In October Phineas Harper, assistant editor of The Architectural Review, published an article about the state of architectural publishing, in which he addressed the crisis facing traditional architectural publishers and heavily criticized online platforms, particularly ArchDaily, that have “little time for critique, turning instead to reworking press releases and biased descriptions from the architects.”
Allow me to introduce myself: I am a critic and creator of original content for ArchDaily, and I would like to refute these allegations.
This kind of treatment is something which, unfortunately, ArchDaily is used to. In addition to Harper's defamatory comments, we have been criticized by Jan Loerakker on the Failed Architecture blog (which indirectly prompted Harper's article via Elvia Wilk's article in Uncube about “International Architecture English”). Last year, ArchDaily was also accused by Owen Hatherley of helping to generate an architectural culture which “no longer has an interest in anything but its own image.”
By contrast, Harper is able to proudly trace the lineage of highly regarded, traditional media outlets from the 1715 publication of Vitruvius Britannicus through to today, confidently – and correctly – positing his magazine, The Architectural Review, as one of the great remaining bastions of this fine tradition.
I don't wish to deny facts. It is true that many of ArchDaily's posts are republished press releases; it is true that it started life as little more than just those (on purpose, I might add, since we have consciously chosen not to evaluate projects we have never visited but rather to give architects the opportunity to describe their work in their own words). But in recent years, while others in the architectural media began to panic about declining readership, ArchDaily has had a different fight on its hands.
The truth is that Harper presents a false dichotomy between 'traditional' and 'new' media. Harper himself once talked enviously to me about the Italian magazine Domus, a publication he considered one of the AR's leading competitors. Imagine my surprise when recently I went to read what I thought was a Domus review of Zaha Hadid's Heydar Aliyev Center, and discovered that it was in fact the same press release text I had read previously on ArchDaily. I say this not to vilify Domus but to demonstrate that this debate is not entirely about quality or integrity – reputation has a major part to play.
For its part, ArchDaily has been working hard to improve the quality of its news and editorial output, and has begun to find success, even if others in the architectural media remain oblivious (or, to be cynical for a moment, perhaps purposefully ignore it). While Harper talks of “the chaff subsidising the wheat” in print, online publishers have developed a similar system where high traffic, low engagement posts rake in the money and subsidise the more thoughtful articles. Together, these create an ecosystem that makes sites like ArchDaily multi-dimensional, offering readers either a quick visual fix, an easily digestible list or a more in-depth read.
This has not come about by accident. ArchDaily's mission statement refers to “providing inspiration, knowledge and tools” for architects, and – loosely speaking – I have always considered that project posts provide inspiration, and news and editorial posts provide knowledge (furthermore while the expansion of 'new' media into online tools, such as ArchDaily's recently released materials catalog, is relevant to the discussion, it is perhaps tangent to our current concerns).
Another fiction implied by Harper is that traffic-driving articles and serious journalism are mutually exclusive. In reality, some of my own most successful articles have been “click-bait”: “4 Lessons the UK Should Take from Denmark”, which dealt with the topic of Terry Farrell's UK Architecture Review, albeit in list form; “Can We Please Stop Bashing Architects?”, which intrigues readers with its title, but leads to an investigation of the crisis of confidence facing architects; “Does the Title of 'Architect' Deserve to be Protected?”,which took what I consider to be a serious issue and dressed it in a sensationalist tone. All of these articles use a different tactic to attract views and shares, but revolve around serious thought and engagement with the issues facing architecture today.
In turn, the readers of ArchDaily have shown themselves to be surprisingly willing to engage, not just with the architectural concerns at hand but also with the journalism itself, using the comments section to either cheer or chastise ArchDaily for the quality of the article they have read. At this point, we find ourselves driving to the very heart of Harper's article: the effect of “internet democracy” on architecture publishing.
Harper highlights the apparent paradox that, thanks to the internet, we have more and better architecture critics than ever before, and yet the quality of output remains low. He argues: “the reader has been passed unprecedented power to set the agenda of the publisher. But power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He sees this as an argument to de-democratize the press, as if this were either possible or desirable.
But a transition to any form of democracy always comes with its own set of problems (the current state of the Middle-East should be sufficient testament to this), and the process of the democratization of the press is still in its infancy. This challenge to architectural publishing does not exist in a vacuum, and almost everywhere you turn these days the internet is accused of diluting quality – whether this is the quality of journalism, the quality of friendships you find on Facebook, or the quality of music (now that streaming services such as Spotify have dismantled artists' earnings).
Contrary to this cynical world view, most people do care about quality, especially when it concerns a subject that they have a particular interest in, and in many circles there are seeds of a movement towards true quality as people become increasingly aware of the damage wrought by the internet. In architectural publishing, even as 'traditional' (slow) media begins to panic over readers not being interested in their output, new media is starting to make a success of encroaching on their turf. Readers do indeed have absolute power in setting the agendas of publishers, but after gorging themselves on an unprecedented quantity of free content, their priorities are beginning to shift.
ArchDaily is just one of the sites involved in this process, and while it still has a long way to go to match the quality or consistency of an institution like The Architectural Review, it is certainly on its way - whether other sources of media will ever acknowledge this, well, that’s a conversation for another day.
MacBook Pro image by Neved via deviantART