Editor Jacqui Alexander examines how Airbnb is changing the way that we experience cities, and interpret buildings Read more →
The dominant paradigms of print media establish the parameters for the critique of buildings and practice, well beyond what’s sandwiched between the covers of the journal. But more than this, these paradigms shape the criteria for how we should appraise architecture through their emphases and omissions. What does the way we photograph architecture in the mainstream media say about our professional values? What lies beyond the camera’s lens? Who is sanctioned to assume the role of the critic? What are the criteria by which we measure a building’s success? Despite online publishing’s promise of a liberated, uncensored and democratised discussion, popular architecture websites like ArchDaily and Dezeen are indicators that currency and commentary are continuing to prevail over critical and original content. The perpetual recirculation of images and ideas, saturation of information, and the transience of online publishing reinforce the pivotal role that the professional journal plays in the record-keeping of seminal contemporary works, and both professional and academic journals are still widely recognised as the primary venues for robust critique[i]. So how can the existing paradigms of print publication learn lessons from what hypermedia[ii] promises, but has not yet delivered? How can our architecture publications engender a broader, more inclusive, emancipated discussion? POST Magazine was born as a result of asking these questions, and in the spirit of the radical ‘little magazines’ of the sixties and seventies, it attempts to “und[o] the traditional form of the journal, challenging the field to think and communicate differently”[iii]. According to Beatriz Colomina, despite their marginal position, these alternative printed publications had the power to “directly infect…the period’s professional magazines.”[iv]
Two main protagonists dominate the architecture print-media landscape; on one hand is the professional journal (the commercial architecture magazine), and on the other is the academic journal. It is important to consider how these forms of publication edit architecture, both through the lens of the camera and the lens of critique. For the purposes of this essay I will focus on the former as the main subject of scrutiny.
Commercial architecture magazines typically publish buildings at the ‘perfect’ moment of completion, near after the architect has left the scene and before occupants move into the space. It is easy to understand why – the reliance on advertising revenue and obligation to meet sales targets fosters an imperative to publish first and exclusively; so naturally, the emphasis is on showcasing the new. As a result, architectural photography is often devoid of people, furniture, and traces of life, and where present, they are highly choreographed. But this fascination with ‘newness’ is not solely a result of commercial viability. Newness, along with originality and progress, was at the core of Modernism, divorcing itself from what came before. The rejection of historical, physical, creative contexts – and what’s more, the supplanting of existing contexts with new contexts of total design – championed purity, order, progress and the fetishised object, and while Post-Modernism has since challenged these values, their legacy remains manifest in the culture of architectural representation. Colomina’s 1992 text, Sexuality and Space, argues that the process of framing implies the loss of an architectural ‘real’.[v] The architectural ‘real’ can be considered to encompass everything beyond the frame: the backdoor as opposed to the façade, the client’s floral recliners stacked in the spare room to make way for some temporary Corbusian classics and so on. The phenomenon of post-production further exacerbates this obsession with ‘perfection’, correcting the defects that persist in the reified building.
The dominant format for critique in the commercial architecture journal is the ‘project review’, which centers around themes including but not limited to: the creative process of the designer, the work’s position within creative/historical/physical etc. contexts, the design intent and execution, and spatial configuration. But Robin Evans, in Front Lines that Leave Nothing Behind, reminds us that “the task of the critic is to delve into, uncover, disclose, reveal, divulge, discover, unfold and show to the reader what lies hidden or unseen […] we might well ask what lies beside, above and in front of the subject of criticism too”[vi]. Again, this obligation to provide current content means that the lived experience of the building remains ‘out-of-field’[vii] beyond the framework for critique, and therefore issues of useability, performance, and experience of space are absent from the discussion.
There does exist a framework for addressing these concerns in practice: post-occupancy evaluation (POE) has been in existence since the 1960’s. Established as a system for “evaluat[ing] buildings in a…rigorous manner after they have been built and occupied for some time, ”[viii] it is most closely associated with Modernist Functionalism, employing social science, building science and economic rationalist methodologies to determine ‘performance’ standards. But this process tends to privilege a quantitative criterion for measuring success, rather than a qualitative, experiential one, and as an exercise conducted at the client’s discretion, the results are certainly not widely published.
