Traditional Magazine Doesn’t Have to Be the Only Vehicle for Architectural Debate
“Trends in writing about architecture may come and go, but reliable documentation of what is taking place is timeless. My main wish is to keep the conversation about architecture going,” says Ewa P. Porębska, editor-in-chief of Architektura Murator.
Marcin Szczelina: Two years ago you organized the first edition of the international conference Architecture and Media in Barcelona, attended by leading architectural magazines from around the world. The second edition of this conference took place in May 2020. Why did you decide to venture beyond the Polish context?
Ewa P. Porębska: The international context has always been of interest to me. For as long as I can remember, I have been buying magazines from abroad that I found engaging at a given time. Over twenty years ago in Montpellier, France the first (and so far, the last) meeting of editors-in-chief of architectural magazines took place, co-organized by L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui and several other institutions. The most important critics of international fame and heads of the largest architectural magazines quite openly discussed both the content and financial aspects of running their publications. Everyone was greatly impressed by a lecture given by Dietmar Steiner, who in the 1980s was the editor-in-chief of Domus, and who later for many years headed the Architekturzentrum Wien; Steiner in a mildly entertaining tone foretold a demise of architectural magazines in their existing form. He put forward theses that seemed audacious, and at times verging on ridiculous, but history has proven him right. Basing on his experience with Domus, he anticipated back then already that the circulation of traditional architectural magazines would decrease significantly, because architects are interested only in uncritical promotion of their work and demand full control over the publication of materials tackling their creations. Were Steiner’s words not prophetic? Unfortunately, we encounter such publications also on the Polish market today, do we not? Dietmar predicted that publishing a serious, critical architectural magazine would be a hobby, because it would be very difficult to maintain it. Possibly, publications such as Detail, that deal with technical aspects of architecture, stood a better chance of achieving high circulation.
Why is that so? Architecture criticism doesn’t pertain to a building alone, but to the spaces that we inhabit. Do we no longer need to reflect on reality?
There are numerous issues at play. First of all, it is a part of a general trend: we are living in times of post-truth, where facts and painstaking analyses do not matter; propaganda reigns in the public discourse, and architecture is no exception. This is more or less what Steiner had in mind back at the time of the conference. As an editor-in-chief of a monthly magazine I can’t ignore the fact that reality is changing, but this doesn’t mean that I would like to follow this road. For years we have been exchanging copies with virtually all major architectural magazines in the world. I’m interested not only in their content, but also in their production methods and business approach. A magazine must at least break even in order to be published — or receive a generous donation, which is rare.
2019 Architektura Murator boisterously celebrated its 25th anniversary. This proves that a publication can survive for so many years and remain a leading architectural magazine in Poland. How did the conversation about architecture change over this quarter of a century?
I have initiated the conference Architecture and Media precisely in order to analyse what has changed. In what direction are we headed? What is the most important content that needs to be published? Today it is very difficult to have a circulation comparable to the one we used to have, but I remain deeply convinced that a traditional magazine doesn’t have to be the only vehicle for architectural debate. The conversation is moving online, and the influence of social media is growing significantly. I strongly believe that we should stay open; if I notice that the importance of the Internet is growing, I shouldn’t turn my back on it. I need to make it possible for my magazine to expand its online presence. Organizing exhibitions, debates, and meeting people is equally important. Diversification is a great opportunity that can help architecture criticism to survive in a form best suited to a given time.
What is the purpose of organizing conferences for creators of architectural magazines?
I had great hope that this event would prove to be meaningful for the younger generation. I wanted them to meet and to get to know each other, to learn what others are up to, and to see what can be achieved. In preparation for the conference we asked the panellists about their perceived success and failures. The answers were very interesting, because each of the stories was unique, and yet there were many similarities among them. I believe that it is important to meet every now and then to learn from each other. What is challenging in creating an organization that brings together all architectural magazines in the world is the fact that they operate in very different sets of circumstances; there are magazines published by associations, some are based on a corporate model, and others are run by amateur hobbyists. For this reason, it should be appreciated even more that the conference for the media was organized by the Mies van der Rohe Foundation, which perceives educating about architecture as a part of its mission.
