Books and Bots
Conversations on the Future of Architecture Publishing
This article is from a monthly feature column ‘Architecture Futures’ for the online platform Archinect which explores architectural developments within wider cultural and political discussions. Read the original article here: https://archinect.com/features/article/150094078/books-and-bots-conversations-on-the-future-of-architecture-publishing
The ease of online publishing has influenced a surge in the production of architecture content — more text, images and video are now created and distributed than ever before. In this sink or swim environment of the global ‘mediasphere’, print-based architecture publishers face challenging questions when it comes to their future financial sustainability and role in a rapidly-changing industry. As Archinect’s own bookshop and event space in Downtown LA’s Arts District, Archinect Outpost, celebrates its first summer, this edition of Architecture Futures invites architecture publishers to reflect on the industry as it stands today and what the next decade may hold. Instead of ‘killing print’ will the fourth industrial revolution induce a mainstream resurgence of physical publications? What is the future role of editor as publishers add AI sorting mechanisms and user-driven editing practices to their oeuvre? What new forms of architectural content may soon exist? I discuss these questions with Archinect’s founder and creative director Paul Petrunia; critic, writer and co-founder of dpr-barcelona Ethel Baraona Pohl; Elise Hunchuck from SCAPEGOAT journal and Ricardo Devesa of Actar Publishers who also works as editor-in-chief at urbanNext.
The commercial architectural publishing industry is experiencing a paradigm shift. In the past two decades the sector has undergone significant changes not only in the format and distribution of publications but also in the changing digital methods in which content is now created and produced. Readers have exchanged weighty volumes for slick iPad versions and rejected radio broadcast segments in favor of industry-specific ‘download on demand’ podcasts. While some fortunate self-publishers have grown their online readership, some of our most well-loved architecture and design publications, after years of turbulent waters, do not see clear skies ahead.
While these changes may at first appear to reflect broader shifts in the publishing sector, Barcelona based architecture publishing and research collective dpr-barcelona argue that the architecture publishing industry is lagging behind the curve. “Other disciplines like computer science, medicine, biology, mathematics and music have been more effective in embracing complexity as part of their language”, they suggest in a recent interview ‘Alchemy of the Wor(l)d’, “but we’re afraid that neither architects nor architecture publishers are trained to respond to the dynamics of active parts and differential change which are the inherent conditions of many contemporary practices and networked communication”. Rather than accept what may at first appear to be a bleak prognosis, a select number of creative architecture publishers and collectives have now entered into an exploration of new territories and understandings of what the sector has the potential to become.
While a role of an architecture publisher is primarily to reflect upon the industry at a particular moment, architecture publishers have at times possessed the agency to influence and shape the built environment. Examples include the impact of mass-produced black and white photography on the development of the modernist tradition, or how the architectural press has inspired waves of design activism at times of political or environmental crisis. How might new formats, representations and ideas in publishing begin to impact future architectural production? By exploring themes such as print vs digital, shifts in workflow, distribution and emerging formats, this feature invites four innovative publishers to reflect upon their work in the field and discuss the future of the architecture publishing sector into the 2020s and beyond.
Emil Jurcan, architect and founder of the Croatian engineering group Praksa, caught the zeitgeist in his ‘ark’ text in January when he put forward that contemporary architectural publications have two main roles. The first, he suggested, was to “create a space for critical and discursive development”, forming new territories to push the design and construction industry forward, and secondly, “to leave material traces of our time”. His nod to the physical qualities of architecture and design publications captures a resurgence of interest in the print medium within the sector. All four of the publishers interviewed for this feature do not foresee a pro- or anti-digital division in the coming decades, but instead, envisage a future in which both mediums coexist and adopt new roles as a generation of digital native architects enter the workplace.
This resurgence of interest in print formats is inspiring digital-only architecture publications to materialize, partly or wholly, onto paper. Select examples include Archinect, which began as the first online-only architecture publication in 1997, recently launched a print-only journal, ‘Ed’; or The Funambulist, a publishing project lead by the architect and writer Léopold Lambert, transforming from a blog in 2010 into a podcast in 2013 then in 2015 relaunching as a ‘print + digital’ publication. But what happened to the ‘end of print’?
