published this October by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. He blogs at marklamster.com.
Credit: Matt Greenslade / photo-nyc.com
It has now been more than four years since I wrote the introductory post to The Gutter, the anonymously authored blog that promised “ill-mannered commentary on the architectural arts.” Over its tumultuous 18-month run, The Gutter fully delivered on that pledge, leaving no corner of the design establishment unscathed. There are days, even now, when I’m tempted to resuscitate it; days when I open the morning paper, or rather surf through what remains of it, to find some bit of starchitectural excess praised beyond reason or measure. The impulse might also be set off by some jargon-fueled missive from the halls of academe, or perhaps the latest outrage perpetrated in the name of development.
Mostly, however, I’m glad The Gutter is dead, though I will admit that it was fun while it lasted, or at least at the beginning. I will not soon forget a meeting just after the launch, when a prominent design-world figure, noted especially as an essayist, praised writing he had no idea was my own. That was quite a compliment—I’d never had my own words unknowingly quoted back to me—and I felt guilty for not coming clean. Maintaining anonymity became an increasingly frustrating obligation as The Gutter’s identity seemed all that anyone wanted to talk about, especially after The New York Times dispatched a reporter to out the author—she came up empty, prompting considerable mockery on the site, the Times already being a favorite target.
Anonymity was not something I was then prepared to sacrifice. At the time, I worked as an editor of minor prominence at a publishing house, Princeton Architectural Press, and had no interest in compromising my employer, my colleagues, my books, or the authors I represented. The design historian Steven Heller recently condemned the practice of anonymous blogging as “cowardly,” and though that is undeniably true, it seems to me that in hierarchical systems where power is disproportionately wielded by the few over the many, those who would expose hypocrisies and speak unspoken truths merit some protection against professional retribution. That, in any case, was how I justified my secret. From a self-serving perspective, anonymity only enhanced the site’s cachet.
The Gutter, as I envisioned it, was to be a voice of corrective reason, an alternative to an architectural press besotted with and compromised by its relationship to its subjects, and it would speak with gossipy glee in a tone that was at once knowing, bemused, and outraged. For a few months, I think, it even lived up to that vision. In time, though, it morphed into something else: given over to personal rather than just professional gossip, increasingly and inscrutably self-referential, with the imperial tone of a debauched queen. It was brilliant at times, but too often mean rather than witty, prurient rather than incisive. This, perhaps, is one of the dangers of the blog as a medium. The compulsion to publish virtually unedited material on a constant basis can too easily engender a blurring of the line between what should and should not remain private. After one particularly outrageous post, I chose to walk away from the site entirely. ?My decision to quit, however, did not mean the end of The Gutter.
The truth, of course, was that The Gutter was written by more than one person, and by the time of my departure I was hardly a presence on the site at all, and hadn’t been for months. Though I had drawn up the original plan—the provisional banner is saved on my hard drive—there were two of us working in close collaboration from the start. This fact made it exponentially more difficult to determine The Gutter’s identity. Buoyed by a tip line, it seemed that we were both everywhere and nowhere at once. The writing, coming as it did from multiple authors, could not be systematically analyzed. To this day, no one has determined the authorship of the site. Looking back now at some of the early posts, even I can’t tell who wrote them.
That changed as the voice of the site became progressively more idiosyncratic and unhinged, but to suggest that my departure from The Gutter was purely a matter of “creative differences” would be disingenuous—there were no fights, no angry words of recrimination spoken over a project gone sadly, terribly awry. I was not pleased by the direction the site had taken, but I had neither the time nor the energy to reorient it or to build it into something greater. This was an opportunity lost, for The Gutter was ahead of its time and a harbinger of things to come. The singular authority of the entrenched media was slipping away, drowned out by the myriad voices of a far more democratic medium. It is no small irony that I reveal my identity in the pages of this magazine—whose very existence was first reported by The Gutter a full year before its first issue hit the stands—at a time when the future of print media seems very much in question. Survival, I think, depends on channeling some of the energy and honesty, if not the bile, of the online world. Which may be why the editor of this magazine has a blog.