Fifteen years ago, I graduated from architecture school with a degree conferred on me with what I perceived at the time to be great confusion by my department, which wondered what, exactly, I was doing there. This is not false humility. I couldn’t draw, model, work with my hands, conceptualize space, relate colors to one another, imagine scale, use a scale, set up my mayline, etc. But, as my thesis advisor astutely observed, I could write. So I moved to New York to write about architecture, and here’s the totally wild thing about that: it was a viable career. I started writing for the Architect’s Newspaper, which was just launching. And then Surface. And then Wallpaper*. And then The New York Times House & Home section, whose editor threw a Currents (remember Currents?!) my way almost every week. I was always on deadline. Always reporting. Always going to some event with some architect and then meeting another architect. Stories flowed. People seemed to want to read them. Brilliant editors like Martin Pedersen taught me how to structure a story and when I needed to redo it. (Four times in my life, he’s sent me back a draft with a note that goes something like, “Ehhhhh, try again.” I’ve trusted him every time.)
Then the recession hit. I decided to wait out the storm in grad school, got into Berkeley, got a M.S. in architectural history, decided to stay for a PhD, and just earned my doctorate. After eight years in Berkeley, nine on the West Coast, and just as far removed from the daily practice of pitching, reporting, writing, pitching, pitching, reporting, writing, I decided to come back to New York. I’d missed it: the grind of deadlines, the ability to be less precious about things, the idea that I could write about something simply because I’d experienced it and written down some notes, not because it contributed to “Scholarship” in some “Historical” way or “Sought to Intervene Upon the Extant Discourse.” In other words, I was ready to come back.
I skidded into town, returning to what I’d been told was a decimated world. I myself had seen things change: A trusted colleague reads all the same design magazines that I do, and every month we text each other, in awe of the typo we found in one of the most stalwart publications, or the overreliance on celebrity that another publication, long known for its blend of society and sophistication, was starting to demonstrate. Where were all the sweet gigs I’d longed for as an ambitious 20-something? Who’s doing long profiles and trenchant building critiques? Departures, sometimes. ARCHITECT, occasionally. Wallpaper*, forever. But what about dailies or weeklies? I looked to The New York Times. Nope. Recently, in doing some research for a story, I had reason to read a piece by Nicolai Ourossoff, the newspaper’s former architecture critic. It felt lively, delightful, focused on architecture. And yet I remembered when Ourossoff had been hired after Herbert Muschamp’s death, and all we talked about was how staid and lifeless he was compared to Muschamp. Now, compared to his successor, Michael Kimmelman, whose beat remains mostly indiscernible but doesn’t seem to really be about architecture, Ourossoff has the look of someone who had real insight, who was really going somewhere. He was an architecture critic who wasn’t afraid to write about architecture. Sometimes he even wrote about…a single building!
So, aside from the glossies that still have budgets, and which must satisfy editorial needs that seem to revolve increasingly around fame, what happened to all the architecture writing? Can people still have the career that I did, writing a couple pieces a week and stringing together a couple hundred dollars here and there and making it work somehow? Anecdotally, I know that many of my friends and colleagues are still in the game, including Ian Volner, who recently published a biography of Michael Graves and is writing a book about border walls, and Mark Lamster, the architecture critic at the Dallas Morning News whose doorstop biography of Philip Johnson is getting well-deserved acclaim. The Architect’s Newspaper keeps publishing, churning out multiple editions, an ever-ever-growing staff breaking news. Alexandra Lange recently published a highly anticipated and thoroughly excellent book, The Design of Childhood (Bloomsbury), and is contributing a regular column to Curbed, but even there the focus seems less on single-building analyses rather than larger think pieces.
Trying to figure this all out, it occurred to me, a person who basically stayed in the library for eight years at Berkeley, that I left New York when architecture was a thing and when I returned, all anybody wants to talk about is … urbanism. Witness the rise of CityLab, The Atlantic’s urbanism vertical, as well as the joy and glory that is NUMTOT (New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens). But am I right about my urbanism hypothesis?
“I would argue that one reason is that regular urbanism is easy,” my friend and fellow journalist Greg Lindsay tells me. “It’s writing about bike lanes and pop up parks and a lot of the surface level shit.” I’ve called him, the first urbanist I knew (Greg was into cities long before it was cool), to see if my perception—that we’ve traded one field for another—is right. Another reason why urbanism is hot? “You can do it with relatively inexperienced writers,” he says. Which makes a lot of sense. It’s not that urbanism as a subject is inherently easier to write about, but that there are more angles of attack. Bike lanes! Scooters! Traffic! The subway! Writing about a single building—particularly a monolith like, say, the Whitney, and putting it into historical Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, context and also historical Breuer context and also historical High Line context—is harder. It requires more nuance, experience, and practice—in many cases, thousands of hours of having thought about and studied architecture. “It’s a lot more exciting to talk about this [urbanism] stuff, which is tangible and has a whiff of the future, than to talk about a building and its appreciable and sometimes invisible characteristics,” Lindsay tells me.