Perhaps the answer lies partly in the inherent physical qualities and perceived cultural importance of print formats, which create the ‘added value’ required for a traditional medium to prosper in a contemporary condition of readily available digital devices. Ricardo Devesa of New York and Barcelona-based architecture publishing house Actar, home to titles such as the series The function of Ornament, Form, and Style by Farshid Moussavi (co-published with Harvard University Graduate School of Design) or the Imminent Commons four books for the 2017 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, recognizes the academic reputation and perceived permanence which print holds for his writers in a digital culture of scrolling and fast-media consumption. “In some senses, online publishing can be very short-lived”, Devesa explains, “after 10 minutes, the content has disappeared, and in fact what appears to endure are the paper copies. There is also the strong connotation with paper in terms of its authenticity and quality.”
Archinect founder Paul Petrunia expresses that a common pitfall for online-only publishers is that it can be challenging to maintain a strong and coherent vision of the publishing project in a haze of online content. The diverse and wide-reaching subject nature of the architectural discipline also presents a unique challenge for online platforms to categorize and weight the importance of articles and features, especially if a significant volume of content goes live each day.
“We realized that our best content could benefit from being in print”, Petrunia explains, “we were aware that there had been an unfortunate shift in the industry in terms of the quality of journalism, which has partly been driven by the online ‘attention model’ powered by clicks”. One format that has suffered more than most in this digital environment is the longform text piece, and publishers are concerned that articles such as building reviews, extended features and op-eds are more at home in print as it allows for extended time for research, curation and time for the granting of image permissions. The ‘Ed’ project has so far enabled Archinect to commission extended, in-depth features around topics set by Paul and Nicholas Korody, Ed’s Editor in Chief. “Print generates something unique for our audience”, Petrunia suggests, “it offers them something tangible, something manual. With print, readers expect that more attention has been given to the editorial, so the publishers are responsible for presenting the work in a more thoughtful way.”
Print publications such as ‘Ed’ express physical qualities such as tactility, endurance and attention to detail which the first wave of digital design publishing have struggled to capture. As architects are trained to appreciate material, detail and composition, Petrunia is convinced of the potential value of print in the sector. “At ‘Archinect Outpost’, our bookshop in downtown LA, we are selective about the work we carry”, he explains, “we had to closely consider content, diversity, geography, and how the publications look and feel — attention is paid to the paper qualities, weights, and printing standards, looking at the end product, the publication, as a physical object.”
Critic, writer and co-founder of dpr-barcelona Ethel Baraona Pohl also puts forward a bifold approach to print and digital in ‘Printing Architecture’, a recent episode of the ‘Archinect Sessions’ podcast. In the episode, Pohl underscores the unique, tactile and evolving nature of print within the architecture sector and positions print as an important medium in a future media landscape saturated with digital content. “There is a renewed interest in printing and at dpr-barcelona we see this as coexisting with the digital content produced,” Pohl explains. Their Archifutures project edited by &beyond forms part of their exploration into a digital-print hybrid future, in which they are developing tools such as ‘My Book’ to add a custom layer to the reader experience. ‘My Book’ offers visitors to their platform an opportunity to digitally curate custom publications, then order a printed version for their bookshelves, an outlook which echoes Actar’s publishing project ‘urbanNext’, which terms this digital-print crossover ‘transmedia’.
Devesa has witnessed distinct and exponential shifts in the workflows of publishing within the architecture and design sectors since Actar was established in 1993. “In the past few decades there have been radical changes in the way we produce, release and consume content”, he explains. “When I began in design publishing we were five editors deciding upon and commissioning writers. Today, for example in our ‘urbanNext’ project, we are 50 people spread around the world commissioning and editing work and it is through this online network that we decide upon and produce content. We have witnessed the business structures of publishing become closer to the medium, one result being the decentralization of production.”
