Beyond Buildings


'Architect's Newspaper' West: Bastion of Neo-Conservatism?

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What has happened to Architect’s Newspaper West? It has become a bastion of conservative thinking championing mediocre work in often-contradictory language.


The front page of the most current issue, dated March 28, features an above-the-fold article on the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas. The headline itself exhibits what appears to be a struggle for A/N West’s soul:“Accidental Oasis: Unfulfilled Plans Leave New Performing Arts Center Isolated in the Las Vegas Desert.” So is it an oasis or a marooned mastodon? Writer James Brasuell notes the absurdity of architect David Schwarz, AIA, in trying to make the building “contextual” by referring to the Hoover Dam—and then launches into a loving description of the neo-Art Deco building. Only the lack of “Beaux-Arts street frontages,” whatever that might mean, around the building have hampered this masterwork of kitsch.


In the issue’s body, A/N West finds room for a half a page on the UCLA Outpatient Surgery and Oncology Center, a bland glass behemoth equally marooned in Santa Monica and designed by the author of countless thoroughly forgettable buildings, Michael Folonis, FAIA. Apparently, three pages are necessary to note the appearance of hipster restaurants in downtown Los Angeles, though the pictures show the kind of confused mixtures of styles, lack of spatial intricacy, and vast expanses of low-grade materials that you would expect to find in a review of suburban restaurants in the fly-over zone (where I live).


Alan Hess, the redoubtable and eloquent former critic of the San Jose Mercury News, takes half a page to review a new book on Cliff May, the author of the California Ranch House, to support the re-appreciation of that work. I would tend to agree with him that May’s work deserves our attention, but when he searches for aspects to praise, all he can come up with is that they “retain the connection to nature” and that “his use of historical, regional imagery in place of machine portrayals seems not so much derrier-garde as fully in sync with a diverse, modern world of movies, television, and jet travel.” Really? Just because we are enthralled by Mad Men means that vernacularized Modernism built for wealthy white people in the suburbs is now good?


The article echoes Kenneth Caldwell’s reappraisal of the recently restored Sunnylands, Quincy Jones’s design for the Annenbergs’ desert retreat. The piece traces the way in which the clients filled Jones’ spaces with more and more decoration, but leaves nary a comment on that process.


The issue’s centerpiece is Sam Lubell’s editorial on, of all things, the gap between academia and practice. “You know something is a worthwhile topic,” Lubell launches his screed, “when every time you bring it up people grab on and start talking as if they’d been waiting forever for you to ask them.” Again, really? Self-important practitioners have not been complaining for the last two centuries that schools do not educate students to do the kind of unadventurous work these architects want them to do? Now that is news to me. Students, Lubell laments, don’t know how buildings are made, don’t know about business, and don’t know how to manage their careers. Somehow, schools should be teaching them this Instead, the unnamed schools (he does not mention a single example) are educating “frustrated visionaries… Sounds like graduates in poetry and philosophy. But this is not poetry. This is architecture. Let’s try to keep it that way.” No, Mr. Lubell, that is being a student and thinking about architecture. What you are talking about is making buildings–an activity that I think is a waste of time and resources if you do not know why you are doing it, for whom, in what context, and to what end. That is what schools should be teaching; the practice of making buildings should remain where it is, in practice.


Collectively, this issue a call for what Lubell calls “constraint” and I would call conservatism and confusion, as well as a capitulation to low standards of architecture. In the heartland of experimentation, not just in architecture, but also in many other fields, A/N is arguing for and showing mediocrity. Thank heavens they are not doing so in their East or Midwest editions, (full disclosure: I am a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Midwest for Architect's Newspaper), but if California is the wave of the future, I fear for the life of one of the liveliest–and few—locations for architectural journalism and criticism.



Comments (4 Total)

  • Posted by: samlubell | Time: 4:41 PM Thursday, April 26, 2012

    Neoconservative? Seriously? I encourage people to read our West Coast edition and judge for themselves. We encourage debate! -Sam Lubell, The Architect's Newspaper

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  • Posted by: Romulus | Time: 10:11 AM Wednesday, April 25, 2012

    Thank you for writing this. Unfortunately, it will take many many more editorials and articles like it to really point out the flaws in our profession, or at least draw some attention to it. I applaud the criticism. As a young architect I have seen this first hand but have had the drive to avoid the dollar signs and building for the sake of mediocrity. A while ago, maybe a year or so out of school I was trying to get a job for a very prominent architecture firm in ny and through a connection was able to meet with one of the partners. Near the end of the interview and after a discussion that included why my portfolio did not have any “tall buildings” in it, I could see that the interview was not going to work out for me and so I asked them if they had any advice for someone who was a young architect looking to contribute to a profession, just starting out their career? The response, “go to law school”. Sure, sounds like a plan after 5 years of school. Instead of encouraging someone young, the response was solely business oriented rather than reassure the passion of a young person looking for career advice. I now work for another prominent national design firm, and they hold an important position for aia ny.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:29 PM Wednesday, April 18, 2012

    First, it's a total drive-by to pick apart one issue out of many. Second, while I agree with Betsky that the profession's beef with academia is of longstanding, it's still an issue worth exploring, particularly from the standpoint of the immediate graduate cohort. Also, even if academia's interests range beyond practice, they surely have things to talk about. Third, what "process" should Kenneth Caldwell have discussed? I didn't understand that point. Fourth, Sam Lubell is a good editor and AN CA is an accurate reflection of the scene on the West Coast, which he both reports and criticizes, not always in the same issue. (Disclosure: I'm an editorial adviser to that edition.) - John Parman

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 8:43 PM Tuesday, April 10, 2012

    ...nice, very much appropriate to engage some stronger language which I personally have been missing in the often overly pc architecture press of past years. Welcome to reasonable critique seasoned with some polemicism. After all it makes sense to keep journalism in the game. For too long, journalistic opinion regarding architecture topics was replaced in the mellow "recordings" of the Architectural Record ( At least in the U.S.). As the article points out, there are plenty of mediocre buildings out there which are just that: Buildings. Architects usually have little to design in these cases. They do the business of hiring draftsmen (young architects) in order to convert committee and review comments into code compliant drawings. Sure, for the business people who still maintain they are Architects, it would be nice, if the cheap draftsmen and women had learned the "doing" of buildings at the Universities. I doubt though, that the profession would hold the appeal it still seems to have.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.