Can you hear them, gnashing and wailing again that the barbarians are at the gate?  TV and print journalists are uneasy about the rise of the net, and with good reason.  Fifteen years ago, only Steve Jobs, Alvin Toffler and William Gibson guessed that old media would roll over and be replaced by a world-wide web of computers.  It’s taken a couple of decades for the rest of us to catch up. Mind you, the Mancunian prophet Mark E. Smith had its consequences figured out in 1993, on his album “The Infotainment Scan”…

Andrew Marr’s recent attack on internet commentators betrays his unease, which manifested itself in a criticism of so-called weblogs and “bloggers” – as being “socially inadequate, pimpled, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men” – and the so-called citizen journalism as “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night.”  Bloggers: an ugly term, but one which has stuck.  Aside from the hypocrisy of Andrew Marr criticising anyone for their appearance (after all, did he get his break on TV thanks to his matinée idol looks … ?) he appears to miss the point.  Writing on the internet sprang up both to embrace an opportunity, and to fill a void.  That there is good and bad on the web is a given; as on television, as in life generally.

The point is that in an era of Rupert Murdoch, whose tentacles extend far beyond the wildest dreams of Beaverbrook or William Randolph Hearst, we lack a broad spectrum of commentary on politics.  Where are the strong dissenting voices – nationalist, ecological, far right, far left, fundamentalist – in the centrist British media?  The context is similar to the arrival of music fanzines in the 1980’s – the advent of cheap xerox machines allowed fans to “do it for themselves” by publishing their own little magazines about the music they liked – music which was often ignored by the mainstream press.  Some of the writing in fanzines wasn’t worth reading, but quite a few writers, editors and illustrators later graduated to the glossy magazines or “inkies” (music papers like the late lamented Melody Maker or Sounds).  The new outlet for music criticism allowed good, bad and ugly to reach the public.  Architecture is similarly under-reported, though for different reasons.

Peter Kelly, writing in this month’s issue of Blueprint, is more objective than Andrew Marr.  He specifically laments the lack of critical writing on architecture on the net.  That’s writing with the rigour of formal criticism (writing about ideas) rather than writing which criticises, per se.  Of course, the Blueprint article is only following the lead of Martin Pawley, whose collection of journalism (published post-humously) was called “The Strange Death of Architectural Criticism”.  So architectural criticism has been given the last rites more than once.

Kelly puts forward print magazines as the champions of architectural criticism, in the same way that Andrew Marr feels broadcast media are the natural home of political commentary.  Architecture magazines certainly did carry pieces of in-depth analytical criticism once – well-argued articles that set out to prove or disprove an idea; that challenged what architects said in the face of what they built; that provoked through polemical writing.  When Architectural Review (AR) and Zodiac were at the zenith of their powers during the 1950’s and 1960’s, ideas were their currency.  What happened to that healthy climate of criticism is a relevant question.

Building Design (BD) prints one piece of analysis per issue, if you’re lucky, and it rarely reviews books about ideas.  Architect’s Journal (AJ) concentrates mainly on building studies and technical pieces; Icon is in thrall to the cult of the Big Name, and in the case of Architectural Design (AD) that extends to the Big Name Guest Editor.  Blueprint itself, and AR, try to balance icons with ideas; as does Urban Realm.  Perhaps all these magazines struggle because architectural culture is increasingly visual, in that books, magazines and websites emphasise photos and CGI renders.  Writing is often little more than an extended caption, or valedictory message by a friend of the designer.   These days, there are few manifesto writers in architecture.

It’s a pity Kelly chooses the “Bad British Architecture” blog to illustrate his thesis – because that blog certainly is writing which criticises, per se.  Ironically, it’s apparently written by a former editor of the AJ called Kieran Long – proving that print and web media do meet somewhere – but its invective, aimed at easy targets, only proves that crap buildings are being designed (we knew that already) and also that he has a bias against Scottish architects, particularly Archial and Keppie.  You can't take anyone seriously as a journalist when their considered opinion is, "Dundee has loads of shit new architecture in it".

Another Kelly example, Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG never set out to provide criticism, rather it’s a cabinet of futuristic curiosities which occasionally picks up on serious writing like Michael Cook’s musings on the power and water infrastructure under our cities.  Equally, though, it’s a platform for Manaugh to get a book publishing deal, although ironically the published book-of-the-website reads like several thematic issues of a magazine bound into one, again proving the bonds between old and new media.  Neither of those blogs proves Peter Kelly's point, because neither attempts to give us architectural criticism; more telling would be blogs which fail to deliver what they promise.

In truth, the terrain is slipping under the feet of traditional journalists: the book and magazine “model” of someone commissioning a feature, a writer producing it, then an editor challenging it, has a competitor.  The net allows an article to be published immediately (rather than waiting for several weeks inside in a computer, then in a RIP attached to a Heidelberg press, then on a pallet inside a distribution lorry, then finally on John Menzies’ shelf…)  The readers can challenge the article’s ideas instantly – an editor may do the writer’s career more good in the long run, but a readership which interacts will do the article’s thesis more good, thanks to the instant call and response of the internet.  By the time readers respond through the letters page of a magazine, weeks have passed and the debate has moved on.  Perhaps that interaction is more important than a writer giving birth to a perfectly-formed article once a month.

Another truth is that the print media are slowly dying – those 1980’s fanzines presaged the closure of all the music “inkies” bar the NME – and when both Icon and BD went from free circulation to paid-for, we realised their light was dying, too.  Larger printer’s bills, smaller advert and subscription revenues bred a vicious circle, where circulation drops as costs go up and content quality declines.  In an effort to stem this, extended pieces of criticism appear to have been ditched from many titles, in favour of courting the “stars” and showing high-impact pics of their icons.  Perhaps the architecture magazines themselves are to blame for the death of criticism, rather than Andrew Marr’s bald, pimply bloggers.

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