At a symposium at Yale back in January, organized by labor activist Peggy Deamer (join the Architecture Lobby!), Kimmelman took this point to its extreme conclusion. During a panel on architecture and the media, he said that he doesn’t write about individual buildings because readers don’t care. (Scroll through my Twitter feed for some contemporaneous hot takes about how misguided and frustrating I think this approach is.) Lindsay tells me that architecture coverage has indeed become more like “fine art writing”; I interpret this to mean that it’s become rarefied, for an ever-decreasing audience with ever-increasing specialization, not the kind of Hey, this affects us all worldview that my cohort and I seem to share. And yet, in The New York Times, I recently found a full-on sponsored advertorial about Hudson Yards. It was the glossiest architecture story I’d seen in forever. People are clearly obsessed with real estate, even as they’re supposedly not obsessed with buildings. So what gives?
The good writers are certainly not all gone. The cohort I came up with has largely dispersed, but it’s not that they’ve vanished: they’re writing books, or teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York, or doing editorial consulting for major firms. Most of us have taken on these new roles because of the economy, because writing full-time is no longer a sustainable financial decision, because in the age of the Internet “content” is often not valued, and because publishers—even when they’re not actually in trouble—are often at the mercies of corporations that want to hoard every last dollar of profit instead of investing in something bigger, like, say, the general cultural health of the country. The problem is, in no small part, structural. (Subscribe to magazines! Complain to The New York Times that you’d like the architecture critic to actually write about architecture! Ask the Los Angeles Times when they’re going to replace Christopher Hawthorne!)
“I like to think that we are on the undulating curve of approval and disapproval, and architects have gone so far into disapproval that they’re finally starting to come back,” Mark Lamster tells me, when, in a state of mild despair, I give him a call. He sees the interest in urbanism as a net positive, but he also sees the same fractured publishing landscape that I do: “People are starting to talk about the urban environment, about issues like mobility and gentrification … but I’m not sure that should necessarily come at the expense of architecture.” I ask him about Kimmelman. “It’s a critic’s job to point out that art is something important that’s shaping that way we live every day,” he says. “Is it people’s responsibility to notice? Yes. But it’s also their responsibility not to do a million different stupid things that people do.”
Lamster thinks the “crisis” I ask him about is more about the news industry than architecture. “All news coverage is shrinking, all arts coverage is shrinking,” he says. “Looking at architecture in a vacuum isn’t especially fair.” But he’s also simultaneously optimistic about the state of publishing. “I think there’s more good writing about architecture now than there has ever been, and there’s more great places to access it.” He talks about how when we were both kids (which is hilarious, because when I met Mark, I was 20 and he was in his 30s) it could often feel like there was really only The New York Times, and Muschamp; the assumption was that Muschamp had the power, and the rest of us just scraped by. Of course, this isn’t entirely accurate: Slate had an architecture column; Hawthorne was holding down the West Coast; Architectural Digest, under the keen leadership of Paige Rense, kept a number of very smart people very well-paid to write about houses—rich people’s houses, granted, but there was a lot of architecture in there! That said, it is easier now for a young writer to break in; the Internet is a black hole of never-ending need for Content. Lamster also reminds me of one inalienable observation: “Criticism is always in crisis,” he says. “That’s the nature of criticism.”
I ask him what he learned by writing his Johnson biography. “Johnson was the progenitor of the star architect class, so I think there’s a lot to learn about how we got to the place we are,” he tells me. “People have moved away from the idea of the starchitect, and now we’ve moved on to urbanism as a collaborative practice.”
As I thought more about this essay I realized that the current refrain of “Oh no! where is all the architecture writing!” is not all that different from the refrain I heard when I first moved to New York in 2003, which went something like, “There are no jobs,” or “The industry’s in trouble.” What I discovered while writing a historical dissertation about some of the earliest origins of architectural publicity as a mediating practice in the field (or so I argue) is that it does always seem to be in crisis. In the 1950s, Aline B. Louchheim Saarinen, wife and publicist of Eero Saarinen, was worrying about the same things I worry about now: shrinking budgets, overbearing editors, fewer page counts.
Maybe the crisis is especially pronounced now; maybe the crisis is omnipresent. Maybe Lamster is right, that the nature of criticism is to have to constantly re-justify itself. Maybe he has a longer view than I do (he was in his 30s when we met after all) and can be more sanguine about it. Maybe Kimmelman won’t have his job forever, and Lange will be the next appointed critic (pray with me, please). Maybe Lamster’s list of writers he admires—Karrie Jacobs, Lange, Carolina A. Miranda, Amanda Kolson Hurley—can be enough to sustain us, for now, while we weather this particular set of cultural and political storms. Maybe the undulating curve of approval is always going to swing. Maybe writing this essay reaffirmed for me the importance of writing about actual buildings, even if the one building I mentioned is one that I really don’t like.
Maybe it was just fun to call my old buddies and shoot the shit about the good old days while also realizing that 15 years ago my mentors were calling their old buddies and shooting the shit about the real good old days. Maybe everything started changing not in 2008 but in 2001 with the dot-come bubble, or Bilbao in 1998, or maybe even when the International Style exhibition opened in New York in 1932. Maybe everything is actually fine, because everyone I called cares a lot about architecture, and I’ll keep writing if you keep reading. Maybe we should all take a long walk outside today and think about a building and whether we like it or not, and then think about why. Let’s open our eyes and talk about what we see. It won’t be that boring, I promise.