There is a distinct lack of acknowledgment for the users’ expertise – the “performative critics of sorts,”[ix] in the architecture media – which, if included, would provide a different set of qualitative criteria for the appraisal of architecture, “to shift the focus away from the intentions of the architects to the actual experiences that the buildings are able to generate, which qualifies the users as the most important sources.”[x] Predictably, assuming the role of the critic in these professional journals are members of the architecture profession (those who contribute through professional practice or discourse or both) and who are generally – certainly in the Australian context – locally or domestically based for the sake of proximity to locally or domestically based projects. Suffice to say that diversity of opinion is somewhat limited, if not through the insularity of the industry, then through professional training. And while these professional magazines may have some incidental readership beyond architecture circles, the framing of architecture-as-object, the denial of the voice of the occupant, the inherent nature of the ‘project review’ and even the advertising material indicates and assumes that expert designers – with high visual literacy and an existing understanding of creative contexts – are the primary audience. In short, the architecture profession is writing about the architecture profession for the architecture profession, in a cycle of “self-congratulatory…architectural representation.”[xi]
At the other end of the spectrum is the academic journal – a venue in which the breadth of research is much wider and freer, but one that requires an established knowledge of the discipline and whose language, themes, references and reliance on text as the main medium for communication clearly position it within an internal dialogue. Peer-review processes can further limit the discussion to those working within the academy, precluding voices that are not considered to possess specialised knowledge of the discipline. So where is the opportunity then for a dialogue with those external to the architecture profession? How do we establish feedback loops between those who design buildings, those who occupy them, and those in allied professions? Online platforms facilitate a more inclusive discussion, but seem to lack the structure and direction for critical user-generated content. In contrast to a study undertaken at QUT which claims that ‘produsage’ – a term to describe the productive extension and alteration of online content by users – is now evident across a wide range of online activities[xii], a more recent study by Monash University has found that very little new content is generated via interactive social media sites, and “where information is received, it is through …sharing of content produced by the mainstream media…” [xiii]
In a recent interview, Colomina posited that “New media doesn’t kill old media…it transforms it”[xiv]. Online platforms “challenge us to reconsider the relationship between forms of publication and forms of interactivity.”[xv] Print media can learn lessons from the connectivity and participatory nature of online publications, but instead of abandoning the frame altogether in favor of a wide-open, nebulous discussion, we as editors could continue to undertake a curatorial role, facilitating a focused exchange but through the use of wider lenses, from multiple angles, to achieve a more pluralistic, perhaps divergent, perhaps overlapping impression of the ‘whole’. POST Magazine seeks to do exactly that, subverting the journal in the most direct way: by adopting it as the medium to distill these diverse perspectives and create a space for the discussion of use and occupation that have traditionally been considered to be ‘pedestrian’ concerns.
POST reimagines what post-occupancy evaluation can be, emphasising qualitative experiential criteria, through the iterative critique of buildings, spaces and cities, employing narrative, analytical and representational methodologies. POST rejects the portrayal of “modern architecture as a high artistic practice established in opposition to the mass culture of everyday life,”[xvi] recognising that all buildings – regardless of patronage, status, or investment – are experienced at an everyday level. Through an exploration of the experience of space, we open the discussion to other modalities for understanding architecture, to counter the traditional “way in which architecture is publicised…and revered as aestheticised objects …[that] emphasise… an ocular reading.”[xvii] By inciting an inclusive dialogue, POST becomes a valuable resource for the profession, providing critical feedback that examines whether buildings and spaces work as intended – sometimes evidenced in the form of alterations and additions, other times suggested through creative appropriation and misuse – and also measures the legibility (and by extension, relevance) of architectural ideas among a wider audience. On the other hand, the voices of the occupants and local actors are given equal footing alongside academic and professional critique, facilitating an opportunity for a more active role in the shaping of the built environment. Vanessa Quirk’s article, The Architect Critic is Dead (just not in the way you think) echoes this sentiment, advocating that criticism must move “beyond the description of the building as ‘object’ and delv[e] into its context; it means talking to the people who live down the block; discovering how the average man perceives it; determining the extent to which it serves humanity.” [xviii]
By way of extension of Robin Evans’ definition, POST Magazine recasts the editor as the critic, uncovering what lies beyond the established framework for critique. Here the assemblage of editorial content and contributors’ content coalesces to present a series of architectural encounters including, but not limited to, the long-term resident, the employee, the passer-by, the international academic, the fiction writer and the architect-as-client. POST recognises that not all participants in the project are well versed in articulating their opinions through the written word, and some have neither the time nor the inclination to do so. As such, we abandon the project review as the primary vehicle for critique, often soliciting and recording opinion through interview, as is the case in the regular segment POST Inhabitation, in which impromptu interviews are conducted with everyday users, visitors and employees on the sites of local public spaces and buildings. These perspectives are published as a series of monologues that reappear throughout the magazine as intermissions. In place of advertisements, they interrupt more dense content to reinforce a message – only in this case it is not a capitalist one, but the critical agenda of the magazine. Other regular editorial segments in the magazine include Architect = Client, in which we ask architects who have designed projects for themselves to provide a critical appraisal of their own work from the unique perspective of designer and end-user, and Front Door/Back Door, a photo essay that bookends the magazine documenting the front and rear-ends of familiar local buildings, offering a ‘warts-and-all’ alternative to the heroic ‘money-shot’ convention of print magazine and webzine photography.
