The decline of architecture magazines.

What we build.
Nov. 15 2006 12:54 PM

The Glossies

The decline of architecture magazines.

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Last month saw the demise of Architecture magazine, leaving Architectural Record as the single major architecture monthly in the United States. It's hard to imagine that in the 1960s there were as many as four national magazines on the subject. The best of them, Architectural Forum, folded in 1974, followed over the decades by Progressive Architecture and now Architecture.

There are all sorts of explanations for this decline. The '60s were arguably the glory days of modernism, and a crusading spirit fueled interest in reading and writing about the new movement. As modern architecture became mainstream and then fragmented into numerous "isms," magazines lost their sense of urgency, becoming merely slick chroniclers of changing fashions. As a young architect in the '70s, I preferred Architectural Design, a scruffy but lively British publication, to what we called "the glossies."

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It may be that these magazines failed because they weren't very good. It's instructive to read old periodicals such as Architectural Record (which was founded in 1891) or House and Garden, which was begun 10 years later by two Philadelphia architects, Wilson Eyre and Frank Miles Day. Lacking color photography, they relied more heavily on text, which was often written by first-rank practitioners. This rarely happens today. I can think of three recent important essays by practicing modern architects: Philip Johnson's "The Seven Crutches of Modern Architecture," Charles Moore's "You Have To Pay for the Public Life," and Moshe Safdie's "Private Jokes in Public Places." None appeared in the glossies; the first two were published by Perspecta, the journal of the Yale School of Architecture, the third by the Atlantic.

A reduction in intellectual content in the glossies was largely the result of an increased reliance on photography, especially color photography. There's something about a color photograph that glamorizes its subject, and architectural writers soon adopted the slightly breathless tones of fashion reporters. You are more likely to find tough architectural criticism in the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and TheNew Yorker than in any of the major architecture magazines.

The public's growing fascination with architecture over the last two decades might have saved architecture magazines, except that they were read only by practitioners. It wasn't always so. House and Garden was aimed at clients as well as architects; in its heyday, Architectural Forum covered the home-building industry as well as architecture, which gave it a wide readership. When Time Inc. split off what would become House and Home in 1974, Forum's days were numbered—residential architecture became the preserve of the (very successful) "shelter magazines." If architecture magazines had maintained their coverage of housing and planning, they might have found more important social roles—and more readers. Instead, they became cheerleaders for an increasingly marginalized profession.

Architect magazine.

Finding a new role appears to be the aim of Architecture's successor, titled Architect. The image on the cover of the premiere issue signals this intention; it doesn't show a building but a person, and not a big-name architect but a young design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The message: This mag is going to be about working pros, not stars. According to editor Ned Cramer, the aim is to "portray architecture from multiple perspectives, not just as a succession of high-profile projects, glowingly photographed and critiqued, but as a technical and creative process, and as a community."

I don't know about community, but if Cramer can illuminate the technical and creative process by which buildings are produced, then more power to him. Judging from the premiere issue, he has a way to go. There is an interesting article on Bruce Mau's redesign of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Web site, shedding light on how an internationally oriented firm presents itself to potential clients, the media, and its own employees. On the other hand, a report on American building construction in the next quarter-century merely reveals that the bulk of it will take place in the West and South—hardly news. There are also lots of snippets of undigested information. The profiles of seven young architects, complete with full-page portraits, for instance, read like something you might come across in an in-flight magazine. Snappy graphics—by Pentagram—are OK, but Cramer and his staff need to put some meat on this particular bone. Especially if they want to reach not only the people who make architecture but also those who pay for it.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.