Guy Horton

Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring "The Indicator", he is a frequent contributor to The Architect's Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.

The Indicator: Why Good Architectural Writing Doesn’t Exist (And, Frankly, Needn’t)


Times and Wall Street Journal architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013). “The consistent theme is pleasure,” Ms. Huxtable wrote in 1978. “There is so much more to see, to experience, to understand, to enjoy.” A great writer on architecture, but, thankfully, not an architectural writer. Image © Gene Maggio, Times

The Architects’ Journal recently announced its call for entries for the “AJ Writing Prize,” its annual search for “the best new architectural writer.”

Back in 2011 (how did I miss this?) they published a treatise on the qualities of good architectural writing penned by one of the prize’s judges, architect Alan Berman. Now, please consider that I am butchering his essay by removing this quote from the stream of his thinking, but, that being said, this paragraph stands out:

should aid everyone’s understanding of buildings and assist architects to design better ones. This is not to say that it should be an instruction manual or ignore the importance of the myriad intellectual endeavours which explore the human predicament –about which architects should always be conscious. Rather it is to say that architectural commentary should aim for clarity and precision of expression by means of lucid terminology and simplicity of structure.

This strikes me as a very technical and precise way of producing writer’s block. If this is the extent of good architectural writing, or writing that is in the service of architecture, then “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

The Indicator: Two Shows, Many Cities: “A New Scuplturalism” at MOCA and “Never Built” at the A+D Museum

Pereira and Luckman, LAX original plan, 1952, Rendering. Courtesy World Airports Flight Path Learning Center.

Here in Los Angeles we have a complicated relationship with architecture and two con-current museum exhibitions demonstrate this in ironic and puzzling ways. This came into clear relief when, on Saturday, August 03, 2013, something amazing and unprecedented happened: architecture was on the front page of a major US newspaper, the Los Angeles Times.

This, it must be said, is a very unusual thing for architecture. Moreover, it was not the type of architecture you might expect to grab the spotlight. It was the un-built original plan for Los Angeles International Airport by Pereira and Luckman, c. 1952. If you’ve been to LAX you’ve seen their Theme Building. They also did the plan for LAX that was finally accepted—the less visionary, less ambitious plan. This was being re-presented to the world in the context of “Never Built” a show about the unrealized architectural dreams of Los Angeles currently showing at the A+D Museum.

The Indicator: Starchitect, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Portmanteau

Is the word “starchitect” really denigrating to architects? Is it really a problem for the profession? Really? It depends on how you look at it.

And, yes, as it was pointed out to me, “This question itself is a rehash.” Well, the issue of labeling architects has been a rehash since the sixteenth century so we might as well trot it out one more time.

It’s a rehash principally because the way we label architects has implications for the profession’s bottom line. It drives fees up for a few and down for everybody else. It makes some firms busy and others less so. Or does it even do anything but put contemporary architecture on the minds of the general public, the broader client base?

The Indicator: Favela Café and the End of Irony

Courtesy of

is one of my favorite artists. Not simply because the work is somehow architectural but because much of it surprises by appearing to have been thrown up in secret. Though obviously sanctioned there is an illicit quality to it. It’s dirty, rough, and seemingly improvised out of found materials—though obviously the work of such an acclaimed, grant-receiving artist is not carried out this way.

I have no problem with such appearances. The problem arises from the manner in which such appearances toy with reality when the reality is clearly not one’s own, but merely mined for shock value.

The Indicator: China in 4D

© Guy Horton

The problem with articles like “’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities”, recently featured in The Times, is that they contribute to a misleading and simplistic narrative about China’s economic development, casting it as a story of “good” versus “evil”.

This was recently highlighted by a critique authored by the NYU Stern Urbanization Project in which The New York Times article in question was called out for being overly sensational and reductive in how it covered China’s policies concerning internal migration from the countryside to urban areas.

The Indicator: Back Up and Throw Open the Doors

On the Road throws open the doors. Photo, Jaime Kowal

I see a convergence of sorts. It might be a coincidence but, then again, I think not. The wheels of “Pacific Standard Time”, the Getty’s juggernaut architectural assault on and about , have been turning for what seems like months now with exhibit after exhibit and symposium after symposium.

Is it just me or is “Pacific Standard Time” fatigue setting in? I’m not complaining. It gives me a lot of material to write about so I don’t have to just make stuff up. It corresponds with something called history, after all. But where is the self-reflexive, self-effacing, ha-haExit Through the Gift Shop wink about it all? It’s all so damn serious, isn’t it? It seems cooked up to be so monumental and deterministic. So Grand Narrative from the get-go, right out of the institutional blocks, like a marketing campaign.