Contributors’ content is selected as a result of an international online open call for submissions, piggy-backing off the usual architecture competition and events platforms but also through entities like Writers Victoria and The Wheeler Centre. By encouraging cultural and professional diversity, we expect a more diffuse readership to follow. This is largely made possible because POST operates outside of commercial and advertising interests, which would demand that we target a predetermined readership. In adopting the form of a print journal, POST Magazine occupies a physical position and is available Australia-wide at local cafes, bookshops and various cultural institutions, lending itself to incidental encounters. As a ‘little magazine,’ POST must confront the realities of limited funding and therefore limited distribution, which is why a supplementary version is available online to facilitate an international audience.
POST Magazine is a reflection of a growing concern among the profession to engage the user, both through discourse and practice. Earlier this year, MVRDV released their first monograph, entitled, Buildings. Somewhat surprisingly from a firm whose contribution to the profession has been largely concerned with abstract processes – in particular the exploration of ‘datascapes’ as a generative tool – the introduction to the book emphasises the importance of lived experience of the reified building in determining the project’s success, “Once delivered to its users, the building leads its own life, regardless of the intentions of its maker.”[xix] The book contains no diagrams for this very reason – only built works; projects have been photographed as they are today, and furthermore, most were sourced from online platforms like Flickr, captured by the visitors or occupants themselves. The only incongruity is that the published drawings do not represent the ‘as-built’ condition.
A further example of this counter-culture is the documentary series Living Architectures, directed and produced by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine. Like POST Magazine, the series addresses the inauthenticity of the static, ‘perfect’ image of architecture, instead, adopting film as the medium to highlight the experience of seminal spaces. These documentaries provide portraits of the people who live in, maintain and use the subject spaces, and their engagement with or indifference to them. Rather than exposing the shortcomings and delights of the projects according to the users, the Living Architectures series frames architecture as a backdrop to the everyday goings-on that take place there – in particular, the films capture the stories of the ‘little people’ who work hard to maintain their appearance – including the live-in housekeeper at OMA’s House in Bordeaux and the absailers employed to clean the atrium space at the Guggenheim Bilbao.
The transformation of architectural representation and discourse to empower its occupants is indicative of a more general shift in architectural practice that is occurring. An exhibition entitled User Generated Architecture, held earlier this year at the University of Sydney’s Tin Shed Gallery, showcased a body of work by raumlaborberlin. The curators framed the show as an “exploration of the legacies of 1970’s architecture”[xx], but unlike the Architecture of Participation that Giancarlo de Carlo advocated in the early 70’s, what raumlabor’s work demonstrates – as POST’s interview with the Christof Mayer and Andreas Krauth reveals – is a transition from mere participant to creative agent.
In challenging the existing paradigms of the architecture print media, POST Magazine provides a venue for the discussion of occupation and by extension, positions practices concerned with this line of inquiry within a collection of like-minded explorations – validating this form of contemporary practice. Without publication, movements do not yet exist[xxi]. The same can be said for the Archizines global tour, which has included POST Magazine among a new-wave of ‘little magazines’, forging a critical mass of contemporary publications that rethink the role of printed matter in a transforming landscape of architecture publishing. The introduction to this paper highlights Colomina’s understanding of the role of the ‘little magazines’ in “undoing the traditional form of the journal,” so as to “directly infect the period’s professional magazines.” [xxii] In 2011, four years after POST Magazine’s inaugural edition, Architecture Australia ran an issue dedicated to post-occupancy evaluation, and invited POST to contribute. Our ‘little magazine’ remains an ongoing project and a work in progress: there is still much work to be done, but we like to think of that moment as a small victory. As Peter Cook points out: “However repressive your architecture school may be, it cannot prevent something coming through the letterbox.”[xxiii].