“We realized that as the Internet gained in popularity, Actar was behaving like a classical publisher yet we were online”, Devesa explains, “so we began ‘urbanNext’ to explore this new territory. We wanted linked content delivered across different platforms, which required us to rethink our whole categorization of subject matter.” To decide upon these categories their editorial team put forward subcategories of over 400 subtopics which appeared to coalesce around four key themes of ‘technology and fabrication’, ‘mobility’, ‘economics and politics’ and ‘energy and sustainability’. They then instructed six editors to search for relevant authors and content, to attend and co-partner at events and develop interest around the project. This curatorial approach is remarkably different to platforms such as ArchDaily, “the world’s most visited architecture website”, in which architects upload their own content and description of the project.
Pohl suggests the increased integration of AI and artificial sorting mechanisms is also a key factor in how the workflow of content creation within publishing is shifting and will exert a greater influence in the coming years. dpr-barcelona do not see machine intelligence as a distant future scenario, but instead argue that we are already living in a ‘post humanist’ culture in which humans, non‑human beings and intelligent technology are increasingly intertwined. While other disciplines begin to experiment with AI, such as poetry (on botpoet.comyou can determine whether a poem has been written by a bot) and literature (the Japanese Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award is now open to non-human applicants); Pohl argues uptake within architecture publishing has been pedestrian at best. She pins this slow reaction not only to conservatism within the industry, but also an issue with pride. “AI has the potential to develop more precise and interesting ways of sorting and filtering content, yet still today many design publishers are hesitant to engage with these tools. I think part of this is the fear of losing ownership over content, which is a problem within the architecture publishing industry specifically. There remains this issue of branding, of the ego battling against the radical potential of transforming the text to create new understandings. Instead, as an industry, we need to remind ourselves that it is productive to fail, to make mistakes. Otherwise, how can it be possible to improve your practice? That does not mean we should disregard the structure and potentials of academic creations. But to move forward, the architecture publishing industry needs to swallow its pride. That will push it forward.”
Pohl asserts that there remains a meaningful role for a publishing and editing team in a AI-hybrid publishing process, but editors must learn to respond and adapt. “At dpr-barcelona, we still see a future role for an editor, even though that role will shift significantly”, she explains. “The orthodox position is that publishers take the role of guardians and emissaries of the experts in the control of style, form, composition and even quality in architectural construction, yet today the role is now more curatorial. Instead, the focus appears to have shifted to decision-making on the outlook of the edition and importance of media content and to attract both readers and contributors to the project, to build an audience.”
Elise Hunchuck, co-editor of SCAPEGOAT journal, an independent not-for-profit print publication based in Toronto focused on ‘architecture, landscape and political economy’, suggests the contemporary role of editor and publisher in architecture publishing demands a hands-on approach, working closely with content creators. “The opportunities of the publication and editors are to be found in the relationships we have with each other, with contributors, and with each of our networks of collaborators and allies”, she explains. SCAPEGOAT works with contributors to develop their texts and projects, which can sometimes involve close reading and discussion with the editorial team. Projects have subsequently evolved into new formats beyond the contributor’s typical output mediums. “This can sometimes translate into an involved relationship between contributor, editors, and designer”, explains Hunchuck, “which is something that we are committed to, with every issue and conversation.”
In the past decade there has been a reemergence of print publications entering mainstream architectural discourse which express a more radical editorial politics and political outlook. Publishing initiatives such as SCAPEGOAT (2010-), dpr-barcelona (2007) and The Funambulist (2015-) are growing their mainstream and interdisciplinary readerships, pursuing publishing in with an agenda of ‘making public’. These initiatives reject a focus towards a particular building typology or architect and instead focus their editorials and issues around an activist cause or theme, following in the footsteps of the Oppositions Journal or long-running Casabella (celebrating its 90th birthday this year). Select widely-read journals such as the Architectural Review are also offering priority to politically and activist-driven feature inserts such as the ‘Big Rethink’ (2013). In addition, there been somewhat of a resurgence of student-driven publishing projects emerging from major institutions, such as the Fulcrum by AA students, PLACE-HOLDER from the University of Toronto, or Bartlett LOBBY. Such architecture publishing initiatives utilize social media and online formats to engage and reach out to a wider audience, seizing the opportunity to explore the publishing as a political, formative process rather than a postpartum reflection upon the architecture industry.
