Just Another Pretty Face?
Magazines choose architectural projects that display an appealing image, but this may not be the only reason for the building's publication. According to Architecture editor-in-chief Reed Kroloff and Architectural Record editor-in-chief Robert Ivy, it is difficult to decide what buildings to select.
Typically, buildings to be published are either sought out by the journalists or submitted by the architect for the magazines to consider. First the editors decide which projects are most relevant to current issues and that month's topics. Then they select the "best work."
Kroloff describes "best work" as "that which is challenging and informative, strong design that offers direction to the profession." Similarly, Ivy states that buildings are chosen because they posses "something to share with the reader, to learn from, be inspired by, and be entertained by, and not chosen for shock value." Ivy adds that sometimes buildings are chosen for their pure "sensual beauty, which could then be categorized as 'image' architecture."
Each editor's selection process relies on finding projects that are intellectually challenging and worthy of exploration and analysis. When asked if there was a tendency to publish buildings designed by well known architects, both editors said no, that publications are guided by the projects themselves.
Ivy expanded further: "It is, however, always nice to have a [Frank] Gehry building to publish." Ivy's image of choice is that which conveys "a power, clarity, and visual consideration whether in detail or in moment connection with the viewer." However, a common "moment connection" may be what the viewer is accustomed to seeing--over sensationalized works.
Perusing the evidence
Kroloff and Ivy may be selecting works that they define as captivating, educational, and newsworthy. Yet their magazines show a significant focus on the work of well known architects. In one year alone, Architectural Record published Stephen Holl's work in three different issues, each with a lengthy article and image layout.
Ivy justified the repeated publications by stating that during that year, Holl was at "a moment in his creative life" that deserved special attention. Within this past year, all of the ten Architectural Record issues analyzed for this story mentioned the better known architects.
Frank Gehry was at the top of the most-mentioned list, followed by Norman Foster, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Peter Eisenman, and Michael Graves. Gehry has become a prime focus in numerous media. His designs spark controversy, pitting innovative design techniques and technological advances against sensitivity to site context.
Yet, despite the controversy, of the ten issues of Architectural Record analyzed, only one failed to mention his name in some form of news story, feature article, or comparison to other buildings. When Gehry was mentioned, six out of nine times the magazine displayed images of undulating surfaces, his original trademark style.
Additionally, in the February 2000 issue, in an article on college campuses, Gehry was one of the three architects recognized for innovative design. His work was featured first and received eight pages. A building by less frequently published architects, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson was displayed next, only receiving six pages of images, as did the still less-published KieranTimberlake Associates.
There is no question that Gehry has established a powerful presence within the media. In turn, magazines capitalize on his imagery and use his name to bring attention to the article. Analysis of the headlines used within the magazines shows a tendency to use Gehry's name in article titles, whereas other article headlines use building type.
This indicates that the architect may be of greater interest than a critical analysis of the architecture. There's a give-and-take between architect and magazine. Gehry provides the projects and the media provide the publicity he needs for future commissions. In turn, those new projects will be displayed, improving the magazines' popularity. Although Gehry is exploited as a marketable topic in the media, he receives compensation: a thriving career.
As a result of this cycle, other architects may become tempted to design for image appeal. The danger is that this may threaten the attention to design of a more people-centered environment.
Image over Comfort
A recent example of "image" architecture is the LVMH Tower in New York, which was the focus of three major architecture magazines last April. The images focused on the sensual exterior qualities of the tower, the diverse materiality that adapts to and reflects the neighboring buildings, the qualities of light, and the innovative technique of designing for setbacks.
Yet there were no published images of the building's cramped offices. While the articles both criticize and commend the building, only the aesthetically appealing images are displayed. Architectural Record published the LVMH Tower in two separate issues. One article was a news brief displaying one exterior image and one interior view of the top floor conference room--the only comfortably proportioned space. The article described the fashionable exterior skin and angling setbacks.
Such coverage provides the reader with a pleasant visual assessment of the tower but overlooks the spatial qualities that most directly affect the users. The authors do not present an evocative criticism of the relationship between the image and their philosophical point of view. The fact is, media profits from publishing only the most aesthetically appealing images.
This is a matter of concern for new architecture. As a society, we need to scrutinize and analyze the graphic representations of architectural works. Otherwise architecture will succumb to sensationalism, overlooking the importance of spatial quality, contextual influences, and cultural implications.
Colleen O'Keefe is a fifth year architecture student at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island.