Last month a Kickstarter campaign launched by the Real Estate Architecture Laboratory (REAL) reached its funding target: the Real Review, an independent bi-monthly magazine which intends to "revive the review as a writing form" to a general readership within the architectural sphere, will soon be a reality. ArchDaily sat down with editors Jack Self and Shumi Bose to discuss how the project came into being and what this—the flagship publication of REAL—will look like when its first issue is published in early 2016.
To begin at the beginning: what precisely is a ‘review’? For Self, former Reviews Editor at the London-based Architectural Review (until the section was recently discontinued), it is “perhaps the most undervalued type of publication. The 'review' has an incredible scope,” he explains, “which encompasses the literal configuration of an object or a particular moment in time, through to much larger ideas and trains of thought.” It’s a diverse format able to cover almost anything “because it always begins from the position of discussing a very particular subject or object through, more often than not, the medium of the book.” Standing against the trend in journalism for articles to become standalone, isolated opinion pieces, the strength of the ‘review’ is that it is always a response.
While studying at the Architectural Association, Self and Bose (alongside Aram Mooradian and Graham Baldwin) developed Fulcrum – a single-page printed publication which produced a hundred weekly issues between 2011 and 2014. Their book Real Estates: Life Without Debt brought together a number of significant thinkers to "explore the moral, political and economic ramifications of property and ownership in neoliberal debt economies, asking what role the architect might play in addressing widening social and spatial inequality in the built environment." The Real Review is the natural next step in their collaboration. Together, they are determined to open up the world of architectural critique and discussion to a more general audience, as well as attempting to shift the discussion within the architectural discourse itself.
They have summarised this ambition, which also aligns with that of the REAL foundation, in that they have "a core goal to promote awareness of the impacts of theories—primarily political and economic—to the profession." Self elaborates: "We take the spaces around us largely for granted. Even the most successful architecture in the city is rarely the focus of our attention – it merely becomes entourage to the urban experience." How we address questions of privacy, gender roles, and political and economic class become, therefore, more important. "The way in which architects normally write about architecture," Self continues, "doesn't always capture these facets. Architecture by its nature is an introspective discipline." In short, the Real Review is an effort to take the conversations being had by architects about the social function of architecture and make it more accessible to others.
Both Self and Bose read the London Review of Books (LRB) – a publication which has given them a degree of "reassurance." With a circulation just shy of 65,000 copies per issue in 2014, its success is a well-known industry fact and—as a single case study—stands fast against the common assumption that print media has had its day. "The LRB were founded [in 1979] as the result of a protest against the Times Literary Supplement," Self explains. "We like that they assume an intelligent, engaged reader – but not so much that it becomes alienating." It's expected, for example, that the reader of the Real Review will know who Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe are, but not necessarily a comprehensive history of the piloti or Miesian details.
Interestingly, the LRB recently studied their readership and concluded that their growth could be accounted for by the fact that young people are, on the whole, reading more long-form journalism. "Long-form is effectively replacing the book," Self believes. Bose puts it down to the fact that "all people—especially the young—are getting better at absorbing different forms of content and knowing where to find it." For Self and Bose, the success of the LRB has demonstrated that there is a market for this type of journalism. They feel that the review is the best format to disseminate this type of writing.
Self and Bose turned to crowdfunding to Kickstart the project. At first, Bose "was cynical about whether people would be prepared to hand over money for yet another print publication." Aside from its funding capacity, they have specifically employed Kickstarter as a mechanism to test whether or not there is a general appetite for what the Real Review will offer. "Kickstarting is as much about community as it is about your personal reputations," Self says. "People are investing in an idea which doesn't yet exist, and that means a lot." Having reached their funding target in the first twenty days of the campaign, it's clear that the appetite is there. "We write a personal message to everyone who backs us, and we know every single person. Sometimes the conversations with complete strangers have gone on for days," says Bose. "It's great to see that there are people who both trust and value our endeavour."
Nevertheless, balancing the books in the print media industry remains an ever more difficult challenge. "The original Kickstarter target ($24,994 or £15,990) was set at the cost of print," explains Self. "The actual target is around £10,000 ($15,500) per issue ($92,500 or £60,000 per year). If we were to crowdfund somewhere between £25- and £30,000 ($46,000) then we'll be in a strong position to pay all of our writers, many of whom have accepted 'IOUs' at this stage." That said, Self and Bose are keen to stress that they do not see Kickstarter as one enormous piggy-bank. "We recognise that we must work hard to build a strong subscriber base once the review launches," says Bose. "The Kickstarter was a good way to test an initial hunger or audience for our project. A subscription base allows you to project into the future and to ensure that you don't overspend."
“Pragmatically speaking,” Bose says, “print is expensive" – a fact which cannot be denied, but also something which she sees as an advantage. "When you only have a certain number of pages you’re forced to focus on precisely what’s important." It is about respecting the value of intellectual labour. Central to their financial model is the fact that they will pay their contributors, a policy designed to help to encourage and promote the next generation of writers. But they will not, for the time being, be paying themselves. The Real Review is part of the REAL Foundation, which is currently going through the British Charities Registration Commission. If it does achieve charity status, all profits from the publication will go directly into the foundation. Self and Bose, who are both directors of the foundation, will be permitted to draw income from the foundation. "This way," says Bose, "we can first see if the review will become financially sustainable, before we look to paying ourselves. At the moment we have to be somewhat pragmatic about it: we must prioritise paying our writers. We need to make the venture viable before we do anything else."
Aside from the confirmed writers for the first issue (which include, among others, Assemble, Pier Vittorio Aureli, Reinier de Graaf, Sam Jacob, and a rostra of journalists including the Financial Times' architecture critic Edwin Heathcote), what do the long-term prospects for the Real Review's written content look like? "We've already had a lot of people interested in writing for us," Bose says. "It's very heartening that people have seen our agenda and have felt a connection." As editors, Bose and Self will select the writers for each issue. "I remember people who have made an impact upon the way I think," Self states. "Shumi and I read a lot, are engaged—among other things—in cultural theory, architecture, and economics, and are excited about pairing interesting people with books that might interest them." "We have a huge obligation to give people something which is worth their time," says Bose.
ArchDaily and the Real Review will share an exclusive partnership and will make available a limited selection of their articles online.
A Kickstarter campaign recently launched by Jack Self and Shumi Bose of the Real Estate Architecture Laboratory (REAL) has reached its funding target in only twenty days. Produced by an independent team of editors and designers, this bi-monthly magazine intends to "revive the review as a writing form" to a general readership within the architectural sphere and its orbital subjects, with a particular focus on politics and economics.