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  3. Why 2015's Most Important Design In Architecture Isn't A Building, But A New York Times Article

Why 2015's Most Important Design In Architecture Isn't A Building, But A New York Times Article

Why 2015's Most Important Design In Architecture Isn't A Building, But A New York Times Article

Looking towards the uppermost floors of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, thick clouds roll diagonally across the sky behind. Reflected in the ample window of the museum’s main gallery they dash in a different direction, while the building’s white facade flashes light and dark in response to the changing light conditions. Superimposed over this scene, bold all-caps lettering pronounces the title of an article: the simple but dramatic “A New Whitney.”

This is the sight that greeted readers of Michael Kimmelman’s review of the Whitney in The New York Times last Sunday. Scroll down just a little, and the first thing you encounter is a list of credits: Jeremy Ashkenas and Alicia Desantis produced the article; graphics were contributed by Mika Gröndahl, Yuliya Parshina-Kottas and Graham Roberts; and videos by Damon Winter (the editor behind the entire endeavor, Mary Suh, is not mentioned).

Before even reading the article’s opening words, one thing is clear: this is not your average building review. As a matter of fact, it might even be the most important article in recent architectural memory.

Throughout the rest of the article, other stunning graphics are woven between Kimmelman’s words, many of them playing automatically at just the right moment as the reader scrolls downward. A swooping diagram of Manhattan shows the Whitney’s move from its 1966 Marcel Breuer building on the Upper East Side, to this new building in Chelsea at the southernmost tip of the High Line. Four videos featuring a 3-D model of the building show views from the galleries, the promenade along the street, and sweeping views of the building’s exterior form. Finally, two live-action videos give readers a short tour of the galleries and shots of the building in use.

A New Whitney

The Media’s Transition to Digital

"We really wanted to be able to push a model for doing architectural criticism online that would make much more use of a digital vocabulary and tools," explained Michael Kimmelman in an interview with ArchDaily. "We did a famous - or, I don't know how famous but well-noticed - project called Snow Fall, and one of the questions was how is this applicable elsewhere?"

Kimmelman’s modesty on behalf of his employer is misplaced. “Snow Fall,” a six-part multimedia report from December 2012 about a tragic avalanche accident at Tunnel Creek, Washington, is about as famous as a single piece of journalism can get.

It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for feature writing, a Peabody Award for being “a spectacular example of the potential of digital-age storytelling,” and a Webby for Best Use of Interactive Video. Before "Snow Fall," the translation of publishing outlets from magazines and newspapers to the web had largely been a case of mimicry, with publishers simply trying to arrange words and pictures in a way that approached the finely-designed graphics of the spreads they were used to. In topics across the board, this resulted in a plethora of lost story-telling opportunities, something that “Snow Fall” was an attempt to rectify.

At the time, Poynter described it as “pushing multimedia storytelling in an exciting direction,” and The Atlantic’s The Wire called it “so beautiful it has a lot of people wondering - especially those inside The New York Times - if the mainstream media is about to forgo words and pictures for a whole lot more.” In a much more recent article, Venture Beat proclaimed that “when the definitive history of online multimedia storytelling is written, The New York Times’ pioneering Snow Fall article will get its own chapter.”

Now over two years later, it seems the architecture world is finally getting its “Snow Fall” moment - and while “Snow Fall” was a major step for online media, “A New Whitney” has the potential to be even more.

Adolf Loos' Goldman & Salatsch Building, completed in 1912. Loos once wrote that "the sign that a building arises from a genuine feel for architecture is that it makes no impression as a two-dimensional representation". Image © Alexander Mayrhofer via Wikimedia Commons
Adolf Loos' Goldman & Salatsch Building, completed in 1912. Loos once wrote that "the sign that a building arises from a genuine feel for architecture is that it makes no impression as a two-dimensional representation". Image © Alexander Mayrhofer via Wikimedia Commons

The Symbiotic Evolution of Architecture and Media

Unlike other forms of journalism, in architecture many believe that the way buildings are represented in the media actually has the power to change the way architects design. Photography has long been at the front-line of this battle. In an article for The Architectural Review, for example, Nicholas Olsberg describes how Frank Lloyd Wright commissioned photographs to market his designs to the American public, and how Erich Mendelsohn perfected the technique of producing “apparently spontaneous” sketches of his Einstein Tower based upon the final photos of the building. Olsberg writes:

“It is perhaps only a short step from such use and abuse of photography to a habit of mind that begins to conceive of a design in terms of the camera’s establishing view, or to the construction of the path that takes tourists down to the nearly inaccessible site from which the professional camera captured the famous but otherwise unknowable upward view of Fallingwater − as if we had not seen the building properly until we could picture it from the published viewpoint.” [1]

Using more recent examples, in his essay for the Architectural Association’s blog Saturated Space Douglas Murphy recounts how the transition from black-and-white to color photography in the architectural media helped affirm the transition from the austere, powerfully formal architecture of Brutalism and Modernism to a particular strain of vibrant postmodernism:

“Buildings such as Charles Moore’s Piazza de Italia, or Michael GravesPortland Office Block, simply couldn’t have made the impact that they did without the possibility of their being depicted elsewhere, in full colour.” [2]

He even connects color photography to the glassy high-tech that is almost a standard in office architecture today:

“Black-and-white architectural photography relies entirely on chiaroscuro for its effect, on shadows cast by elements, on reveals and massed offsets, and cannot really do justice to the vanishing reflections of a glazed curtain wall.” [2]

In recent years, this criticism of architectural photography in the media has honed in on a particular kind of image-consciousness in the design of buildings. In 2012, Owen Hatherley wrote an article for The Photographers’ Gallery that in part criticized the rapid proliferation of images on architecture websites (including ArchDaily) as “a handmaiden to an architectural culture that no longer has an interest in anything but its own image.” [3] Finally, in January of this year The Architectural Review’s history editor Tom Wilkinson wrote:

“A feedback loop is established between reproduction and production, to the extent that some buildings are evidently built as images, and utility goes out of the window… Despite the familiarity of this critique, editors (myself included) and photographers are so enmeshed in the institutional networks of architectural production that critical images have been subjected to an iconoclastic taboo.” [4]

The early 2000s perhaps represent the era of architecture’s coziest relationship to photography, as a particular breed of image-conscious architecture found success both commercially and critically. But the global recession of 2008 changed this relationship dramatically; for many people, so-called “iconic” design became symbolic of wasteful expenditure by the few people privileged enough to be able to commission a building. For around seven years now, architecture media has exhibited a persistent schism between the expressed opinion of writers and the images chosen to convey a design. But if the symbiotic development of architecture and its media representation is broken, how can we ever hope to once again progress in the field of design?

Enter The New York Times.

The strong forms and shadows of Brutalism were perfectly suited to black-and-white photography. When color photography started to become more popular it opened the door for the colorful surface applications of postmodernism. Image © (L) Darren Bradley and (R) Steve Morgan via Wikimedia Commons
The strong forms and shadows of Brutalism were perfectly suited to black-and-white photography. When color photography started to become more popular it opened the door for the colorful surface applications of postmodernism. Image © (L) Darren Bradley and (R) Steve Morgan via Wikimedia Commons

A New Paradigm For Architecture Media

The challenging context of architecture publishing is of course something that Michael Kimmelman and his editor Mary Suh were acutely aware of when planning “A New Whitney.”

"It's not about bells and whistles, it's about providing deeper, richer layers of information that are germane to the subject,” explains Kimmelman. “There were things that I was very pleased that we were able to do, which are completely new in architectural criticism - and I don't say this boastfully because this is entirely the digital team that accomplished this, I was along for the ride.”

Kimmelman is firmly associated with the cohort of critics for whom a building should be much more complex than photography can effectively communicate. “From my perspective architecture is about buildings in context. Buildings don't exist in a vacuum,” He tells me. “They're not just images, we can animate the way they actually exist on a street, in a neighborhood, a community, the way they look from different perspectives - the fact is that one is not just reviewing outsides of buildings but insides of buildings. They have to function and to see how they function is also a very important part of reviewing them.”

With “A New Whitney,” The New York Times has presented the first compelling evidence that, through an embrace of the digital, architecture can be presented in a way that acknowledges spatial complexity at a range of scales while remaining visually arresting - and Kimmelman wants to be at the forefront of this transition:

“I think the more information we can provide and the more we can do it in a way that is at once accurate but also exciting is great. What all these digital tools have given us is a way to tell the story in a more complex way, and we should take advantage of them as we do in other areas of the news report. There's no reason why architecture shouldn't be at the forefront of these changes.”

In a sense, the Whitney Museum was an ideal building to test the water. “It depended on my having confidence that I would be able to say things about the building to merit such a large undertaking,” Kimmelman reveals. “I didn't have to like it entirely - as I do not - but I did have to be able to write something useful.”