Nowadays there are just a handful of respected critics of architecture. Websites on architecture with short, opinion-making content that resemble more blogs than magazines, are gaining popularity. Social media is becoming a preferred platform for discussion — it is the case not only of Facebook, but also Instagram. The pressure for fast information flattens the debate.
This is the natural way of things. Personally, I truly appreciate that thanks to social media we are not held captive to one point of view, coming from an authority who tells us what is good and what is bad in architecture. Social media gives us access not only to very individual views, but also to projects and ventures that would remain completely unknown to us otherwise. A large number of small messages can bring about change. I take sincere pleasure in seeking out information on small blogs, because these are the outlets where one can make true discoveries. Also, Instagram is a natural space for architecture, which is visual and looks good on photos. In addition, we have at our disposal technical tools that allow us to clean every image, or to remove background from behind any building. Everything can be embellished or made more visually dramatic. At some point we will grow bored with it, because one can enjoy pretty, but identical photos, only up to a certain point. I believe that a debate is much more alluring.
In the United States there has recently been a wide debate on the role of architecture criticism. One of the conclusions was that the role of traditional magazines is to do fact-checking and fight against fake news.
First of all, we need to ask ourselves what purpose reliable information and analysis serve. Readers involved with architecture expect analysis of the form, while in reality architecture is a much more complex branch of knowledge. We need to understand that the final shape of a given space is affected by business, political and ideological decisions. To put it briefly, by power relations. Add to that social, environmental and other considerations. I think that discussing the form alone is shallow and pointless, especially nowadays. Media focus on a variety of issues; some prioritize the form, some put emphasis on the sense of responsibility, while others treat architecture as a part of economic development of the world. A good text on architecture should, in my opinion, address all these matters.
How do Polish magazines do in comparison with other European publications?
After the conference I can say that we are not behind others. There are, however, a few countries with a long tradition of architectural theory and architecture criticism. British and French magazines also have better possibilities of attracting good authors. I will leave the assessment of our publishing market to the readers. I am always happy to see that we have competition; readers have more choice, and I feel released from the obligation to publish articles on issues that were addressed elsewhere. My main wish is to keep the conversation about architecture going.
From the very beginning I wanted Architektura Murator to tell the story of the Polish architecture objectively and with some distance; I also wanted it to become an archive of sorts, recording the history of the Polish contemporary architecture. In this way if we want to get back to something, we don’t have to rely on our memories or imagination, but we have access to solid analysis and good photos. Trends may come and go, but reliable documentation of what is taking place is timeless.
This is an interesting perspective, because I have an impression that in Poland the discussion about architecture is very polarized. One is either “in favour or against” – there are no nuances, which for me are the essence of a discussion. There are too few voices that try to be objective. Why is the need to take a clear position so strong?
I think it is a matter of our culture. We are often very much focused on our own business, and we seem to lose the need to meet with others. We have trouble working with each other, although I value cooperation highly. One of the events that has been organized regularly for many years by Architektura Murator serves the purpose of creating a non-institutional space for integration of the architectural milieu. I think that a conversation in such a space may be freer and less professionally obliging than those taking place in official contexts at SARP [the Association of Polish Architects] or at the Chamber of Architects, where attending architects represent their companies and organizations. Recently, I took part in an informal meeting in Sopot and, unexpectedly, it turned out that architects want to talk to each other about their values, about how they run their agencies and about the future. Maybe in everyday life it is difficult to find the time for such debates. Often, even during interesting events, panellists say what they have to say and leave. If we don’t devote time to each other, we won’t be able to talk with one another.
Photos: Bartek Barczyk bartekbarczykphotography.com
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