Editors and art directors follow The New York Times Magazine with something like religious fervor, not simply because it’s a good read, but because its graphics, photography, illustrations, and reporting are among the smartest in the business. For an architecture magazine editor like yours truly, the Times Magazine’s annual architecture issue in particular is the one to watch. No other general consumer publication devotes such care and attention to the subject; the architecture issue is, hands down, one of the most accurate bellwethers of popular (albeit hypersophisticated) opinion about the profession and its varied productions.
Funny thing is, the Times Magazine’s latest architecture issue, which appeared on June 14, doesn’t seem to have much architecture in it, at least not according to the mass media’s usual application of the term. The cover line reads, in neon-orange capitals stretching the full width of the page, “Infrastructure!” The exclamation point isn’t my embellishment; it appears in the original, and together with the brightly colored type treatment it winks at infrastructure’s notorious, Saltine-like dryness as a subject. Under the cover line, in parentheses, runs an apologia: “It’s more exciting than you think, actually.”
So what’s all the excitement about? First, here’s what it’s not about: the blockbuster buildings and star architects that predominated past Times Magazine architecture issues. The world, and the profession with it, have undergone a sea change since 2006, when, at the height of design’s big-bling, Kevin Federline phase, a reader wrote to complain about a project featured in that year’s issue, Steven Holl’s Turbulence House:
Not only did you publish an article about a building that (according to the owner) is uninhabitable half the year, does not exhibit fine workmanship and yet cost twice the budget, but you also put it on your cover. This kind of attention only goes to further the public’s perception of architects as prima donnas who are insensitive to cost and program requirements.
At the time, it would have been easy to dismiss the letter-writer as a philistine or a grouch, but the message foreshadows our present circumstances and the renewed urgency of doing more with less. This healthy change in public and professional attitudes is evident on every page of this year’s architecture issue, with its articles on prison design, bridge-building, broadband networks, and high-speed rail. There’s also a Q&A with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. (His best line: “America is one big pothole.”) All of the above are the profession’s concern, though for the past decade or so it’s been tempting to forget pragmatics in the rush to conceive the next Bilbao—or Turbulence House.
The closest thing to coverage of starchitecture in this year’s architecture issue comes, perhaps inevitably, from Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who writes about the planning proposals for Paris that French President Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned from Richard Rogers, Jean Nouvel, and 10 other architects, the intent being to knit the city’s historic center with its unloved suburbs through parks, transit, and the like. And throughout the issue are scattered images of visionary schemes by Nicholas Grimshaw, Rafael Viñoly, and other well-known designers. The Times and its magazine have commissioned dream schemes before—memorably for the World Trade Center site—but this time the program is for elevated trains, hydroelectric stations, and other stimulus fund attractions.
As the authors of such wonderfully quotidian projects, Nouvel, Grimshaw, et al. can claim their proper place, not as design stars, but as talented designers. Today, I can’t imagine the press, a client, or the public having any patience with a project that sacrifices performance for appearance. There must be a balance, as Vitruvius knew when he wrote 2,000 years ago of “Commodity, Firmness, and Delight” as the essential unified characteristics of architecture.
Herein lies my motivation for writing an editorial letter about another publication. I take, perhaps selfishly, the Times Magazine’s 2009 architecture-as-infrastructure issue to be validation of our mission here at Architect; it makes a point we’ve been pushing since our launch in October 2006: namely, that architecture is more than the fulfillment of individual creative visions; it is a collaborative endeavor meant to benefit society as a whole.