With its roots in academia and activism, SCAPEGOAT takes an active political role to create a context for research and development within contemporary design practices. Hunchuck explains that the purpose of their project is to “work to find gaps and openings in design disciplines, either by filling those gaps, or, undermining the disciplines by using those gaps to produce new spaces and opportunities”. As a philosophy undergrad at the University of Toronto, Hunchuck explains that she was drawn to the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Design due to the excitement surrounding the initiation of the SCAPEGOAT project. “As someone who had studied geography and philosophy, it was exciting to find a journal — and a group of people — that examined relationships between political-economic power and the built environment. SCAPEGOAT highlighted landscape architecture as a deeply political practice,” she explains. “To me, an outsider, SCAPEGOAT was a project which aimed to advance the practice of design through a clear and explicit acknowledgement of the role that architecture and landscape play in social reproduction, both in the positive sense of open, accessible, and democratic spatial forms, but also, critically, in the negative sense of the construction of oppressive and exploitative situations. These are often not so clear and not so obvious.”
Pohl was also drawn to architecture publishing when she and dpr-barcelona co-founder César Reyes Nájera felt that their questions and critical reflections upon the built environment were not being addressed within mainstream architecture criticism and press. “There was an organic development from my PHD into research to publishing”, explains Pohl, “there appeared to be something more critical at stake. I arrived in Barcelona from El Salvador in the boom years before the 2008 financial crisis, at a time when built production was expanding exponentially. While the political agenda behind it was evident, it was not explicit. I felt it needed to be discussed. For me, writing and publishing offered another perspective on the changes which were happening all around.”
Their joint publishing project dpr-barcelona began in 2007, prior to the so-called ‘crisis of publishing’ and at a time when the emergence of blogs and RSS-feeds were becoming increasingly common. “At that time, things seemed to move fast and there was a freedom of movement within the industry, with new, independent voices emerging”, Pohl recounts. Both she and Nájera also brought a radical approach to copyright practice to the discussion, a reaction to the specialized databases and repositories they encountered during their PHD research. “The possibility of an open repository came coupled with a critical view of academic publishing and copyright mechanisms that allegedly safeguard intellectual production. Therefore our classifying and thinking also became a form of activism, similar to that of other repositories such as AAAARG, Monoskop or UbuWeb”, she explains. Pohl and Nájera consequently began to explore writing, reading and editing in a collective manner, “transmuting architecture publishing platforms”. “Online publishing enables a writer to conduct and publish independent research, which, like Socks Studio, offers flexibility for users or visitors to explore and construct their own narratives”, Pohl explains. “We are interested in active, rather than passive browsing.”
The challenge of publication distribution was a topic all four architecture publishers pointed to as a key issue within their own practice and which they anticipated would continue to present a challenge in the coming years. “Publishing in print is much more complicated than digital, which we have experienced first-hand while working on ‘Ed’,” says Petrunia. “A big hurdle is creating the product. For titles like Ed, our volume is too high to take a handmade approach but it’s too low to print professionally at a reasonable cost. Secondly, at this scale, we’re too small to work with large distribution companies, so we need to take this task on ourselves”. Archinect’s creative response to this challenge was to become their own distributors, both for Ed and other favorite publications, by creating their own bookshop, Archinect Outpost.
Digital and social media platforms are growing the audience for architecture publications and content, bringing new interdisciplinary voices and readers into a once exclusive readership. The emergence of social networks and networked communication has enabled even small digitally-literate publishing projects to get off the ground. Platforms such as Medium, Instagram and Pinterest, to name a few, have brought new voices, disciplines and formats into discussion. Petrunia points out that promoting content through social media comes with its own challenges, “despite the diversity of architectural content available online people tend to only experience the content that their network is creating and sharing”.
Since its inception, SCAPEGOAT’s answer to the complex distribution problem has been to offer open access to all of their print journals via their website. When SCAPEGOAT began, they initially explored a print-on-demand model, conscious of the environmental footprint of the process. In the years since, however, SCAPEGOAT have decided to begin set print-runs in collaboration with graphic designers and co-distributors Other Forms. This strategy allows for lower production and retail costs, while insisting on maintaining open access to all materials.