More than this, the building was perfect because it is in some ways the antithesis of the buildings which have emerged in the era of duplicitous photography. In short it is ugly, or “ungainly,” as Kimmelman writes in his review; “It clearly evolved from the inside out, a servant to pragmatism and a few zoning anomalies.” With such an emphasis on its interior functions, its relationship to the street, and also its relationship to the High Line and the city beyond, the building almost required the deft, unconventional representation it received in The New York Times.

“I just think the language by which we discuss architecture needs to be enriched in all sorts of ways... I think so too does our ability to talk about architecture visually, online. It seems to me it's all part of recognizing the complexity and richness of architecture in our lives. Those aren't just meaningless words, I really mean this. It's about enriching the way we think about architecture and recognizing its complexity,” concludes Kimmelman.

Many identify the success of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao as a key factor in the popularity of image-focused architecture. Image © Flickr User: RonG8888
Many identify the success of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao as a key factor in the popularity of image-focused architecture. Image © Flickr User: RonG8888

Challenges of a New Method

This attempt to dramatically change the way we think about architecture media did not come easily. Not least, the logistical challenges involved in creating an article that required eight people, the complicity of the museum itself, and months of planning are clear in my discussion with Kimmelman. "I needed to see the building - repeatedly - to have some sense of what kind of features we would include, what kind of visuals we would find most appropriate”, he says. “At the same time the people from the digital side needed to see the building as well to see what they thought was possible, understand what I was talking about, and come up with their own ideas."

For the production team, a significant portion of these visits also entailed gathering enough data to reproduce the building as a 3-D model, which was then sent to the architects at Renzo Piano Building Workshop for approval.

Kimmelman also admits that the presentation style did require “some rejiggering of material” - slight adjustments to his review which would allow “a pacing of the digital features so that they came throughout and in different ways,” although he is confident that the result “was true to what I would have said, in more or less the way I said it, but fits with the layout that they required.” Perhaps equally challenging, all of this digital adaptation had to come without compromising the old systems; “of course, we still print a newspaper,” mentions Kimmelman, so "the text does, at the end of the day, still need to completely stand on its own.”

The New Whitney Museum, by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Cooper Robertson. Image © Paul Clemence
The New Whitney Museum, by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Cooper Robertson. Image © Paul Clemence

Towards a New Architectural Media

So is “A New Whitney” the start of something totally different, or is it just a flash in the pan? Kimmelman is reluctant to be drawn too much on how regularly we will see such features on The New York Times - after all, the article required the help of seven other people, many of whom have commitments across the entire newspaper. But he is clear when it comes to his intentions: “My hope is that it can be done regularly. Not every review, not every building, not every subject either merits it, needs it or even can be done in this way, but yes I would like to establish a new way of doing architecture criticism. This is my wish, but I don't think I'm alone in having it at the paper.” (In a later email, Kimmelman confirms the influence of editor Mary Suh, saying “we share the desire to rethink the way architecture criticism can be done.”)

When it comes to the rest of the architecture media landscape, his answer is more unequivocal: “I don't think any of us owns the digital world. Innovation is something that feeds on other innovations. I'm hoping that we continue to do this at a level that's very high, and maybe not easy to imitate, but I'm quite sure there will be enormous changes - and we're not alone in making change, that's for sure.”

With “A New Whitney,” The New York Times has thrown down a gauntlet to the rest of the architecture world. They’ve proved that a different way of representing architecture in the media is not only possible, but still as visually compelling as the system it hopes to replace - and most importantly, it could help promote a new direction in architecture which so many voices have been clamoring for, for so long. Now, for both media outlets and for the architects who can help them by supplying publication materials for their projects:

It’s time to put your media where your mouth is.

References

  1. Nicholas Olsberg, “Shattered Glass: The history of architectural photography,” The Architectural Review, December 22 2013.
  2. Douglas Murphy, “Two Photographies,” Saturated Space, March 10 2014.
  3. Owen Hatherley, “Owen Hatherley on Photography and Modern Architecture,” The Photographers’ Gallery, December 10 2012.
  4. Tom Wilkinson, “The Polemical Snapshot: Architectural Photography in the Age of Social Media,” The Architectural Review, January 15 2015.

Lead image: MacBook Pro image by Neved via deviantART, screencast of “A New Whitney” courtesy of The New York Times.

Cite: Rory Stott. "Why 2015's Most Important Design In Architecture Isn't A Building, But A New York Times Article" 27 Apr 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <http://www.archdaily.com/624237/why-the-most-important-design-in-architecture-this-year-isn-t-a-building-but-a-new-york-times-article/>
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