The Indicator: No More Interns

Sampson Kempthorne workhouse design for 300 paupers, plan view, via wikipedia

The title “intern” should be banished from the profession of architecture. It’s about time. It has run its course. It’s outmoded and contributes to a culture of exploitation in the guise of opportunity. Frankly, it makes us look so nineteenth century.

More importantly, I’m tired of seeing articles decrying the state of interns every summer when “intern season” kicks in. Can we just be done with this? It’s depressing. Don’t exploit the interns! Pay the interns! No free labor! Class action lawsuit! Solidarity! FU pay me! All very well and good. However, if labor laws and ethics have not fixed the problem, maybe getting rid of the title will. It’s just a title, but it sets a bad precedent.

The Indicator: Pilgrimage, Experiencing the Eames House

© J. Paul Getty Trust

I pass by the almost every day at about 35 mph on my way down to PCH, the sand, the waves, the subterranean tunnels, and the tsunami zone, where LA coughs up its junk on the urban beach, where the Westside comes to its logical conclusion. Sometimes traffic is backed up so far up the hill—this is , after all—that I sit motionless and adjacent where the house should be, but can’t actually see it. I listen to the engine, the radio, the sound of helicopters and leaf blowers. The house is silent somewhere behind a wall of dense tropical flora.

My first actual visit to the house was when I was barely thinking about architecture. In a way it was my introduction to the possibility that someone could do architecture, that it was something one could succeed at. It was optimism on real estate once considered solidly middle class. Improbably light-weight and even painterly, like a Mondrian composition, it sits in a perfectly mundane American yard, like the delicate skeleton of a bird perched over the Pacific.

The Indicator: The Lure of the Vernacular

© Edward Ruscha-The Getty Research Institute, (2012.M.2) / Edward Ruscha photographs of streets and related documentation: Santa Monica Boulevard, Melrose Avenue, Pacific Coast Highway and other streets.

There is something soothing, even easy about vernacular architecture. It’s the territorial and spatial equivalent to Muzak. It evades and pre-dates the self-conscious identity of glitzy, cutting-edge architecture we are so familiar with today. There is an innocence to the vernacular. These are the buildings and environments of childhood.

This is apparent in the exhibition, In Focus: Ed Ruscha, currently showing at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. What captivates about the shots is that they dare to curate buildings that are usually just part of the background. They become objects of curiosity, spectacles, even.

The Indicator: When Architects Attack

© Iwan Baan

When Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Times, gives a bad review there is the sense that he is essentially dismantling a building, chipping its façade apart, like breaking down some charade in defense of the public’s honor. Like a hired killer he disappears the architecture, but at the same time heightens its visibility in the culture.

This ability, to provoke in such ways, is precisely why would like to bar Mr. Hawthorne from taking a crack at reviewing the new building he and his firm, Morphosis designed for the firm’s new offices.

On a recent tour of the new digs, Mayne, as reported in The Architect’s Newspaper, was overheard saying, “There are no good writers in Los Angeles” and “All local writers are horrible.” To add further insult, he wants a science writer to cover it. That should be a short review.

The Indicator: Cooper Union, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down

The architecture that sunk the architecture school. ’s $111 million New Academic Building. Via Wikipedia

Beginning in 2014 The for the Advancement of Science and Art (known more commonly as ), the famed New York City college, will start charging tuition.

For more than 100 years, Cooper Union, which includes a prestigious architecture school, has been “free” (full-tuition support to all students). As such it has always stood apart, charting its own path and following its own independent mission. That Cooper Union is now dead.

For Cooper Union to have survived it would have had to remain simpleminded. And I mean this in the most flattering way.

The Indicator: Sheltering in Place

Rudolph’s UMass Dartmouth Library. Courtesy, UMass Dartmouth

Last Sunday James S. Russell, architecture critic for Bloomberg News and a former editor for Architectural Record, mused on his personal blog about the possible influence ’s Brutalist University of Massachusetts campus in Dartmouth may have had on Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two Marathon bombers who was also a student there.

Mr. Russell describes the campus as “a gigantic eerie, dozen-building concoction of grim ribbed-concrete hubris….” This is the sort of description that drives right to the heart of urban alienation. It’s Edvard Munch’s The Scream. This ability to sum up and drive the nail home is one reason he is the architecture critic for Bloomberg News. No side-stepping here.