Another commonality which links emerging architecture publishers is the desire to develop a following and create a community around their publishing projects. Conscious of the importance of growing a community beyond digital ‘followers’, or ‘likes’, Archinect dedicated a third of the space within Archinect Outpost to support the publishers featured in the shop and continues to host a series of related events, talks and book launches. In 2017 Actar partnered with the Seoul Bienalle to develop a greater following and engagement in their urbanNext project, resulting in the production of ‘Imminent Commons’, a series of videos, essays and projects. “Part of our aim with urbanNext is to develop our professional network, to invite new stakeholders into the conversation and build community,” explains Devesa. In the coming years, they are planning an offline get-together in which urbanNext will host a series of think-tanks across three different continents.
Novel formats and styles of content are central to the discussion of how the publishing industry will develop in the coming decades as new digital and connected technologies develop. Recent creative approaches, albeit from other disciplines, in content format creation include ‘Insta Novels’, a reinvention of Instagram Stories to bring classic novels to a new generation launched by the New York Public Library in 2018, and innovations in interactive infographics by large East Coast media platforms. While it is challenging to locate examples of new formats and mediums within the architecture publishing sector, it could be argued that architects possess the creativity and digital literacy to innovate in this field.
Archinect’s approach to working with new formats is inspired by audience feedback. “Archinect is a hybrid media organization”, explains Petrunia, “while our website content is continuously expanding, we have also launched the podcast ‘Archinect Sessions’, and the print journal ‘Ed’.” One of the driving factors behind the development of the podcast was a realization that much of the many early followers no longer have the time to read Archinect throughout the day, but instead could listen to audio content on their commute or while drawing in the office.
Both dpr-barcelona and Actar expressed their interest in the potential of new formats. After we joked about toddlers attempting to swipe physical books expecting them to be interactive, Pohl explains, “I look forward to when we can flip a page and see a moving GIF and I don’t think it’s that far away. This is why the architecture publishing industry needs to both engage with research and reach out to other publishing houses, beyond the design world and beyond text-based formats. Otherwise, we may find architecture publishing confined to coffee table books. We view the myriad of digital formats and platforms as a constellation in which some stars are born, some of them die, but in the meanwhile, they co-exist and form a recognizable pattern”.
What can we expect from the architecture publishing industry in the coming decades? Will the cyclic, curated platform of architecture publishing play a greater role in driving the building industry, or, could we even consider a future where architects and architecture publishing play a more active role in shaping the future of the publishing industry as a whole?
Petrunia suggests that architecture publishers need to be more aware of the evolving business models of the publishing industry to have a chance to be part of the conversation. “Architecture publishers will need to respond swiftly to innovations, especially changes in physical distribution. Publishers need to be asking questions now such as how to create content which adapts to, or even foresees, changes to our devices, including digital wearables and VR.” Petrunia points out part of these innovations may encompass an unexpected resurgence of former modes, such as email. “I can imagine the deployment of feeds and API’s, disseminating content through a variety of platforms. A common current editorial business model requires popular content to drive ad revenue, influences the content which is delivered”, he explains. “I am interested in platforms that are experimenting with early phases of new revenue models, such as Medium.”
At dpr-barcelona, Pohl and Nájera agree that architecture publishers will need to possess the agility to act fast as the industry changes, which they argue requires interdisciplinary collaborative methods. “At dpr-barcelona we think technology is, and will be, an integral part the conversation,” says Pohl, “and to move forward we need to collaborate with other industries to develop cutting-edge research. It is only by adapting to this new climate that architecture publishing houses will survive. Until now, we have been very conservative and resistant to change, very self-referential, and we are concerned that without collaboration we will make the same mistakes again and again. We need more research and development in image-based publication, open platform and copyrights, and most importantly, new ways of sharing.”
In the coming decades, it appears neither text nor images alone will define architecture publishing. Architectural education and practice need to join forces with the visual arts in the search for the new languages of digital media and digital-print hybrids, with a focus on experiential and tactile qualities. To reiterate dpr-barcelona’s analogy, one may imagine a ‘constellation of formats’, both digital and physical, linked through the project’s agenda and community. The financial sustainability of architecture publishing may be predicated upon how successfully publishers engage with eclectic, diverse representations and the adaptability of their business models. If architecture publishing is to remain cutting-edge and relevant, it must not only respond to, but inspire new understandings of the built environment.