Destroying enemy lines

The last bastion of controversial criticism among architects has died a recent death. With Progressive Architecture magazine gone, Peter Hall asks who is left to keep this easily-offended profession in check. Is it now a case of “sycophants only” in this

On both sides of the Atlantic, architecture magazines have had a tough time riding out the recession and the slump in the building profession. Oddly enough, just when the worst seemed to be over, a winter of discontent swept in and closed two well-respected journals in both countries. In Britain, the near death and resurrection of Blueprint is well-documented, the magazine and its editors now happily ensconced in the bosom of Aspen Media, the publicly quoted communications company. But in the US, the sudden demise of the 76-year-old

Progressive Architecture – apparently for good – warrants a little more attention.

The overnight disappearance of the country’s last provocative architecture journal was the end result of a domino effect initiated by the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) decision to withdraw its endorsement of Architecture magazine, published by Billboard Publications International, as its official member journal. BPI responded by purchasing PA, which had 52 000 subscribers, and promptly shutting it down. BPI and Penton Publishing, the Cleveland-based trade magazine publisher that sold PA, claimed the closure was prompted by financial problems at the title. BPI purchased PA in order to spare its subscribers from being left without a publication, it said, by sending each person on the subscribers list a copy of Architecture instead. How kind.

But the 15 editors and writers at PA who ended the black day in early January jobless were left with the impression that they were victims of a sleazy business manoeuvre. “The publishers of Architecture magazine – soon to lose its status as the official AIA magazine – seized the opportunity to eliminate one rival,” said Thomas Fisher, PA’s editorial director, and John Morris Dixon, editor, in a joint written statement. BPI emerged from the deal with an invaluable list of potential subscribers, and Penton dusted its hands of the whole affair.

The American Institute of Architects, meanwhile, found itself suddenly free of one of its fiercest critics. Rumours began to circulate that the venerable institution had actually orchestrated the whole debacle in order to lay PA to rest. PA had taken to running pointed criticisms of the organisation, including one titled AIA: Worth the Price of Admission? and another, The Intern Trap, that called to attention the AIA’s attempts to encourage practices to employ unpaid interns.

Whether the rumour is true or not, the demise of PA leaves two rather innocuous picture book-style rival magazines on the market – Architecture and Architectural Record – and the clear message that architects hate criticism. This isn’t isolated to the “mother of the arts” either, designers hate criticism too.

Compare the publications of advertising and art: both fields thrive on informed and sometimes devastating criticism. The art world would be considerably handicapped without vigorous critical voices, and the advertising world simply expects hard-nosed reporting, la Campaign or Ad Week, while criticism of creative standards is frequently accepted as just more valuable exposure.

Design couldn’t be more different. One recent example is David Carson’s refusal to give an interview to Rick Poynor for ID Magazine in New York, on the grounds that he feared the resulting article would not be “objective”.

Is it low self-esteem that makes the design professions so resistant to criticism? And if so, is that low esteem due to the public’s failure to comprehend or appreciate what it is that designers and architects actually do?

The whole situation puts the design magazines in a tricky position. Is a trade magazine’s job to blithely promote the profession it represents, or is it to stimulate healthy debate?

If the fate of PA is anything to go by, perhaps the design world would prefer to see innocuous self-promotion in its publications. In fact, the smartest commercial move a publisher could make might be the start-up of a design magazine equivalent to the magnificently sycophantic Hello! magazine. Or has that been done already?

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