The Indicator: Ipso Facto

Courtesy of Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry

It is a building, a building in City, a building erected in the dust of 9/11, a building that upon completion signaled hope for larger reconstructions, a building that presents itself to the world through the intricate patina and pocking of white bronze. White bronze. This alone conjures something alchemic, ancient, timeless.

But buildings are not timeless. They have their time. As architects we memorialize each one that resonates with the thoughtfulness of capital “A” architecture—in part because we understand what it takes to realize them.

Despite this, the Tod Williams and Billie Tsien-designed may ultimately be doomed to the brutal translations of administrative efficiency, cruel syllogisms, that as Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of MoMA’s architecture and design department notes, are “painful.”

The Indicator: UNStudio UNTraditional

The Four Knowledge Platforms. Courtesy,

By now you have probably heard that UNStudio, the Dutch firm led by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, is on target to relaunch this June as an open-source web-based knowledge hub… that, by the way, will still pursue adventurous architecture. We could say they are “launching” this initiative, but it seems more accurate to say they themselves are “relaunching”.

Because of the difficult economic climate in Europe, van Berkel and Bos began to reimagine the practice along the lines of something more fluid, flexible, and agile, a knowledge-based approach to how they work within the office and how they engage the larger world. They are basing this around four topics or “knowledge platforms”: sustainability, materials, organization, and parametrics.

The Indicator: The Pritzker’s Better Half

and , Las Vegas, Strip Message Analysis

There’s been a lot of buzz going around about the Pritzker jury dissing Denise Scott Brown, wife and co-partner to Robert Venturi. Back in 1991 they awarded the prize to Mr. Venturi, singular…not plural to include his better half. Seems they, a different jury, also dissed Wang Shu’s wife and co-partner, Lu Wenyu way back in 2012 by granting the prestigious prize to Mr. Wang without acknowledging who holds up “the other half of the sky”, as they say in Mandarin.

The Indicator: Architecture’s 1979

Seven of the architects who participated in the Architecture Gallery, from left to right: Frederick Fisher, Robert Mangurian, Eric Owen Moss, Coy Howard, Craig Hodgetts, , and Frank Gehry at Venice Beach, 1980 / Photograph by Ave Pildas / Digital Image / Image courtesy of the artist. / © Ave Pildas

The forthcoming Pacific Standard Time exhibition, A CONFEDERACY OF HERETICS: THE ARCHITECTURE GALLERY, VENICE, 1979, which runs from March 29 – July 7, 2013 at SCI-Arc, would like us to believe that there are “pivotal moments” in the architectural zeitgeist—that there are zeitgeists at all might even be worth questioning.

Pivotal moments are constructed after the fact. Zeitgeists are consumed by invested audiences and forced upon the non-cognoscenti as evidence. What we are talking about are discourses. , 1979 is one of architecture’s minor discourses, a pulse that warped the major discourse into something else, the anti-. By saying it is minor does not undermine its cultural significance.

The Indicator: Oblique Strategies for Architects

Peter Schmidt with Brian Eno. What would it be like to sit at that table in that room. Via revelinnewyork.com

In 1975 Brian Eno and the artist Peter Schmidt came out with a deck of cards designed to help artists and musicians push through creative blocks by offering alternative scenarios, methods, and perspectives. They called the set Oblique Strategies.

Think of them as a way to Dada your brain from the everyday realism in front of you to something more abstract. But this then takes you back to an alternate reality you couldn’t have experienced otherwise. They are traveling without moving. They have also been compared to the ancient Chinese book of divination, the Yi-jing, or Book of Changes. They are to be used in cases of creative emergencies.

The Indicator: On Disappearance, Part 2

Factory Worker Dormitory, Dongguan, Guangdong Province, 2005. Photograph, Edward Burtynsky

As Mr. Betsky asserts, “Robots, connected computers, miniaturization, and etherization are taking the work out of both the social and the physical sphere.” But isn’t this just a fantasy because this has not yet happened on a large enough scale to produce a true paradigm shift? Or, if the shift has happened, then where is everybody rushing off to on the Monday morning commute? And what are all those buildings jammed in-between the roads for? Most of them seem to be for work as opposed to play.  

We may all float in and out of working networks as we move around, untethered to carpeted cubicles, telecommuting, flex-timing, logging in at all hours, but we are still and will primarily be working in places designed by architects—often without access to sunlight, fresh air, or nature of any sort.